The Aleutian Islands are one of the most remote parts of Alaska and the United States. It is possible but difficult to visit the Aleutian Islands with special expedition tours. They have been very peripheral to the history of the United States and are sparsely inhabited with precious little infrastructure.
However, that changed in World War Two when the Japanese invaded them as part of a (failed) diversion to their attack on Midway. Here the Arctic battles of the Pacific War were joined and is a story often overshadowed by the other great battles of the war like Midway, Okinawa, and the Solomon Islands Campaign. Visiting these sites is made more difficult in that they are remote, even by Aleutian Island standards.
The Forgotten Battle Of The Pacific War
The Aleutian Islands became fiercely contested during the war but ultimately proved to be little more than a costly expenditure for the Japanese that offered no strategic advantage.
- Length: One Thousand Miles
- Campaign: June 3, 1942 – August 15, 1943
- Nickname: The Forgotten Battle
The Japanese invaded two islands - Attu and Kiska in the western part of the archipelago. During the course of the war, the Japanese also invaded the American territories and possessions of the Philippines, Guam, and Wake Island.
- Islands Invaded: Attu and Kiska
It took over a year for the Americans to expel the Japanese and reestablish control. The island of Attu was retaken by the Americans by force in May 1943 - the island fell after a last-ditch Japanese banzai charge. Attu was the only WWII land battle fought on North American soil.
The retaking of Kiska was different; the Americans pummeled the island with an intense bombardment and stormed the island on a foggy day. It was after many friendly fire incidents that the American and Canadian forces realized the Japanese had already left, and they were shooting at each other in the gloom.
One can also learn about the most famous Allied amphibious invasion at the many memorials and museums at Normandy in France.
Protecting The Sites In the Aleutian Islands WWII National Monument
Today the sites of the battles of the Aleutian Islands are preserved in the Aleutian Islands WWII National Monument. All the sites of the monument are on lands managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and are, in turn, part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.
The refuge was established in 1913 to establish a breeding ground for native birds, a place for the propagation of reindeer, and to develop fisheries. Today it conserves fish and wildlife populations.
The impact of the campaign was also felt by the native Unangax civilians. They were mass relocated.
Two Battlefield Landmarks:
- Attu Island: Attu Battlefield & U.S. Army and Navy Airfields
- Kiska Island: The Japanese Occupation Site
In 2019, the Aleutian Island WWII National Memorial was made to be its own stand-alone unit.
There is a visitor center at the main Aleutian settlement of Unalaska (a town with a population of just over 4,000), as well as other WWII attractions.
But the actual battlefields at Attu and Kisha islands are very difficult to reach. Some Alaska cruise expeditions may call at them. For those who can get there, it is a once-of-a-lifetime experience strewn with long abandoned weapons of war most have forgotten.
World War II Aerology Building And Visitor Center
One of the places to learn about the Aleutian Islands in World War II is the World War II Aerology Building and Visitor Center in the town of Unalaska. It is owned and operated by the Ounalashka Corporation and is affiliated with the National Park Service.
The visitor center occupies the air control tower the military built near the airport in 1943. It is the logical first port of call for anyone visiting the monument.
It is dedicated to the interpretation of the military events of the Aleutian Islands Campaign and the hardships faced by the Alaska Native residents - the Unangax. At the visitor center, one can see a reconstructed 1940s radio room, a 1940s-style theater that shows World War II-era films, and plenty of exhibits.
- Location: Unalaska
- Summer Hours: 8.00 am to 5.00 pm
- Days Open: Monday through Friday
- Days Closed: Sunday and Saturday
During the winter (October 1 to May 1) the visitor center is closed and opens by appointment only. Anyone going in those months should contact the visitor center to schedule a visit.
It is very difficult for most folks to visit the remote town of Unalaska, so now it is possible to take virtual tours of the visitor center.