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Setting the Stage

The Aleutian Islands form a 1,000-mile chain of islands that arc westward from Alaska. In 1867 the United States acquired the islands, along with Alaska, from Russia. The island chain that includes the Aleutians continues for another 300 miles to the west. These western islands, called the Komandorskis (or Commander Islands), are close to the Kamchatka Peninsula and were part of the Soviet Union in 1942. Although there were bombing raids on other Aleutian islands during World War II, Attu, the western most island of the U.S.-held chain, was the site of the only land battle on the North American continent during World War II.

Like the rest of the Aleutians, Attu is composed of volcanic mountains and tundra valleys. The island is approximately 40 miles long and 20 miles wide. Its highest peak rises more than 3,000 feet above sea level. Located between the frigid Bering Sea and the warm Japanese Current of the North Pacific Ocean, the island's waters remain free of ice, but the area is subject to year-round, vicious wind storms known as williwaws, and dense, impenetrable fogs. It rains or snows an average of 200 days a year. During the spring--when the battle of Attu was fought--temperatures generally hover around freezing (32º F). Glaciers and snow drifts mark the higher elevations, and lower levels support only spongy tundra and low-growing plants.



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