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Retired History Teacher Presents on Battle of Attu

by Christina Whiting (Friends Volunteer), for the Homer Tribune

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.

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NOAA Climate Stewards Workshop – July 2017, Fairbanks

The Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges were asked to assist in a unique project, the Climate Stewards Workshop, which took place in Fairbanks in July. Two Friends, Jason Sodergren (Treasurer) and Barry Whitehill, Fairbanks Friend, spent many hours in preliminary tasks associated with acquiring a venue and housing as well as setting up the registration process online, and handling the registration and payments for the workshop expenses.

(Photos – Left: Permafrost Tunnel Tour; Right: UAF Geophysical Institute Tour)


What is NOAA Climate Stewards?

NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has a mandate to educate in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics disciplines (STEM).

NOAA’s Climate Stewards Education Project (CSEP) was created to increase educators’ understanding of climate science and to reach youth as the beginning of a long-term strategy to make communities more resilient to climate change impacts. Over 1,000 educators participate in an online community that connects them with webinars with experts, regional workshops, and educational resources.

The NOAA Climate Stewards Education Project provides formal and informal educators working with elementary through university age students with sustained professional development, collaborative tools, and support to build a climate-literate public actively engaged in climate stewardship. CSEP also provides support for educators to develop and execute climate stewardship (mitigation and/or adaptation) projects with their audiences to increase understanding of climate science and take practical actions to reduce the impacts of climate change.



Comments from Peg Steffen, Education Coordinator, NOAA National Ocean Service

“My sincere thanks to all of you for making the STEM workshop a reality and a success last week.  I heard many great comments about the quality of the presentations, the engaging activities and the experiences that you provided to the educators.UAF was a wonderful place to hold the workshop. Who could not be impressed with the view of 501 IARC (International Arctic Research Center)? Having low-cost housing and excellent catering was essential to making the workshop affordable to many.  The local field trip options (natural areas, Permafrost tunnel, local scientific laboratories) provided amazing glimpses into the work of scientists.

Also, thanks to the Friends of Alaska Wildlife Refuges for serving as the fiscal agents for all of the expenses. It made planning so much easier.”

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Youth Volunteer Trip Report: Dalton Highway Weed Pull

Trip report by Friends volunteer Justin Simonton

This summer I volunteered for the weed pull along the Dalton Highway.  I am a 16-year-old rising-Junior at West High School in Anchorage Alaska.  The team consisted of a Chief Biologist, five Friends (including my grandfather), and three interns. We were looking for two specific types of invasive plants: Bird Vetch and White Sweet Clover. These species grow around river crossings. It is a threat because the rivers and streams along the Dalton run into the Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge. The seeds of these plants are transported along the Dalton mainly by vehicle traffic. This makes the job even more important because of the sheer number of big rigs taking supplies and equipment to and from the oil fields on the North Slope.

We worked for five days with the first and last day dedicated to traveling 260 miles between Fairbanks and Coldfoot. A typical day started at eight in the morning and ended at five in the evening. We lived in dry cabins and packed our lunches every morning; usually a sandwich, some chips, and maybe an apple. Sometimes we would travel hundreds of miles and comb each section of the river in two-man groups and come back around to clean up what the first group might have missed. In the evening, we ate at the Coldfoot Camp buffet and there was always something new to eat. After dinner, we would head back to the cabins and read or talk until we would try to go to sleep despite the sun never setting. My grandfather and I had such trouble that we put up towels in front of our window to block the sun.

Kanuti River, Crossing Dalton Hwy

This was my second year volunteering for this project. The only difference between this year and last year was that there appeared to be much less White Sweet Clover and Bird Vetch. This made me hope that our efforts were really helping protect the refuge.

Additionally, during my past year at West High School I made a presentation to my English class describing last year’s invasive species project and urged my classmates to join Friends and volunteer for future projects.

Hopefully, given my busy upcoming academic schedule, I will be able to continue to volunteer to Friends in future projects. 

