War stories: A close-up look at the Aleutian front in WWII

January 8, 2011 

A series of free public lectures spotlighting different aspects of the Aleutian campaign in World War II will unfold on Thursday nights for the next month at the Anchorage Museum.

Most Alaskans are aware, to some degree, of the history. In 1942, the Japanese military invaded and occupied two islands at the western end of the Aleutian Chain. American and Canadian forces mounted massive counter-attacks. Thousands died.

By the time the shooting stopped, a civilian population had been permanently displaced. The islands bristled with weaponry. Legions of soldiers were encamped in the mud and ice of the stormy region where some were taking the first steps toward desegregation in the Armed Forces.

Soldiers' life

The first talk, presented by historian Janet Clemens and Janiz Koslowski, program manager for the National Park Service's WW II National Historical Program, will look at the experiences of the American pilots, soldiers and sailors involved in the battle.

Koslowski, who has interviewed more than 40 veterans, will share their stories along with a trove of photos.

Among those veterans was Sam Maloof, later one of America's most admired designers and woodworkers. He was among some 35,000 troops sent to dislodge the Japanese from Kiska, an engagement that the Allies thought would be a bloodbath.

But the Japanese had left before the Allies arrived. Clemens said that Maloof's main memory of the "liberation" was strolling along the beach munching on a candy bar.

"He hadn't thought about his war experience in a long time," Clemens said. "He chuckled when he remembered that."

Maloof was among the few soldiers on Kiska who had a camera. At the time of the interview, he couldn't remember where the photos were. But shortly after his death in 2009, his widow, Beverly, discovered a box containing 50 rolls of film -- some 1,800 photos -- taken by Maloof during his two-year Alaska tour.

Maloof's picutres captured the day-to-day life of the enlisted man in ways that official Army photos overlooked.

"A certain number of them seem to be more formal," said Clemens. "Guys looking good at their desks, posed, probably to show the folks back home.

"But others are more casual, like shots of guys on their bunk in their underwear."

Though not trained as a photographer, Maloof was by nature interested in other people and meticulous in everything he touched. The photos are alive and clear and informative.

"Sam's creative expression can be seen in those photos," Clemens said.

Historic guns

The following Thursday, Dirk Spennemann, an archaeologist specializing in armaments used in the Pacific Theater, will return to continue the lecture he delivered last year at the opening of the museum's "Kiska and Adak: War in the Aleutians" exhibit.

The exhibit includes odds and ends from the campaign, uniforms, equipment, propaganda leaflets and such. But the highlight is color photos Spennemann took of the Kiska battle site as it looks today.

On Kiska, uniquely, significant amount of war materiel remains in place -- steel guns, tent remnants, skeletons of warplanes, warships and vehicles. As opposed to the stark and "dull" (his word) documentary archaeological photos that Spennemann usually takes, these use an artistic approach to maximize their dramatic effect.

Spennemann did not travel all the way to Kiska from Australia, where he is a professor at Charles Sturt University, with the idea of creating art photos, however. His job was to assess the condition of the guns left on the island and make recommendations regarding their preservation. The report with his findings was not complete during his earlier visit, so this follow-up talk should contain information that was not available at that time.

In his lecture, he intends to "demonstrate that the guns on Kiska are truly of global significance."

The show, a collaboration between the museum and the National Park Service, was something of a surprise hit. Sedately lining the promenade of the Atrium, it nonetheless attracted serious attention. Throughout the summer one could see visitors frozen in their tracks, absorbing the photos that came as close to drawing them into the spot as an image can.

The museum decided to extend the show, originally scheduled to come down on Dec. 31, to remain on display through Feb. 20. (Elements of the current exhibit will later travel to the March Field Air Museum near Riverside, Calif., Clemens said.)

Civilian toll

Perhaps the most poignant presentation will come Jan. 27 when Park Service cultural anthropologist Rachel Mason discusses the "lost villages" of the Aleutians.

The current exhibit "doesn't touch on the Unungans (Aleuts)," said Clemens. Their saga has only slowly been revealed to the world.

The Japanese sent the inhabitants of Attu to internment camps in Japan. American authorities sent Native civilians elsewhere in the war zone shipped to internment camps on the other side of Alaska.

By the time peace came, many had died due to poor nutrition and health conditions. For the former residents of at least four communities -- Attu, Kashega, Biorka and Makushin -- war or weather had left no home to return to. Attempts to resettle two of the towns near Unalaska faltered after a few years.

Starting in 2004, former residents, their descendents and the Park Service began to document the history of these "lost villages."

"It began as a straight-forward oral history project," said Mason. "But as I got to know the people, I saw that it could be much more participatory."

When O. Patricia Lekanoff-Gregory mentioned that her father, Nicolai Lekanoff Sr. would love to revisit Makushin -- his home village -- work began to charter a boat and organize a trip.

Mason called the return to Makushin in 2009 "a magical experience." In a ceremony that would be repeated in Biorka and Kashega the following year, a Russian cross was planted at the site of the former church. Plants and soil were brought back to former residents who were now too frail to make the rough ocean trip.

Pre-war photos show small but tidy settlements with neat milled wood homes. Mason notes that at the time of the evacuations, the towns were already waning with sporadic schools and most residents moving to Unalaska for economic opportunities. "So it wasn't surprising that they didn't press very hard to resettle them."

No vestige of the village remains on Attu, where the hardest fighting in Alaska took place. The other three are now in ruins with only handful of structures standing. One barn remains in Makushin, some school desks in Kashega. In Biorka, the last resident erected a little building over the site where the church altar once stood.

"A lot has been illuminated" by the project, Mason said. "Every time I give a lecture or meet people, somebody new comes forward who says, 'That's my grandmother in that picture there.' "

But many people have yet to be identified. Mason will show several of those pictures at her talk.

Enduring change

The series will conclude Feb. 3 with a presentation on literary icon Dashiell Hammett's tour in the Aleutians by playwright and former Daily News reporter Peter Porco.

Hammett is best known as the author of "The Maltese Falcon" and popular Hollywood scripts. When war broke out, he enlisted in the Army, even though he was in his late 40s.

He wound up on Adak, editing the camp newspaper. The mid-life adventure provided fodder for Porco's play, "Wind Blown and Dripping," presented at Cyrano's last winter.

In the course of his research the playwright crossed paths with Clemens.

"Peter helped instill the whole idea of this series," Clemens said. Combined with the other subject matter, "It would make a neat little package."

This final lecture will dovetail with the museum's February activities for Black History Month. Hammett argued for, and got, the authority to pick his own staff. That included talent he found in the ranks of the Negro troops. Porco addresses this in his play. (More at his website, windblownanddripping.com/the-adakian/.)

The Army was strictly segregated. The white and African-American divisions who constructed the Alcan Highway, for instance, consisted of two separate groups working from opposite ends of the project.

Once the road was done, however, the engineers and machine operators were rushed to build bases in the Aleutians. Though encampments and facilities remained apart, work details were mixed and essential personnel were assigned based on need, not race.

There may be debate over whether Hammett's was the first, or one of the first, desegregated U.S. Army units. Either way, it was in the Aleutians in World War II that white and black American soldiers first worked side-by-side on a daily basis.

If anything good can be said to come of war, perhaps this is the one enduring benefit to America that emerged from the Aleutian front -- and it started in Cpl. Hammett's integrated Quonset hut newsroom on Adak.


Find Mike Dunham online at adn.com/contact/mdunham or call 257-4332.

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