The Race for the Arctic and Memories of the Aleutian Islands Campaign

Along with space, one of the 21st century’s main battlegrounds promises to be the Arctic. With a shrinking ice cap and previously unimaginable technological leaps, the resources of the region are being opened up like never before. With potentially vast reserves of energy resources and extensive fisheries, global powers are taking note of the icy north.

A Russian oil platform in the Arctic

This, of course, has already begun somewhat of a geopolitical scramble. Russia has increased its footprint in the Arctic as has China, despite somewhat tenuous links to the region. The USA, meanwhile, is slowly beginning to invest more in its military forces in Alaska, whilst strengthening ties with the Nordic nations of Europe – Norway, Finland and Sweden – who fear Russian encroachment.

America’s 49th state is seldom given much air time, particularly outside the US. Yet its strategic importance is nothing new and is only likely to increase as the Arctic’s riches are greedily pursued in the coming decades. In Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands, the US has an important fishing port and the last refuelling point for vessels heading further into the Arctic Circle.

Dutch Harbor: one of the more remote US outposts

Interestingly enough – and something rarely mentioned – Dutch Harbor was bombed by the Japanese during World War Two. Why? Because of its strategic location and use; a naval base at the northern extremity of the Pacific, an ocean Japan was intent on controlling.

In June 1942, Japanese aircraft were launched from carriers and undertook two air raids on the naval and merchant ships moored in Dutch Harbor. Whilst of little note compared to the attack on Pearl Harbour, the bombing in Alaska was the precursor to Japanese forces invading the islands of Attu and Kiska. These were American property and the daring incursions sparked the Aleutian Islands Campaign, with US territory invaded and occupied for the first time since the War of 1812.

Japanese bombs fall on Dutch Harbor

US and Canadian support troops would eventually retake Attu in May 1943, a battle carried out in freezing conditions that concluded with bloody hand-to-hand fighting and the loss of more than 500 Allied and 2,300 Japanese troops. Kiska was recovered in August 1943, the Japanese abandoning the island shortly before a massive Allied invasion force landed.

Slain Japanese troops after the Battle of Attu

Although only a footnote in history, the Aleutian Islands Campaign confirmed the perception of both the US and its arch-enemy of the strategic significance of the nation’s northwestern lands. Barely inhabited, the territory commands an important location within a precariously navigable waterway, offering access to the shipping lanes of the Pacific and, increasingly, the Arctic.

It is little wonder that the American government is belatedly turning its attention towards Alaska in an era of new strategic competition. Russia too has vast Arctic territory and numerous islands from which it can project its power. With China’s nefarious island-building activities in the South China Sea, who knows what slice of the pie Beijing envisages for itself in the polar climes.

A new Coastguard forward operating base at Kotzebue, Alaska

Names unfamiliar in both an historical and contemporary context may soon be commanding an attention worthy of their 21st century importance.

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California Burning: the Sad Reality of a Dry State

California has a lot of fires; it’s a pretty dry state. The increasing frequency of devastating blazes such as those currently raging to the north of Los Angeles is leading to unsurpassed human and economic loss.

Climate change proponents are quick to identify California’s prolonged droughts and wildfires as direct evidence that they are right. They may have an argument. But the destruction and fatalities caused by natural disasters across the world today are just as much about population growth and poor planning as they are about environmental factors, not to mention things beyond human control.

Prior to this week’s Camp Fire, which has so far resulted in at least 42 fatalities, the deadliest inferno in California’s history started at Griffith Park, Los Angeles in October 1933.

Scarred hillsides after the Griffith Park fire

A particularly barren summer had led to an excess of dry brush in the park, which gangs of workers from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation were hired to clear. On the 3rd October a small fire broke out in the park and quickly spread, with the inexperienced workers press-ganged into acting as emergency firemen.

Poorly planned backfires and inadequate firebreaks effectively trapped dozens of men in a swirling torrent of flame that was worsened by strong winds. Despite being brought under control relatively quickly by the emergency services, the Griffith Park inferno had claimed at least 29 lives.

Strong winds are currently hampering rescue efforts in California. No matter what the firefighting technology, the federal aid granted and the pre-emptive mitigation measures, a stiff breeze will exacerbate catastrophe.

The bodies were laid in a row on a concrete floor under a huge canvas shroud. Most were so badly burned that they could not be identified, except by their belongings, which were kept in an old apple crate.

As in 1933, macabre tales are being told today, with people found burnt to cinders in their cars or trapped in the rubble of their incinerated homes. When nature ‘wins’ the consequences are never pretty.

A body is recovered after the Griffith Park fire

It is unfortunate that the California fires are being used for political point-scoring and ‘I told you so’ jibes when all that should have been considered from the outset was a unified and comprehensive response to an inordinately difficult situation. Repercussions and recrimination can wait.

These things happen – as pointedly obvious as it seems to say – and the exact circumstances of such a disaster will never be the same and can never be predicted. A dose of realism is required; we are not all-conquering and we will never know the future.