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When Japan invaded Alaska: What you need to know about the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Attu

Jeff Williams, a biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, points out the Japanese markings on the side of sunken ship from World War II at Kiska Island. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

For three days this week, Alaskans will once again become reacquainted with one of the most important events in their collective history. The Aleutians campaign of World War II has been dismissed by some noted historians as a sideshow of the global conflict of 1939-1945 — of no military significance for either the Japanese who invaded the Alaska Territory in 1942 or the Americans who drove them out the following year. Measured against other WWII campaigns and battles of truly epic proportions and enormous stakes, it seems reasonable that the Aleutians war should generally be overlooked, that like a dozen or more other conflicts in world history, it should come to be called the "Forgotten War."

But Battle of Attu 75th Anniversary Commemoration — a series of films, lectures, panel discussions, ceremonies and exhibits scheduled for May 17-19 in Anchorage — aims to show why the violence that visited Alaska, for those who were here then and for those who live here now, should never be forgotten.

Attu75, as the commemoration is informally known, is the first large-scale exploration of the Aleutians war and its meaning for Alaska since the "Alaska at War" conference in Anchorage in 1993. That academic symposium was timed for the 50th anniversary of the costly Battle of Attu, the only North American land battle of WWII, fought at the far end of the Aleutian Islands on May 11-29, 1943, and it led in 1995 to publication of a hefty book of papers presented at the conference.

Those contributing to Attu75 this week include a Japanese filmmaker and Alaska literary and visual artists, all of whom visited Attu last year; veterans of the Aleutians war; historians with deep knowledge of the conflict; Unangax (Aleuts) and their descendants whose lives the war uprooted and radically changed, many of whom also visited Attu in 2017; several American veterans of the Attu conflict; and descendants of both American GIs and Japanese soldiers who fought there. Visitors will see new displays of photographs, artifacts, weapons, artistic installations and documents related to the Aleutians war and to present-day Attu.

Scroll down for a detail look at the free events, plus historic and new photos of this living battlefield museum. Or jump to a specific event by clicking the list below:

— "When the Fog Clears," documentary film. 2 p.m. Thursday, Room 150 of the Fine Arts Building, University of Alaska Anchorage

— "Reflections on Attu" Art Show. 6:30 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Loussac Library.

— "Japanese Perspective on WWII in the Aleutians" panel discussion. 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Friday at the Anchorage Museum.

See, and even fly in, historic "warbirds." Beginning 10 a.m. Saturday at the Alaska Aviation Museum, 4721 Aircraft Drive.

A tunnel dug into the cliff above Kiska Harbor frames a view of the sunken Japanese oiler, the Nissan Maru. (Lisa Hupp/USFWS)

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"When the Fog Clears"
Attu75 begins with "When the Fog Clears," a documentary movie by Tokyo filmmaker Tadashi Ogawa. The 90-minute film, for which Ogawa is still raising funds, will be screened at 2 p.m. Thursday, May 17, in Room 150 of the Fine Arts Building, University of Alaska Anchorage. Ogawa will attend and speak about the movie.

According to an appeal he voices on his Kickstarter page, Ogawa wants to "make this 'Forgotten War' unforgettable." In June 2017, he and two companions, photographer Masami Sugiyama and video cameraman Taīkī Ikemura, visited the uninhabited islands of Attu and Kiska as members of a chartered tour to the major military sites of the Aleutians war. They videotaped remnants of the Japanese presence and the war's destruction, the extraordinary landscapes and vegetation, the island wildlife, and interviews with some of their fellow passengers.

A Japanese fighting plane shot down during the attack on Dutch Harbor, Alaska, in early June, before shipment to the United States. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Library Public Domain Photographs, 1882-1962)
A Japanese fighting plane shot down during the attack on Dutch Harbor, Alaska, in early June, before shipment to the United States. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Library Public Domain Photographs, 1882-1962)

"When the Fog Clears" showcases the present-day images of those beautiful, melancholy islands while weaving several narratives such as a tale about a bond of peace and resolution that developed nine years ago between two families, one Japanese and one American, who in World War II were connected through death in battle.

