Alaska's World War II History
It's a little-known chapter in U.S. history: Alaska was an active theater during World War II, and Hawaii wasn't the only place bombed by the Japanese. In fact, just six months after the horrific attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese military attacked and occupied two remote islands in Alaska's Aleutian Chain, Attu and Kiska. For more than a year, the U.S. fought Japan in what became known as the Aleutian Islands Campaign, eventually retaking the U.S. territory from Japan and leaving a lasting impact on the state, the soldiers who fought in the Aleutians and the indigenous Aleuts of the Aleutian Islands.
Before the initial Japanese attack on Dutch Harbor on June 3, 1942, the U.S. military and Congress had already recognized Alaska's strategic importance in the Pacific and began shoring up the state's military infrastructure. In March of 1942, construction of the Alaska Highway was initiated as a means to better fortify the state with military vehicles and equipment. Construction crews building the highway were spurred on through incredibly difficult conditions by news of the Japanese attack that summer, and finished the 1,700-mile highway in a remarkable 10 months. Indigenous Aleuts living in villages in the Aleutian Islands were evacuated and interned – much like Japanese Americans in other parts of the country – in camps in Southeast Alaska. Inadequate food, shelter and medical care led to widespread disease and death among the interred. Meanwhile, thousands of soldiers from across the country, many of whom had never experienced weather as harsh or isolation as intense, were stationed on the islands to resist the Japanese incursion. The standard wool cold-weather gear issued to soldiers was a poor match for the wet and windy conditions, and trench foot, frostbite and hypothermia were common. After months of fierce fighting, the U.S. forced Japan to abandon its positions on Attu and Kiska islands in July of 1942.
Remnants of World War II in Alaska are scattered throughout coastal communities in Southcentral and Southwest Alaska. The best place to experience this history and to learn more is in the twin communities of Unalaska and the Port of Dutch Harbor, where the Navy had a base and from which most of the Aleutian Islands Campaign was coordinated. The Aleutian World War II National Historic Area includes gun emplacements and other remnants of Fort Schwatka, which sits atop Mount Ballyhoo in Dutch Harbor, along with an interesting visitor center with films, photos and artifacts of the war. Tours are available that feature a number of significant military sites around Unalaska and Dutch Harbor.
On Kodiak Island, massive military infrastructure was quickly constructed because the island proved an ideal lookout to the massive North Pacific Ocean. A large naval base, docks, housing, roads and other infrastructure popped up seemingly overnight. Bunkers and gun emplacements can be explored at Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park along with other coastal locations on the island. Fort McGilvray was built in Seward on the Kenai Peninsula, where the harbor remained ice-free all year and the Seward Highway connected the town to the rest of mainland Alaska. Today, visitors can reach Fort McGilvray on a stunning coastal day hike through Caines Head State Recreation Area. The University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks features a moving exhibit in its permanent collection that includes interviews with Aleuts who recall the terrifying evacuation and internment they endured during the war.