Seventy years ago today, bombs fell on Dutch Harbor. The casualties and damage on a remote Aleutian islet amounted to little more than a blip in the cataclysm of World War II. To this day, educated Americans are unaware that it happened at all.
But the battle permanently changed Alaska in ways that few at the time realized.
In an essay in the collection "Alaska at War," historian Stephen Haycox describes Anchorage in 1940 as "a sleepy little village" with a population of about 3,500.
The summer of 1940 saw the beginning of construction of a military base on what had hitherto been hay fields and birch forests north of Government Hill.
Uncle Sam had been content to leave Alaska as an undefended frontier. A military buildup was reluctantly initiated only when global war began to seem inevitable. Progress was slow and patchy. But after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, officials aware of the territory's vulnerability flew into high gear.
Haycox says the next seven months were "characterized by a great deal of panic. There was not enough of anything, and there was a sense that everything had to be done at once."
Construction of a naval base on Amaknak Island, across the channel from Unalaska, had started in September 1940. Dutch Harbor had an excellent port, but no place for a runway. That would be on Umnak Island, 70 miles away -- when it got built, that is.
News from the Atlantic was grim; 231 ships had been sunk close to U.S. shores by German U-boats in the month of May alone. The Pacific Front was even worse. The Japanese added victory to victory with ease, wiping out a combined Allied fleet in the Battle of the Java Sea, taking Singapore from the British in a single maneuver and forcing the surrender of American and Filipino soldiers in the grueling siege of Corregidor.
One bright spot was the bombing raid on Japan led by Jimmy Doolittle on April 18, 1942, a special source of pride for Alaskans since Doolittle had grown up in Nome.
And yet there was an odd sense of normalcy in Anchorage that spring. Temperatures were warm; people flocked to Spenard Lake -- "the Waikiki of Anchorage" -- in mid-May. Rationing had not hit a population that was largely self-sufficient in terms of food. Cesar Romero starred in "Dance Hall" playing at a local theater. Celebrity news included child star Shirley Temple's first on-screen kiss and photos of the New Orleans Jax Brewers women's professional softball team ("Fast and furious on the feminine front" read the headline). Crooner Al Jolson was due to make an appearance for the troops and the civilians were welcome to attend. You could rent a house for $15 a month. William Hesse, the Territorial Highway Engineer, publicly derided the idea of a highway to the Lower 48, calling it a "rat hole" with "no necessity, military or otherwise."
The first nighttime blackout wasn't ordered until June 2, and there's some evidence that few people took it seriously.
They might have felt differently had they known that Japan's 2nd Carrier Division was steaming through the fog toward the Alaska Peninsula.
Starting at 3:25 a.m. on June 3, warplanes took off from the carriers Ryujo and Junyo; Val dive bombers, Kate torpedo bombers, Zero fighters. Weather turned many back, but those that continued found clear skies between them and the 6,282 soldiers below.
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