Aleutian World War II National Historic Area

The Aleutian World War II National Historic Area is also home to the Unangan people (who have lived there for more than 8,000 years). The area was also the site of a Japanese invasion that occupied several islands in the archipelago. In 1942, after the invasion the US Government rounded up about 900 of the Unangan and moved them to an internment camp in southeastern Alaska. An air war was fought in the skies over the islands for 15 months and then one of the deadliest battles in the Pacific Theater was fought... and won.

The Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor almost exactly six months after they bombed Pearl Harbor. Then two days later, their troops landed on and occupied Attu and Kiska Islands, more than 1,000 miles southwest of Dutch Harbor. They captured an entire village of Unangan on Attu and shortly transported them all to prisoner-of-war camps in Japan. It was shortly after that the Americans rounded up all the inhabitants of nine other villages in the area and moved those folks to an abandoned site of cannery and mining buildings in southeast Alaska. Of the 880 people moved there, almost 100 died there. While they were gone, their villages and homes were vandalized by American troops, their churches allowed to fall into disrepair and their archaeological sites looted for recreation.

Tens of thousands of American troops were mobilized to the area to protect "America's back door." The two sides bombed each other sporadically, then in 1943 the Aleutian Campaign began in earnest with the Americans soon taking back Attu and Kiska Islands. However, the Unangan were not allowed to return until the end of the war. And when they did return, they were not allowed to return to the villages of Attu, Kashega, Biorka and Makushin.

The Park is located on Amaknak Island in the western Aleutians. There are regular commercial flights (daily schedules, although about 20% get canceled because of the weather) and the Alaska Marine Highway System also stops in regularly (once every two weeks from April to October). The Visitor Center is located at the Unalaska Airport, about 3/4 of a mile from the cruise ship docks and 1.1 miles from the Grand Aleutian Hotel.

Aleutian World War II National Historic Area: a view of Unalaska

The National Historic Area covers the footprint of US Army base Fort Schwatka, one of four coastal forts built to protect Dutch Harbor during World War II. As a coastal battery, at 897 feet above sea level it is the highest coastal battery ever built in the US. The Aerology Building at the Fort is now the Visitor Center and Museum with exhibits from the Unangan people and from many of the troops stationed there during the war. Fort Schwatka was built around Ulatka Head on Mount Ballyhoo. From that spot it overlooks all of Dutch Harbor but especially the Dutch Harbor Naval Operating Base. There were more than 100 buildings constructed at the fort, all designed to withstand earthquakes (which are common in the area) and 100 mile-per-hour winds (also common in the area). Since that time, many of the tunnel entrances have collapsed. The wooden floors have rotted and some of the bunkers are unstable, if not collapsed, too. Vegetation has grown to obscure many of the dangers and the regular heavy fog acts to obscure more dangers (collapsed tunnels, cliff edges, etc). During the war, soldiers also deployed anti-personnel stakes throughout the area and many are still sticking up out of the ground. The stakes are large and sharp: to step or fall on one could cause serious injury. That's why it's always better to stay on the established roads and trails.

Weather in the area can also be problematic. In the summer the temperature varies from 45°F to 65°F and rain, fog and wind are very common. Early summer and fall, though, offer some clear sunny days with great views of the surrounding volcanic peaks. That said, Unalaska sees rain an average of 225 days per year.

The park is open year round but most folks visit between May and October. To visit the National Historic Area on Mount Ballyhoo, you'll need a land use permit from the Ounalashka Corporation. By the day these cost $6 for individuals, $10 for families. There are weekly and annual passes available, too. All can be purchased at the Ounalashka Corporation Visitor Center at the Unalaska Airport.

Summer hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 11 am to 6 pm. Winter hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 11 am to 5 pm.

Admission to the Museum of the Aleutians costs $5 per person and the museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 am to 5 pm. Fees are subject to change.

For those folks who watch Deadliest Catch on television, the Russian Orthodox Church at Unalaska is a familiar sight.

Upper photo courtesy of Piergiuliano Chesi, CCA-by-SA 3.0 License
Lower photo courtesy of Wanetta Ayers