The Forgotten Islands of the Pacific
There are no palm trees growing on these Pacific islands. In fact, you’ll be lucky if you see any trees of any kind growing on these barren islands. The Aleutian Island chain is made up of over 300 volcanic islands stretching in an arc from the Alaska Peninsula towards the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia. Though these islands offer none of the sights and sounds one might expect on other Pacific islands, there role in world history is second to none.
Seven months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, in early June, 1942, Japanese forces bombed the community of Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island and invaded the islands of Kiska and Attu. By holding these islands, the Japanese occupiers threatened the air routes that crossed from the American mainland to Asia. It would take nearly a year before American forces were ready to try and take back these strategic islands.
On May 11, 1943, the bloody “Battle of Attu” began. By May 28, American forces controlled the high ground and had pushed the Japanese into Chichagof Valley. Colonel Yamasaki, with only 800 of his 2,600 men left, decided to attack early in the day on May 29. U.S. medics, engineers, and service personnel on “Engineer Hill” threw hand grenades but the Japanese continued to advance. The fighting devolved into desperate hand-to-hand combat.
The arrival of the 50th Engineers prevented the Japanese attackers from reaching the artillery.The battle continued the rest of the day until the remaining Japanese committed suicide. In proportion to the number of troops engaged, Attu was the second deadliest battle in the Pacific, after Iwo Jima. As a result the Japanese Imperial Navy redistributed forces north to protect Japan, allowing the U.S. to advance in the Solomon Islands.
In commemoration of the significance of these events, in late 2008 the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument was created, with three sites in the Aleutian Islands placed under its jurisdiction: the Attu Battlefield, the crash site of a B-24 bomber on Atka and the Japanese occupation site on Kiska. Through inclusion in the National Monument, it is hoped that Americans will remember these “Forgotten Islands of the Pacific.”