Alaska News

Underwater search aimed at documenting World War II wreckage off Alaska’s Attu Island

Dominic Bush studies WWII battle at Attu Island

Dominic Bush slid on blue surgical gloves and pulled out a black-and-white photo negative from a beige envelope at the Anchorage Museum archives room.

One by one, he held up the images, inspecting photos of boats, landing craft and soldiers on the far-flung Aleutian island of Attu, where a deadly — though lesser-known — WWII battle against Japanese forces took place.

The 28-year-old underwater archaeologist is on a journey to discover what lies below the waters around the island that marks the westernmost point in the United States, from downed aircraft to sunken military ships.

Next summer, he intends to find out. Bush was awarded a significant grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to conduct this first-of-its-kind research. The underwater battlefield hasn’t yet been documented.

Dominic Bush studies WWII battle at Attu Island

Bush and other researchers will spend a week on a research vessel in the water off Attu, surveying below using sonar and remotely operated vehicles to search for the wreckage.

The project is personal for Bush, whose mom is an original shareholder of the Chugach Alaska Corp. As a 9-year-old he spent a summer visiting family in Chenega, in southwest Prince William Sound, picking berries, fishing and riding ATVs. Since then, he’s always wanted to return to the state.

And soon, Bush will head to the remote island of Attu. It’s where Alaska Native people lived for thousands of years before they were removed and taken to northern Japan as prisoners of war during World War II. And afterward, they were subsequently barred from resettling on the island.

Attu Island

In June of 1942, Japanese forces invaded the islands of Attu and Kiska, which both sit in the far-western segment of the Aleutian chain. The following summer, in May of 1943, thousands of American soldiers landed on Attu after an air campaign.

Battles rampaged for two weeks.

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Massacre Bay, Attu

U.S. soldiers faced many challenges, from Japanese soldiers hiding out for hours in foxholes to Attu’s wind, rain and fog. Soldiers suffered frostbite, fever and trench foot without proper gear, according to the National Park Service, which manages Aleutian World War II National Historic Area. Rations ran low.

In all, 2,351 Japanese soldiers died while 28 were captured. Among the Americans, 549 soldiers died, 1,148 were wounded, 1,200 suffered severe cold injuries and 614 suffered disease, according to the park service.

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In the spring of 2020, a professor assigned Bush, who is working on his Ph.D. dissertation at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, to write an analysis about any battle in history.

He chose Attu.

“I had known that something happened in the Aleutians during World War II, but I was never formally taught about it,” Bush said.

Bush, whose dissertation is about sunken WWII planes near Maui and his home island of Oahu, is a certified diver, spearfisher and snorkeler who grew up swimming past downed planes and visited Pearl Harbor as a fourth grader.

After Bush submitted his paper, his professor encouraged him to pursue funding to carry out his research near Attu, which set things in motion. He dove into more research and reached out to other experts to join the project.

[Alaska’s World War II civilian POWs recall their ‘lost village’ of Attu]

The group will leave from Homer in a crab fishing boat turned research vessel next summer. Once at Attu, they plan on spending a week around the island, likely concentrated on the northeastern side.

Attu Island

They’ll watch a livestream while the ship tows a sonar system, and they plan to launch autonomous vehicles into the water too. Then a Japanese organization that Bush has partnered with will pilot a remote vehicle to take photos and videos underwater.

Through his research, Bush made a list of every known item that ended up in the water, including 10 American aircraft; nine Japanese airplanes; three ships, including a submarine; and a host of landing craft and barges, all sunken in the waters around Attu, he said.

It’s a massive amount of data to collect — whole servers’ worth — and it will take a year to analyze the imagery and write up their reports, he said.

Attu Island, peace memorial
Attu Island, peace memorial
US Fish and Wildlife Service, Research boat R/V Tiglax, Kiska Island, Aleutian Islands

Jason Raupp, an underwater archaeologist and assistant professor at East Carolina who has worked with Bush on other projects, signed on as principal investigator. While Pearl Harbor and D-Day have been ingrained as iconic moments in history, there were many other places where Americans lost their lives during World War II, he said.

Attu is an understudied area, he said. It’s one of the most enigmatic WWII sites given its remoteness.

“This gives us an opportunity to tell this other chapter of World War II,” Raupp said.

Bush said he’s also hoping to bring Alaska Native consultants on the trip to Attu.

US Fish and Wildlife Service, Research boat R/V Tiglax, Kiska Island, Aleutian Islands

“I myself have a bit of Native Alaskan heritage, but my family’s connections are not to Attu and that region directly,” Bush said. “So we want to bring out people who have more of an understanding of the cultural heritage and can be along with us to both learn and educate us as well.”

The researchers are reaching out to different cultural groups and tribal entities, in hopes of sharing what they find with local communities.

“It is a shared heritage. It’s not just archaeology for the archaeology’s sake,” Bush said. “This shouldn’t just go to the federal government or to academia. This is Alaskan history and heritage, and it’s specifically Aleutian heritage.”

“I want to make sure that Alaska and in particular, the Native organizations, get something out of this,” he said.

Caroline Funk, an archaeologist who has previously excavated ancient Unangan villages in the western Aleutian islands, is also joining Raupp and Bush on the journey.

“The really critical component of this is Unangax̂ are OK with it,” Funk said. “I don’t do any of this research without talking to people before I go, inviting people to be a part of it, inviting collaboration and questions.”

Funk said she feels the responsibility to talk about World War II holistically, given the impacts it had on people who lived in the area and whose descendants are listening to the research results today.

Attu Island

Bush spent several days in Alaska this summer, hunting through local archives, like the one at the Anchorage Museum, and meeting with tribal and government entities.

By looking at old photos, he can narrow down where he plans to put the sonar and autonomous vehicles to execute the surveys.

“Anything that can help us really pinpoint to where we think, ‘Hey, there might be an aircraft, there may be a ship, there may be landing craft and barges over here,’ ” he said.

And for Bush, the pressure is on for everything to go right.

“You don’t want to mess up,” Bush said. “My big fear is going out there and getting canceled by weather because we get one shot at this, and that’s it.”

Attu Tiglax 150603-018.JPG-1444959875
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Morgan Krakow

Morgan Krakow is a general assignment reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She is a 2019 graduate of the University of Oregon and spent the summer of 2019 as a reporting intern on the general assignment desk of The Washington Post. Contact her at mkrakow@adn.com.

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