Wednesday, September 28, 2011

An Aleutian Tale

Someone following our progress has commented that this is ‘a very different cruise’ – likely compared to the World cruise we embarked upon earlier this year.  I agree. As I wrote yesterday the on-board experience on a large ship is different than that of our previous trip.
Our itinerary is also to a very different part of the world. Alaska is fascinating and beautiful but in a very different way than the Southern Pacific / Indian Ocean experience. This is a more rugged, harsher world than we are used to
As we traverse the Northern Pacific we first kept track with the Aleutian Islands and have now diverged in a more South Westerly direction. I knew little about the Aleutians (other than where they were) and read a bit about them on the ship – What I learned (about a very small part of their history) is a story with much to teach.
The Aleutians are rugged volcanic islands stretching across from the Siberia / Japan intersection north of the Kurile Islands to Alaska.
They represent a likely land bridge that allowed for the migration of animals and the earliest humans from Asia to North America. Settlement in Villages was relatively sparse over the years but with an isolated and strong religious people.
The islands names don’t come easily to mind – Unimak, Unalaska, Atka, Kiska and Attu among many others but for one short period – between June 1942 and September 1943 - they were well known.
In June 1942, Admiral Yamamoto, as a follow-up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, set in motion a plan to attack and occupy the Island of Midway with his powerful naval and amphibious force. As a feint he split part of his force to attack the Aleutians. Unbeknownst to the Japanese their communication codes had been broken and the plan was known to the US Pacific Fleet. With this prior knowledge, priority was given to the Midway battle and the Japanese attacked the Aleutians relatively unimpeded.
In the first week of June 1942 Japanese carrier aircraft bombed Dutch Harbor on Amaknak Island (closer to the Alaska mainland) damaging oil storage tanks, shipping, anti aircraft positions and Fort Mears. Two days later (6th June) they invaded Kiska Island the next day Attu (two of the Islands closest to Japan). They garrisoned both islands and set up defenses for a counter attack including a complex tunnel system.
The impact on Aleutian natives was substantial. For their part the Japanese imprisoned the Attuans then in September shipped them to Hokkaido where they lived under dreadful conditions until they were released in October 1945. During their imprisonment 40% died and upon their return survivors were resettled.
In response to the invasion American authorities evacuated 881 Unagan from 9 villages in Unalaska and interned them for the duration in South East Alaska. Sadly their fate was no better and many died in this environment foreign to them with diseases such as TB they had no immunity to and with the loss of their community and structure.
The retaking of the Aleutians by US forces was even more traumatic (and in some ways poorly considered). First there was a vigorous bombing campaign by American B24 and B52 bombers from airfields rather remarkably constructed on inhospitable islands.
Then, in May 1943, 12,500 American troops landed on Attu Island to dislodge the invaders. As would be seen later in the South Pacific campaign the Japanese were well dug in and held high ground they fought ferociously and when the end was near conducted three suicidal banzai assaults. Only 28 Japanese survived. The cost was high, 2000 American Casualties – dead, wounded and variously disabled. The US troops had been poorly prepared – underestimated the opposition and insufficient supplies, food and inappropriate kit
Both sides learned from this experience – On July 28th The Japanese evacuated Kiska entirely as indefensible. On Aug 15th Allied troops landed on Kiska, this time in substantial force (35,000) ready for battle but once again with poor intelligence!  For 15 days fighting continued against an absent enemy – a phony invasion against a phantom enemy. The outcome was 25 deaths from friendly fire and 50 wounded before calm prevailed.
The outcome of this sad campaign was devastating for native Aleutians and their environment, probably inconsequential to the outcome of the war and probably played a large part in establishing this area as our first warning system base for the feared cold war apocalypse of the 1950s and 1960s.

1 comment:

  1. Great retelling of the Alaskan campaign. If I recall, there are a few wrecked Japanese aircraft still scattered throughout the islands.