A Colorful History
Before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, overland travel by car, truck or train between the contiguous United States and Alaska through northwest Canada was not possible. After the bombing in 1941, threats of imminent attacks to the West Coast of North America and the Aleutian Islands in Alaska prompted the United States to fund the highway as a military supply route. Construction on the Alaska Highway began on March 8, 1942. Workers faced challenging construction conditions in the wilderness, including permafrost, muskeg, mountains and mosquitoes. The highway was completed on October 8, 1942, and opened for general use in 1943.
On June 3-4, 1942, prior to the highway’s completion, Japanese forces implemented a two-day air strike on Dutch Harbor in Southwest Alaska and destroyed the seaport. Later that year the Japanese invaded two western Aleutian Islands, Attu and Kiska. American forces retook the region in 1943 in the first battle on United States soil since the War of 1812. This little-known, bloody battle became known as the Forgotten War and reinforced Alaska as a strategic military location in the eyes of the U.S. government.
World War II history enthusiasts will enjoy a trip to Southwest Alaska, including the Aleutian Islands, Dutch Harbor and Kodiak Island. The region is accessible via scheduled jet service from Anchorage and Homer or on the Alaska Marine Highway — the state’s ferry system. The Aleutian World War II National Historic Area covers 134 acres atop Mount Ballyhoo on Amaknak Island and overlooks the port of Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Island chain. Here the concrete remains of Fort Schwatka tell the story of the Forgotten War. The fort was originally one of four coastal defense posts built to protect Dutch Harbor during World War II. While many of the original bunkers and buildings have collapsed, the surrounding gun mounts and lookouts at the fort are among some of the most intact war relics in the country.
On nearby Kodiak Island, Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park is another historic military fort situated on the cliffs overlooking scenic Monashka Bay. The fort was built in 1941 as part of a general military buildup in the region that included the Kodiak Navy Base. Visitors can explore the park via guided and self-guided walking tours or visit the Kodiak Military History Museum located inside the Ready Ammo bunker. Fort Abercrombie also has several campsites available, primarily for tent camping.
Visitors to the Southcentral region of Alaska can explore the remains of Fort McGilvray near the town of Seward, located about two-and-a-half hours by car from Anchorage — Alaska’s largest city and chief transportation hub. Seward is also the southern terminus of the Alaska Railroad, which served as another critical supply line during World War II. Guests can explore the maze of underground passages and rooms by flashlight at the fort, located within the 6,000-acre Caines Head State Recreation area.