The Forgotten Native American Force That Protected Alaska During WWII

The surprise Japanese attack on Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, shook the United States to its very core. The country was suddenly gripped by a terrible sense of insecurity, as it was pulled into the horrors of World War II. Most of the fighting thereafter, of course, was done overseas, but that’s not to say American territory wasn’t also under threat. Pearl Harbor had shown what the enemy could do, and the U.S. knew it needed to defend itself. And in its hour of need it turned to a group of people whose contributions to the war effort have been ignored for far too long.

The Japanese occupation of Attu and Kiska

In addition to Hawaii, there was another part of the country that was particularly vulnerable to attack: Alaska. After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese embarked on another aerial assault of an American base. Their target this time was Dutch Harbor, which sat on Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.

The Japanese successfully managed to take two of the islands: Attu and Kiska. This was now a serious situation: no foreign force had managed to occupy American territory in more than a century.

The rationale

It’s unclear what the rationale behind the invasion had been, from the perspective of the Japanese. The vitally important Battle of Midway was raging at the time, so maybe attacking the Aleutians was a ploy to get the U.S. to remove some of its ships from Midway and to send them to Alaska?

Maybe they thought the Aleutians, under Japanese control, would act as a buffer, preventing the Americans from launching an invasion of Japan from there? We don’t really know, but we do know the loss of the islands was hugely demoralizing to the Americans. That, in itself, was a powerful result.

Island-hopping experience

Japan didn’t hold either Kiska or Attu for very long. The Americans did start to fight back, and they launched a campaign to recapture the islands. They managed to wrestle back control of Attu first, before retaking Kiska a few months after that.

The reclamation of the islands was a great success in and of itself, but the benefits of the campaign extended further than its primary objective. It provided the Americans with experience of “island-hopping” battles, which would later prove essential throughout the Pacific War.

An urgent need to secure the borders

Even though the Americans had managed to take back Attu and Kiska, the episode plainly illustrated the urgent need to secure Alaska’s sizable borders. But for that to happen, the U.S. needed to assemble a capable defensive force. And that was easier said than done.

Those who did step forward to fill that need were, in large part, members of the Alaskan indigenous community. From several villages across the territory, local people stepped forward and offered to lay their lives on the line for the good of the United States.