Larre’s two choices for a Navy posting in Alaska were on Adak Island or at Cape Chiniak on Kodiak Island. We joked in this episode about military people being threatened with being sent to the Aleutians, but it wasn’t an idle threat. Many troops were stationed at isolated posts there during World War II and during the Cold War.
The Aleutian Island chain stretches nearly 1500 miles west from the tip of the Alaska Peninsula. Attu Island is the farthest west point of the U.S., close to both Japan and Russia. Six months after their attack on Pearl Harbor during War II, Japanese troops invaded and set up outposts on Attu and Kiska Islands, and bombed Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island. Over the following year, the US took severe losses in a sea battle to blockade Japanese supply ships, and over 2000 Japanese and 1000 U.S. troops died in the land battles to retake the islands.
Invasion of the mainland via the Aleutians was a real threat during WWII. When you visit Kodiak, you’ll see the bunkers and gun emplacements at Fort Abercrombie and its Military History Museum. Down at Cape Chiniak is another old bunker, but no more military presence. Some secret work still goes on down the road, though, at the missile launch complex.
After the war, the Aleutian region continued to host radar and radio-listening posts to keep track of what was happening in the Pacific region. The islands are frequently stormy, with thick fog, lashing rain and blowing snow. Being stationed in such a remote, harsh location would feel punishing.
The Aleut people, though, have lived on the islands for over 9,000 years. Their population was as much as 25,000 when Russians first arrived in 1741, and shrunk to fewer than 1,000 in three generations.
Seal and fox fur was a big business for Russian and American companies. Many islands were used for fox farming; sometimes breeding pairs would be dropped off on an island and ships would return periodically to harvest them. Native bird populations crashed because their nests were easy pickings for the foxes.
Today most of the Aleutian Islands are in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, and over half is designated as wilderness. Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island is still the largest settlement, with over 4,000 year-round residents, most of whom are connected to the fishing industry.