In August 1943, the Allies prepared for what they expected to be a bloody reprisal of the Battle of Attu Island -- but when they landed on Kiska, the Japanese had evacuated. Now, almost 70 years later, the island of Kiska remains a unique testament to World War II: an untouched battlefield, facing only the relentless enemies of time and the elements.
"What you have on Kiska, what you have in the Aleutians is absolutely spectacular -- and you don't have it anywhere else in the world, in terms of preservation conditions," said archaeologist and university professor Dirk H.R. Spennemann.
Spennemann, an expert in historic preservation, should know. He's been to Kiska twice at the invitation of the U.S. government to catalog and study the island. His photos, along with photos and artifacts from American and Japanese soldiers who served on Kiska, make up an exhibit at the Anchorage Museum called "Kiska and Adak: War in the Aleutians."
"Kiska is worldwide unique, let's be honest -- I mean, this is of world significance," Spennemann said. "Because anywhere else, if you've got a battlefield, it usually happened on someone's land. Battle, fighting, development and then people come back on again."
But Kiska is different. The island was uninhabited when the Japanese occupied it in June of 1942, and has been uninhabited since Allied forces left.
"Here you've got all the defenses, you've got the guns in place, you've got the barracks in place. I mean, you look at some of those images, the bomb craters are still there -- you can see almost every single bomb dropped, so it is a battlefield pure and simple, and that's what sets it apart," Spennemann said.
And it's a preserved battlefield, thanks to the very elements that make Kiska so inhospitable to people.
"The fog basically blocks out the ultraviolet light, which would destroy the organic components, the non-hard components, the wood for example, the ligaments, et cetera," Spennemann said. "Whereas the cold stops the microbes, which are usually the worst two enemies.
"You know, a fencepost in the Lower 48, you see a fence that hasn't been painted in 20 years and you know it's decaying -- you see the lines of the wood, that's where the soft organics are gone. Out here, because there is so much fog, the ultraviolet light is cut off. It's like someone put a giant filter over it, perfect. And it's cold, so the microbes are gone, so the preservation conditions are amazing. It's stunning, I find this -- ah!"
Spennemann's passion for Kiska spills over to his other passion, photography. In addition to the static photos necessary for historical documentation, Spennemann's photos try to capture the story of the battlefield.
"You do take different angles, different shots, more evocative, and if you do those evocative shots, you pull on people's heartstrings, you trigger emotions," Spennemann said. "I have power over you because in my photo, I fix your frame. You don't know what's around you -- I force you to see what I want to see. That's a privilege, a responsibility, and it's fun."
And now it's part of the museum's exhibit, which Spennemann believes can be a crucial element in preserving the story of Kiska.
"This is a very unique place and I think it's more important, not just for Alaskan history -- that's very important -- but is actually important for world history," Spennemann said.
"Kiska and Adak: War in the Aleutians" will be on display at the museum through the end of the year.
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