Isamu Shinoda was a 37-year-old captain of a Japanese submarine chaser that went down in the waters off Kiska on July 15, 1942, after his vessel was torpedoed by the Grunion, an American submarine. Shinoda and all his crew died. His widow and their three children would learn after the war that it was the Grunion that sank Shinoda's ship.

A World War II era Japanese gun emplacement looks over a bay at Kiska Island in the Aleutian Islands on Saturday, June 6, 2015. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

Two weeks later, on July 30, the Grunion itself pitched to the bottom of the sea, north of Kiska, for reasons that remain unclear but which caused the sub to lose depth control and implode. Lost were Lt. Cmdr. Mannert Abele, age 39, and his crew of 69.

In 2007 — with help from Robert Ballard, who had found the Titanic at the bottom of the Atlantic, and from a Japanese amateur historian — the sons of Cmdr. Abele located the Grunion in its final resting place more than 3,000 feet down.

The story of the finding of the Grunion was remarkable to that point but it only got better when Kazuo Shinoda, eldest son of the Japanese captain of the sub chaser, read about the Grunion's discovery. He knew of the Grunion's role in his father's death. He then wrote to the historian in Japan who had provided information that helped the Abele sons find their father's sub, and through him wrote to Bruce Abele, oldest son of the Grunion commander.

A Japanese World War II mini submarine rests on the tundra as The US Fish and Wildlife Service research boat R/V Tiglax stops at Kiska Island in the Aleutian Islands on Saturday, June 6, 2015. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

The two families were now in contact. When the Abeles traveled to Kiska in 2007 for confirmation of the Grunion's final location, they gathered wildflowers from the island in memory of their father. In 2009, they sent one of those flowers, pressed and framed, to the captain's 98-year-old widow, Chiyo Shinoda, with a note saying, "From the sons of Catherine Abele." What they didn't know was that eight days before he died, Isamu Shinoda sent a flower picked from Kiska's hills to his wife with the note, "I am sending my heart with this flower." Chiyo Shinoda thus came to own two Kiska flowers signifying two opposed commanders linked in war, whose lives ended in much the same way and in much the same place, two weeks apart.

"When the Fog Clears" tells another poignant story, that of Barbara Johns of Seattle and the father she lost in the skies above Kiska when she was 4 months old.

Johns, 76, is an art historian and author. Last June, as part of the same journey that brought Ogawa and his countrymen to the Aleutians, she visited the approximate location where the body of her father, Maj. Thomas Walter Jackson, and his P-38 fighter plane tumbled into the sea on Sept. 14, 1942.

Jackson was commander of the 54th Fighter Squadron, the leading wave of an assault on Japanese forces on Kiska that Brian Garfield, in his 1969 classic "The Thousand-Mile War," called "the first combined zero-altitude attack of World War II." (It was also the first attack launched from the new Army airbase on Adak, where construction had begun only two weeks earlier and which now positioned U.S. air forces 400 miles closer to Kiska.) Shielded by 28 fighter planes, two squadrons of heavy bombers roared into Kiska at deck level. The Americans mauled the Japanese, sinking ships, blasting coastal defenses, shooting down enemy fighters. But during the dog fights above the island, Jackson and one of his wing men spotted an enemy plane coming out of the clouds, chased it at once and collided in midair.

Adak Harbor in the Aleutians, with part of huge U.S. fleet at anchor, ready to move against Kiska. (The National Archive / Department of Navy)
Adak Harbor in the Aleutians, with part of huge U.S. fleet at anchor, ready to move against Kiska. (The National Archive / Department of Navy)

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Remembrance & art
Memory, honor and recognition are primary objectives of Attu75. Its second event combines an evocation of what happened in 1942-43 with the experiences of those to whom it happened and an artistic vision of the island based on what it looks like today.

The Opening Reception and "Reflections on Attu" Art Show are scheduled from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Thursday, May 17, at the Loussac Library. The art will continue to be displayed at the library for a month.

Artillery from the Japanese camp, Kiska. (Lisa Hupp/USFWS)

In what is a keynote event, the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge plans a welcoming ceremony for those with the most intimate connection to the Battle of Attu, including several U.S. veterans of the fight, one of whom is 102 years old; Japanese and American descendants of battle veterans, including the son of a Japanese-American who fought for the Americans at Attu; and the last two survivors of the 42 Unangax inhabitants of Attu Village who were removed and imprisoned in Japan after the Japanese invasion, and descendants of those villagers. People attending the reception will be treated to an exhibit of contemporary literary and visual art highlighting the natural beauty and character of the islands.

