This past November, Friends and Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival Coordinator Robbi Mixon traveled with USFWS Visitor Services Manager Kara Zwickey to one of the biggest birding festivals in the nation- Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. Located near the coastal border of Texas-Mexico, the area offered hundreds of bird species, many new friends and connections, and gave our organization many new ideas for our own festival.
Over the course of the 4-day festival, Robbi and Kara talked to hundreds of attendees about Alaska’s 16 National Wildlife Refuges and encouraged them to attend the Shorebird Festival. They met with the directors of both the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival and the Space Coast Festival (Florida), as well as reconnected with previous Shorebird Festival Keynotes Noah Strycker and Kevin Karlson.
Our Alaska Friends Board and the Hawaiian Islands Friends Boards have been invited to a workshop on Kauai in January 2018. This opportunity will be funded by grants from the National Fish and Wildlife Federation (NFWF).
The main items on the agenda will be: Communications using social media, Member recruitment and engagement, Board development and retention. Five board members and our Coordinator will attend, joined by Steve Delehanty and Helen Strackeljahn of USFWS.
Friends expect to return to Alaska with fresh ideas and new tools to use for greater benefit to our Alaska Refuges. They hope that new or inactive members will be encouraged to take on leadership roles so they may also take advantage of ongoing training and educational opportunities both in and outside of Alaska.
Seventy-five years ago, [an Alaskan] National Wildlife Refuge was invaded by a foreign power when World War II came to the Aleutians and to the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. This was the Battle of Attu.
Last week, Jeff Dickrell, retired history teacher, internationally renowned researcher and author of “The Center of the Storm: The Bombing of Dutch Harbor,” came to Homer to share photographs and stories from the Battle of Attu, when Japan attacked the Aleutians during World War II.
The Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor on June 3 to 4, 1942, and invaded the islands of Attu and Kiska on June 6, 1942.
“This was the only World War II battle fought on North American soil and is also known as the Forgotten War,” Dickrell shared during a presentation to fifth grade students at West Homer Elementary. “Why do we need to know about this? It’s important that we honor and learn from the past.”
Attu, a tiny village at the end of Alaska’s Aleutian chain, was home to 44 Aleut who lived a subsistence lifestyle and were a peaceful people. They raised foxes for the fur and were famous for the grass baskets they made. Taking the villagers by surprise, the Japanese took control of the island, and along with it, American soil in the first foreign invasion on American soil since the War of 1812.
Plans were drawn up to retake the island in 1943, known as the Aleutian Campaign. On May 11, 1943, after a lengthy air campaign, 11,000 American troops reached Attu, greeted by fog and silence.
“No one had ever fought in a place like Attu,” Dickrell shared. “It was far from the United States, cold and wet, with cliffs and rocky beaches, and no trees, and they weren’t prepared. When the Americans landed on the shores, it was like walking into a trap. The Americans didn’t know where to go and were completely blinded by the fog.”
Dickrell shared that it took the American soldiers four days to realize that they needed to leave the beaches and get to high ground if they were to find the Japanese soldiers. He shared the challenges that soldiers on both sides faced, including frostbite, hypothermia and trench foot, and that when a solider recovered a diary from a dead Japanese soldier named Nebu Tatsuguri who was a doctor, and the diary was translated, it read that the Japanese soldiers would not surrender, that they would fight to their death and commit suicide before being captured, which they did.
The battle to reclaim Attu was expected to take three days, but lasted 19. By the end of the battle, nearly 2,400 Japanese died and 549 Americans were killed in action, 1,148 were wounded in action and 2,100 had non-battle casualties, including frostbite and trench foot (foot rot). For every 100 Japanese on the island, 71 Americans were injured or killed. The village of Attu was destroyed and only 24 of the 43 Aleut who lived there survived captivity by the Japanese. The Battle of Attu was one of the deadliest battles in World War II, second only to Iwo Jima.
At the heart of Dickrell’s message was a desire to honor the men who fought this war.
“It’s surprising how little the general public knows about this war,” he said. “If you read books on World War II, the Battle of Attu gets like a half a page.”
Dickrell’s message is also about sharing the lessons learned from this chapter in American history. These lessons included learning what clothing and footwear were appropriate for the climate in order for soldiers to stay dry and to prevent hypothermia, the need for soldiers to be able to take their boots off on a regular basis in order to prevent foot rot and the knowledge that Japanese soldiers will not surrender.
“History is the story of everything that happened before now,” he shared. “It’s important that we learn what we did wrong so we don’t do it again, so we can learn from our mistakes.”
