Dogfaces on the mainland in the Aleutian Chain watch the war go by on other fronts, stare out toward the Kuriles and wonder if there’s anything cooking.

By Cpl. John M. Haverstick

YANK Staff Correspondent

ALASKA AND THE ALEUTIANS—A corporal said this about the scarcity of combat in Alaska: “We are closeted here in Alaska and the Aleutians like a woman in confinement until the war is over, or else we may become the mother of another offensive. And we all wish we knew which.”

The radio stations in Alaska and the Aleutians still sign on and off with slogans like “Broadcasting to you from the northern highway to victory.” The foxholes dug during the battle are still on Attu but they are just in the way during practice alerts. The Infantry and Engineers and AAF stumble into the snow-covered holes they forgot were there.

The Aleutians have gone GI to a point where the men stand regular Saturday hut inspections and you no longer turn your back to the wind and use any place on the ground for a latrine. The only reason any soldier on Attu has worn a helmet since July 1943 is a standing rule of the mess halls—“No helmet, no chow.”

11th air force aleutians

Since Kiska, August 15, 1943, the biggest battle for the northern “snowfeet” has been against weather like this blizzard near Fairbanks.

Just after Kiska, a year and a half ago, most of the war has detoured from this shortest route to Tokyo, and nobody knew then, and nobody knows yet, whether it will ever come through again. So the war in Alaska is mostly against doubt as to whether this theater still matters.

“Look at the maps we use now,” said Cpl. Paul C. Legette of San Francisco, Calif. “They aren’t even global. There isn’t room on them for the Aleutians to be near Japan where they belong, so they are stuck in a box by themselves down in the lower right-hand corner near Seattle.

Not that the men here wouldn’t prefer a base near Seattle or that the combat crewmen really want any more combat than they have right now. But what they would all like to know is where they stand in importance.

Actually, of course, Alaska and the Aleutians have been important since Kiska. The ground in the Aleutians is so soft it trembles every time heavy construction equipment passes over it, and the huts on the soft muskeg have trembled over since Kiska. During all that time the Engineers have been building up bases with airstrips and docks and warehouses for any kind of war that might come.

During the construction period Japan has not been able to return to the islands because of the Aleutian-based Army and Navy bombers and Navy task forces that have been crossing 600-odd miles of the North Pacific to raid the Japanese Kuriles. The Kuriles have been hit as regularly as the crews could make it through the fog and wind.

The Aleutian Chain is the place most soldiers in Alaska want to stay away from. There are very few who like the islands. One of these rare birds is T-4 Dashiell Hammett, 50-year-old author of “The Thin Man” and “The Maltese Falcon.” “Why do I like it here?” Hammett sometimes asks. “I don’t know—maybe it’s the humidity. It slows you up and irritates you, and maybe I like that.” When Hammett shows visitors around, he asks how they like his mountains.

T-5 Erwin Spitzer, on the other hand, is tired of the mountains. “The scenery here,” he says, “is something I’ve grown very cold about”.

Fog covers the Aleutians and the wind has blown down many of the buildings put up by the Engineers. Except for the new Army posts, the islands are barren, and there is nothing queer about a man who has not troubled himself in a year to hitchhike outside his own company area for a look around. All the scenery any man really wants to see is outside Alaska and the Aleutians. They tell about a deckhand on a small power barge who hatched a scheme for escaping from the Chain on his small interisland ship. The place he hoped to reach was Siberia.

On chances for rotation some soldiers quote the king-size ravens that live off the islands. What the ravens say, of course, is “Nevermore”. There are towns near the camps on the Alaska mainland, but on the Chain our men have had to build up islands where there are no towns and no women. A major in the Medics made a survey of his island to find out what happened to these men after a year and a half. The major decided that nothing very serious happened except to the men who would have tripped on the street curbs of their own home towns. He decided that the Aleutians are, strangely enough, a healthier—and safer—place than most overseas theaters.

Rusty Annabel, a war correspondent for United Press and pre-war resident of Alaska, has never wanted to transfer out of the theater, even though he could be rotated. The reason is that he still thinks he can sweat out Tokyo through the Chain.

Tokyo Rose and Radio Tokyo is still interested in Alaska and the Aleutians, and the theater is humorously important for that reason if for no other. Rose’s stories furnish free entertainment to the island-isolated GIs. There is one yarn about the general who flew to the mainland on TD. This general’s house caught fire shortly after he left and his plane picked up a radio report describing the fire and telling him he’d better get back. The report, of course, came from Tokyo Rose. According to another of Rose’s fables a Japanese sub took pictures of one island over a period of days; then the crew came ashore to the island one night and printed their pictures in the airbase photo lab.

The boys go on listening to Rose for the laughs and wait. The air crews get action now and again, photographing the Kuriles and bombing them. The AAF has hit the Kuriles as far south as Shimushiru, less than 1,000 miles north of Tokyo. And twice in 1944, Matsuwa, 1,100 miles north of the Japanese capital, was shelled by a Navy surface force of the Aleutian-based North Pacific fleet.

Except for these air and water excursions, it’s still a campaign of boredom in the North, but every soldier knows that in one way or another Alaska does fit into the over-all Pacific picture. Where it fits, though, they didn’t know. That makes the boredom harder to sweat out—that and the fact that Alaska doesn’t have the proper climate to go sweating.

For More on the War in Alaska Check Out:

Thousand-Mile War: World War II in Alaska and the Aleutians

Ghosts in the Fog: The Untold Story of Alaska’s WWII Invasion

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  • Bill Getz says:

    My B-24 copilot was bitter that he had not been selected to become a fighter pilot because his older brother had been killed as a fighter pilot fighting the Japanese in the Aleutians. Alaska and Aleutians are a forgotten part of WWII

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