Guest Blog: Operation Sandcrab

Kirsten Olson provides another interesting piece of Alaskan history. This time, inspiration came to Kirsten while working on a collection of items deposited at UAMN via a repository agreement with the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 2012, USFWS transferred 93 items collected from Attu Island to the museum and Kirsten spent several months cataloging, researching, and curating these items. She painstakingly constructed customized archival boxes for each piece, from pieces of shrapnel to gas masks, toothbrushes to Japanese paper dolls. She discovered the human stories behind these rusted and damaged items, and developed a small exhibit, which is on display at the UAF Rasmuson Library 4th Floor until August 2014. ~~AJL

Guest blogger, Kirsten Olson here again, this time to honor our men in arms.  May 17th marks Armed Forces Day, so to recognize this day and our soldiers, I’d like to take a moment to shed some light on a pivotal, and an often-overlooked WWII battle, the Battle of Attu.


On June 7, 1942, with a force of 1,140 infantrymen, the Japanese attacked and captured the farthest west Aleutian island, Attu. This invasion, as well as a simultaneous assault on Kiska and the attack on Midway a few days earlier, marked the peak of the Japanese invasion of the United States through Alaska.

UAA-HMC-0690-S1-1936-117a

It began as a quiet day for the 43 native residents of Attu, when they had been captured and taken as prisoners. They were held on the island for three months before they were sent to an interment camp in Hokkaido, Japan until the end of the war. They were never able to return to their island; instead they were relocated to Atka. (Image: UAA-HMC-0690-S1-1936-117a)

Etta and Foster Jones, the only white couple on the island, worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Etta as the schoolteacher and Foster operated the wireless radio, reporting on the weather to the navy station at Dutch Harbor.  When the Japanese invaded, Foster was sending in his daily weather report to the Naval post at Dutch Harbor, this time ending it with “The Japs are here!”  Foster had been taken in for questioning and executed, in front of his wife, who was then swiftly sent away to a prison camp in Japan.  (Left: UAF-1970-11-66, Right: UAF 1970-11-67)

Etta and Foster Jones, the only white couple on the island, worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Etta as the schoolteacher and Foster operated the wireless radio, reporting on the weather to the navy station at Dutch Harbor. When the Japanese invaded, Foster was sending in his daily weather report to the Naval post at Dutch Harbor, this time ending it with “The Japs are here!” Foster had been taken in for questioning and executed, in front of his wife, who was then swiftly sent away to a prison camp in Japan. (Left: UAF-1970-11-66, Right: UAF 1970-11-67)

The Japanese held control of Attu until May 11th, 1943 when members of the US 17th, 32nd Infantry Regiment, and a unit of Castner’s Cutthroats began the reoccupation of Attu Island.  It was a gruesome fight with not only the Japanese, but also the harsh weather conditions that are so typical of the Aleutian chain.

Seventeen-year- old Private Donald Lynch is treated by medics after remaining in a water-filled trench for more than twenty-four hours during enemy fire.  The Attu landing forces suffered heavily from exposure, particularly with trench foot, which was the case for Private Lynch.  Castner’s reconnaissance team had warned them of the cold weather conditions and had expressly advised against the use of the leather blucher boots, but to no avail.  The clothing and equipment issued to the 7th Division was neither warm enough to withstand the biting Aleutian winds nor waterproof enough to keep out the icy rain and the water that seeped into every foxhole.  (Image: ASL-P175-053)

Seventeen-year-old Private Donald Lynch is treated by medics after remaining in a water-filled trench for more than twenty-four hours during enemy fire. The Attu landing forces suffered heavily from exposure, particularly with trench foot, which was the case for Private Lynch. Castner’s reconnaissance team had warned them of the cold weather conditions and had expressly advised against the use of the leather blucher boots, but to no avail. The clothing and equipment issued to the 7th Division was neither warm enough to withstand the biting Aleutian winds nor waterproof enough to keep out the icy rain and the water that seeped into every foxhole. (Image: ASL-P175-053)

On May 29th, after weeks of fighting the enemy and the harsh weather conditions, the Japanese had broken the US troop line and fought for a steady thirty hours.  A strange turn of events took place after the initial fury of fire.   One final banzai charge sealed the ill fate of the Japanese, and the US had regained control of Attu.  The thundering of grenades faded and more than 1,000 Japanese lay dead.  The total Japanese loss was 2,500 men, 29 were captured alive.  Of the 15,000 US troops that landed, 550 were dead, 1,500 wounded, and 1,200 were victim to Attu’s climate.

The Combat Intelligence Platoon of Alaska Defense Command, nicknamed Castner’s Cutthroats, displaying their Japanese finds from Attu.  The items include a .30 caliber clip, sake bottle, infantry cap, belt of 1,000 stitches, flute, helmet, gloves, folding water bucket, three Japanese flags, port and starboard lanterns, 20mm high explosive shells, .25 caliber rifle with bayonet and pistol.  The Cutthroats were vital to the success of the war in Alaska by going on repeated reconnaissance missions, reporting weather, conditions, terrain, and advising authorities of necessary equipment and techniques for survival in remote regions.  The University’s own Ivar Skarland, who was first a student at the then Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines, and ultimately served as the Director of the University Museum and chairman of the Division of Social Sciences, was also a voluntary member of the Platoon during the war.  (Photo by Al Brittain, former Alaska Scout, in Jim Rearden, “Castner’s Cutthroats” 1990)

The Combat Intelligence Platoon of Alaska Defense Command, nicknamed Castner’s Cutthroats, displaying their Japanese finds from Attu. The items include a .30 caliber clip, sake bottle, infantry cap, belt of 1,000 stitches, flute, helmet, gloves, folding water bucket, three Japanese flags, port and starboard lanterns, 20mm high explosive shells, .25 caliber rifle with bayonet and pistol. The Cutthroats were vital to the success of the war in Alaska by going on repeated reconnaissance missions, reporting weather, conditions, terrain, and advising authorities of necessary equipment and techniques for survival in remote regions. The University’s own Ivar Skarland, who was first a student at the then Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines, and ultimately served as the Director of the University Museum and chairman of the Division of Social Sciences, was also a voluntary member of the Platoon during the war. (Photo by Al Brittain, former Alaska Scout, in Jim Rearden’s “Castner’s Cutthroats” 1990)

 

A soldier's badge.  One of many personal artifacts that is currently housed at the UA Museum of the North.  (UA2013-005-0049).

A soldier’s badge. One of many personal artifacts that is currently being housed at the UA Museum of the North. (UA2013-005-0049).

Today, Attu is a National Historic Landmark, with remnants from both the Japanese and US occupation.  The village that was once home to the islanders was destroyed during the war and never reestablished.  The LORAN station, which aided in navigating the Pacific Northwest both during and after the war, was established in 1946 but was shut down in 2010.  All that stands on the island are memorials for the fallen soldiers. We are forever grateful for the service of our men and women in arms, and their fight to protect our country and our freedoms.  Thank you.

 

One response to “Guest Blog: Operation Sandcrab

  1. Kirsten —tremendous writing, thoughtful coverage, and outstanding research. Well done!

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