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Kanuti’s Annual Winter Celebration, Community Dinner & Outreach Event

Kanuti’s Annual Winter Celebration, held recently in Allakaket, AK, was attended by over 60 people from Allakaket and Alatna and was once again a hit with kids and adults alike. This year, Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve helped support the effort. Marcy Okada, the Subsistence Coordinator for Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve and Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, and Maria Berger, the Lead Education Specialist (NPS) at the Fairbanks, Alaska Public Lands Information Center, attended the event and provided a well-received after-dinner presentation about Gates and NPS, and a craft table that was very popular with the youth.

Kanuti truly enjoyed partnering with NPS during this event, and very much appreciated the support NPS provided. The community seemed to greatly enjoy being able to learn so much in one stop. UAF representatives were also at the School during the evening event, providing excellent information about their programs and a table of information and free items. The community had a full night of fun! Of course, one of the most enjoyed parts of the evening, was the Taco dinner, provided by Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges and fully prepared by Friends Volunteer Sarah Matthews, who worked hard during the entire event to make sure everything we needed was taken care of – thank you Sarah for your hard work making a wonderful dinner for so many! And thank you to UAF for providing a great dessert! In the spirit of doing more with less, working together can fill in gaps while also strengthening ties. Kanuti looks forward to continuing to work with partners and the communities of Allakaket and Alatna in the future.





(Report filed by: USFWS)

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Kenai Refuge Celebrates 75 Years of Conservation



by Leah Eskelin, Park Ranger
(all photos by USFWS)

 Celebrating 75 years of conservation at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, Refuge staff hosted an evening celebration on Friday, December 16th at the new Refuge Visitor Center in Soldotna.  Sponsored by the Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, National Wildlife Refuge Association, Alaska Geographic and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Retirees Association, the party showcased the Refuge’s diverse landscapes through artwork by volunteer photographers Tom Collopy and Mary Frische, family activities and a centerpiece cake that, well, took the cake.


Seventy-five years ago, on the heels of the attack on Pearl Harbor that led the United States into World War II, the President signed the document that created the Kenai National Moose Range. Later, in 1980, the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) would change its name to Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, and broaden its purpose. A grassroots effort to protect wildlife being over harvested on the Kenai Peninsula resulted in this federal action, and without it the landscapes that are so beloved by residents and visitors alike would have been lost long ago.  With this protection, wildlife habitats, recreational opportunities and the integrity of salmon-rearing streams that are the linchpin of much of the local fishery have survived the decades, and will endure beyond our years here.


More than 200 guests attended this event, where they dressed as their favorite Kenai animal in the photo booth, “became” moose, the Refuge’s signature wildlife, by designing moose headbands and decorated reusable canvas tote bags. It was a great celebration and one that would have been impossible without the support of the Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges.  Refuge staff send their thanks to each member of the Friends organization, for this and other efforts to spread the word about these majestic public lands across the state.








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Arctic Village Science and Culture Camp Goonzhii

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Friends Volunteer Brenda Dolma had the opportunity to work with youth, refuge staff, and community elders of Arctic Village, during their annual Science and Culture Camp.  Camp Goonzhii (meaning “wisdom and knowledge” in Gwich’in) took place in late August 2016.  Thirty youths ranging from kindergarten through twelfth grade participated. The Science and Culture Camp includes curriculum in western science and traditional ecological knowledge, combined with indoor and outdoor learning experiences through demonstrations and hands on environmental education activities. Community elders share their wisdom about the land and animals, while Refuge staff offer exposure to new technologies.   Some camp topics and activities included:
  • Migratory birds
  • Animal tracking and drawing
  • Archery
  • Dog sled construction
  • Skin sewing
  • Caribou butchering and processing
  • Blueberry picking
  • Plant identification
dolma2I had the opportunity to meet Sarah James [community elder and Friends member], who has been speaking to protect the habitat for the future.   It was a treat to get out on the field trips and experience the beauty of Arctic Village in fall,” says Brenda.

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  To learn more about the Camp, check out this article by News Miner, in Fairbanks. The Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges provided funding for nightly community dinners and Brenda’s travel. Membership comes with the chance to Volunteer. Check out our current opportunities.