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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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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