I woke up last Saturday to the sun streaming in around the edges of my blackout curtains and a text from a friend asking if I wanted to go to Whittier. Hours later found me in the back seat of her car mindlessly filling in the Sunday New York Times crossword while we and another friend cruised north.
None of us had been to Whittier before, so we weren’t sure what to expect. I’d heard what a lot of other people hear about Whitter: everyone lives in one building, you have to drive through a tunnel to get there, etc. This is all to say that I was surprised by what awaited us on the other side of the mountain that separates Whittier from Portage.
We ate lunch at the Anchor Inn and I got the usual confused look from our waitress after ordering a cheeseburger with no patty (a familiar experience across six years of being a vegetarian). A procedural crime drama played on the TV in the corner while my friend — recovering from wisdom tooth removal — sipped gingerly at a small cup of chili.
After walking around the lichen-stained shell of the former Buckner Building, we peeked around Begich Towers before heading to the museum advertised in block letters by the grocery store next to the Anchor Inn. Our $5 suggested donation was dropped into a gold box and our names signed in the visitor book.
It’s always humbling to be reminded how much you don’t know. I did not know much about Alaska’s involvement in World War II. As Japan expanded, Congress was pushed to strengthen the West Coast and established a Panama-Hawaii-Alaska defense triangle.
Japan bombed the U.S. Dutch Harbor Naval Operating Base and U.S. Army Fort Mears six months after Pearl Harbor, according to the National Park Services, which maintains a virtual resource guide of the area.
The museum featured separate displays about the Japanese occupation of the islands of Attu and Kiska in the Aleutians. In response to the occupations, the U.S. established bases on neighboring islands and evacuated nearly 900 Aleuts from nine villages across multiple islands, according to the National Park Service.
En route to abandoned canneries and mining camps in Southeast Alaska, almost 100 Aleut people died because of poor camp conditions, according to NPS. U.S. military forces also burned many Aleut homes to prevent Japanese forces from using them and removed religious icons from local churches. Alaskans of Japanese descent would later be shipped to internment camps in the Lower 48.
The National Park Service reports that the beginning of the end of war in Alaska began in May 1943, when U.S. forces landed on Attu and began to retake the island. The troops fought for 19 days, at the end of which 29 Japanese prisoners remained of the initial 2,600-person force. By the time U.S. and Canadian forces attempted to retake Kiska in August, they found that Japanese troops had evacuated during a period of fog weeks earlier, according to NPS.
The U.S. Department of the Interior recognizes eight historic sites throughout Alaska with connections to WWII, including the Attu battlefield and bases and Japanese occupation site on Kiska Island.
The collection of uniforms, first-person accounts and other artifacts from warfare in the Aleutians on display in Whittier is impressive given the size of the museum. It’s a great place to learn and reflect on a chapter of Alaska history that I didn’t learn in school. (Admittedly, I attended school in southern California but, for what it’s worth, my friend who grew up in Homer hadn’t heard of the warfare in Attu and Kiska either.)
I love cliche phrases like, “You learn something new every day,” because it’s true. Every day I spend in Alaska, I learn something I didn’t know the day before. It is a special and exciting place to be.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at firstname.lastname@example.org.