THE WINDS SWEEPING Adak Island, feral gusts surpassing 60 miles an hour, snarled rain into swirling, stinging sheets that left me soaked, shivering—and elated. The weather was perfect for my long-awaited expedition to the Aleutian Islands, scene of one of World War II’s most compelling, least celebrated campaigns. Japan’s seizure of the islands of Attu and Kiska in early June 1942 marked the first occupation of American soil by a foreign power since the War of 1812 and the start of a crusade to expel the foe that ended in August 1943.
Though the fight occurred in America’s backyard, the volcanic island chain, arcing west off Alaska for more than 1,000 miles, is hardly accessible. But like General Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., wartime Alaska Defense Command chief and an outdoorsman who reveled in challenges, I appreciated being welcomed by a moderate “williwaw,” the cyclonic storm unique to the Aleutians. My own private williwaw elucidated the conditions in which the combatants fought battles that were bloody, controversial, and all too unacknowledged.
Weather helps explain why naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison suggested labeling the Aleutians the Theater of Military Frustration. When I tried to com pose a photo of the beach at Kuluk Bay, where the Alaska Scouts—aka “Castner’s Cutthroats” (see “Cutthroat Business,” March/April 2012)—landed in August 1942, rain fouled my viewfinder. That was only the start. I encountered true frustration, Aleutians-style, boarding the charter boat Pu˘k-U ˘k (Inupiaq Eskimo for “poke around”). As whitecaps battered the dock, I struggled into a neoprene survival suit, standard emergency gear for sailors transiting frigid waters—as I would be during a 14-day round trip of roughly 1,200 miles aboard the 72-foot vessel that would make several stops in sheltered anchorages to seek haven from tumultuous seas.
Following a day tucked inside Gusty Cove, we rounded Tanaga Island, where breathtaking waterfalls cascade into the sea, and set a course for Kiska, Japan’s farthest foothold in the Western Hemisphere. After 24 hours in heavy Bering Sea swells, I was relieved to trade in my sea legs and tramp past Japanese bunkers half-buried in black volcanic sand and slabs of Marston matting tangled in kelp.
“Kiska is virtually an outdoor museum,” my docent, author and historian John Cloe, said. Wading through waist-high beach rye grass on the south side of Kiska Harbor, I found the first exhibit, an intact but corroded 80-foot Type A Ko-hyoteki midget submarine that looked to have surfaced from the lush growth choking what once was a Japanese sub base. With daylight fading, we retired to the Pu˘k-U ˘k’s galley for dinner and to map the next day’s peregrinations, then hit our bunks.
Ashore the next morning, I began by exploring a Japanese wartime camp site where the invaders’ field stoves and broken bowls still litter the ground. Weeks before American and Canadian troops landed in August 1943, Japan’s 5,000-man garrison bolted onto evacuation ships. American commanders refused to believe the island empty of Japanese, and, in an epic intelligence snafu, Allied patrols began firing at what GIs called “optical Aleutians” in a “battle” that caused tragic fratricides.
Amid eerie silence occasionally punctured by ptarmigans’ burp-like cackling, I ascended a steep incline bordered with purple lupine and chocolate lilies, crossed a verdigris carpet of shell casings, and passed the weatherworn wooden duckboards and rotting ruins of prefabricated U.S. “Pacific” huts—rounded quasi-Quonset structures made of Masonite to conserve steel. From North Head, which offers commanding views of Kiska Harbor, I roamed coastal gun emplacements of dual-purpose 120mm and 75mm guns and a battery of 4.7-inch cannons. I bushwhacked to the pick-up point across hills upholstered with spongy muskeg, but since at that latitude the summer sun doesn’t set until nearly midnight, the Pu˘k-U ˘k had time to poke into Gertrude Cove for a peek at the wrecked transport Borneo Maru, abandoned by the Japanese in 1943, before heading to sea.
As we steamed west another 24 hours, I alternated between reading, rack time, and watching North Pacific albatrosses, fulmars, and other subarctic seabirds glide over a glassy sea. Where gargantuan Japanese I-boats once patrolled, I stood awestruck on deck as a kinder, gentler leviathan—a sperm whale—surfaced, spouted, and sounded. I had my most electric thrill when through my binoculars flashed mist-shrouded mountains: Attu. Soon I would be standing on the island where, except for Iwo Jima, no battle of the Pacific War involved more troops or spilled more blood.
At Chichagof Harbor, I followed in the boot prints of the Japanese 301st Independent Battalion, which landed June 6–7, 1942. Taking Attu Village, the island’s only Aleut settlement, the invaders corralled the 44 residents, including Connecticut-born teacher Etta Jones and husband Charles Foster Jones, a radio technician. The troops executed him, then shipped their prisoners to the home islands, where nearly half died. Etta survived and returned to the U.S. Save for two markers, no trace of Attu Village remains.
At Massacre Bay, named for a clash between Aleuts and Russians in the 1700s, our vessel ran past lolling fur seals onto Yellow Beach, where American troops landed on May 11, 1943. I paused near the mouth of Henderson River at panels honoring Private Joe Martinez, slain eliminating Japanese resistance. Martinez received a posthumous Medal of Honor—the war’s first Medal of Honor to a Hispanic American, and the only such decoration of the Aleutians Campaign.
Hiking Hogback Ridge, I took in the forbidding panorama of Massacre Valley on my way to Engineer Hill, where, for the first time, Japanese units fought to the last man in a fatal display of fealty. That ethos, gyokusai, or “broken gem,” became the signature of the nihilism that flowered fully in the kamikaze. In the action, Colonel Yasuyo Yamasaki led nearly 1,000 men up through cavernous Jim Fish Valley in a banzai charge that breached the American line and was thwarted only in fierce combat, much of it hand to hand.
I was imagining those horrible minutes when a twin-engine Cessna roared overhead, shattering the silence of an island uninhabited since 2010, the year the U.S. Coast Guard closed its station. I had less intrusive company as well. Near Clevesy Pass, a snowy owl alighted atop a tele phone pole to swivel its head and hoot at me. Hiking back to Yellow Beach my companions and I met a Japanese couple and a Buddhist monk, accompanied by an Anchorage-based Japanese guide. They had chartered the Cessna so they could conduct a memorial service. The Japanese assign Attu the same sanctity most American tourists do places like Pearl Harbor and the Normandy beaches. After awkward bows, we pilgrims parted ways.
Returning east with a porpoise escort, the Pu˘k-U ˘k made several stops, including Atka, where I inspected a B-24 carcass blasted bare by seven decades of weathering. My voyage ended at Dutch Harbor on Amaknak Island. Officially 700 nautical miles east of Anchorage, Dutch Harbor balances between past and present. Island roads wind past concrete pillboxes, war time billets recast as housing and upgraded with satellite dishes, and crab pots.
In Captain’s Bay I glimpsed the bow of the SS Northwestern—a 19th-century steamship damaged in Japanese raids. On Amaknak I visited the Aleutian World War II National Historic Center Visitors’ Center, and on adjoining Unalaska the Museum of the Aleutians. Both are first class. I summited Mount Ballyhoo, said to have been named by novelist Jack London, and to the tune of buoy bells, surveyed Unalaska Bay, steaming Makushin Volcano, and the rusted remnants of Fort Schwatka’s “Iron Ring” coastal defenses.
The fort’s 155mm guns are long gone from their mounts and the “elephant steel” Armco magazines are empty. But at one of three bunkers ringing Ulakta Head atop the 900-foot cliff, a solitary sentry—a bald eagle—posed long enough for me to snap a picture before soaring off-duty.
Originally published in the December 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.