Today, Attu is abandoned, but the landscape remains littered with the debris of war.
As part of a joint venture between the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge in Homer and the regional National Wildlife Refuge office in Anchorage, Dickrell was invited to Homer by the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge to take part in National Wildlife Refuge Week, an event that is celebrated during the second week of October and all across the United States. There are 560 refuges nationwide and 16 refuges in Alaska. The National Wildlife Refuge existed on Attu before, during and after the Battle of Attu.
“Jeff is the guru for folks who know and understand Aleutian World War II History,” said Kara Zwickey, Visitor Center Manager at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center in Homer. “So many people don’t know that this war happened and Jeff spent years researching and corresponding directly with war veterans. He is an iconic individual who has the capacity to hear and share stories. Every year during National Wildlife Refuge week, we try to create awareness of, and promote, what’s happening on the refuge. We were delighted to be able to bring him here and have him tell this important story to the community.”
While in Homer, Dickrell gave presentations to students at West Homer Elementary School, McNeil Canyon Elementary School, the Homer High School, Homer Flex School and Kachemak Bay Campus. He also hosted a community presentation at the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center.
A history teacher in Unalaska for 27 years, Jeff retired from teaching last year. The author of “Center of the Storm,” photographs and interviews focused on the bombing of Dutch Harbor, Dickrell worked collaborately with individuals from all across the Aleutians, immersing himself in Aleutian history, serving as a Board Member with the Museum of the Aleutians in Unalaska and was given access to the National Archives Still Pictures Division in Washington, D.C.
Jeff’s book is currently out of print, but other books that discuss the war include “Attu Boy” by Nick Golodoff, a young Alaskan boy’s memoir of living among the Japanese soldiers, available at the Alaska Geographic Bookstore at Islands and Ocean Visitor Center, at the Homer Public Library and through the Homer Bookstore, “Last Letters of Attu”, available as an eBook at the Homer Public Library and at the Homer Bookstore, “One Thousand Mile War”, available at the Homer Bookstore and “Aleutian Echoes”, available at the library.
May 2018 is the 75th commemorative anniversary of the Battle of Attu and the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge is working on plans to commemorate the anniversary at refuge areas around the state next year.
“This is a really big deal and we want to share this story with the community,” Zwickey shared.
Please join us on Tuesday, November 28, for the Friends membership meeting. (*Note: due to the Thanksgiving holiday, we’ve moved our meeting back one week) In person: Homer (Alaska Maritime) or Soldotna (Kenai NWR) Call in a few minutes before 5pm: (866) 556-2149, code :8169747#
Special Guest: Nate Berg, Wildlife Biologist/Tetlin NWR
Northwest Boreal Lynx Project
Researchers in Interior Alaska at Bonanza Creek Experimental Forest, Tetlin NWR, Yukon Flats NWR, Kanuti NWR, Koyukuk/Nowitna/Innoko NWR, and Gates of the Arctic NPP as well as in Northwest Canada are working together to study the long distance movements of Canada lynx in relation to the 10-year cycle of their primary prey, the snowshoe hare. Lynx are being fitted with satellite GPS collars that allow us to track their movements. Collared lynx are showing us what habitats they prefer, where they choose to have their young, when and where they choose to disperse, which landscape features act as corridors and which might be barriers to their dispersal. In addition to GPS data we are also collecting hair samples for genetic and isotope analysis. We are using this information to better understand relatedness and origin of lynx and to develop landscape connectivity models that allow us to identify the areas most important for lynx conservation at the local, regional, and continental scale.
Follow the PowerPoint presentation here (or download a copy):
Please join us on Tuesday, October 17, for the Friends membership meeting. Call in a few minutes before 5pm: (866) 556-2149, code :8169747#
Special Guest: Mandy Bernard The Kenai Mountains to Sea Partnership: A Local Effort to Address Climate Change at a Landscape Scale
Kenai Mountains to Sea partners envision a landscape of connected private and public lands. They are working with willing landowners, agencies and tribal entities, and strengthening longstanding and effective private-public partnerships dedicated to voluntarily conserving and enhancing fish and wildlife habitats for the continuing economic, recreational and cultural benefits to residents and visitors of the Kenai.
Join us during National Wildlife Refuge Week in Anchorage and Homer as we commemorate the 75th Anniversary of WWII in the Aleutians with speaker Jeff Dickrell, author of The Center of the Storm:The Bombing of Dutch Harbor. Dickrell will share stories of the Japanese occupation of Attu and Kiska and the Battle of Attu on:
Tuesday, October 10 in Anchorage at Grant Hall, Alaska Pacific University at 7p.m. and
Thursday, October 12 in Homer at Islands & Ocean Visitor Center at 7 p.m.
The Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges will host receptions following the talks.
Dickrell taught history in Dutch Harbor for over 20 years and is a frequent and very engaging speaker on the war on cruise ships and for other occasions. Dickrell has traveled widely throughout the Aleutians visiting the battlefields of Kiska and Attu.
May 2018 marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Attu, the only ground battle to take place on American soil during WWII. For thousands of years, Attu was home to people and wildlife and has been a federally protected wildlife area since 1913. It is part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.
Although Attu Island had been occupied by Unungax people for thousands of years before Russian contact, at the time of World War II, only 42 people lived in the tiny village in Chichagof Harbor. When the Japanese forces invaded Attu in June of 1942, they captured the entire village and sent them to Hokaido, Japan as prisoners for the remainder of the war. Half of the village died in captivity, including Chief Mike Hodikof.
American forces landed on Attu Island on May 11, 1943. The ensuing clash between the well-entrenched Japanese forces and the Americans lasted 11 days and was one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific Theater. 549 Americans and 2,400 Japanese lost their lives in brutal hand to hand combat and fog-shrouded sniper fire. Many more succumbed to injuries from the wet, cold conditions.
May of 1943 forever marked a chapter in the world’s history, in a national wildlife refuge’s history, and in the lives and legacies of people who lived and died on a remote and rugged island that rises out of fog as far west as one can journey in North America. Today, Attu still bears the scars of this brutal battle between the United States and the Empire of Japan. The people that lived on the island, the soldiers on both sides who fought there and the descendants of all of these citizens and warriors will forever bear their marks of battle too. Attu’s remaining residents never returned home. Some were resettled on Atka Island, and others were scattered across Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.
In 2017 and 2018, the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge is honoring the sacrifice and valor of soldiers and civilians 75 years ago. Eleven descendants of Attu joined the refuge staff aboard the R/V Tiglax to travel to their former village site and leave a memorial at the former site of the church.
Join us on October 10 (Anchorage) or October 12 (Homer) to learn more or visit the Attu75 website to and link to our Attu75 storymap for maps, photos, and video.
Refuge Discovery Trip Report by Poppy Benson, FANWR Outreach Coordinator and Barb Veeck, Friends Member
The first ever Friends Discovery Trip to the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge was a success! Eleven Friends met on a rainy Saturday fall morning with the Kenai Refuge manager Andy Loranger and staff to learn about the unique volunteer opportunities within the Refuge: from front desk, to adopt a trail, to refuge advocacy. This most visited and accessible refuge in Alaska has experienced budget and staff cutbacks. Visitor center manager Leah Eskelin shared a laundry list of volunteer opportunities suitable for locals with an afternoon to spare or Anchoragites who could give a weekend.
The clouds parted just in time for us to drive through golden fall leaves to launch our canoes at the Swan Lake Canoe Route trail head, 20 miles north of Sterling. We paddled across Canoe Lake to set up camp for our evening activities. Lots of awesome Dutch oven cooking and late night fraternizing around the campfire followed, including Robert Service poems dramatized by Friend member Tom Choate. We were accompanied by two refuge staff who coordinated our volunteer trail clearing.
The next day, we paddled to Waterfall Lake to do some trail clearing and exploration of the lake and its’ lovely island. The calm and clear waters offered a perfect reflection of the beautiful fall colors of the lake.
(click to enlarge photos)
Barb Veeck reports, “As a new member, I felt that I gained awareness of the purpose of the Friends program and enjoyed meeting other members. It was fun to discuss future volunteer and group trip activities such as this one.
Prior to this trip, most of us were only familiar with 1-2 people in the group which hailed from Anchorage, Kenai, Anchor Point, and Homer. By the end of the trip we all felt we had new “Friends” and were already planning our next refuge trip.”
As a Board member and trip organizer, Poppy Benson says, “I felt we met the objectives of familiarizing ourselves with at least part of the vast and wonderful Kenai Refuge and its volunteer opportunities, increasing communication and collaboration with the Refuge, and facilitating and building relationships between Friends. I think refuge familiarization trips should be an annual part of the Friends program. Email me with your ideas for future refuge trips at poppybenson@alaskarefugefriends. This trip was cheap ($20) and easy because participants only needed a weekend and a way to get to Soldotna. Other refuges such as the Arctic Refuge would take more time and money.”
We encourage all of you to get out on a refuge through Friends sponsored trips or volunteer opportunities or with your own family. The Refuges need us and we need them.