“A kitchen was set up along the beach for the … labor battalion unloading the boats. This picture shows a couple of the men enjoying a hot meal for a change. Massacre Bay, Attu, Aleutian Islands.” (National Archives / Department of the Army)
“A kitchen was set up along the beach for the … labor battalion unloading the boats. This picture shows a couple of the men enjoying a hot meal for a change. Massacre Bay, Attu, Aleutian Islands.” (National Archives / Department of the Army)

For indigenous populations of the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands, the Japanese invasion and occupation and the response by U.S. authorities proved catastrophic. Most Native communities were ordered to evacuate their villages and given absurdly little time to do so. Almost 900 Unangax evacuees were then interned in dismal abandoned canneries in Southeast Alaska. Approximately one of every 10 died. The United States paid restitution to surviving evacuees in 1992.

Commemorating the walk from the village to the evacuation site at East Landing. (Lisa Hupp/USFWS)

The inhabitants of Attu Village endured what would seem to be an even worse fate. The Japanese invaders, pouring down a hillside on Sunday morning, June 7, 1942, thoroughly shocked and overwhelmed the inhabitants, who included two Caucasians, the village teacher and her radio-operator husband. The soldiers killed the radio operator, handyman Charles Foster Jones (he is the only non-military-related civilian buried in the military cemetery at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, in Anchorage). His wife, Etta Jones, and 42 Unangax were sent to a prison camp in Japan, where 16 of the 42 died from malnutrition and other ills.

The defeat of Japan and the survivors' release from captivity relieved their suffering, but repatriation did not end their woes. American bombers had destroyed Attu Village in September 1942 to prevent the enemy from deriving any advantage from it. Yet after the war, U.S. authorities refused to rebuild the village and instead offered to settle the former Attuans on the Aleutian Island of Atka. Some of the survivors elected to live in Atka, according to Dr. Rachel Mason, senior cultural anthropologist and program manager of the Aleutian WWII National Historic Area of the National Park Service Alaska Regional Office. One went to Unalaska; some to Eklutna, outside Anchorage; and still others wound up in the Lower 48. Attu was one of four villages that were "lost" as a result of the Aleutians war, the others being Biorka, Kashega and Makushin in the Eastern Aleutians, which after the war were no longer habitable, as military authorities told those who had lived there.

Many of the descendants of the Attuans of 1942 who will attend the reception have been living in the Pacific Northwest, Mason said in a phone interview.

"They didn't know much about Attu," she said. "They are the children of those who never talked about their traumatic time in Japan. They had no contact with anyone, no cultural connection." Because of their alienation from cultural roots that had spanned centuries, the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, an Anchorage-based Native organization, has planned certain healing events for the descendants that are not an official part of Attu75, Mason said.

The artists-in-residence program of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge sent three artists to Attu last summer: Nancy Lord of Homer, author of books of prose fiction and nonfiction and a former Alaska State Writer Laureate; Andrea Nelson of Haines, a collage and assemblage artist; and Irene Owsley, a Washington, D.C., photographer. Their work about Attu together with interpretive panels from AMNWR will be displayed at the Loussac.

"Irene and I worked together, so we'll be showing five large photographs paired with five short impressionistic 'mini-essays,' " Lord wrote in an email message. At the May 17 event, she said, they will also present a slideshow of images and haiku poetry.

The passenger list of evacuees from St. Paul and St. George Islands. (Lisa Hupp/USFWS)

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Potluck for survivors and descendants
The two living survivors of Attu Village and some of those whose parents and grandparents also were Attuans — more than 20 in all — will be honored at a potluck 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Friday, May 18, at the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, 1131 E. International Airport Road.

Elizabeth Kudrin was 1 and her brother, Greg Golodoff, was 3 when they were taken with their families to a POW camp in Japan. According to Mason, Elizabeth "came back singing songs in Japanese." Another brother, the late Nick Golodoff, wrote "Attu Boy," a 2012 memoir of Nick and his family and fellow Attuans as captives of the Japanese.

