It’s been 75 years since thousands of young soldiers lost their lives fighting over the westernmost point of the United States. Seventy-five years since the Alaska Native people of Attu were taken from their homes never to return again.
This weekend, former Attu residents, as well as veterans of the Aleutian campaign and descendants of the Japanese soldiers joined together to commemorate the tragedy and honor the legacy of those lost.
In war, no one walks away unscathed. The Battle of Attu was no exception.
But 75 years after one of the deadliest battles fought on north American soil, representatives from all affected parties joined together to ensure this history is never forgotten.
The closing ceremony was held in an airplane hangar at the Alaska Aviation Museum.
While the Aleutian campaign is not well known and often called the forgotten war, Mayor Crystal Dushkin says that’s not true for her.
“I’m here to tell you that for our people – the Unangax people of the Aleutian islands and those descendants of the people of Attu -- it has never been forgotten and it never will be.”
Dushkin’s grandmother Mary Snigaroff (nee Prokopeuff) was born on Attu and later moved to Atka.
42 Attu residents were taken to Japan and held as prisoners of war – nearly half died of malnutrition and starvation. After the war, the U.S. government would not allow them to return home to their island.
Unangax from other Aleutian communities were rounded up by the federal government and placed in internment camps in southeast Alaska.
Dushkin says during World War II Unangax were caught in a crossfire between the U.S. and Japan.
“It was not our fight to begin with, not our battle, not our war," Dushkin said. "Yet our people suffered immeasurably both at the hands of the Japanese and at the hands of the U.S.”
Dushkin hopes that the commemoration can help ensure the Aleutian campaign does not continue to be the forgotten war – in Japan or in America.
Retired Lt. Colonel Bob Brocklehurst agrees. He was the first fighter pilot on Attu, but he didn’t learn about what happened to the Unangan people until last year.
He wants the documentary film, When the Fog Clears – which premiered at the commemoration – to be widely distributed. It showed him that the opposing Japanese soldiers weren’t any different from him.
“The film showed the Japanese with the same love for family. The same worries about their son in combat and army units, and the same respect that the son in uniform had for his wife back home," Brocklehurst said. "Exactly identical to an American family.”
Motoaki Asano came from Japan to attend the commemoration. His father Hiroo Okazaki died on Attu and is still buried there alongside more than 2,000 other Japanese soldiers. He spoke through a translator.
“My father’s body is still on Attu, so I would like to bring him back as soon as possible,” Asano said.
Asano says he learned about the suffering the Attu people endured during WWII, and is honored to work to make sure future generations never forget the forgotten war.
“Some people in Japan are just looking toward the future and they’re not trying to look towards the past, so I have to work hard to keep this memory alive,” Asano said.
This request to return the Japanese soldiers remains to Japan has been made of the Japanese government three times.
Returning the remains would be complicated, but Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge manager Steve Delehanty says not impossible.
After the closing ceremonies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) got their own request from Attu Descendant Helena Schmitz.
“I want my children's, children’s children to be able to go back to Attu with no cost to us," Schmitz said. "That’s the justice that needs to be done on our people. The U.S. government, the Japanese government, and the Russian government, took our culture away. And we need your help since [the USFWS] owns the island.”
Schmitz says while the return trip last summer was an important step, it was not enough.
Principal Deputy Director Greg Sheehan said he didn’t know what the options are, but said he’s open to talking more about the idea.