Throwback Thursday: Nobody lives on Attu anymore

Two weeks ago, I posted three photographs of the Aleutian Islands downloaded from the Library of Congress Prints and Photograph Division as part of a “Throwback Thursday” series. (I clearly have yet to come up with a more original title). The photographs, taken in 1938, illustrated the centuries-long imbrication of these islands in global trade flows. Russian fur traders, American entrepeneurs and bureaucrats, and English and Scandinavian fishermen all left their marks on this volcanic island chain. My last post focused largely on the Aleuts, the indigenous people residing in these islands who often interbred with the incoming Europeans.

The Russians in particular left more than just their genes behind. They also imprinted a very specific built environment onto the landscape, one with onion domes and crosses more befitting of Moscow than Alaska. The Orthodox Church got its start in the Americas when eight Russian monks established a mission on Kodiak Island, Alaska, in 1794 – the very same island that Shell’s Kulluk rig ran into in December 2013. Alaska has continued to attract devout adherents to the Russian Orthodox Church into the modern era, as this story from The Atlantic details.

Far from being isolated, the Aleutian Islands have long been smack dab in the middle of global events. I closed my last post by mentioning that the set of photos were taken on the brink of a global war which would forever change the lives of the Aleuts living on Kiska, Attu, and elsewhere in the island chain. Previously caught up in trans-Pacific trade flows, the Aleutian Islands would soon be mired by invasions, air raids, and bombings.

Attu, Aleutian Islands, Alaska, March 1938. Photographer: O.J. Muriel. From Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Attu, Aleutian Islands, Alaska, March 1938. Photographer: O.J. Muriel. From Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Four years before the Japanese would invade the islands of Kiska and Attu, the photographer O. J. Muriel took this image in Attu Village as spring was arriving. The caption for this photograph reads:

“This is the Russian Orthodox church at Attu Village. It ministered to the spiritual needs of the two score natives living on Attu Island at the time of the Japanese invasion. Some of the Island’s wealth of flowers can be seen coming into bloom beside the church. Visitors to the Aleutians have expressed surprise at finding within easy reach masses of Alpine flowers which, in this country, and in Europe, mountain climbers scale the highest peaks just to see.”

The caption renders the Aleutian Islands familiar and knowable to the American reader by comparing them with Europe’s famous Alps. The flowery vistas are also a surprise to people who might think that the Aleutian Islands are permanently snowbound, rocky outcroppings in the Pacific. Everything seems a bit out of place here: comparisons to Bavarian landscapes and a Russian church, all somewhere in a remote reach of Alaska. All appears quiet on the northern front, though, with nary a person in sight in the photograph. But the island was home to a thriving community, depicted in this copiously illustrated National Park Service publication.

Attu, Aleutian Islands, Alaska, 1943. Photographer: O.J. Muriel. From Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Attu, Aleutian Islands, Alaska, June 1937. Photographer: O.J. Muriel. From Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Here is another photo that Muriel took the previous summer in 1937, again before the Pacific Front would open. At the time, Japan was concentrating on its offensive campaign in China, occupying Beijing in July and committing the Rape of Nanking atrocities in December. Yet by 1942, they would turn their sights to the Pacific, ostensibly believing the islands of Attu and Kiska to be strategic for protecting the northern edge of their empire from an American invasion and also possibly to distract from the attack they were conducting on Midway Island, thousands of miles to the south.

Japanese invasion of Attu and Kiska

The Americans were unprepared for the invasion, with the Japanese overtaking the islands unopposed. Japanese forces invaded Attu on June 6 with Kiska being taken the next day – exactly two years before the Invasion of Normandy would happen on the other side of the planet. In Attu, an infantry battalion of 1,140 Japanese soldiers took 45 Aleut civilians and one schoolteacher prisoner, all of whom were eventually deported to Japan. When they were released from Japan in 1945, they were relocated to the island of Atka hundreds of miles to the west (but still 1,200 miles from Anchorage), with Attu forever abandoned. Today, a small memorial is all that is left of the village Muriel that photographed in 1937.

The photograph of Attu from above was transferred to the Office of War Information in 1943 with the caption:

“Bleak, mountainous Attu had a population of only about forty people prior to the Japanese invasion. As yet there has been no word as to what happened to these people when the Japanese took over. This is a picture of Attu village situated on Chichagof harbour where much of the recent fighting took place. The tundra, with which the slopes of the hills are covered, may look easy to traverse, but its depth, two or three feet, makes walking difficult and tiring. In June or July, according to experts of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, these slopes will be covered with flowers of which more than 100 different varieties may be found there.”

While international forces from trading companies to militaries successfully invaded the island, they were ultimately still remote. The Americans were unable to find out what was happening on a piece of their own territory. Even today, there is somewhat of an information lag in the Aleutian Islands, as maintaining reliable high-speed internet is a struggle. The private company Arctic Fiber has discussed plans to build a subsea cable that would bring high-speed internet for years, but nothing has yet materialized. Communication times are a bit better than during the Russian Empire though, when Orthodox clergymen living in the more remote parishes of the Aleutian Islands would only hear from the outside world once every seven years.

During the war, the Japanese built garrisons on the islands of Kiska and Attu and managed to hold them for one year until the Americans invaded the following year. In May 1943, the Alllied forces retook Attu after an intense two-week battle that even involved hand-to-hand combat, while in August, they retook Kiska, finding out that the Japanese had already evacuated a few weeks prior.

Library of Congress caption: “Attu, Aleutian Islands. Landing boats pouring soldiers and their equipment onto the beach at Massacre Bay. This is the Southern landing force.” Photo taken May 11, 1943. Office of War Information.

Continued Aleutian suffering

But the Aleuts would continue to suffer even after their homes were recaptured by the Americans. A lot has been written about the Japanese invasion of Kiska and Attu, such as this National Park Service backgrounder, but less is known about the U.S. government’s forced internment of approximately 880 Aleuts. As this Los Angeles Times article from 1992 recounts, “The Aleuts were interned not because of their heritage, not for fear that they might be subversives, but because their homes on the Aleutian and Pribilof islands were in a war zone.” This internment is an awful mirror image of the relocation of indigenous peoples in Canada in the 1950s, when the government forced many to resettle in distant northern outposts as “human flagpoles.” They were essentially meant to serve as bodily inculcations of Canadian sovereignty during the Cold War, when the threat of a Russian invasion hung over the nation’s north.

Back in the wartime Aleutian Islands, people from nine villages were forced to live in old fishing canneries until 1945, well after the Japanese threat in the Aleutians had ended. Ten percent of interns allegedly died due to inhumane conditions. Even when the surviving interned Aleuts returned home, they found their houses and churches ransacked – and largely not by the Japanese, but rather by American troops.

In 1988, some thirty years overdue, Congress finally passed the Aleut Restitution Act, which offered $12,000 in reparations to individual Aleuts, established a trust fund for the people, and paid for repairs to churches damaged during the war. But nobody lives on Attu anymore, and I’m not sure if its church even still stands.

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