Setting the record straight: Japan bombed Alaska, too
A small Alaskan community hopes a new World War II memorial will finally tell the overlooked story of the last foreign occupation on US soil.
It's almost an American legend: Until Sept. 11, the last attack on US soil was Pearl Harbor. Even President Bush cited that as fact in his Sept. 20 speech to Congress.
The trouble is, it isn't true. Six months after Japan struck Hawaii, it bombed the small port of Dutch Harbor, 800 miles southwest of Anchorage in Alaska's Aleutian Islands, killing 43 Americans. Japanese ground troops also occupied two of the Aleutian islands.
Soldiers stationed near this remote outpost remain proud of how they defended their country after the bombs fell on June 3 and 4, 1942 - and are tired of having their contribution overlooked. Now, though, their hopes of revising popular history may be lifting a bit, with the debut of a new center to commemorate Alaska's World War II battles.
The visitor center, which will be housed in a restored military building in Unalaska (the city that encompasses Dutch Harbor), will open this winter. A grand-opening next June will mark the attack's 60th anniversary.
Though officials and residents are gratified to have the center - and hope the rising number of cruise liners stopping here will expose more people to the area's war story - they know ignorance of the Aleutian events is widespread. "Very few people in the United States can accurately describe the location of Alaska. Even fewer can describe where the Aleutians are. Even fewer have actually been there. So it's a place of mystery, even if they think about it," says Lee Zoll of Vacaville, Calif., who was a 17-year-old Navy radioman in Dutch Harbor when the Japanese bombs fell there.
In addition to displays commemorating the battle, the center will hold exhibits about the indigenous Aleuts of the treeless volcanic islands and the war's effects on them. About 900 Aleuts were evacuated from the islands to rundown camps in southeastern Alaska, where they had experiences similar to those of interned Japanese-Americans. When they returned home, the Aleuts found their villages in ruins. The village of Attu, for example, was never rebuilt.
Elsewhere in the islands, the war's remnants have fallen prey to the region's stormy weather, and much was hauled away in cleanup campaigns. But in Unalaska, the bunkers, gun mounts, and observation posts remain "a very intact cultural landscape that is still very much a part of the community," says Linda Cook, the National Park Service's special assistant for Aleutian programs. The Park Service will operate the center along with Ounalashka Corp., a local Aleut organization that owns the property.
Despite its remoteness, Unalaska gets plenty of visitors. The city, 800 miles southwest of Anchorage, is the nation's busiest commercial seafood port. Thousands of seasonal workers pass through each year, in addition to a small but growing number of tourists.
Even if large numbers of people never walk into the visitor center, its existence will help set the record straight, especially in the computer age, Ms. Cook says. "You know where to go and where to get the information, anything you want to know about the events there," she says. Much of that information comes from veterans like Mr. Zoll.
After getting blank stares for years when he mentioned his service, Zoll is completing a book about the events there. He says he wants to record the deeds of overlooked low-level soldiers, such as cooks and his fellow radiomen, who coped with wind, fog, and fear.
"There are no little heroes, no big heroes, just a bunch of little guys doing their jobs," he says.