WWII in the Archives: Records of the Aleutian Islands Campaign

The month of May marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Attu, the only battle during WWII fought on American soil.  On June 2-3, 1942 the Japanese Imperial Navy launched attacks on the American military base of Dutch Harbor.

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Above photographs from the “Alaska at War” documentary materials. Department of Natural Resources, Office of History and Archaeology, AS 28145

In a letter sent to Governor Gruening, Claude Smith, an oil burner installation and maintenance man, describes the conditions at Dutch Harbor providing an interesting firsthand account of the bombings as well as general conditions of the base.

“The morning of June 3d we were just getting up at 5:45 when I heard the sound of plane or planes.  I immediately knew they were not PBY’s or “flying coffins” as we called them.  The first warning we had of the attack was the actual dropping of bombs.”¹

Two days later the islands of Attu and Kiska were taken.  These remote islands had not yet been evacuated and as a result the Unangan (Aleut) residents of Attu Village were taken as prisoners of war by Japanese forces.  This resulted in a mass evacuation of the Aleutian Islands’ 800+ Alaska Native residents who were sent to poorly supplied camps over 1,500 miles from their homelands where many of them died from disease and starvation.²

Within the Office of the Governor’s correspondence files are letters and reports concerning the “Aleut Relocation” [VS 495].  These records, dated 1941-1947, describe the decision processes relating to the evacuation including the sites of relocation which display knowledge of the poor conditions as described in the following telegram dated July 12, 1942:

“SKOWL ARM CANNERY RECOMMENDED X NO SLEEPING HEATING EATING FACILITIES ALSO NO LIGHTS X BUILDINGS BARE BUT ADEQUATE”

These records have been digitized and are available online on Alaska’s Digital Archives at vilda.alaska.edu under Governor Ernest Gruening’s subject file and correspondence concerning Aleut Relocation.

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In 1943, from May 11-30, American troops retook the island of Attu during the Battle of Attu, one of the major conflicts of the Aleutian Islands Campaign.  In the translated and transcribed diary of Nebu Tatsuquhi, a Japanese Medical Corps Officer, the events of the battle unfold as described by him until his death.  His final entry on May 29, 1943 reads:

“Today at 2000 o’clock we assembled at headquarters.  The field hospital took part too, the last assault is to be carried out.  All the patients in the hospital were made to commit suicide.  Only thirty three years of living and I am to die.  I have no regrets.  Banzai to the Emperor.  I am grateful that I have kept the peace in my soul which Enkist bestowed on me.  At 1800 took care of all the patients with a grenade.  Goodbye Tacks, my beloved wife, who loved me to the last.  Until we meet again, grant you godspeed.  Misaka, who just became four years old, will grow up unhindered.  If I feel sorry for you, Takiko, born February this year and gone without seeing your father.  Well, goodbye, Matsue, brother Hochan, Skuchen, Masachan, Mitichan, goodbye.  The number participating in this attack is a little over a thousand.  Will try to take enemy Artillery positions.  It seems the enemy will probably make an all out attack tomorrow.”

In the retaking of Attu the United States troops lost 549 soldiers, while the Japanese forces were nearly all destroyed with 2,400 casualties.³  Included in the U.S. troops was one of Alaska’s own, John Potochnick, Jr., who was awarded the Purple Heart.  In a letter to the soldier’s father, John Potochnick, Sr., Governor Ernest Gruening commends his actions saying:

“In one sense your son John’s experience is unusual because very few Alaska boys took part in the recapture of Attu – most of them came from below and were trained in the states.  It should therefore be a matter of special pride and satisfaction to you that he is one of the few Alaskans who took part in the first battle to drive the Japanese invaders from our American soil, and shared in the honor and glory of that victory.”

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Letter to Governor Gruening, August 10, 1943.  Office of the Governor, General Correspondence, 1934-1953, Federal Government — Department of War, 1933-1948, VS 495

For more information on the Aleutian Islands Campaign and Alaska during WWII in general check out the documentary “Alaska at War”, available on the Archives YouTube channel at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mkvqM6RvJW4 


1. Letter from Claude Smith, 1942. Office of the Governor, General Correspondence, 1934-1953, Federal Government — Department of War, 1933-1948, VS 495.

2. Native Voices Timeline: https://www.nlm.nih.gov/nativevoices/timeline/469.html

3. 75th Battle of Attu Commemoration: https://www.attu75.org/ 

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