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The Forgotten Islands of the Pacific

February 23, 2011

Soldiers unloading LCPR and LCM type landing craft on the beach at Massacre Bay, Attu Island on 12 May 1943. Boats are from USS Heywood (APA-6) (Photo Courtesy of the U.S. Naval Historical Center).

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 largest intact collection of Japanese artillery pieces in the world is on Kiska Island. (Photo Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

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.

The Atka B-24D Liberator bomber played a highly significant role in World War II. In the Aleutian Campaign against the Imperial Japanese forces from 1942 to 1943 it was a superb weapon. This aircraft flew in at least 18 combat missions before finally succumbing to bad weather rather than enemy action. (Photo Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

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.”

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