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Alaska LAM Showcase

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War Comes To Alaska

Many people find it surprising to learn that a significant chapter of World War II, including bombardments and strafing by enemy aircraft, the capture of land by enemy ground forces, and large scale amphibious invasions with heavy loss of life, occurred on United States soil in the Territory of Alaska. This exhibit presents an overview of this sad chapter in American history, often called “The Forgotten War.”

 

With war with the Japanese Empire on the horizon, the U.S. Government began building up its military forces in Alaska even before the attack on Pearl Harbor. In a move affiliated with the Battle of Midway, the Japanese attacked Dutch Harbor and forcibly occupied Attu and Kiska Islands in the Aleutians. The invasion was intended to divert the U.S. Navy from the central Pacific, prevent the Americans from attacking the Japanese Home Islands from Alaska, and gain a psychological advantage by occupying American soil.

 

Allied forces, aided by the Alaska Territorial Guard, drove out the Japanese following a year of bombing raids and two major amphibious assaults. Subsequently, as the Japanese had feared, the Americans used the Aleutians to launch bombing raids against northern Japan, forcing them to devote troops and weapons to protect their Home Islands and drawing them away from the defense of conquered lands in the South Pacific.

 

For Alaska, WWII thrust many of its citizens from the 19th century into the 20th in terms of their way of life. Their isolation from the rest of the world was permanently broken, for better or worse. The facilities and infrastructure built in support of the war effort—buildings, ports, airstrips, and the Alaska Highway—would continue to serve Alaska’s civilian population long after the cessation of hostilities. 

 

TIMELINE: WORLD WAR II IN ALASKA

1941-1945

7 December 1941            

Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor. Alaskan defenses had been reinforced over several years in anticipation of the outbreak of hostilities. While military forces are further mobilized, civil defense measures are taken to prepare for a possible Japanese invasion of Alaska.

 

14 December 1941

Territory of Alaska declared a combat zone, controlled by the commander of the Alaska Defense Command. Civilian travel to and within the Territory was controlled by the military. 

 

31 December 1941

As the Alaska National Guard had already been placed in Federal duty, the Governor of the Territory of Alaska was authorized to establish the Alaska Territorial Guard (ATG) to defend Alaskan cities and villages. Hundreds of volunteers enlist, including a high percentage of Alaska Natives, who made up for a lack of modern equipment with their acute local knowledge as they guarded their home communities.

 

9 March 1942

Construction of the Alaska-Canada Military Highway (ALCAN) begins. Working under brutal weather conditions, ranging from 80 above to 70 below (Fahrenheit), U.S. Army construction crews and contractors completed a winter-only “pioneer road” on 20 November 1942, linking Alaska with the North American road and rail system at Dawson Creek, British Columbia.

 

7 April 1942

People of Japanese ancestry—a total of 1,42l, including U.S. citizens—excluded from Alaska and sent to internment camps located inland from the Pacific coast. Many lost their land and property and never returned to Alaska. 

 

18 April 1942

The Doolittle Raid:  Sixteen U.S. B-25 bombers, led by Alaskan Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle, took off from the carrier Hornet and bombed Tokyo. Blindsided by the raid, and unsure of where it originated, the Japanese Imperial High Command suspected the Americans had a secret base in the Aleutians, and took an active interest in capturing the island chain.

 

3-4 June 1942

Japanese bombard Dutch Harbor, killing 43 Americans. The attack was a diversion meant to draw the American forces away from Midway Island, where the Japanese attempted—and failed—to destroy the U.S. Pacific Fleet and take a strategic airfield. While the raid on Dutch Harbor inflicted moderate damage, and killed 43, the tide of war had turned in favor of the United States and its allies. 

 

7 June 1942                        

Japanese occupy Kiska and Attu—together with Guam, the first U.S. soil occupied by a foreign power since the War of 1812. Ten U.S. sailors, 45 Unangan (Aleuts), and a school teacher and her husband were captured or killed. The survivors spent the war in Japanese prison camps.

 

12 June 1942

The U.S. government begins the forced removal of civilians from the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands, including 881 Unangan (Aleut people) from their traditional villages. Many were given only hours notice to pack one suitcase apiece, and most spent the war housed in dilapidated old cannery and mining buildings, where many died due to the harsh conditions. Their homes and churches destroyed, many survivors never returned home.

 

26-31 August 1942

Operation FIREPLACE:  American forces occupy Adak and begin construction of an airbase—the largest in the Aleutians—to provide air support in the Aleutians and long range bombing of the Japanese forces in the Kurile Islands.

 

3 September 1942

The first of nearly 8,000 aircraft transferred to Russian pilots at Ladd Field, Alaska, under the ALSIB (Alaska – Siberia) program, authorized by the Lend-Lease Act.

 

27 March 1943

Battle of the Komandorski Islands:  The U.S. fleet, consisting of the cruisers Salt Lake City and Richmond, and destroyers Coghlan, Bailey, Dale, and Monaghan, turn back a Japanese supply convoy heading to Attu and Kiska. Subsequently, limited supplies were sent in by submarine.

 

11-30 May 1943                

Operation LANDCRAB:  The American amphibious assault on Japanese-occupied Attu resulted in some of the bloodiest fighting in the Pacific Theater, second only to Iwo Jima: for every 100 Japanese entrenched on Attu, 71 Americans were killed or wounded. The Americans gained valuable information on Japanese weapons and tactics, which was forwarded to its forces around the Pacific theater.    

 

May-June 1943

Japanese troops secretly evacuate Kiska by submarine and ship—circumventing a blockage by the Allies--thus ending the 11-month Japanese occupation in the Aleutians. 

 

July 10, 1943

From the newly-liberated airfield on Attu, 11th Air Force attacks the Kurile Islands—Japan’s northern flank—the first air attack on Japan since the famous Doolittle raid of 1942. Bombing raids launched from the Aleutians diverted Japanese forces to protect the Home Islands.

 

15-18 August 1943

Operation COTTAGE:  34,430 American and Canadian Troops land on Kiska to find Japanese positions deserted. The Allies suffer 313 casualties—all the result of friendly fire, booby traps, illness and frostbite.

 

Fall of 1943

As the Battle of the Aleutians ended with the Americans in possession of several new air bases, war planners considered using them to launch an invasion of Japan, or a massive bombardment by heavy Boeing B-29 Superfortresses. The bases were expanded in 1944, preserving the option for a time, the idea was ultimately was rejected as risky and impractical.

 

1944-1945

“Operation WEDLOCK”:  a hoax perpetrated upon the Japanese that an invasion of northern Japan was being launched from the Aleutians. Continued actual bombing raids launched from the Aleutians enhanced the authenticity of fake documents and radio transmissions and bogus troop movements. Anticipating an attack, the Japanese diverted up to 80,000 soldiers and hundreds of aircraft out of the fight in the south Pacific.

 

14 August 1945

V-J Day: Victory over Japan is announced in the United States.  Formal surrender treaty is signed on the battleship Missouri on 2 September.   

 

 

 
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