The plaque on this anti-aircraft gun reads: “A grateful nation remembers those who sacrificed to preserve freedom for Attu during WWII. This memorial is a testament to their courage and devotion. Dedicated on June 16, 1993.” (Lisa Hupp/USFWS)

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Attu revisited
At the APIA, following the potluck, a diverse group will gather at 2 p.m. for a panel discussion on the Battle of Attu and its meaning for each of them. The group includes descendants of the Attuans and also of Allied and Japanese soldiers.

In August 2017, 11 Attu descendants, most of them from Atka, journeyed with Mason aboard the USFWS vessel Tiglax to Attu and the old village site. They brought an Orthodox cross furnished by the APIA.

"The foundation of the church is the only sign of a building on the site that you can see now," Mason said. "We planted the cross. The teenagers were the crew and they worked with the crew of the Tiglax." Bill Dushkin of Atka, Elizabeth's son and the husband of the village's mayor, sprinkled holy water from the Atka church around the perimeter of the old foundation while singing the Orthodox memorial hymn "Memory Eternal."

The group spent several hours onshore, most of the time gathering arms full of the island's grass that was a key element of the villagers' culture.

"The basket makers on Attu were considered the best of the Aleutians," said Mason. "The island's grass was the best. Only a few people today know the Attu weaving style, and the descendants took the grass and brought it back to Anchorage for the weavers."

Those weavers will talk about their craft and display their baskets.

Floral arrangements decorate the base of a peace monument honoring all Japanese and Americans who lost their lives during a World War II battle on the island. (National Archives / Department of Defense)

In addition to the panel of descendants, weaving expert Ray Hudson will give a talk titled "The Last Baskets of Attu." According to the Museum of the Aleutians, "Hudson is an artist, a basket weaver, an author, a linguist, a musician, a poet, a humanitarian, a historian (and) a major part of the history of the Aleutians."

Wooden dock at Massacre Bay, Attu. (Lisa Hupp/USFWS)

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How the Japanese see Attu
The May 1943 clash in the mountains of Attu between roughly 2,600 Japanese and 11,000 Americans is distinctive for several reasons. For the GIs, it was the second bloodiest battle of the Pacific War, after Okinawa, measured by the rate of casualties to the total fighting force. Even after 75 years, numbers vary from source to source. According to the 2017 volume "Attu: The Forgotten Battle," by the late John Cloe, American deaths on Attu numbered between 549 and 559. Some 1,150 received combat injures, while more than 2,100 Americans suffered from disease and non-battle injuries, due mostly to the island's hellishly wet, cold environment.

The entire Japanese garrison died from fighting or suicide, except for 28 who surrendered. Many hundreds took their own lives. On one of the first occasions in their war with Japan, American soldiers experienced the fierce fighting nature of warriors who preferred death to surrender. To be taken prisoner was out of the question because the Japanese military's broadly influential Bushido code forbade it. On the night of May 28-29, about 1,000 Japanese soldiers who were backed up against the sea and had no good options elected to charge several miles up a valley and go screaming with bayonets stabbing into the Americans' camp and tent hospitals. The assault ultimately failed, but together with banzai charges in the battles of Guadalcanal in 1942-43, the rampage of Attu made an impression on American field commanders who adjusted their island-fighting strategies for the rest of the war.

(Lisa Hupp/USFWS)

The Battle of Attu was remarkable for another reason: It was purely an infantry fight. American planes made some efforts to locate and strafe enemy positions, but the weather, for the most part, wouldn't allow it, and the Japanese were too dug in anyway. And there were no tanks or heavy artillery. It was soldier vs. soldier.

The Battle of Attu, like the Pacific War in general, is less documented from the Japanese side than the American. Japanese soldiers on Attu, for example, deliberately destroyed documents when it was apparent they had no chance of winning or even of surviving.

"Japanese Perspective on WWII in the Aleutians" — a panel discussion scheduled for 6:30-8:30 p.m. Friday, May 18, at the Anchorage Museum (reception 5:30 p.m.) — should therefore provide insight into what we know or don't know about the soldiers' experience on Attu and how they came to see the battle. We may also learn something about the overall Japanese strategy for fighting in the North Pacific and the Pacific War as a whole.

