Thursday, July 15, 2010

World War II in Dutch harbor

Many of us are unaware or have forgotten that part of World War II was fought in Alaska on the Aleutian Islands. The Japanese actually captured Attu, the furthest most western island, and imprisoned the native peoples In Japan. They also captured Kiska Island, and imprisoned the members of the U.S. Aerological Detail stationed there--a group of about 12 men.

But just before these events, the Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor. These bombing attacks on June 3 and 4, 1942 coincided with the Japanese attack on Midway. They apparently hoped to draw the southern Pacific fleet north to Alaska, but that did not occur, and was one of the major turning points in the war.

Japan sent bombers and Zeros which left over 100 civilians and servicemen dead and wounded. Barracks, fuel tanks, and other structures were set afire, including the ship "The Northwestern" which had been retired as a passenger ship and was being used as a fuel plant. It now lies scuttled in Captain's Bay. (Yes, the Northwestern crab boat which is owned by Sig Hansen on the Deadliest Catch is named for this ship.)

One Japanese Zero was shot down over Akutan (the island where Dutch Harbor is located) and proved very valuable in determining what it's strengths and vulnerabilities were. The Navy and Army personnel here on that day were equipped with World War I guns and supplies, and were no match for the ultra fast Zeros.

After this attack, a huge influx of military personnel were sent to Dutch Harbor and Unalaska. The Navy stayed in Dutch, and the Army moved out to Unalaska, and at one point 40,000 men were stationed here. The built all kinds of fortifications, barracks, gun emplacements, mess halls, communications buildings, dormitories, etc. both in the lower elevations and in the peaks surrounding the area. The assumption was that the Japanese would try to take the Aleutians as a prelude to seizing land in North America, but it never happened.

Today all of these military structures heavily dot the landscape. Many are in use today, having been re-built, re-sided, or adapted to modern use. The old submarine dry dock is now a dry dock to repair smaller fishing vessels, for example. But especially in the hills and peaks, the structures have simply collapsed with the weather and time. The boards just lay, not even rotting, looking like some giant hand or huge wind (more likely) had pushed them over.

The area belongs to the Native Corporation (like Tribes in the lower 48), and is a National Historic Area, which means nothing can be removed, so the remains do just that--remain! On Ballyhoo, the major peak near Dutch Harbor( which I'll write more about in another blog), the last of the buildings standing collapsed just this year! Other buildings, such as the Aleutian World War II Visitor Center, are carefully renovated and immaculately kept structures. (It was the Aerology Building which monitored and predicted harsh Aleutian weather.)

There are a few people here who still remember World War II, but as everywhere, this generation is rapidly disappearing. There is a strong attempt here to keep that history alive, and you only need to keep your eyes open to take in a wealth of information.


  1. My dad Paul McGowan, was stationed in Dutch Harbor during WWII and received a bronze star and was nearly missed by a piece of hot shrapnel. He was in a communications hut.

    1. Thanks for sharing Paul. I agree with this story: this is a forgotten piece of US WWII history and its victims and heroes - such as your father - must be honored and remembered.