Forgotten battlefield; Kiska one of last from WWII
Gray lakes fill craters blown into the tundra by bombs that once rained through the clouds. Around them lie the silent husks of war: a submarine, a war plane, tracked transports, tent pegs, ships and shells -- some yet waiting to explode.
Here stand mute witnesses of the long dissipated tension and tumult that wracked the world in the 1940s. Sod walls built to block the incessant wind. A hydrant meant to squelch fires wrought by incendiary projectiles. Cast iron stoves around whose warmth young men in soggy, dirty uniforms once huddled and spoke of home, thousands of miles away.
Perhaps, as they waited for their water to heat, these soldiers debated the enormous and baffling circumstances that caused so many to be so far from anything familiar, in a daily contest of life and death.
The arguments continue today. But increasingly discussions of World War II are based on aging documents, fragile photographs and the memories of the memories of those who experienced the events in person. Throughout the Pacific, weapons, wrecks and relics in places where hundreds of thousands died are gone, removed, grown over, built over or decayed to an unrecognizable state.
Except here in Alaska, on Kiska Island.
"Kiska is far and away the most significant intact battlefield remaining from World War II," said Dirk Spennemann. "Everything is there. It's just unbelievable."
Spennemann, a professor of cultural heritage at Charles Sturt University in Australia, has made a specialty of studying World War II battle sites in the Pacific Theater. Many of those sites are in jungle locations where tropical heat, vegetation, saltwater typhoons, bacteria and the ultraviolet rays of the sizzling sun have corroded metal and devoured anything less durable.
On Kiska, however, the cold has kept microbes at bay and perpetual clouds have reduced sun damage. He's been able to locate wood and fabric artifacts left behind by the troops.
Critical to the survival of Kiska's relics has been its remoteness. Nearly 1,400 miles west of Anchorage, 800 miles east of Kamchatka, the island was so out-of-the-way that even the intrepid Russian fur hunters avoided it; they removed its Native population in the 1800s.
Aside from 10 men at a Navy weather station, the island was uninhabited when the Japanese Army took possession on June 6, 1942. Allied forces reclaimed the island 14 months later, built their own base, but soon abandoned it.
No one ever moved back.
"It's a strange and unique place," said Spennemann. "Everywhere else where you have a battlefield, you have people living there." Material is salvaged, recycled, carted off. The ground is built on or cultivated.
"Maybe in North Africa you can still see a few bits and pieces. But no where else in the world do we have a battlefield this plain and simple, the richness of layers, the lack of intrusion, the integrity of the site," he said.
Besides the condition of the historical objects, there's the state of the landscape. In the South Pacific areas, canopies of forest have reclaimed the once-blasted turf and now hide the trails, trenches, encampments and lines of combat. But the lack of trees in the Aleutians and the slow growth of the tundra make it possible to read Kiska's past like a map.
This is one of the most exciting aspects of the experience for Spennemann. "You can stand on a hill and look down at the valley and see the piers, the airstrips, the Japanese telephone poles, depressions for the Allies' tents, thousands of them. It's massive. And, 70 years later, it's all still there.
"In my opinion, it's an historic site of world significance."
Compared to Pearl Harbor or Iwo Jima -- or even neighboring Attu Island, where combined combat deaths reached 3,000, including nearly the entire Japanese force -- Kiska was a relatively peaceful battlefield.
The Japanese easily captured the 10 Americans at the weather station when they took the island on June 7, 1942. They quickly learned that bombs could not penetrate their sod-shod shelters. The garrison dispatched to the Alaska post was from Northern Japan, accustomed to and prepared for a climate much like home. The abundant seafood supplied the men with unlimited delicacies like urchin eggs. When they returned to strictly rationed Japan, they were accused of having grown fat.
Such soft duty couldn't last forever. In May 1943, after ferocious fighting, the surviving Japanese forces on Attu, their ammunition exhausted, committed mass suicide. Their comrades on Kiska knew they would be next.
The American assault on Attu was famously ill-equipped. The Army was not prepared for either the weather or the ferocity of the resistance. Commanders determined they would take no chances with Kiska. Waves of warplanes dumped thousands of bombs from high altitudes. An armada of 95 ships closed in on the 5,200 defenders with a force of 34,426 American and Canadian troops.
On Aug. 15, they boarded landing craft and plowed through the surf and fog to hit the beaches as big guns from three battleships provided thundering cover fire.
By the time the shooting stopped, 200 Allied soldiers were dead from various causes including friendly fire, booby traps or picking up a live "souvenir" in violation of orders.
But there were no enemies. The Japanese had departed July 28 in a miraculously timed evacuation. An American admiral reported that they left "fresh brewed coffee" -- perhaps a greeting and taunt to the island's newcomers.
Thousands of Allied soldiers now settled into Kiska. A major compound of Quonset huts and tents sprung up. Mostly tents. "They must have frozen their buns off," said Spennemann.
The station did not last long. When the base on Shemya was completed, military operations moved there.
And Kiska was once again uninhabited.
Today the island is listed as a National Historic Landmark, administered by the National Park Service. But unlike other sites on the list -- Valley Forge or Deadwood, S.D., -- visitors are not encouraged.
"There are unexploded ammunition issues," said Spennemann. "A lot of bombs and shells didn't go off when they went into the tundra. No matter how hard we try to remove it all, we can never say we've cleaned up for good."
Kiska and Attu present something of a conundrum for the Park Service. Its mandate is to preserve these properties so that all Americans can experience them, to better understand our past and the sacrifices made by those who have gone before.
But how can Joe Public enjoy a place if distance and danger make it impractical for average folks to get there?
One solution is the exhibit now on display at the Anchorage Museum, a collaboration with the Park Service's Alaska Regional Office.
"Kiska and Adak: War in the Aleutians" includes military gear from both sides, cartoons from Adak's base newspaper and propaganda leaflets.
The centerpiece is a series of striking digital photographs taken on Kiska by Spennemann last year. In the course of recording his archaeological work, Spennemann took hundreds of photos -- "and most of my images are bloody dull."
For this project, however, he wanted photos that would not simply document, but "play on people's emotions." Thus the angles suggest aggression, loneliness, determination or Ozymandian hubris.
They include pictures of major relics: Historic artillery pieces; the tip of a wing from a downed American B-24 bomber; the hull of a storied Japanese mini-sub. "It's one of two in existence," he said, "and, by far, the one in the best original condition."
Informal photos also fill the exhibit. Snapshots by American servicemen document the daily life at the Kiska camp. In addition, Spennemann tracked down Japanese survivors, including a 101-year-old officer who recounted his time in Alaska and supplied his own photographs.
This show may be the only time those photos will ever be seen outside Japan. There are no plans for the exhibit to travel elsewhere after it closes.
If the public can't get to Kiska, Spennemann hopes, the exhibit will at least "bring it in to them. And that needs to be done, because the Alaska part of the war is not well known."
That observation is an understatement. A few years ago this reporter spoke with a columnist from a large East Coast newspaper who had never heard of Kiska or Attu, who knew nothing of Imperial Japanese troops occupying Alaska territory or G.I.s giving their lives to retake it. Ignorance of the Aleutian War is not uncommon -- even among talented, inquisitive and much educated Americans.
Consider the irony: Taps will sound at battleground cemeteries from Gettysburg to Normandy this Memorial Day weekend.
But there will be no bugle at America's most unspoiled battleground.
Only the sound of wind blowing through waving tundra grass between the rusted guns that still point at the clouds over Kiska Island.
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