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How did World War II affect Alaska?

The clash of powers begun by Hitler's Germany and Tojo's Japan in the 1930s reached every corner of the globe. World War II affected Alaska in several profound ways: a massive, and what has been a permanent, increase in the military's presence; significant expansion of Alaska's transportation system; and war itself. Concern with Japan's growing strength and belligerence in the late 1930s prompted the U.S. government to look to Alaska's defenses. American strategists realized that the shortest distance between Japan and the West Coast states followed the Great Circle route near Alaska's shoreline. To guard against such an advance, the government built naval air, destroyer,and submarine bases in Sitka, Kodiak, and Dutch Harbor in 1939 and 1940. The Army established forts and air fields at Anchorage and Fairbanks. By the end of September, 1941, Alaska's military population was 35,000, dramatically up from only about 1,000 eighteen months earlier. At the height of war activity in Alaska, men and women in uniform numbered well over 100,000. Civilian population also grew during the war, as contractors and the robust economy near the military posts provided jobs.

To assure supply of these military installations, especially if Japan was able to endanger or block coastal shipping, the U.S. built a series of airfields from Montana, north through Canada, to Fairbanks. The Japanese threat to mainland Alaska and to its coastal shipping never became that dire. The airfields served a very significant role, though, in ferrying nearly 8,000 fighters and bombers from U.S. production plants to be used by our Soviet Union allies against Nazi Germany. To support the airfields and to further link the Alaskan outpost to the rest of the country, the army punched a rudimentary road, the Alcan Highway (now improved and called the Alaska Highway) through Canadian and Alaskan wilderness from northern Alberta to link up to the Richardson Highway at Delta, Alaska. During the same period a spur road (the present-day Glenn Highway) was built to link Anchorage to the Alcan.

War itself also came to Alaska. During the first week of June, 1942, Japanese aircraft bombed Dutch Harbor and Japanese troops occupied the islands of Attu and Kiska in Alaska's westernmost Aleutian Islands. This invasion marked the first time since the War of 1812 that an invading army had occupied American soil. A small naval party on Kiska and Aleut villagers on Attu were taken prisoner and transported to Japan. Concern that the war would come to other far western islands prompted the American government to evacuate residents from the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands and to destroy many of the islanders' homes, rather than let the invaders use them.

American aircraft and ships struggled with the Japanese forces and the treacherous Aleutian weather, first to isolate the invaders and then to destroy them. The Battle of the Commander Islands in March 1943, in which navy ships intercepted and turned back a Japanese flotilla seeking to bring more reinforcements, signified achievement of the first goal. For two and half weeks in May, 15,000 American troops clambered ashore at Attu and overcame stiff resistance from 2,400 Japanese defenders. Kiska held 6,000 Japanese, so the American command assembled a force of nearly 100 ships and an invasion force of over 34,000 American and Canadian troops. But in late July the Japanese had managed a brilliant escape; while U.S. ships chased mysterious radar contacts 200 miles south of the island, eight enemy naval ships dashed to Kiska and carried away the emperor's soldiers. Not realizing this, however, the American and Canadian force attacked what proved to be a deserted island on August 15. Thus, the Japanese deserted their Alaskan gains two years before the end of the war.

Information extracted with permission from Joan M. Antonson and William S. Hanable, Alaska's Heritage (2d edition, 1992).

Additional Reading

Heath Twichell, Northwest Epic: The Building of the Alaska Highway (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992)

Alaska at War, 1941-1945: The Forgotten War Remembered, edited by Fern Chandonnet (Anchorage: Alaska at War Committee, 1995)

Brian Garfield, The Thousand-Mile War: World War II in Alaska and the Aleutians, revised edition (Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 1995)

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