In The Wind Is Not A River, the protagonist, journalist John Easley, finds himself on the Aleutian island of Attu in April 1943, when the Battle of the Aleutian Islands is taking place.
We've all heard about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the precipitating event that led the United States to fight in World War II. But perhaps we might not be as familiar with the Battle of the Aleutian Islands that took place from June 1942 to August 1943 the only WWII campaign to be fought on U.S. soil. Possibly due to an embargo on information from the Alaskan front, it was overshadowed by the more dramatic war stories from Europe and the South Pacific. This might explain why the long struggle to reclaim two American islands from the Japanese occupiers has sometimes been called "The Forgotten Battle."
The Japanese occupation began with a bombardment of the U.S. military base at Dutch Harbor, on Amaknak Island, in early June 1942. This attack killed more than one hundred American military personnel and was followed by the invasion of nearby Attu and Kiska. The Japanese purpose in this particular invasion is unclear, especially since they failed to take further steps during their occupation. Perhaps they hoped to provide a distraction from simultaneous campaigns to the south, to prevent the U.S. from using the Aleutians as a war base, or to use these Alaskan islands as a base for future attacks on the western United States. Regardless, the geopolitical importance of the Aleutians was well understood at the time; in 1935, General Billy Mitchell told the U.S. Congress, "I believe that in the future, whoever holds Alaska will hold the world. I think it is the most important strategic place in the world."
The Americans had a hard time reclaiming the occupied islands. Although they dropped seven million pounds of bombs during the campaign (leaving many craters and unexploded ordnance that can still be seen today), the U.S. military encountered formidable anti-aircraft weaponry, as well as harsh environmental conditions that included dense fog and fierce winds, resulting in many American lives lost. It's interesting to note that many of the islands' native people, who are conspicuously absent in this story, were forcibly evacuated by the Americans after the Japanese invasion and placed in internment camps, supposedly for their own protection.
Brian Payton's novel vividly portrays a much-ignored slice of American history and explores the other, even more forgotten story of the war's impact on the Aleutians.
For more about the Aleutian Islands, read the 'Beyond the Book' for Glorious Misadventures.
Picture of American soldiers at Attu from U.S. Naval Historical Center
The term "Aleutians" can be used interchangeably for the islands and its people.
This article was originally published in February 2014, and has been updated for the
September 2014 paperback release.
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