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In 1942, Japanese forces claimed an island in Alaska as a military strategy during World War II. The island, home to many Alaska Natives, was devastated by the Japanese occupation. The event resulted in hysteria among Americans, a bloody battle between the United States and Japanese forces, and the loss of several American, Japanese, and Native Alaskans. Today, the island stands for an important but often forgotten story of hardship and war.
While the island’s history lives on through the descendants of its inhabitants, the culture, art and language of its original inhabitants seem to be fading. However, the climate, natural landscape, wildlife and other islands of the island remain intact. Find out which Alaskan island was the scene of a World War II battle and discover what natural features make this island so unique.
What are the Aleutians?
The Aleutians form an island chain that lies at the southwestern end of the state of Alaska. These islands act as the boundary between the Bering Sea and the Pacific Ocean. They stretch for 1,100 miles. The westernmost island and westernmost point of the United States takes the shape of Attu Island, where a battle took place during World War II.
The Ring of Fire is a slang term for a part of the Aleutian Islands that is home to numerous volcanoes and mountain peaks. While many volcanoes within the island chain are dormant, some remain active. For example, Shishaldin Volcano is an active volcano located in the Aleutian Islands.
The climate in the Aleutian Islands includes year-round abundant rain, frequent winds, fog, and constant temperatures. Plant life in the island chain lacks many trees but includes various flowering plants and grasses. Large parts of the Aleutian Islands, covering 4,250 square miles, are protected by the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.
The Aleutians were home to the Unangan, also known as the Aleutian tribe. The ethnic group lived undisturbed in the island chain for about 8,000 years. When Russia began exploring the islands, there was a record of 25,000 Unangans living there. The first to discover the islands were Vitus Bering and Aleksey Chirikov. Bering found the western part of the Aleutians first, and Chirikov discovered the eastern part. After news of the discovery reached mainland Russia, hunters headed to the Aleutian Islands hoping to make their fortunes from the fur trade, as there were many animals with coveted pelts living there.
When Russia gained control of Alaska and the Aleutians, they severely oppressed the Unangan people. Many Unangans were killed, forced to move, or enslaved by the Russians. Eventually, Russia surrendered Alaska to the United States. In 1867, the United States gained control of Alaska and its Aleutian Islands through the Alaska Purchase.
Wildlife in the Aleutians
The wildlife within the island chain is diverse and unique to the region. Land animals range from foxes to caribou, and humans have introduced most land mammals. Marine mammals include North Sea otters, harbor seals and Steller sea lions. Fish species in the Aleutians include cod, saberfish, pollock, sandlance, herring and more.
However, the most well-known animals in the Aleutians are birds. Over 10 million birds nest in the region during the summer season. The most common birds in the Aleutians are puffins, gulls and kittiwakes to name a few. A colony of northern fulmars includes 1.5 million members. This colony is located on the island of Chagulak within the Aleutian Islands. In addition, about half of the world’s population of emperor geese reside in the Aleutian Islands during the winter. Some Aleutian bird species are found nowhere else on the North American continent. These include Tufted Duck, Black-headed Gull, Siberian Ruby-throated, Whooper Swan, Eastern Curlew and Wood Sandpiper.
The westernmost point of the United States, Attu Island saw the only World War II battle ever fought in North America. Located just 500 miles east of Russia, the island is a vast tundra battered by storms in all seasons. Attu Island is unique because its climate and characteristics make it one of the most sombre and awe-inspiring places on earth. The waters in and around Attu Island include Holtz Bay, Massacre Bay and the Port of Chichagof. While a few Aleutian tribal villages once settled in Attu, they were destroyed during the Japanese occupation.
In 1942, Japan occupied the island of Attu, causing panic throughout the American home front. The idea of Japan laying claim to United States territory during the war was frightening. Some believed it was the beginning of other Japanese occupations in the United States. When Japan bombed Dutch Harbor, many Unangans were relocated from the Aleutian Islands to Southeast Alaska.
When Japan invaded Attu Island, the residents of Unangan were taken as prisoners of war. The Japanese starved the Unangan, resulting in the deaths of about half the Attu Unangan. Those who survived as prisoners of war were resettled in Atka in the Aleutian Islands. They never returned home to Attu Island.
In May 1943, US troops encountered Japanese soldiers on Attu Island. Fighting between the two armies lasted several days until the United States annihilated the Japanese forces. Of the 1,000 Japanese soldiers who advanced in the final battle, only 29 survived. For the United States, 1,750 causalities have been recorded, most of which were directly attributable to Attu’s unfavorable climatic conditions.
Act Island involvement in WWII
The World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument now includes a tribute to the US soldiers who fought and lost their lives during the Battle of Attu Island. In addition, remains of trenches, shrapnel, grenades and more can be found on the eastern part of Attu Island. Fragments of history can be found in the impressive Attu Tundra, paying tribute to the sacrifices made by US soldiers and the Unangan people.
While a decisive battle took place on Attu during the Japanese occupation, the island served other purposes during World War II. For example, the United States used Attu Island as a launch site for bombs sent to Japan during the war. After the battle, airfields, roads and camps were established on the island of Attu. A unique feature surviving from the war is a 3,000+ foot bombproof storage tunnel on the island.
Lost Villages of the Aleutians was a project designed to commemorate and commemorate the life of the Unangan after the Battle of Attu Island and the end of World War II. Lost Villages of the Aleutians chronicled a story composed of interviews and secondary sources. The project enabled former Attu Island residents and descendants of Attu Island residents to visit the site, rediscover their cultural history and honor their ancestors. Places visited by the Lost Villages project included Makushin, Kashega and Biorka.
Memory of the Unanga life
In addition to the Lost Villages of the Aleutian Islands project, former residents of Attu Island and their descendants gathered in the fall of 2012 for an Attu gathering in Anchorage, Alaska. Many participants shared their testimonies and pictures at the meeting. Other events sponsored by the National Park Service and other organizations have allowed the Attu descendants to learn more about their history and culture.
A former Attu resident, Nick Golodoff, wrote a memoir entitled nude boy. Golodoff tells his ongoing story of self-discovery after being kidnapped by the Japanese from Attu Island at the age of six. Another book called Lost Villages of the Eastern Aleutians tells the story of several Aleutian villages that were devastated in World War II despite remaining strong throughout Russian and American sovereignty.
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