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True History and the Lies We Were Told: Alaska Native Internment Camps of WW2

John Bridges is a published author of history, and politics. His doctorate is in criminal justice.

Native Alaskans Being Shipped to Juneau by Force

Natives are taken by crowded ships on a 2000 mile journey to an unfamiliar place, where they will be unjustly held for 2 years.

Natives are taken by crowded ships on a 2000 mile journey to an unfamiliar place, where they will be unjustly held for 2 years.

We are familiar with some of the battles involving the U.S. territories in the South Pacific. What we do not hear about as often is that the Japanese had indeed attacked Alaska and held two of its islands for most of the war. There was little strategic value to these islands, but their capture provided a propaganda boost for Japan and served as an irritation to the U.S. President and Military.

The United States had underestimated the abilities of Japan to mount an attack on Hawaii and were caught unprepared. It was of the utmost importance that people living on the west coast of the United States remain free from panic. The Japanese capture of Attu and Kiska shortly after the attack of Pearl Harbor would have increase panic and broken morale. Americans would have been shocked that Japanese troops could take any U.S. soil, no matter how remote or barren. Great efforts were made to keep the news from the American Public. For the nearly 900 people living on islands close to Attu and Kiska, it was a different story. The Japanese action on Attu did have a major impact the lives of Alaskan Americans. As with those of Japanese descent along the mainland’s west coast, Alaskan Americans were sent to internment camps.

Children Held at Ward Lake Internment Camp

The natives made the best of their situation. They considered themselves patriotic Americans throughout the ordeal.

The natives made the best of their situation. They considered themselves patriotic Americans throughout the ordeal.

The U.S. Military was stretched to its limits fighting war in Europe, Africa, and Asia. They could not justify expending the resources needed to recapture Attu and Kiska since they were of little strategic importance. Although they were a drain on the morale of the U.S. Military, their recapture would need to be postponed. The U.S. Government did have an obligation to protecting the lives of American citizens which prompted the forced evacuations, relocation, and internment of Alaskan- American citizens.

There were few federal agencies at the time aside from Fish and Wildlife agents. Fish and Wildlife agents oversaw the internment of the people of Alaska's Pribilof Islands after the Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor on the Aleutian island of Unalaska, where the U.S. had established military bases.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents evacuated 881 Unangax (Native Alaskans) from nine villages. They were taken from their homes and put onto cramped transport ships, most allowed only a single suitcase, leaving all other possessions behind. From the boats they watched as the U.S. military set their homes and church afire, so they would not fall into Japanese hands. The Natives were taken from the remote islands for internment nearly 2000 miles away.

Life in Internment

Despite the challenges they face, the tribe tried to provide normalcy for their native citizens.

Despite the challenges they face, the tribe tried to provide normalcy for their native citizens.

They were brought to an unfamiliar location near Juneau. They were housed in abandoned canneries. The sites were dilapidated, rotting facilities with no plumbing, electricity or toilets. The natives lacked warm winter clothes. Camp food was poor, and the water was tainted. For two years they would remain in these dark places, struggling to survive. Sickness and disease struck nearly all the evacuees, but there was often no medical care available. The authorities were unresponsive to complaints. The oldest tribal members were the ones who were hardest hit by the conditions of the camps. Many succumbed. With the death of the elders so, too, passed their knowledge of traditional Unangax ways.

Throughout their ordeal, the Unangax remained a fiercely patriotic people. Some of the men joined the Armed Forces. Three took part in the U.S. invasion of Attu Island, and all were awarded the Bronze Star. At the internment camps, the Unangax voted in Territorial elections. The natives would need to wait for a successful conclusion to the battle of Attu before they could return.

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A Memorial and Apology to Those Interned

A memorial sits atop a hill in Unalaska. Natives also received reparation payments and an official apology from the U.S. government.

A memorial sits atop a hill in Unalaska. Natives also received reparation payments and an official apology from the U.S. government.

Although American officials were incensed that Japan had seized U.S. territory, little attention to the Japanese garrisons at Attu and Kiska was paid. In the initial months after Japan occupied the islands, the U.S. military conducted only occasional bombing raids from nearby Aleutian Islands. Eventually enough resources were allocated to mount and attack. In May 1943, U.S. troops finally retook Attu and in August reclaimed Kiska, paving the way for those who were interned to be reunited with their ancestral home.

In June 2017, the Director of the Fish and Wildlife Services officially apologized to the survivors and their descendants, for the departments role in the internment of Americans.

The Tribe and Customs Live on Today

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