Battle for Birdland

Trivia question: Name the town on American soil that the Japanese occupied for almost a year during World War II.

Yeah, I’d never heard of this one, either.

The answer isAttuMap Attu, Alaska, the western-most point of America, so far off the mainland that it’s hard to believe it’s really part of America. They have to seriously bend the International Date Line to keep this island on the same day as the rest of the state.

In June of 1942, there were less than fifty people living there, almost entirely indigenous Aleuts. The government had evacuated the natives from most of the other islands on this chain, but hadn’t gotten as far as little Attu by the time the Japanese raiders showed up.

And, man, did they invade. They sent over two thousand soldiers. Apparently, Japan was convinced that this was a strategic port, sitting as it does between us and Russia.

It’s hard to imagine how two thousand soldiers managed to live there for a year. Sure, it’s one of the largest islands (about 20 miles by 35 miles), but it’s a cold and desolate spot to live. The Japanese soldiers dug caves in the ground for housing, set about building landing strips, and waited for the US forces to show up.

We were a little busy, of course. And, to be honest, their stronghold on that little island didn’t inconvenience America all that much.

But when we did arrive in May of ’43, we didn’t mess around. America sent three battleships, carrying just shy of eleven thousand soldiers. You’d think simple math would have won it for us, but the Battle of Attu was a month-long bloodbath. In the end, America lost almost three thousand men, and the Japanese were left with only 29 men taken alive.

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Photo by National Geographic

It’s a shame that neither side really wanted the land. We maintained a tiny Coast Guard base there until 2010, but the island is now deserted.

In fact, if you’ve even heard of it in your life, chances are it’s because you are really into birdwatching. Because it’s so close to Russia, the island became a favorite destination of Birders, as trade winds often blow in birds that are not native to North America.

Even the Birders can’t reach it anymore, since the US has closed the only air base. The only thing left is its footnote in history and the catchphrase that is too cute to forget. Because of that business with redrawing the International Date Line around the island, their slogan is, “From here you can see tomorrow!

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