Empire Of The Winds

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The Aleutians saw WWII’s only campaign fought on American soil.

On May 11,1943, American troops came ashore at Attu and attacked the 2,500 Japanese stationed there (U.S. planners had bypassed Kiska in the hope that thus isolated, its garrison would simply wither). After three weeks of the most bitter fighting, the defenders were annihilated.

Attu cost more than 1,000 American lives. As the historian Gerhard L. Weinberg writes in his magisterial A World at Arms , “It could be argued that the United States insistence on retaking Kiska and Attu was almost as unwise as the Japanese insistence on trying to hold on to these indefensible outposts which led nowhere for either side.” But it must be added that after Attu fell, the Japanese imperial command evacuated the 5,000 troops on Kiska and then, for the first time, publicly admitted a defeat to their people. They had suppressed the news of the Midway calamity, but the Aleutians, as the historian Brian Garfield puts it in The Thousand Mile War , “gave the United States her first theaterwide victory over Japan.” And the whole world knew it.

No soldier had an easy time at Dutch Harbor during the war, but few paid so dearly as the native inhabitants. The military mandated that the Aleuts be evacuated from the islands for their own safety. In 1942 the entire population” anyone with as much as one-eighth Aleut blood—was sent to southeastern Alaska. Each person was allowed one suitcase and 24 hours to pack. All had to leave behind their homes and most of their possessions. The evacuees disliked the tall trees that rose above the abandoned canneries, herring saltery, and mining camp where they were quartered; they missed their open sky, the seas that fed them, the eagles turning overhead, the life they had lived for millennia. Many sickened, some died.

 
What sustained the Aleuts in their exile was the Orthodox Church.

What sustained Aleuts in their grim new circumstances was their Russian Orthodox religion. I walked over to the Church of the Holy Ascension, easy to find with its bright blue trim and clean white paint standing out in the crisp marine air. Outside the church a Russian Orthodox cross—with three horizontal arms, the bottom one at an angle—stands over each grave. Inside, nearly 700 gold-framed icons, artifacts, and other artworks, some dating from the very beginnings of the church, hang on the walls. It’s one of the largest such collections remaining in Alaska.

Looking at my diary, I see that high school recollections came back to me on my second visit as a cook: “I went into town last Saturday. It looks a lot like when I was here before. The old Russian church is there although it’s in bad need of a paint job. I remember the icons we saw when we were there, rich gold, and dark paintings of saints and Christ. You had to take off your hat. Everyone spoke in whispers.”

In 1990 the church received the dubious honor of securing a place on Preservation magazine’s list of the 12 most endangered national landmarks. Today, my guide, a young Aleut woman, told me, the church is slowly restoring its icons and furnishings through grants and contributions.

At the Museum of the Aleutians I met Kris Clinton and Mona Pagel, the daughter and niece of Gladys Anderson, an Army nurse who served at Unalaska from 1941 to 1943. Clinton had recently donated her aunt’s uniform to the museum, and she and Pagel were here to attend the World War II commemoration. The two women told me they meet lots of people who have never heard about the war in the Aleutians. No surprise, says Mya Renken, director of the Unalaska/ Port of Dutch Harbor Convention and Visitors Bureau; after all, the Aleutian campaign is often referred to as the “forgotten war.”

Renken, along with many others in Unalaska, is trying hard to preserve the Aleutians’ place in America’s history. The Aleutian World War II National Historic Area Visitor Center opened last June, housed in the former Naval Air Transport Building next to the airport. Through photographs and memorabilia, its exhibits trace the impact of the forgotten war, on both the troops who were stationed in the Aleutians and the families who were forcibly removed and interned.

History isn’t the only draw here, though. Hiking, birding, and fishing lure many visitors. Ounalashka, the local native corporation, owns most of the land around Unalaska, and to hike, ski, or camp, you need a permit—easily obtained at the corporation’s offices in Dutch Harbor.

 

I hiked partway up Mount Ballyhoo, overlooking the airport on Amaknak Island. It was early afternoon, and clouds rolled up and down the steep upper flanks, leaving a fine mist on my raincoat. It was the only day of my visit that no planes flew in or out. Looking down toward the runway, I could see the faint outlines of three bomb craters marching straight toward Dutch Harbor. Off to the side old barbed wire twined through the tall grass.