Members of the panel include Ephriam D. Dickson III, deputy chief of the Field Museums Branch of the U.S. Army Center of Military History at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C.; Dr. Paul Dunscomb, professor and chair of the UAA History Department and a specialist in East Asian history; and James McNaughton, also from the Army Center of Military History.

Japanese bunker, Kiska. (Lisa Hupp/USFWS)

Why ever did the Japanese attack the Aleutians and install their soldiers on two of the islands? In retrospect, it was a huge mistake. The two carriers that launched the planes that bombed Dutch Harbor on June 3 and 4, 1942, might have made the difference if they had been added to the attack force at Midway, which was a calamitous loss for the Imperial Japanese forces, one which turned the tide of the Pacific War and doomed Japan. (For that matter, the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor was the most colossal Japanese mistake of all.)

The attacks on the Aleutians and on Midway were simultaneous operations and their linkage has been part of the historical discussions about Japanese motivations ever since. Each of the following has been cited at one time or another as the reason for the Japanese Aleutian gamble:

— They did it to divert American naval forces to the North Pacific and therefore make those and other U.S. forces vulnerable to the main part of the Japanese fleet in the central Pacific that was about to attack Midway.

— They went to the Aleutians to establish a northern defense perimeter to protect their home islands and Pacific fisheries from American forces that might otherwise use the far west Aleutians as staging areas for attacks on Japan.

— They occupied Attu and Kiska for the outside chance they might have to invade Alaska or even attack important American infrastructure and factories in the Pacific Northwest.

"In the study of history, determining the 'when' and 'what' is the easiest part; often determining the 'why' is more difficult and is the part that can become debated among historians," Dickson said in an email message. The several theories "have all been cited (as) primary reasons for the invasion, and with our lack of documentation from the decision makers, I think they will all continue to be put forward by historians."

A World War II prop and airplane motor rest at the site of a memorial near the abandoned US Coast Guard Station on Attu Island. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

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Warbirds for the riding
Attu75 ends with a bang — a full day of speeches, remembrances, fly-ins by such "warbirds" as the BT-13 and the Grumman Goose, movies, and a new exhibit devoted to the Battle of Attu and the Aleutians Campaign. It happens Saturday, May 19, at the Alaska Aviation Museum, 4721 Aircraft Drive.

The event begins at 10 a.m.; includes a historical talk at 11 a.m., a noontime showing of documentary and other films, a veterans panel and a discussion with amateur historian and Attu battlefield visitor Mike McLaughlin of Anchorage from 1 to 2:45 p.m.; and concludes with a ceremony to honor the sacrifices of all combatants in the Aleutians War.

Visitors can purchase rides on those warbirds as well as food.

The new comprehensive Aleutians WWII exhibit will be installed in Hangar 3, and the hope is that it will stay up for a year, according to Darian Latocha, the museum's curator of collections. Material is being loaned by the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association and the Alaska Veterans Museum on West Fourth Avenue, Latocha said.

Visitors will encounter material on the Aleut Evacuation. They'll take in the Japanese experience through artillery, other weapons, profiles of Japanese aircraft and other artifacts. They'll walk around a real Stinson L-1F Vigilant that Latocha says was the first reconnaissance plane flown in the Aleutians, and they'll step into a mock Quonset hut where historic communication methods — Morse code, Signal Corps flags — will be on display.

There will be a case of materials regarding Army medics and a section devoted to our Canadian allies. And of course, the Battle of Attu will be a central focus.

The event — and Attu75 as a whole — concludes at 4 p.m.

Alaska cottongrass on Kiska. (Lisa Hupp/USFWS)

Attu75 is a project of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and its Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. The agency's partners in the project are the National Park Service, Alaska Veterans Museum, Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, University of Alaska Anchorage, Alaska Aviation Museum, U.S. Army Center of Military History, and Japanese American Citizens.

NOTE: This story has been updated to correct the ages of two Attu survivors and to correct the spelling of the name of Bill Dushkin.

Peter Porco, a former Anchorage Daily News reporter, lives in Anchorage. The Alaska State Council on the Arts has funded some of his research into the Aleutians War.

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