The remote islands of the Aleutian Chain, home to the Unangan people for more than 8,000 years, endured the first invasion on American soil since the War of 1812.
On June 6, 1942, at around 10:30 p.m., 500 Japanese troops came ashore at Kiska. They captured a small American naval weather detachment of 10 men, along with a dog. One member of the detachment escaped, but surrendered after 50 days – thin, starving and cold.
The enemy then invaded Attu at 3 a.m. on June 7.
Villagers, who’d been expecting American evacuation ships, instead found themselves running from bullets that Sunday morning. Thousands of Japanese troops poured over the hills surrounding the village of Chichagof – shooting as they came and wounding several villagers.
“The Japs are here,” screamed an Aleut woman amid a hail of bullets as she rushed into the cabin of Bureau of Indian Affairs teacher Etta Jones.
Jones’ husband, a 60-year-old radio technician who operated a government radio and weather-reporting station, began transmitting messages of the attack to Dutch Harbor.
Soon the Japanese were on the couple’s doorstep, and the Jones’ surrendered. Most sources agree that Charles Foster Jones was taken by the enemy and never seen again. Some say he committed suicide. Other sources say he was executed.
The villagers were all rounded up and herded to the schoolhouse. Once they all were accounted for, the Japanese allowed them to return to their homes, said Olean Prokopeuff (Golodoff) in a story that appeared in an Aleutian/Pribilof Islands Association Inc. article for Aang Angagin. Prokopeuff, who lived through the event, said bayonet-carrying enemy soldiers guarded them.
The Japanese kept the Aleut fishermen busy for three days supplying the troops with food. Then the villagers were told to grab some food and personal items for themselves, because they were leaving the island. Prokopeuff said she then watched as Japanese soldiers burned her home.
Etta Jones, 62, and the village’s 40-plus Aleuts were transported in the hold of a freighter to Hokkaido, Japan, for internment. Prokopeuff said they were kept in the unpleasant-smelling hold for the entire trip, never seeing daylight until they reached Japan.
Etta Jones was separated from the Natives and interred at Yokohama, along with U.S. Navy personnel captured on Kiska, while the Aleuts were interred at Otaru, Hokkaido. Only 20 Natives survived the ordeal and returned to Alaska after the war ended.
After the Aleuts departed, the Japanese garrisons, which now numbered more than 11,000 troops, set up defensive positions on Kiska and Attu and began watching for attacks from the Americans.
The U.S. military finally ousted the enemy from Attu in fierce fighting during May 1943. Before the battle was over, there would be 549 American and 2,351 Japanese dead.
The Allied invasion of Kiska that followed found no opposition to the 32,000 U.S. and Canadian forces because no Japanese troops were left on the island.
Under cover of fog, the Japanese fleet had secretly removed its 5,000 soldiers from Kiska by I-class submarines and surface vessels prior to the Allied attack. Allied casualties during the invasion still numbered close to 200, however, as the enemy had set booby traps prior to leaving the island.
A mine in the harbor sunk a destroyer, killing 72 men. Another 17 Americans and four Canadians were killed from either booby traps or friendly fire, and 50 others wounded. Trench foot infected about 130 men.
Following the battles for Attu and Kiska, hundreds of American servicemen would have their feet amputated as a result of frostbite and trench foot, an infection of the feet caused by cold, wet and insanitary conditions.