June 3 and 4 will mark the 70th anniversary of the Japanese aircraft carrier-based bombing of Dutch Harbor in the eastern Aleutians during which 76 Americans died and three were taken prisoner. The Alaska Veterans Memorial Museum in the Post Office Mall on Fourth Avenue is planning a special exhibit to commemorate Dutch Harbor and the ensuing Aleutian Campaign, the only World War II campaign fought on North American soil.
Dutch Harbor and the Japanese occupation of Attu and Kiska in the Aleutian Islands shortly afterwards also mark the beginning of the Aleutian Campaign to retake the two islands. Since it occurred early in the war, the Aleutian Campaign has been overshadowed by other war theaters and the epic battles of the Normandy Invasion and Iwo Jima. Even in Alaska, it is not well understood.
The campaign which lasted from June 1942 until August 1943 cost the lives of 932 killed in action including those at Dutch Harbor, 77 missing in action and 13 prisoners of war.
The largest death toll occurred during the retaking of Attu in May 1943 during which 581 ground troops and 16 Army and Navy flyers were killed in action. The estimated 2,350 Japanese on the island fought to the end with 29 surviving as prisoners of war. The Japanese managed to secretly evacuate their garrison on Kiska in late July 1943. The unopposed landing the next month cost the lives of 17 American and Canadian soldiers killed by friendly fire, mines and booby traps. The Navy lost 71 lives when the destroyer Abner Read struck a mine.
Even well less known are the losses incurred during the air and naval attacks launched from Attu and Shemya at the end of the Aleutian Islands against Japanese installations in the northern and central Kurile Islands between July 1943 and August 1945. The attacks cost 144 killed in action, 49 missing in action, 11 prisons of war and 243 interned in the Soviet Union.
In addition to the Alaska Veterans Memorial Museum, other efforts have been made to honor those who died in defending Alaska.
The black granite wall at the Eleventh Air Force Memorial on Merrill Field contains the names of 260 Eleventh Air Force and Fleet Air Wing Four men killed in action, 232 missing in action, 251 who died in aircraft accidents, 24 taken prisoner of war by the Japanese and 300 interned in the Soviet Union during World War II. The latter figure includes one of the Doolittle Raider and four B-29 crews.
Additionally, 108 Alaskans gave their lives during World War II. Their names are inscribed on the Anchorage Veterans Memorial on the Delaney Park Strip. A Veterans Committed has joined forces with the Anchorage Park Foundation to raise funding to improve and expand the memorial a fitting tribute to all 186 Alaskan war dead, which unfortunately continues to grow.
The Anchorage Veterans Memorial also underscores the importance of the military to Anchorage. World War II had a profound effect on the economic and social structure of Anchorage. When the military began construction of Fort Richardson and Elmendorf AFB in June 1940, Anchorage was the third largest community in Alaska with a population of 4,000. One year later it had increased to 9,000 as construction workers flooded in. A March 1941 Newsweek article reported that Anchorage had replaced Juneau and Fairbanks as the largest population center in the territory. By the census year 1950, Anchorage's population stood at 32,060 and continued to grow as the city became the center of the Cold War years in Alaska.
For Alaska as a whole, the war marked a major shift. One Sourdough, quoted by Jean Potter in her book, "Alaska Under Arms," lamented, "The old Alaska's gone, She's wreak." Territorial Governor Ernest Gruening sounded a more optimistic note: "The war is revolutionizing Alaska, every aspect of its life is profoundly changed and destined to be more so."
Memorial Day is a time to remember our war dead, especially those who died protecting Alaska and our nation during the greatest war every inflicted on mankind and to those Alaskans who died elsewhere in that far flung war and in the wars before and after. Take time to read the names inscribed on the Delaney and Merrill Field memorials. Visit the Fort Richardson National Cemetery and the Alaska Veterans Memorial Museum. Recognize and remember.
John Haile Cloe is a retired military historian who served two tours in Vietnam as an infantry officer.