World War II in Alaska
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Archives and Manuscripts Department, University of Alaska Anchorage
- Grade Level:
- Fifth Grade-Seventh Grade
- American Indian History and Culture, Aviation, Government, History, Naval History, World War II
- World War II, internment, Japanese America, Native Alaskans
OverviewFew people know that the only World War II battle fought on U.S. soil took place in Alaska, or that Japanese forces occupied two Aleutian Islands for more than a year. Still fewer know of the Russian pilots who trained in Fairbanks, the workers who risked their lives building the Alaska Highway, or the Alaska Scouts who patrolled the Bering Sea coast. The lives of Alaskans were forever changed by the experience of war, and the history of that dramatic era is still being written.
Objective(s)Students will learn to conduct independent research using primary and secondary sources.
This resource guide contains resources and references to allow students to conduct independent research into this little-known story of World War II. Included is a map of important World War II sites in the north Pacific and a summary of Alaska's World War II experience, as well as information about National Historic Landmarks related to World War II in Alaska.
The bibliography that follows is divided into twelve parts to aid student researchers in selecting topics:
• War Comes to Alaska
• Aleutian Campaign
• Alaska Highway and Canol Pipeline
• Wartime Construction
• Native Defenders
• Warplanes and Seacraft
• Aleut Evacuation
• Canadian Participation
• Japanese-American Internment
• Lend-Lease Program
• Japanese Naval Power
• Branches and Units of the Military
BackgroundBrigadier General William Mitchell urged Congress in 1935 to adopt a strong northern air defense, declaring, "I believe in the future he who holds Alaska will hold the world." In 1939 Congress established a Panama-Hawaii-Alaska defense triangle to protect America's vulnerable western coast. Alaska, the largest and least fortified of the three, soon saw the construction of naval bases at Sitka, Dutch Harbor, and Kodiak.
When Japanese planes struck Pearl Harbor in 1941, military and civilian workers in Alaska were still scrambling to fortify the vast territory. Six months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island and occupied the Aleutian islands of Attu and Kiska. Before the attack, U.S. codebreakers had established that the Japanese incursion into the Aleutians was merely a diversion intended to draw U.S. ships from their base on Midway Island. Even so, military strategists felt they could not risk leaving the Aleutians open as stepping stones for Japanese attacks on the United States mainland.
The weather along the 1,200-mile island chain is perhaps the worst in the world, with dense fogs, violent seas, and fierce wind storms called williwaws. Aircraft lacking accurate navigational devices or consistent radio contact crashed into mountains, each other, the sea-simply finding the enemy was a life-and-death struggle. For soldiers in the Aleutians, contact with the enemy was infrequent and fleeting, but the weather was a perpetual adversary.
During the Aleutian Campaign, 881 Aleuts were evacuated from their homes and spent almost three years in makeshift "duration villages" without proper sanitation, heat, or medical attention.
On May 11, 1943 U.S. forces landed on Attu and began an uphill battle to retake the island. After nineteen days of fighting, the beleaguered Japanese soldiers launched a final banzai charge in an attempt to break through the American line. When the battle ended, only 29 prisoners remained of a Japanese force of roughly 2,600. Three months later the drama at Attu was matched by an equally dramatic anticlimax. Foul weather had delayed Allied attempts to retake Kiska, and when U.S. and Canadian forces finally landed on August 15, they were stunned to find that the Japanese were gone-they had been evacuated under cover of fog three weeks before. As the guns fell silent in the Aleutians, Army and Navy facilities began to demobilize and many were closed, though fighting in the Pacific and in Europe would continue for another two years.