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Naval Operating Base at Dutch Harbor
Photo from National Historic Landmarks collection

Dutch Harbor Naval Operating Base and Fort Mears are located on Amaknak Island in Unalaska Bay, in the Aleutian Islands Chain, 800 miles west of Anchorage, Alaska. In early June 1942, Japanese aircraft attacked Unalaska in a fierce two-day bombardment that resulted in 43 American deaths. At the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor these two bases were the only U.S. defenses in the Aleutians, and they continued as important coastal defenses throughout the war.

In 1912, the U.S. Navy installed a radio station at Dutch Harbor. In the Washington Naval Treaty of 1912, the United States agreed not to fortify the Aleutians. Even when Japan withdrew from the treaty in 1934, the United States took no steps to fortify the Aleutians. Not until 1938 did a Navy board urge the construction of naval, air and submarine bases at Dutch Harbor and Kodiak and an air base at Sitka. At Dutch Harbor, construction began in July 1940 on both army and naval installations, the army mission being defense of the naval air station. When the first army troops arrived at Dutch Harbor in May 1941, they found a new Marine Barracks and Dutch Harbor's "landmark," a large brick residence at the naval radio station. Construction proceeded on both bases and soon the tiny island was crowded with new buildings. The naval air station was commissioned on September 1, 1941. The army base was formally named Fort Mears on September 10, in honor of Col. Frederick Mears, a member of the original Alaskan Engineering Commission, which built the Alaska Railroad, and chief engineer of the Panama Railroad. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the naval air station at Dutch Harbor and the adjacent army post, Fort Mears, were the only defenses the United States possessed in the entire Aleutian Chain. With the entrance of the United States into World War II, the civilian contractor gave way to the Navy, which continued construction. Naval facilities expanded, new missions were added, and the Dutch Harbor Naval Operating Base was commissioned January 1, 1943 to include the air station, submarine base, ship repair facility, and facilities for provisioning the fleet. Eventually 5,680 Navy and 10,000 Army personnel were stationed at the location.

[photo] Dutch Harbor under Japanese air strike, June 4, 1942
Photo from National Historic Landmarks collection

In May 1942, Imperial Guard Headquarters in Tokyo ordered an attack on the Midway Islands, with the dual mission to occupy those islands and destroy the remnants of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. An attack on the Aleutians was planned to divert American attention from Midway. Having broken Japanese codes, the United States was alert to the forthcoming attacks and Fort Mears was notified that the Japanese would attack sometime between June 1 and June 10. Steaming toward Unalaska at that time was Rear Admiral Kakuji Kakuta's Second Carrier Striking Force, consisting of aircraft carriers Ryujo and Junyo (which had 40 fighters and 42 bombers), heavy cruisers Takao and Maya, and three destroyers. On June 3, 14 bombs fell on Fort Mears, destroying five buildings, killing 25 soldiers and wounding 25 more. A second strike caused no damage, but a third damaged the radio station and killed one soldier and one sailor. One Japanese Zero airplane did not return to the Ryujo, making a forced landing on Akutan, which provided the Americans with their first opportunity to study this excellent airplane. On June 4, a force of nine Japanese fighters, 11 dive-bombers and six level bombers struck Dutch Harbor. Among other targets, bombs destroyed four new steel fuel tanks and 22,000 barrels of oil--a month's supply for Dutch Harbor. During the two days of air attacks 43 Americans lost their lives. Eight American P-40s from Umnak shot down four Japanese airplanes over the west end of Unalaska, loosing 2 of their own in the process. American air losses during the two-day battle amounted to five army aircraft and six naval Catalinas, while the Japanese reported a loss of 11 airplanes. The Japanese carriers withdrew to the west, to a point off Kiska to screen their forces who were landing there.

Amaknak Island is about five and a half miles long and varies in width from a few hundred yards to about one mile. In the north Mount Ballyhoo and Ulakta Head rise dramatically from the sea; Ulakta Head still contains World War II coastal defenses and some coast artillery quarters. To the south of Mount Ballyhoo lies the site of former Dutch Harbor Naval Operating Base on relatively low but rolling terrain. Most of the World War II era constructions remain, although many are fast deteriorating and some are already ruins. Principle features include: the short (4,385-foot) Navy runway which serves the commercial airport today, airplane revetments (barricade against explosives) along the north side of the runway, magazines, aerology-operations building which later became an airline terminal, double hangar, bombproof power plant, two wharves, brick apartment house, a large number of occupied cottages (former naval quarters), torpedo storehouse and two hillside tunnels. South of the naval base is the original site of Fort Mears which was taken over by the Navy in 1944. Several of the Army barracks remain, but are in poor condition. Several concrete pillboxes and, on the hillsides, personnel trenches complete the landscape, although a former submarine base dock exists in "downtown" Amaknak, and Hill 400, at the south end of Amaknak, still contains reinforced defense structures and the hilltop holds gun emplacements and the ruins of a few quonset huts and frame buildings.

Dutch Harbor Naval Operating Base and Fort Mears, U.S. Army, recognized as a National Historic Landmark, lies on Amaknak Island in the Aleutians Island Chain, 800 miles west of Anchorage, the nearest large urban center. It can be reached by air through commercial and charter flights from Anchorage. The Aleutian World War II National Historic Area, also located on Amaknak Island, interprets the history of the Aleut or Unangan people and the Aleutian Islands in the defense of the United States in World War II. It is open year round, although the best time to visit is May through October. Visit the park's website for more information or call 907-581-1276.

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