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.
- 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.
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.
Preparing for Unveiling:
“We had lots of help from members of the team and community, including the mayor of the borough, the deputy manager of the city, three bear guides, retired ADF&G biologist, and the honorable Judge Roy Madsen looking on.”
The Unveiling & Celebration:
“We had a really lovely program: Mike Brady, Refuge manager, started the program reflecting that the refuge was established on this day 76 years ago thanks to the concern of guides, sportsmen, and conservation groups who were concerned about the declining population of bears, Paul Chervenak spoke about the importance of the project, Dan Rohrer, the borough mayor, spoke about how the sculpture welcomes visitors from all over the world who come for Kodiak bears and the economic importance of bears to the community, Shari Howard, daughter of Alf Madsen, spoke about the family history of guiding and the old statue, Dr. Alisha Drabek spoke about the cultural relationship of the Alutiiq people and bears and we had a beautiful performance by the Alutiiq dancers, and Dr. Larry Van Daele closed the program speaking to the future needs of bear conservation.”
“This extraordinary event was well attended by over 200 people, including community leaders, the Alutiiq people, locals, and conservationists. Distinguished guests spoke about the importance of the project and what is means for the local economy, community, and wildlife heritage of Alaska.”
Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, which contains the world’s most dense population of brown bears, attracts 65,000 people a year. The reveal of the bear statue reflects the importance and appreciation of the wonderful conservation partnership between the Kodiak community and local, state and federal governments. The Refuge is honored to host the new Kodiak bear sculpture, and would like to give our heartfelt thanks to many people, including Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges and the National Wildlife Refuge Association.
(Report submitted by Lisa Hupp/USFWS)
Approximately 400 people attended the 2017 Dragonfly Day, hosted by Arctic, Yukon Flats, and Kanuti National Wildlife Refuges. This was a free event at Chena Lakes Recreation Area, open to all ages. Attendees had the opportunity to go on nature walks to catch and identify dragonflies. There were also crafts, educational activities, and more. It was a fun day for the whole family!
“It was a hot and busy afternoon, but I felt it was very well received by the village residents and especially by all the youngsters that participated in all the arts and crafts projects and the archery shooting.
A huge thank you to our volunteers Mark Ross and Francesca Demgen, whose travel was funded by the Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges. Your help and involvement was vital to the success of the event. You are both invited next year as well!!”
The Friends also helped cover other event supplies and food for the celebration.
The mission of Salmon Camp is to educate Kodiak’s youth about the natural and cultural systems that define Kodiak’s geography and empower learners to investigate their own connections to this special place through hands-on learning, self-reflection and group discovery.
Since 1996, Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, in conjunction with Alaska Geographic and the Kodiak community, has sponsored the Kodiak Summer Science and Salmon Camp. Within two years of its inception, Salmon Camp became the largest science-based camp in Alaska. In 2002, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recognized Salmon Camp as one of its top five environmental education programs in the nation. This camp serves students from kindergarten through 8th grade. The Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges has supported the camp for several years, providing funding for educational experiences.
The camp kicked off in early June with “Fishing Day,” with 125 attendees. Bird TLC from Anchorage was on hand with a live bird demonstration, featuring a merlin and a peregrine falcon. Check out some photos below.
(photos by Lisa Hupp/USFWS)
May 20-23, 2017
Selawik National Wildlife Refuge hosted its annual Spring Bird Walks. The Friends sent expert birder George Matz of Homer to Kotzebue to lead several walks.
“Thanks to everyone who ventured out on one of our bird watching events this weekend! We enjoyed looking at birds in their bright breeding colors, visiting with folks, and learning a bit more about the feathered travelers that are flying home to Alaska to nest. Thanks to Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges volunteer George Matz (center of photo above) for being a part of the fun!”
-Susan Georgette, Selawik NWR Manager
June 3, 2017
Friends gathered for an encore screening of “The Million Dollar Duck,” with host Adam Grimm, at Morris Thompson Cultural Visitor Center in Fairbanks. Refreshments were served, duck stamps were sold, and fun was had by all!
BELOW: Friends in Action: Sarah Mathews, Joseph Morris, and Adam Grimm (signing duck stamps).
This past May 4-7, the Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges co-sponsored the 25th Annual Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, in Homer, Alaska at Alaska Maritime NWR’s Headquarters, Islands & Ocean Visitor Center.
Our Special Guests included Keynote Speaker, J. Drew Lanham and Featured Author, Paul Bannick.
Both Speakers presented a variety of workshops & lectures.
Raymond VanBuskirk (BRANT Tours), Neil Gilbert (2017 Schantz Scholar), and Keynote J. Drew Lanham enjoy a boat trip with Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies
Festival Participants enjoy the “Birders Breakfast,” and learn more about the Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges.
Bird TLC of Anchorage presents an up close experience with some feathered friends.
Junior Birders Award Ceremony – check out all these fledgling ornithologists!
David Raskin (Friends President) with Keynote J. Drew Lanham and Marga Raskin (Friends Member)
USFWS Service, working hard throughout the weekend to make sure everyone had a wonderful time at the Festival.
Raymond and BJ bird watching during the Viewing Stations.
Save the Date! May 10-13, 2018!
(Photos courtesy of Lisa Hupp/USFWS and Robbi Mixon/FANWR)
What does it take to grow new birders and public lands users? The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in partnership with Alaska Geographic aim to figure this out through immersive experiences for youth on and about public lands. In this spirit, a group of 9 young people, accompanied by Helen Strackeljahn of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Eileen Kazura and Reth Duir of Alaska Geographic, attended the 25th Annual Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival with generous support from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The group of current high school and college students from Anchorage, Alaska, were all first time birders when they arrived in Homer for the Shorebird Festival. Over the course of the Festival, they learned how to use binoculars, spent time in kayaks, and discovered their own personal bird story in a workshop with keynote presenter J. Drew Lanham. These activities and more were made possible through a generous grant from the Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges.
Throughout the weekend, the group spotted Sandhill Cranes, Western Sandpipers, Greater White-Fronted Geese, and many more migratory species. They also had a number of close-up encounters with Homer’s resident Bald Eagles.Highlights of the trip included kayaking around Yukon Island, pictured above, which began with entertainment on the water taxi provided by Dave Aplin of World Wildlife Fund, and culminated in a kayak race back to the shore. The group also enjoyed exploring Homer and attending the On the Wing Concert, Birder’s Breakfast and Keynote Speeches.
Many thanks goes to the array of partners and sponsors, who made it possible to connect these urban youth to their Alaska Refuges.