Japanese bombing of Dutch Harbor remembered

Posted: Sunday, June 24, 2007

DUTCH HARBOR - In honor of the 65th anniversary of the Japanese bombing of Unalaska/Dutch Harbor, historian and high school history teacher Jeff Dickrell gave a presentation of the events.

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The presentation lasted for two hours in the high school auditorium. Dickrell followed the entire Aleutian front from construction to reclaiming Kiska and Attu a year after the attack on Dutch Harbor.

Japanese bombers attacked June 3 and 4, 1942. Two weeks before the bombing, a message from Japan to one of its ships was intercepted and deciphered. The message stated that Dutch Harbor was the next target.

Every day at the end of May, for the first and last hour of daylight, troops would be at their alert positions.

"This means that every morning, the troops have to be at their attack positions at 5 a.m. and at midnight," Dickrell said.

When gathering information and stories, Dickrell attended several reunions of the units that were stationed in Dutch Harbor during the war.

Dickrell went over the history of the bombing of Dutch Harbor, beginning in 1938 when an agreement with Japan ended, allowing the U.S. government to fortify the Aleutians.

"Until construction began, most of town existed from the (Russian Orthodox) church to the AC wharf," Dickrell said.

In 1940, everything changed with the development of the marine barracks, and within two years, Amaknak Island had been developed.

Dickrell pointed out geographical differences in wartime Dutch Harbor, such as the size of the mouth of Margarets Bay, the independence of Expedition Island and various lakes that still existed.

Fort Mears was built in peacetime on Amaknak Island, more commonly known as Dutch Harbor. There were several families living on the island. Dickrell noted white paint on the buildings, signifying the lack of threat of combat.

During this time, the airport was located in the bay, where PBYs, or military floatplanes, could land. One major suggested to an elder of the village of Unalaska that the best place to build a runway would be where the town was located, between Iliuliuk River and Unalaska Bay.

After hearing this, the elders filed to become a city to maintain their rights and prevent the onslaught of bulldozers.

Because of poor airport conditions at Unalaska, two alternative airbases were built, one in Cold Bay and at Fort Glen on Umnak Island. The two airfields were built within three months in response to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

"Whenever I tell a veteran I'm from Dutch Harbor and bring up Cold Bay, they shudder and respond, 'There was never a place more aptly named,"' Dickrell said.

Fort Glen had three runways, positioned so a plane could always land at the base in any type of weather. The airfield at Fort Glen was built in eight days, with approximately 10,000 feet of runway laid down.

As an incentive to troops, competitions were held to see which shift could lay down the most runway. Fort Glen employed steel runways, and planes trying to land would rebound into the air.

"I found video footage of planes trying to land, and they literally bounced down the runway," Dickrell said.

In Dutch Harbor, both the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army were present. The Army was in charge of protecting the Navy base, while the Navy was patrolling the seas.

Dickrell highlighted factors that enabled a successful attack by the Japanese. The Army's antiaircraft guns were designed to shoot at planes that traveled 120-150 mph, but the Japanese planes were capable of traveling up to 300 mph.

During the attack on Dutch Harbor, several lives were lost, but many were saved as well.

One mystery Dickrell said left unsolved was radio communication. During both attacks, radio communication failed during the attacks but worked before and after.

During the second day, the troops on Dutch Harbor were more prepared. After the first attack, the troops had moved guns and relocated members of the community from buildings to foxholes in the mountains for protection.

After the second attack on Dutch Harbor, the planes retreated but regathered over Fort Glen. Several PBYs were doing routine air patrols, and soon American planes were sharing airspace with Japanese planes.

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