Book review: The Aleutian War, captured in the words of those who served on the islands

“Awaiting the Sun: WWII Veterans Remember the Aleutians”

By Bil Paul; Schiffer Military, 2022; 230 pages; $24.99.

Many Americans, even today, don’t realize the extent to which Alaska was involved in World War II, and that two islands in the Aleutians were invaded and occupied by Japanese forces. Author Bil Paul, whose father served as a Navy communications officer on Adak Island, has extensively researched personal accounts of veterans from the islands. As the last of them depart this earth, “Awaiting the Sun” is a timely compendium of on-the-ground experiences by which to remember those young men and the price of war.

There have been numerous previous histories of the Aleutians campaign, the best-known of which is probably Brian Garfield’s “The Thousand-Mile War” from 1982. The value of this additional text lies in its very personal nature; Paul relates the war experience primarily in the words of its participants, through their letters home, diaries, memoirs, interviews, and oral histories. He drew from 290 sources, many of them located on the internet. One of his sources was his own father, who died before Paul began the project but whose letters home are quoted throughout.

Paul has organized his material not by the chronology of the war but by subject matter. That is, the 23 chapters focus on weather (responsible for more death, injury, and misery than the enemy), living quarters, free time activities, flying, ship transport, relationships between officers and enlisted men, discrimination against Blacks and other minorities, mental health (“the Aleutian stare”), secrecy and censorship, food, friendships, the Battle of Attu, etc.

It helps to recall that the Americans fighting in the Aleutians were so young — Paul states that 35% of Navy personnel in the war were in their teens — and that many were from southern regions where they’d never experienced snow, cold, fog, or isolation. Many had minimal skills or training, and, because of secrecy did not even know their destination until they arrived. (Army recruits were trained in California for expected fighting in North Africa and were not supplied with adequate boots or clothing for what they encountered in the Aleutians.)

An early chapter about the attack on Dutch Harbor and the invasion of Kiska Island includes lengthy quotes from a letter written by Charles House, one of 10 men monitoring a weather station on Kiska (and the only Americans on the island at the time.) The story of House’s escape and eventual surrender has been told elsewhere, but his own words are detailed and riveting. “In this early morning light, the tracer bullets looked like baseballs curving toward us.” His account describes scrambling up a hill in light clothing and his thought process — assuming “that they would knock out our facilities and leave.” The Japanese captured the remaining men and didn’t leave.


House moved across the island to scavenge “tundra grass” and angleworms for food and live in a cave. “On the forty-eighth day I was on my way to the creek for some water when I fainted. This called for some soul searching; if I remained there I would surely die.” He made a “white flag” from his undershorts and “marched in” to surrender. He weighed 80 pounds. The Japanese gave him tea and biscuits and formed a ring around him “and just stared. I had the feeling of a monkey in a zoo.”

The chapter about the Battle of Attu, in which 549 Americans and 2351 Japanese died, is filled with personal accounts of just how brutal that 20-day battle was. First, there was the landing in fog, in which ships struck rocks and dumped men into the sea. Then there are anecdotes about the cold weather, deficient boots that left men unable to even walk, lack of food and other supplies, and encounters with the enemy, some of them disturbingly barbarous. This chapter also includes excerpts from the diary of the American-trained Japanese doctor, Paul Tatsuguchi, featured in Mark Obmascik’s 2020 book “The Storm on Our Shores.” “All the patients were made to commit suicide… I am only 33, and I am to die. I have no regrets. Goodbye Tocke my beloved wife, who loved me till the last.”

The drama of war is expected, but perhaps the greatest value of “Awaiting the Sun” is its documentation of ordinary life at the various island bases. The young men were, for example, inventive in finding comfort in a hostile environment and in entertaining themselves. They melted snow in their metal helmets to wash with, built electrified traps to electrocute rats, made up names for fox trails, planted trees, and made drinkable alcohol out of torpedo fuel and anti-icing fluid as well as distilling “tundra juice” from potatoes and grape jelly.

The men put on performances, including drag shows, and were visited by entertainers, including the actress Olivia DeHavilland. They got most of their news from Tokyo Rose, because Radio Tokyo came in the clearest on their sets, and they loved hearing the sultry voice of a woman (actually several women who alternated). Even if Tokyo Rose’s information was suspect, she provided more war news than the men could otherwise learn. One veteran wrote, “Tokyo Rose, strange as it may seem, was a sex symbol to us. In the barracks hut we discussed her personally much more frequently than her propaganda.”

Besides the first-person accounts and some of the author’s own exposition to provide needed context, “Awaiting the Sun” includes photographs, cartoons from the “Adakian” Army newsletter (edited by Dashiell Hammett), and bits of poetry. Altogether it’s an important contribution to our understanding of a time and place now being lost to history, and to honoring those who served not just in a deadly war but in the challenging Aleutian environment.

[Seward author Dan Walker’s early life from the Kenai Peninsula to Anchorage provided rich source material]

[Book review: ‘Converging Empires’ examines imperialism imposed on Indigenous people of the North Pacific]

Nancy Lord

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days," and "Early Warming." Her latest book is "pH: A Novel."