Mike Rostad is a journalist who has been living on Kodiak for well over four decades. For many years, he has been the editor in chief and main contributor of Kodiak weekly newspaper The Kadiak Times and monthly Kodiak Fisherman. He has also been contributing for years, several times a week, to the Kodiak Daily Mirror and to numerous publications in the American Northwest. He has also co-authored a major book on the history of Kodiak Mike’s intimacy with Kodiak Islanders and his way of portraying them has not only made him a major local writer is has made him a beloved figure on the archipelago, almost a family member for every household on the islands. We are deeply grateful for his letting us republish this article from his regular column of December 17, 2021, “Kodiak Tapestry”.
Trucks land in the Aleutians
(from Report from the Aleutians, 1943 film by John Huston).
Rosabel Morrison Baldwin, who was a girl at the time of the military build-up, to this day, can hear military trucks rumbling into town from Fort Greeley (now the Coast Guard base) driving down the unpaved streets. “If it had rained, heaven help us,” said Rosabel. “Past our house, just down from the Community Baptist Church, there was a big rut. Trucks would get stuck.” The men worked hard to pull them out. “We’d sit at the window and watch them,” Rosabel said. She can still hear the men hollering as they struggled with the jeep. Rosabel also recalls the day that Kodiak was alerted about the attack on Pearl Harbor. The message came via telegram at the old Krafts store and the Agricultural Experimental Station, which is located by the Kodiak library.
Leon “Ole” Johnson—one of the 1000 troops who arrived on Kodiak Island, recalled the Pearl Harbor attack (...): he and “Another fellow” were on the ham radio, “talking to Honolulu, The operator on the other end said, 'I don’t know what the Air Force is up to this morning ... but there’s planes all over the place.' Then it went off the air."
Leon “Ole” Johnson—one of the 1000 troops who arrived on Kodiak Island, recalled the Pearl Harbor attack in an article written by Nell Waage, for Ruralite, a magazine published by the Kodiak Electric Association, which Johnson managed for many years. Ole said that he and “Another fellow” were on the ham radio, “talking to Honolulu, The operator on the other end said, 'I don’t know what the Air Force is up to this morning ... but there’s planes all over the place.' Then it went off the air. About a half hour later we found out why it went off the air.”
Long-time Kodiak teacher, Ellen Dawson Sawyer, and mother of three boys -- Hobart, Doug and Bob -- recalled how her sons raced into the house after Sunday School, announcing that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. Their dad, Robert, was skeptical, but Ellen figured there was no way the boys could make up that story. “They didn’t know Pearl Harbor from a hole in the ground,” she said. By four o’clock that afternoon Kodiak residents were ordered to turn their lights off just in case Japanese bombers flew over to attack. When the town thought it was safely in the dark “up comes the moon and shows everything we’re trying to hide,” Ellen recalled.
Fears of military attacks stretched to other places on the archipelago including Afognak and Akhiok. Gladys Olsen, an Afognak resident, and her children stayed on Dry Spruce Island near Port Bailey during part of the war. Often her husband, Hans, was either fishing or working at the Port Bailey cannery nearby. One day Gladys was terrified to see a big ship near the point. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God! There’s one of the Jap ships and I’m here all by myself!’ ”, she said in an article “I started getting the children all ready. They got their boots on, their heavy mackinaws, and I got myself all ready. It was foggy, too, and we were so afraid. Then the fog lifted a little bit, and there was the American flag (on the ship ) Oh, how happy I was! The most beautiful sight! The American flag!” The vessel, which carried canned salmon, evidently had strayed from the convoy and struck a reef.
Kodiak had evacuations and blackouts quite often because there was a great fear that the Japanese would attack the island. People were told to cover their windows, automobile headlights-anything that would expose Kodiak’s location to enemies that were flying over. Blackouts were serious business. Patrolmen, such as Norm Sutliff, made sure that houses had all their windows covered. "No lights could show,” Norm said. "About that time I got a horse, so a couple of nights I rode my horse around on patrol.” Norm gave people who didn’t cover windows a stern warning. “They could have been arrested. Times were pretty tense. “We carried a rifle in our toolbox ... expecting the Japs to attack at any time," Norm said.
