A LONELY PLACE FOR A WAR
During World War II, a young man recuperating from a bout of rheumatoid arthritis began to write his first novel. He served with the Army Transportation Service in the Aleutians as a warrant officer and master of a small cargo boat. He saw his novel published in 1946. The young man, destined for literary greatness, was Gore Vidal. His first novel, Williwaw, explored the effects of isolation and a cruel climate on the crew of a small Army cargo boat operating out of "Big Harbor" in the Aleutian Islands during World War II.(1)
Meteorologically, williwaws are not classified with storms that produce high winds, such as hurricanes or tornadoes. Williwaws are a Bora-type "fall wind," that occur in Alaska and Patagonia. They are violent winds that rush down from the snow-covered mountains in the Aleutian Islands where the cold Bering Sea meets the warm Japanese Current of the northern Pacific. They also happen in the Straits of Magellan off Tierra del Fuego, one of the most notoriously difficult sea passages on earth.(2)
The native Aleuts have a saying which warns against speaking about the wind for fear there may be a storm. But another more hopeful Aleut saying notes that "a wind is not a river, some time it will stop."(3)
The Aleuts, a hardy people living in one of the world's harshest environments, have suffered
greatly since their first contact with European nations in the eighteenth century. When the
United States began a military build-up in Alaska shortly before its entry into World War II, the
Aleuts were in desperate straits. One American pilot, Stephen E. Mills, observed:
The near extinction of the Aleuts was evident when I first flew down the Aleutian chain in July of 1941. There were only two villages to the west of Nikolski on the island of Umnak. In a distance of 680 nautical miles, there were about forty natives who made their home on Atka, and sixty, under old Chief Mike Hodakof, on Attu.(4)
This was a drastic change from the days of early contact when an estimated 30,000 Aleuts made their homes in the forbidding Aleutian Islands. One early observer commented that "from first to last their history has been one of exploitation."(5)
Unfortunately, the Aleuts also suffered at the hands of the American military. Well-intentioned policies often produced ill feeling. For example, orders were issued to remove the Aleuts from Atka Island on 13 June 1942, to get them out of the path of possible Japanese aggression. The Aleuts were quickly rounded up and put aboard the seaplane tender Hulbert for evacuation to Dutch Harbor. They were prevented from going ashore and retrieving packed suitcases prepared for such an emergency. The United States naval forces then burned Atka village to the ground, in order to leave nothing for the Japanese. Left with only the clothes on their backs, the Aleuts were angered and bewildered by American treatment.(6) But they were better off than their cousins on Attu Island who were not evacuated prior to the Japanese invasion. The fate of these people was grim. The Japanese shipped forty-two Aleuts from Attu to Japan, where twenty-one died in captivity at Otaru War Prison.(7)
With the evacuation of the Aleuts following the attack on Dutch Harbor, most of the Aleutians were practically devoid of human life. The scattered military forces of the United States at the eastern end of the island chain and the Japanese military forces on Attu and Kiska at the western end of the chain were the only intrusions of the twentieth century into the timeless primordial reaches of the 1,100 mile chain of islands.
This is a history of the events that brought thousands of young Arkansans, and young men from every state in the Union, to the remote wilderness frontier of the United States--Alaska. These young men were among the first to be deployed to defend the United States in the dark days of 1941. When war came on 7 December, the men of the Arkansas National Guard's 206th Coast Artillery (Antiaircraft) Regiment were on duty, defending the naval base at Dutch Harbor. This is their story.
1. Linda Metzger, ed., Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, vol. 15 (Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1984), 498; Gore Vidal, Williwaw (New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, Inc., 1946), cover notes.
2. The Encyclopedia Americana, International Edition, vol. 29 (Danbury, Connecticut: Grolier Incorporated, 1986), 31-32.
3. Lonnelle Davison, "Bizarre Battleground--the Lonely Aleutians," National Geographic, September 1942, 316.
4. Stephen E. Mills, Arctic War Planes: Alaska Aviation of World War II (New York: Bonanza Books, 1971), 7.
5. Major General A.W. Greely, Handbook of Alaska: Its Resources, Products, and Attractions (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1909), 231.
6. Ethel Ross Oliver, Journal of an Aleutian Year (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988), xviii-xix.
7. Ibid., Appendix 2, "Alex Prossoff's Story," 242-248, and Appendix 3, "Personal History of
War Prisoners from Attu," 249-254; The Hulbert acted as tender for Squadron VP-42 of Patrol
Wing 4 while stationed off Atka. Walter Karig and Eric Purdon, ed., Battle Report, vol. 3,
Pacific War: Middle Phase (New York: Rinehart and Company, Inc., 1947), 278, 281.
Copyright by William E. Maxwell, Jr.