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Home  >  Know Alaska  >  Alaska Geography  >  Community Profiles
Attu: Alaska's Westernmost Community & World War II Battlefield

Today, the only people living on the island of Attu are members of the U.S. Coast Guard. About 20 people live at Attu at a time. They work at the Long Range Navigation (LORAN) station. This station helps planes and boats plot safe routes through the northern Pacific region, including Russia.

Attu Island sits some 1,500 miles southwest of from Anchorage and 500 miles east of Russia. It is the last island in the Aleutian Chain. It is farther west than the Hawaiian Islands. It is so far west that it is actually in the Eastern Hemisphere. In fact, if you look at a map that shows the International Dateline, you will see that the line curves around this island.

Attu may be best known as the only battlefield in North America during World War II. The Japanese invaded the island on June 6, 1942 as part of their effort to dominate the Pacific. Those who lived in the village and survived the invasion were taken to Japan as prisoners of war. In May, 1943, during a deadly battle, the United States took the island back. Nearly 600 combined U.S. and Japanese soldiers died in the battle. The area is now designated as a National Historic Landmark.

Few, if any, signs remain that people had lived on Attu for hundreds of years. Sometime around 600 B.C. a group of Aleuts made their way down from the Alaska Peninsula throughout the chain and a small band stayed. It was as far west as they could go. They lived in dugouts with grass-thatched roofs. These huts, called barabaras, gave them shelter from the cold and the fierce winds. They found plenty of foodsalmon in the streams and sea mammals from the ocean. They also gathered bird eggs.

Then in the 1700s, Russian fur traders in search of sea otter skins invaded settlements of Aleuts all along the Aleutian chain. The Russians forced the Aleuts to hunt for them and treated them very badly. The small population of Attu shrank over time from more than 100 to just 41 at the time the Japanese landed. After the war, the Attuans who survived as prisoners of war in Japan did not return to Attu. They settled at Atka, a small Aleut village on the island of Atka. Atka now is the most western and most remote Native village on the Aleutian chain.

To learn more about Attu:

Author Arnold Grieses book The Wind is Not a River is a fictional account of two children who escaped capture on Attu during the invasion.

Mary Breu, the niece of a teacher who was captured by the Japanese, tells her aunts story in Last Letters from Attu. The book includes stories about her aunts work as a teacher in several Alaska villages, her time at Attu, and as a prisoner of war in Japan.

Gallery of Images

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LORAN Station

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Attu Island, Massacre Bay

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