WWII battles in Alaska highlighted

The devastation of war is real enough when beamed into living rooms from across thousands of miles. For some, the reality lives in memories of those who were on the battlefront. For others, it’s the emptiness left by a family member who never returned from duty to his or her country.

This Memorial Day weekend, presentations at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center focus on the World War II battles fought between U.S. and Japanese forces on the islands of Attu and Kiska in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

“That the Japanese occupied part of the United States is something most people don’t understand,” said Poppy Benson, public programs supervisor for the refuge. “The other significance I’ve read over and over again is that it was the second bloodiest battle, behind Iwo Jima. What they mean is the price paid to retake that island was so high.”

A force of 500 Japanese swarmed onto Kiska on June 6, 1942, killing two and capturing eight of a 10-person weather station. The following day, they took Attu, capturing villagers and claiming the island for Japan. On May 11, 1943, after a lengthy air campaign, 11,000 American troops reached Attu. By the end of a 19-day battle, 549 Americans and more than 2,400 Japanese had died. As a result, the Japanese withdrew from Kiska.

“For every 100 Japanese on the island of Attu, 71 Americans were injured or killed,” said Benson.

The village of Attu was destroyed and only 24 of the 43 Aleut Unungans who lived there survived captivity by the Japanese. Among the prisoners who died were Attu’s last chief, Mike Hodikoff, his wife and son. 

Images of the Kiska battle have been on display at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center since May 14. Beginning Friday and continuing through Tuesday, the following three films will be shown at the center:

• Alaska at War, 11:30 a.m. and 3:45 p.m.

• Alaska’s Bloodiest Battle, 1 p.m.

• Aleut Story, 2 p.m.

On Wednesday at 1 p.m., Benson will give a talk on “World War in the Aleutians.”

On June 5, three memorial panels will be installed at a Battle of Attu Interpretive Site on Attu. Included is a memorial to Private Joseph Martinez, recipient of the Medal of Honor.

Born in New Mexico on July 27, 1940, and enlisted in Colorado, Martinez served with Company K during a second attempt to secure Attu’s Holtz Bay-Chichagof Harbor pass. With Japanese forces in foxholes, defending the slopes of Fishhook Ridge and Cold Mountain, Martinez worked his way up the incline.

“He personally eliminated more than 60 of the invaders,” the plaque in his honor reads. “Carrying his Browning automatic rifle, Joe had made it to the top of the pass and was firing down into an enemy trench when he received a fatal head wound.”

The plaque in memory of Martinez was made and paid for by a family from Colorado, according to Benson. 

“I think they were so impressed with the story that they wanted to do that,” she said. “We don’t want people randomly putting plaques in refuges, but this was a really special story and he didn’t have any commemoration to him. … We thought it would be very good part of the story to tell.”

Attu and Kiska were made part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge in 1913, 30 years before the Japanese would view possessing the islands as a way to protect the country’s northern flank.

“This was the only wildlife refuge to be invaded by a foreign power. No other wildlife refuge can claim that,” said Benson.

As a result the refuge manager at the time “was a source of information for planning the war defense and offense. So, it’s incredible that the refuge’s history is not just that we have these sites of national and international significance, but that it was a refuge when all this was going on.”

In 2008, Attu, Kiska, Little Kiska and Atka were included in the new WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument. Pearl Harbor also is included in the monument.

Currently, there are an estimated 200-300 visitors to the islands annually, but Benson estimates that number will increase as the public recognizes the historical importance of the area. Battles fought on Alaska soil provided the United States with insights into Japan’s fighting methods.

“The whole kamikaze charge. This was the first time they (the United States) had dealt with that in fighting on the ground, that the Japanese were willing to die rather than surrender,” said Benson. “That was a new thing the Americans learned from these battles.”

Also as a result of the Aleutian battles came the United States’ understanding of the Japanese Zero fighter plane after one crashed on Akutan following an air raid on Dutch Harbor in June 1942. That incident is the basis of Homer author Jim Rearden’s book, “Koga’s Zero, the fighter that changed World War II.”

Battles fought in the Aleutians also proved a turning point in the history of the resident Aleut Unungan people, who were relocated and their villages destroyed.

“It was chaotic times,” said Benson.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.