Seventy-six years ago Americans learned that United States forces had been attacked that Sunday morning by Japan. Aircraft from the Japanese carrier fleet flew over the Hawaiian Island of Oahu, dropping bombs and torpedoes on ships peacefully tied up at Pearl Harbor.
Eight battleships and several other vessels were either sunk or heavily damaged. More than 2,400 military personnel and many civilians lost their lives in the attack. Timed to hit at 8 a.m. on Sunday morning, the attack caught many of the sailors still asleep or relaxing in their quarters.
The action came as diplomatic negotiations between our two countries were ongoing. Japanese envoys were meeting with the State Department to discuss ways to prevent further sanctions against the island nation over its invasion of neighboring China. At the same time, European countries were defending themselves against Adolph Hitler’s blitzkrieg. Several nations had already fallen under the iron heel of his forces.
As a matter of fact, Anchorage was being considered as a secret meeting place between a Japanese diplomat and a U.S. State Department official. Military leaders in Japan were preparing for war while other leaders were in opposition. The meeting reportedly was cancelled when the Japanese envoy feared he or his family would be assassinated if word of the meeting aimed at preventing war were to get out.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt was hoping to keep this country out of the conflict engulfing Europe and much of Asia. He had campaigned with the promise of never again sending Americans into combat. As had been the case in the “war to end all wars” in 1917, the public was divided as to whether to join the fight.
Only two decades had passed since this nation was involved in the World War, a conflict that had been waging for three years before the American steamship Aztec was torpedoed as it entered British waters. Twenty-eight Americans perished, sparking outrage throughout the country. President Woodrow Wilson had resisted the war, stressing the need to maintain neutrality, but the public favored stepping up to join the fray. Many men volunteered to fight, joining the Lafayette Escadrille in France. In that conflict, 116,708 Americans were killed and nearly twice that number wounded.
News of the sneak attack at Pearl Harbor changed Americans’ views. Outrage was universal.
This writer was 11 years old on that historic day and remembers it vividly. His family had driven to another town to visit relatives and upon returning home saw newsboys with armloads of a Birmingham Daily News special edition shouting “Extra! Extra! America attacked!” Radio broadcasts gave sketchy details, but the fact that we were suddenly at war was clear. It was something my father, who before his death three months earlier, had predicted. A World War I veteran himself, he cited the fact that Japanese businesses were busily buying up scrap metal at high prices and shipping it by express as the basis for his belief.
On Monday, Roosevelt appeared before a joint meeting of Congress. Ears of everyone were glued to their radios to hear remarks indelibly etched in our minds:
“Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”
Citizens mobilized in Civil Defense roles, as did this youngster who with his bicycle was enrolled as an air raid warden’s messenger. Blackout curtains were hung over windows in anticipation of enemy bombers seeking to take out nearby steel mills. Long lines formed as throngs of eligible men rushed to enlistment offices to volunteer to enter the fight. The older brothers of many of my friends were to leave for duty overseas.
Even many men who were not eligible joined those lines. Future movie star Audie Murphy, who became the most highly decorated soldier of the war, lied about his age in order to get in the fray. Major League Baseball players and other noted athletes as well as top-notch entertainers gave up lucrative careers to enlist. Some, such as bandleader Glenn Miller, were never to return.
Among Alaskans who were inspired to help defend the nation was Glenn Briggs, a government reindeer herd superintendent on the Seward Peninsula, who in 1942 mushed from that post to Ft. Richardson to enlist, only to be rejected as too old. Instead, he purchased a homestead in Eagle River and established a hog farm to provide fresh pork for the soldiers.
Anger over the sneak attack was universal.
Walter Erickson, a World War I veteran who brought his family to Alaska in 1939, was usually a mild-mannered Swede who once scolded a man for saying “damn” in the presence of ladies. His 9-year-old daughter Barbara, who was to become this writer’s bride, recalls her father’s violent reaction with a torrent of words the likes of which she until then had been spared. As was Briggs, he was beyond the age being accepted by the military. Also, his 1918 experience as a blacksmith and wrangler with a Cavalry remount squadron in France was no longer of value to the Army; still, he longed to avenge the dastardly act.
Russia, an ally in the fight against Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Japan, was located a scant few miles across the Bering Sea. The Aleutian Islands stretched westward, Attu at the end of the Chain being only 1,073 miles from Japan’s Kuril Islands.
A military buildup was already underway in Alaska as Washington recognized the impending dangers. Construction of Ft. Richardson had begun and bases were being expanded or installed at other locations. Even so, the Territory was not adequately prepared to defend against an invasion.
The Aleutians were invaded without opposition in June of 1942, just six months after the Pearl Harbor attack.
Hordes of Japanese troops landed on Attu and Kiska, occupying those islands until they were retaken the following year in bloody fighting. Two score Attu residents, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs school teacher, were captured and taken to prison camps in Japan. The teacher’s husband, the government weather forecaster, was murdered in full view of the residents after refusing to repair the radio he smashed.
Many of the people who were brought to Alaska as part of the war effort remained to play prominent roles. Gov. Jay Hammond was a Marine pilot who was among those who came here after the war. Col. M. R. “Muktuk” Marston was given the task of organizing the Alaska Scouts as coast-watchers and defenders. He later developed the Turnagain-by-the-Sea Subdivision. Capt. Robert H. Thompson commanded an intelligence group known as Castner’s Cutthroats that was assigned to camp out on remote islands in the Aleutians. Thompson was an avid outdoorsman who opened Thompson’s Restaurant in Anchorage and founded the Arctic Valley Ski Club. Clyde Oberg, one of three brothers who were instrumental in developing post-war Chugiak, was a soldier assigned to duty at Attu.
Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., commanded the Alaska Defense Forces during the early part of the war.
He was killed by an artillery shell while visiting the battlefield as commander of American forces who defeated the Japanese at Okinawa. He is remembered in the naming of the Buckner Field House at Ft. Richardson and the multi-story Buckner Building at Whittier, which when built was the Territory’s largest.
Gen. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle, who led the flight that first dropped bombs on Japan, was raised in Nome where his father, Frank, was a carpenter and miner. He was a student at Nome’s first school and graduated from high school there.
Marjorie Cochrane’s “Between Two Rivers” history of Chugiak-Eagle River shows that most of the people who settled in Chugiak following the close of the war were veterans or worked on Ft. Richardson (now Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson). This community continues to house many veterans and people otherwise connected with the military. Its people are patriotic, proud Americans and can be counted on to stand up against any attempt to destroy our democratic way of life.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: firstname.lastname@example.org