As I write this blog post on March 13, it is 29 degrees here in Washington, DC, and it seems impossible to believe that spring will arrive in just over a week. Emerging from one of the snowiest and coldest winters that many regions of the country have seen in decades, in which the phrase “polar vortex” became a routine part of our vocabulary, it feels like an appropriate time to recognize those who faced Arctic temperatures on the battlefield.
The Veterans History Project’s newest Experiencing War web feature shines a light on an often-forgotten part of World War II: the Aleutian Island Campaign. While some of the war’s most gripping stories came out of this campaign, it has not received the same popular historical attention as other theaters and battles, leading to its nickname as the “lost campaign” of the war.
The Aleutian Campaign took place relatively early in the war, from 1942 to 1943, in the Aleutian Island chain, a series of small islands (including Attu, Kiska, Adak, Unalaska, and others) located to the southwest of Alaska. At the time, Alaska was an American territory, but not yet a state. Both the United States and Japan saw the strategic significance of the location of the Aleutian chain, as it was positioned between the two countries and adjacent to the South Pacific, and both hoped to secure the islands for themselves. By early 1942, the US had established a presence on Unalaska and Umnak Islands. In June, the Japanese landed on Attu, and American troops spent the next year attempting to gain control of the Aleutians.
While many who fought in World War II coped with extreme temperatures, the weather and terrain of the Aleutian Islands stand as a defining element of the campaign. The photos in Seaman First Class Clifton Davis’s collection, such as the one to the right, give a sense of the stark, mountainous, and snowy landscape of the Aleutians. As for the weather, its impact on soldiers stationed there comes across in the language that they use to describe it: “atrocious,” “dismal,” and “a main and constant concern.” Depending on the season, servicemen were subject to blizzards, rainstorms with driving, horizontal rain, howling winds, and Arctic temperatures. The weather provided cover to and disguised the enemy during combat, complicated attempts to construct airstrips and barracks, and often threatened health and life. Many soldiers and sailors had arrived in the Aleutians without proper clothing or sleeping bags, which exacerbated the devastating effects of the weather. As Captain Dean Galles relates,
We were so ill equipped, clothing wise. We had leather Blucher boots, and by being continually wet all the time, they just fell apart. And after about two weeks… they called us back to the beach, and they said, take your shoes and socks off, of what you’ve got left. I was so amazed. My feet were black with, I guess fungus or mold.
Unsurprisingly, the lack of sunshine and constant gloom also impacted morale. Machinist First Class Earl Long, pictured to the left, describes the endless days on Adak:
Dark, dismal, damp, cold, and windy. One woke up with it, worked in it, and went to sleep with it. No change, day after day, week after week.
For some, the dreariness of the weather was punctuated by terrifying encounters with the enemy. During the Battle of Attu, the weather and terrain of the islands made things exponentially more difficult for US forces. Participants in the campaign recall instances of hand-to-hand combat: confused by the many layers of foul-weather gear that the Japanese troops were wearing, Dean Galles mistook them for American replacements. After walking into their lines, he was bayoneted four times.
Following the American victory on Attu in early fall 1943, many servicemen were transferred from the Aleutians back to the continental United States—though some, like Seaman First Class Henry Lesa, wound up serving in the Pacific Theater later in the war, on very different types of islands.
Currently, the Veterans History Project has preserved almost 600 narratives from veterans of the Aleutian Campaign. In addition to the collections featured in Experiencing War, more than 100 of these collections are digitized and accessible via our online database. We encourage veterans of the Aleutian Campaign to donate their service stories to expand the understanding of this unique World War II campaign and service location.