Jennie Peterson Zeedar, and her husband, Senafont Zeedar who were youngsters during the War, recalled how their lives were affected by the War. Jennie lived in Akhiok and Senafont in the small village of Kaguyak 20 miles up the coast. Military troops were dispersed to the villages to protect the people in case the Japanese attacked. There must have been more than a hundred soldiers over there. “It still never hit us, what’s war," Jennie remembered. "We were too young to know what war is. “The teacher had us studying history...to make us understand what was going on. We started reading, and that’s when we started to understand what war was all about.” Airplanes occasionally flew above the villages. The sound was loud and threatening. The youngsters feared that the planes might drop fiery explosives.“The first time we learned about airplanes was on Good Friday,” Jennie recalled. “The planes were flying over Akhiok and we were going up to the church. We didn’t know if they were Americans or enemies. They told us to run under anything available. I was by my uncle's old house. That’s where my sister and I ran. When the planes were further away, we ran into the church. But, so far, so good.” The planes were apparently friendly ones.
Since it was likely that the enemy would strike at night, the villagers were told to cover any sign that would alert the Japanese to the presence of a community. They put blankets and other covers over their windows and used inconspicuous kerosene lanterns for inside light. Stove fires were snuffed out so that sparks -a clear signal to enemy pilots- would not come out of the smokestacks. People were even forbidden to smoke outside.
The Zeedars were convinced that the Japanese did actually fly over Kodiak Island with the intention of attacking it; but fog prevented them from carrying out their mission. Speculations that the fog saved Kodiak from attack were proven true when Senator Al Owen, and his wife, Hazel, went to Japan after the War. They told me that their taxi driver had been stationed on a Japanese aircraft carrier that was near Kodiak Island during the War. Commanders intended to attack the island, but were prevented from doing so because of the turbulent weather and the fog.
Throughout her long life, Ellen Sawyer often heard people complain about the Kodiak fog, but, realizing how it protected Kodiak from danger during the War, she always had a good thing to say about it.
Acknowledging the strategic importance of Kodiak, the National Park Sevice (that maintains Forts Greely and Abercrombie National Historic Landmark on the island) continues the story of Alaska in World War II. The Aleutian islands were much less lucky than Kodiak in the "1000 Mile War", a series of fierce battles and operations in Alaskan waters that lasted almost two years.
Six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese bombed the U.S. Dutch Harbor Naval Operating Base and U.S. Army Fort Mears, near Unalaska Island and occupied the Aleutian islands of Attu and Kiska. For many decades following the War, the prevailing understanding about the Japanese Aleutian operation was that it served as a mere diversionary measure from their Midway operation. Recent research, however, concludes that the Japanese had a broader and longer term strategy to establish and expand an eastern defensive perimeter. In response, U.S. military strategists knew that they could not risk leaving the Aleutians open as stepping stones for Japanese attacks on the United States mainland. (...)
Forty-two Aleuts living on the island of Attu and two Navy weather observers on Kiska were taken prisoner by the Japanese and sent to Japan where 17 died. In June and July 1942, the U.S. military evacuated 881 Aleuts from nine villages located on several islands including the Pribilofs and Unalaska. They were taken by a military transport ship in cramped conditions to abandoned canneries and mining camps in Southeast Alaska. Nearly a hundred died in the horrible conditions of these camps. During their absence, the U.S. military burned many of their homes to keep the Japanese from using them, and removed religious icons from their churches. (...)
On May 11, 1943 U.S. forces landed on Attu and began an uphill battle to retake the island. After nineteen days of fighting, the beleaguered Japanese soldiers launched a final banzai charge in an attempt to break through the American line. When the battle ended, only 29 prisoners remained of a Japanese force of roughly 2,600. "
War in Alaska turned this isolated territory with a very small population (barely over 72, 000 inhabitants in 1940) into a network of important strategic cities and a population that almost doubled at the end of the war. During the Cold War, the military infrastructures -- in the close vicinity of the U.S.S.R. across the Pacific --became one of the foundations of Alaska's economy. Today, Alaska, which became the 49th state of the Union in 1959, counts 736,081 inhabitants
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