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Letter from Alaska

The Cold Winds of War

A little-known World War II campaign in the Aleutian Islands left behind an undisturbed battlefield strewn with weapons and materiel

July/August 2021

Alaska Borneo MaruThe journey to Kiska Island, at the far western end of Alaska’s Aleutian chain, begins with a 1,200-mile flight from Anchorage to Adak Island. “You show up there and you feel like you’re in one of the most remote places on Earth, and then you get on a ship and sail another day past that to Kiska,” says Andrew Pietruszka, an underwater archaeologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) and lead archaeologist for Project Recover. “The moment you sail in, there are partially submerged ships sticking out of the water and you can see a Japanese midget submarine on shore. It’s like the land of the lost, like you’ve stepped back in time to this amazing natural setting with no modern structures that is so rich in historical artifacts.”


Alaska Kiska MapThose artifacts date to a period of unusually high activity on Kiska, during World War II and its immediate aftermath. A narrow, hilly, treeless island measuring less than 30 miles long, Kiska is dominated by a 4,000-foot-tall, snow-covered volcano at its northeastern tip. This landmark, however, is rarely visible, as the island is almost always shrouded in clouds. Located where the warm air of the Pacific Ocean to the south meets the cold air of the Bering Sea to the north, the Aleutians are home to legendarily foul and unpredictable weather: persistent fog in summer, vicious squalls in winter, and relentless chill and winds that blow up to 140 miles per hour year-round. The islands’ native Aleuts, who lived on Kiska at least until the late eighteenth century, when they were removed from the island by the Russians, call the Aleutians the “Birthplace of the Winds.” Kiska’s ground is mostly boggy muskeg, a dense, squishy mat of decaying vegetation that makes it challenging to get around even on the rare clear, calm day. “Imagine you’re walking on a waterbed,” says Dirk H.R. Spennemann, an archaeologist and cultural heritage management specialist at Charles Sturt University. “You don’t have a firm footing until you put all your weight down, and sometimes it will then give way a bit more.”


It’s little wonder that, aside from the occasional fur trapper or seal hunter, the island was barely occupied in the first 75 years after the United States purchased Alaska in 1867. Then, in early June 1942, Japan invaded Kiska, along with Attu, a larger island some 200 miles to the west. The attacks were part of a larger campaign that included bombing a U.S. base at Dutch Harbor in the eastern Aleutians and invading Midway Atoll, more than 1,800 miles to the south. In the six months since the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan had pressed its advantage, taking much of Southeast Asia and the islands of the South Pacific while sinking a large number of Allied ships and losing few of its own. In April, however, U.S. planes had carried out the Doolittle Raid, slipping into Japanese airspace to bomb Tokyo and other targets. Alarmed at their vulnerability, the Japanese were determined to establish a defense perimeter from the Central Pacific to the North Pacific Ocean to detect and counter future attacks. In particular, the western Aleutian Islands, located just 750 miles from Japan’s northernmost base, on Paramushiro in the Kurile Islands, were seen as a potential launching pad for a U.S. invasion.

Kiska Planes preview
WWII Battle for Alaska



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