During the Second World War, the Aleutian Islands were so remote and operations there so secretive that participants called it "the forgotten war." In the decades since, veterans and historians have worked to reveal the story of the grueling campaign on American soil.
Now Otis Hays Jr., a retired intelligence officer and journalist, adds to the record with "Alaska's Hidden Wars." This is his third book about WWII in the North Pacific.
Drawing upon his own access to secret projects, recently declassified archival materials and the recollections of eyewitnesses, he reveals aspects of the conflict unknown even to most men who served in the chain.
From the earliest days of the Alaska campaign, the military kept strict restrictions on information. This kept the Japanese in suspense about American intentions, but it also mystified Alaskans and denied the servicemen involved the home-front recognition granted soldiers in other combat theaters.
"During the campaign, fewer than two dozen war correspondents were permitted in the Aleutians," Hays writes. "Although they applied, local Alaskan newsmen were never accredited."
Hays highlights the work of men who, although not combat soldiers, performed invaluable but often unheralded support services. These included the censors, radio operators, weather forecasters and a squad of Japanese-American translators who not only had to keep hidden from the enemy, but also had to avoid racism, friendly fire and the bitterness of their families' internment.
Likewise, Hays has the advantage of access to Japanese sources to show both sides of the conflict. He describes conditions Japanese soldiers endured during their occupations of Attu and Kiska and at bases in the Kurile Islands, which were tasked with protecting the main islands from a possible American invasion from the North Pacific.
The book's saddest section tells about one Japanese serviceman, medical officer Dr. Paul Nobuo Tatsuguchi. The son of Seventh Day Adventist missionaries, he had studied in the U.S., married a Hawaiian and sought to avoid bloodshed. But he ended up on Attu. His diary provides the most revealing account of the doomed occupiers' last stand. His fate is a heartbreaking reminder of how war overtakes and destroys the lives of decent people.
Tatsuguchi's story is the most vivid of many recounted in the book, but danger stalked everyone in the area. Hays emphasizes that the isolation and horrific weather transformed the Aleut-ian campaign into a three-way struggle, with the elements often inflicting as much damage on the American and Japanese forces as they did on each other.
Part of the toll was psychological and, through most of the war, morale was abysmal. With dark humor, the author quotes from comments servicemen made in their correspondence. Among other duties, censors were instructed to monitor morale by noting what the troops wrote.
The soldiers had no illusions about privacy in their mail, but seldom hesitated to complain about living standards, lack of promotions, lack of rotations, inane orders, the climate and repeatedly boredom. One fellow faced the censors head on, enclosing this bit of verse in a 1943 letter to his sweetheart:
"Dear censor, I hate the thought of tender words
Being read by stranger's eyes
These soul writ words for her alone
These lies and alibis.
So read my letters gently, sir,
They were not meant for you
But for a girl in Arkansas
I write this silly goo."
Hays also emphasizes how decisions by top brass thousands of miles from Dutch Harbor left so many men in excruciating exile. Repeatedly, the U.S. tacticians used troop presence in the Aleutians as a decoy to keep the Japanese from focusing their strength on the South Pacific. He describes a top-secret operation, code named "Wedlock," to dupe the Japanese into thinking a northern invasion was immanent.
Other backstage maneuvering involved the Soviet Union. The Russians and Japanese both found it expedient to avoid declaring war on each other, but the Soviets clearly, although guardedly, favored the Amer-icans in the Pacific conflict. Hays tells how Alaska aviators tried to ditch crippled planes at Kamchatka, where the Soviets would officially intern American servicemen while secretly arranging for them to "escape" back to the West. Then, after meetings with Churchill and Roosevelt, Stalin entered the war during the final week as Japanese resistance collapsed, so the USSR could annex the Kuriles.
"Alaska's Hidden Wars" is full of interesting tidbits such as these, told with clarity and candor. Hays' style, although a bit dry, inspires confidence with his insights and meticulous documentation.
It is not, however, a comprehensive look at the war in Alaska. The chapters presume the reader has a general background on the subject, and they read like a series of articles rather than an integrated whole. The book would hang together better if Hays had provided more summary overviews and transitions.
But "Alaska's Hidden Wars" is an engrossing read. The main text is only about 125 pages, including a generous number of photographs, so it is a brisk read, too. Anyone with an interest in war history and especially the Aleutian campaign will find it well worth their time.
Shana Loshbaugh is a former Peninsula Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.
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