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. On the ground, sirens screamed. Men raced to anti-aircraft guns. Ships rushed to clear out of the harbor. Army Fort Mears, with neat rows of closely-packed wooden barracks, presented a choice target. The bomber aimed for it and the communications facility on what became known as Suicide Hill. Zeros strafed the defenders in the trenches, then zipped back to their carriers.
“By 7:45 a.m. all the pilots and their crews had arrived safely home,” says historian John Cloe in his book “The Aleutian Warriors.”
Numbers reported by Cloe indicate more than 40 American dead at the end of the first day of the battle.
Dutch Harbor’s defenders were handicapped by radio and radar problems. The closest air support, on Umnak Island, remained unaware of the attack until it was over. Planes based at Cold Bay heard the news, but were too far away to get there on time.
Nine newly arrived destroyers sat anchored in Makushin Bay, awaiting orders. But Rear Adm. Robert Theobald, in charge of Alaska Navy operations, was in the Gulf of Alaska with his flagship and observing radio silence. Six “vintage” submarines patrolled the North Pacific without encountering the invasion fleet.
The Navy force left to defend the Aleutians consisted of the gunship Charleston, five Coast Guard cutters and what Cloe calls “a motley collection” of patrol boat and requisitioned fishing craft. Only the Charleston had sonar or large guns. There were no guarantees that any of the weapons would work. Gov. Ernest Gruening heard from one officer that his ship had plenty of anti-aircraft ammunition but no anti-aircraft guns, and lots of depth charges but no way to safely deploy them.
Air power was similarly iffy. Planes deemed obsolete elsewhere were sent north, including B-18s, essentially a DC-3 prototype fitted to drop bombs. (Cloe notes the military didn’t want the clunkers but Congress bought them anyway.) There were a number of seaplanes, good for scouting oceans but flying coffins in combat. The famed PBYs could carry bombs and guns, but with a cruising speed of 125 miles an hour, they seemed to be sitting still when challenged by a Zero coming in at 300 miles an hour. Three PBYs were shot down on the first day and another destroyed as it tried to take off.
But it could have been much