Explore Alaska’s Historic World War II Monuments
By: Courtney Dowd-Stanley
The National Park Service has a great amount of information about Alaska’s immense WWII history. In this brief blast from the past, we’ve consolidated a little bit of history of each of the eight total World War II National Historical Monuments spread throughout the Last Frontier. Those traveling throughout Alaska to these historic areas should expect to see rare remnants from the past as well as an unwavering amount of rugged natural beauty.
Places like Adak Island, Attu, Umnak Island, Fairbanks, Kiska Island, Sitka, Kodiak, and Unalaska are each wildly unique from one another, yet have something in common; the historic mark they left on Alaska during World War II.
1: Adak Army Base & Adak Naval Operating Base
For a long period of time, these were the very westernmost bases in the entire USA. The Naval Base was active until the late 1990’s. Construction started for this site on September 1, 1942 and was completed by the end of 1943. This site was created to assist Umnak Island and Unalaska after the Japanese bombed Unalaska in June 1942. Because Unalaska and Umnak Island were each around 700 miles east of Kiska, there became a severe need for bombers to reach Kiska with shorter-range fighters. This base on Adak was only about 250 miles from Kiska, giving the USA forces a more successful offensive placement against the other two Japanese “held” islands. The first bombers carried out missions from the Adak base on September 14, 1942.
2: Attu Battlefield and U.S. Army and Naval Airfields National Historic Landmark
World War II history is significant on Attu as it is the location of the Japanese occupation of the island, then the recapture by the United States. In 1942, the Japanese thought that by destroying the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Midway and creating bases on the Aleutian Islands (as well as Fiji, Samoa, and New Caledonia islands), that they could gain full control over the western Pacific. However, Americans were incredibly alarmed after the Japanese invaded Attu and believed it was the beginning of a full on invasion into the United States. Recapturing Attu by the Americans was extremely important, and thus ended up being one of the most costly battles ever recorded in history in the Pacific region. Of the 2,250 Japanese soldiers fighting, only 29 survived this attack. Of the 3,800 American soldiers, 549 were killed in battle.
3: Fort Glenn (Cape Field), Umnak Island
This was the first base in Alaska commissioned after the outbreak of the war with the Japanese in 1941. This base was constructed to provide air defense for the Naval Operating Base and Fort Mears located nearby about 65 miles to the east, on Dutch Harbor island. June 3rd and 4th, 1942 is when the United States Army first had pursuit planes depart from Fort Glenn to “surprise” and fight Japanese bombers who had just returned from their attack on Dutch Harbor. Within the next couple of months (July and August 1942), just after the Japanese invaded Kiska and Attu Islands, U.S. bombers again left from Fort Glenn to pursue bombing missions. Originally Fort Glenn was supposed to provide a base for 121 officers and 2,491 enlisted soldiers. However after just a year the base was at capacity, and the local facilities were increased to house 11,982 soldiers, before peaking at 13,000 by April of 1943. The airfield construction consisted of three runways measuring 5000 feet by 175 feet, although the incredibly unforgiving wind patterns of the Aleutian Islands (called “williwaws”) was one of the biggest drawbacks that this area faced.
4: Dutch Harbor Naval Operating Base & Fort Mears U.S. Army Base
These bases were the first that the Japanese attacked on June 3, 1942 during what was called the “Aleutian campaign.” 14 total bombs were dropped on Fort Mears, which killed 25 soldiers, destroyed 5 buildings, and wounded around 25 additional soldiers. The third strike the Japanese dropped killed one sailor and one more soldier, and caused damage to the radio station. The damage and destruction got worse by June 4th making the total death of the two-day attack at 43 with 50 others also wounded. This is just the start of the immense history found here. The amount of sacrifice, loss, and suffering is impossible to put into words. To learn more, read: Explore Abandoned WWII and Cold War Military Remnants on Alaska’s Adak Island.
5: Japanese Occupation Site, Kiska Island
On April 18, 1942 Japanese military leaders (mistakenly) believed that what is known as the “Doolittle Raid” was launched from either Midway or the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. The thought was that if they could establish control over the Pacific, it would prevent further attacks. Beginning on June 7, 1942 when the Japanese stormed ashore with 550 naval crew, which eventually grew to just under 6,000 military members and almost 1,200 civilians. By June 8, 1942, Japanese ships were spotted in Kiska Harbor by a U.S. patrolling plane. Within a few days, the U.S. sent around 10 bombers from Umnak airfield to Kiska to drop an attack. They continued to drop bombs and move in via sea travel as well. Around July 5, 1942 submarines from the U.S. military torpedoed three Japanese destroyers at the entrance of Kiska Harbor, one of which sank and the others were damaged rather extensively. By May 30th, 1943 the Japanese were planning what is known as “Operation KE” in which they planned their evacuation of Kiska. After 5,183 Japanese boarded up and headed home, what is known as an “utmost embarrassment for the U.S.” happened only 18 days later when 34,000 Japanese military men invaded the island. The Alaska U.S. Army’s commanding general, Simon B. Buckner was quoted as saying, “To attract maximum attention, it’s hard to find anything more effective than a great, big, juicy, expensive mistake.
6: Kodiak Naval Operating Base, Fort Greely, & Abercrombie National Historic Landmark on Kodiak Island, Alaska
The air station, submarine base, and North Pacific Force at Kodiak Naval Operating Base was in operation at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The flying boats made crucial patrols throughout the Gulf of Alaska, Bering Sea, and the Northern Pacific Ocean. The ships and submarines also played vital roles during the Aleutian Campaign. The joint operations center that was established played a very important role in WWII. Immense defense installations were added and stood ready to defend Kodiak Naval Operating Base. Surprisingly, the Royal Canadian Air Force also stationed on Kodiak to patrol the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska. While the threat remained for over a year, the enemy did not come to Kodiak.
7: Ladd Field a.k.a. Fort Wainwright, Fairbanks, Alaska
WWII’s impact on Ladd Field was tremendous. It was 1940 when the Cold Weather Test Station opened with just 214 enlisted soldiers. When the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor happened, the station then expanded to 520 total enlisted. After the Japanese invaded Attu and Kiska in June 1942, Ladd Field underwent a mission to expand to support the impending war efforts. Between 1943 and 1945, Ladd Field expanded from 23 to 700 buildings and housed over 4,500 enlisted.
8: Sitka Naval Operating Base & U.S. Army Coastal Defenses
The Naval Operating Base in the historic town of Sitka, was the U.S. Navy’s first air station in Alaska. This location had an integral in North America’s defense at the beginning of World War II. Sitka was the only major military base on the west coast north of Puget Sound, Washington at the time that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 9, 1941.
Looking for another great read? You’ll enjoy: U.S. Navy Launches Stealth-Fighter-Looking Assault Craft on Kodiak Island. Or, The Trading Post – History of a Colony Project Building.