FLOOR SPEECH: 75th Anniversary of the Aleutian Campaign

Alaskans are emphatic about the observance of Memorial Day. We revere those who served in our military. We are home to more veterans per capita than any other state in the union. This year I was privileged to host a most distinguished veteran at Alaska’s official state veterans’ memorial. That memorial is located at Byers Lake, one of the most tranquil and picturesque spots in all Alaska. And that distinguished veteran was our Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, a former Navy SEAL.

The following week, Alaska observed Memorial Day once again. But our focus was not on those who gave their lives on foreign soil, but in a battle for American soil. Our focus was on what is known as the “forgotten battle” of World War II. The bombing and subsequent occupation of the Aleutian Islands of Alaska by Japan. It took a yearlong campaign, fighting weather and terrain with equipment that was not up to the challenge, to reclaim US territory from a determined Japanese force.

They don’t call this the “forgotten battle” for nothing so let me explain. On June 3, 1942, Japanese forces bombed Dutch Harbor and over the succeeding days occupied the islands of Attu and Kiska. It was not until May of 1943, that Attu was retaken. 549 US and allied troops were killed in combat. But there is evidence that US and allied losses were quite higher, the result of exposure, disease, Japanese booby-traps and friendly fire.

And even though the Japanese had evacuated Kiska before the allies arrived there are reports of casualties from booby-traps, disease, frostbite and friendly fire.

The war in the Aleutians also came at a great price to the Native people who lived on their lands for some 8000 years before the war.  Homes and churches were burned. 881 of the Aleut residents of nine villages were relocated to abandoned mining and fishing camps in Southeast Alaska where they were forced to live in substandard conditions.

They lacked clothes, medical care, proper food and clean water. Some died in the camps. Their lives were forever changed for even after the war many were not allowed to return to their villages.

However, even in the darkest days, they never gave up their hope and patriotism. 25 men from the evacuated villages chose to fight. Three men joined the retake of Attu, and all were awarded the Bronze Star for their valor.

There are a great many lessons of the Aleutian campaign. America once perceived itself as a nation oceans away from foreign threats. Today it is unthinkable that our territory could be occupied by a foreign power. But we must never forget that during World War II, a portion of the United States was indeed occupied. And it was occupied because in those days, as today, Alaska is a strategic location. These lessons cannot be lost to history.

It is said that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. The Japanese incursion occurred less than a decade after General Billy Mitchell testified that Alaska is indeed the most strategic place in the world. And the incursion taught our nation a vital lesson. That the defense of America begins in Alaska.

Fortunately the lessons of the Aleutian campaign and Alaska’s strategic location are not lost on today’s military planners.

Recognizing the proximity of Alaska to hot spots around the world – North Korea, Russia, and China – Alaska is experiencing a renaissance when it comes to military presence. We see it at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, where Air Force F-22s and AWACs aircraft launch to acknowledge their Russian counterparts flying in the Air Defense Identification Zone. We see it at Eielson Air Force Base which is preparing to receive two squadrons of F-35s beginning in 2020.

We see it in the soldiers of the 4th Airborne Brigade Combat Team in Anchorage, who are awaiting deployment to Afghanistan. And in the soldiers of the 1st Stryker Brigade that will soon begin their National Training Center rotation. We see it in the crews staffing ballistic missile radars in the state, with a close eye on North Korea. And in the patriotic construction workers who will begin building the new long range missile defense radar at Clear Air Force Station this summer. And on the missile fields of Fort Greely, ready to intercept an ICBM aimed at the North American continent from wherever.

We see it in the Navy SEALS that train in Kodiak and in Coast Guardsmen protecting our coastline from Metlakatla all the way north to the Arctic.

Never again will the United States leave Alaska undefended!

Which brings me back to the characterization of the Aleutian campaign as the “forgotten battle.” Seventy five years ago, US and allied troops were called upon to repel an invader who occupied US soil. And we in Alaska will never forget that fact. But neither should America. Ignoring the fact that war has in fact been waged on US soil in the last century is a dangerous and tragic thing. So let us resolve on this 75th anniversary of the start of the Aleutian campaign that the “forgotten battle” shall be forgotten no longer.