Alaska’s windswept Aleutian Island chain arcs for over a thousand miles toward Asia from the Alaska Peninsula. In this remote and hostile archipelago is Kiska Island, an uninhabited sub-arctic speck in the tempestuous Bering Sea. Few have the opportunity even to visit this island, but in June of 1942 Japanese troops seized Kiska and neighboring Attu in the only occupation of North American territory since the War of 1812.
The bastion of Japan’s possessions in Alaska, Kiska was soon fortified with 7,500 enemy troops, their equipment, and a labyrinth of tunnels. For thirteen months Japanese troops withstood constant bombardment from American forces while retaining a tenuous hold on the island. Finally forced to abandon their position, the Japanese occupiers evacuated without their equipment and personal effects, leaving behind a trail of artifacts.
Brendan Coyle spent fifty-one days on the island searching out the tunnels, the equipment, and the objects, all frozen in time. Kiska brings together the images Coyle amassed during his exploration and his archival research. Accompanying explanations put the images in historical perspective, opening a window on a little-known battlefield and shining a rare light on a shadowy occupation.
A remarkable new book. . . . Boots, ceramics, guns, cannons, carts and trucks remain where the Japanese left them. American airplanes shot down during bombing runs rest where they crashed. Telephone poles from abandoned communications links teeter sideways, awaiting their inevitable fall. Sluices disrupt streams where water was drawn for the occupying forces. Trenches, dugouts, bunkers and barracks are slowly being reclaimed by the soil. Old roadbeds cut across the landscape. Ships list and rust just offshore. It’s a world of ghosts, bearing witness to all-but-forgotten events that both parties to the conflict— long since reconciled and now close friends—have fortunately put behind them.
Few adventurers get to the western Aleutian Islands, but Coyle takes us there so we vicariously see the war carnage, derelict aircraft, mini-submarines, and abandoned ships and feel the temperatures and humidity as our cold, wet feet maneuver around mounds of ammunition encroached by sedges and bright yellow globe flowers, all diminishing evidence of the war.
What the Japanese left behind in 1943 is worthy of exploration, not just to catch echoes of history before they fade, but to grasp the new strategic relevance of this area. Coyle’s Kiska helps us understand what this most remote spot in North America has to offer.
—Mead Treadwell, lieutenant governor of Alaska
In Kiska: The Japanese Occupation of an Alaska Island, maritime historian Brendan Coyle recounts his 51-day stay on the island in which he documented the remaining ghosts of this far-flung battlefield — from pairs of shoes strewn among wildflowers to rusting submarines. The only thing the book is really missing is any trace of a living human being.