Unalaska Island in the remote Aleutian archipelago was part of an epic, but now mostly forgotten, military campaign during World War II.
By John Zada –
A remote outpost
Situated where the northern Pacific Ocean meets the Bering Sea, the remote US island of Unalaska straddles the liminal zone where North America transitions into Siberia. The island lies further west than Hawaii; its position on the cusp of East Asia makes it one of Alaska’s more remote and idiosyncratic communities. (Credit: John Zada)
The ‘Birthplace of Winds’
Part of the Aleutian Islands, a 1,100-mile volcanic archipelago that curves in a westward arc to within 600 miles of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, Unalaska features one of the harshest environments on the planet outside the polar regions. The windswept coastlines are rugged, often precipitous and almost entirely devoid of trees. Because of the Aleutians’ location in the Pacific Ring of Fire – one of the world’s most seismically active areas – earthquakes are ubiquitous and half of the island chain’s 70 volcanoes, including Unalaska’s active Makushin Volcano shown here, have erupted in the last 250 years.
‘Cradle of Storms’ and ‘Birthplace of Winds’ are two well-deserved nicknames for the Aleutians. Conflicting weather systems generated in neighboring seas result in cyclonic storms, hurricane-force winds, heavy rain and dense fog that have a considerable impact upon weather across much of Canada and the continental US. (Credit: John Zada)
A 9,000-year-old culture
Today around 5,000 people call Unalaska home, including fishermen and the indigenous Unangax people (pronounced Oo-Nung-akhh). Also referred to as the Aleuts, the Unangax have lived in the archipelago and parts of the Alaska Peninsula for at least 9,000 years, creating a subsistence lifestyle that drew upon every resource that the land and sea offered.
But over the past several centuries, the Unangax population has plummeted due to disease and the gradual attrition of their culture that came on the heels of colonialism. Today there are around 3,800 Unangax in Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. Shayla Shaishnikoff, 24, and her brother Talon Shaishnikoff, 17, are among the 200 or so who still live on Unalaska. (Credit: John Zada)
A slice of Russia in the US
After Danish explorer Vitus Bering and his Russian colleague Alexei Chirikov became the first known Europeans to visit the Aleutian Islands in 1741, waves of Russian fur traders flocked to the archipelago to hunt sea otters and fur seals. In the late 1700s, the islands became a colony of the Russian Empire. Today many inhabitants still have Russian surnames.
The Russian Orthodox Church followed the fur hunters, building small houses of worship across the islands and converting many Unangax to their faith. Although the US gained control of the Aleutian Islands when it purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, the Russian Orthodox legacy has survived. Unalaska’s Church of the Holy Ascension (pictured here) is one of a few Russian Orthodox houses of worship that remain. Built in 1896, it is the oldest cruciform-style Russian Orthodox cathedral in North America, and contains original icons and interior sections from earlier churches built on the same site in 1808 and 1825. (Credit: John Zada)
‘An unbelievable honor’
Reverend Evon Bereskin is Unalaska’s sole Christian Orthodox Priest and the keeper of the Church of the Holy Ascension. An Unangax, he took over the region’s Deanery in 2013 and now oversees all the parishes in the Aleutian islands of Unalaska, Nikolski and Akutan and the Pribilof islands of St Paul and St George. “I am constantly in awe of the fact that I am the custodian of this incredible relic building,” he told me. “It’s an unbelievable honor and responsibility.”
Since becoming the head of the church, Reverend Bereskin has begun raising funds to restore the church and its icons, which have suffered at the hands of time and the elements. He also changed the liturgy of his services to English (from the Unangax language and old Slavonic) to make services more accessible to worshipers. Yet while more than 100 Unalaskans living on the island today were baptized Orthodox, no more than a dozen or so people attend Reverend Bereskin’s weekly services. (Credit: John Zada)
Prior to World War II, the US had a modest commercial and military presence on the Aleutian Islands, which, lying relatively close to East Asia, were vulnerable to attack after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. On 3-4 June 1942, planes from two Japanese aircraft carriers attacked Dutch Harbor in the town of Unalaska on the island’s northern coast, killing 50 people. Several days later Japanese forces invaded Kiska and Attu islands, the westernmost islands in the Aleutians (670 and 850 miles from Unalaska, respectively), in an attempt to inflict a psychological blow and divert US forces from the Central Pacific theater, where the Battle of Midway Island was about to take place. It was the first invasion of US soil since the British incursions in 1812.
The SS Northwestern (seen here), a passenger and freight steamship used by the US Navy in the war, was destroyed in the Japanese attack on Dutch Harbor. Its rusted hull still rises above the water’s surface, a ghostly reminder of a bloody battle. (Credit: John Zada)
Within months of the Dutch Harbor attack, 145,000 US and Canadian soldiers were deployed to defend and retake the occupied Aleutians. They secured the islands with fortresses, artillery and bunkers, such as the one pictured here on Bunker Hill above Dutch Harbor. A larger base overlooking Unalaska Bay and the Bering Sea a few miles away on nearby Mount Ballyhoo, known as Fort Schwatka, once featured 100 buildings and was built to withstand earthquakes and hurricane-force winds.
Epic, harrowing battles were fought on bleak and difficult terrain. Thousands died on both sides of the conflict – many from exposure to the islands’ harsh weather. By August 1943, the Japanese were expelled from the Aleutians, and over time, the battles that took place here have been largely forgotten. (Credit: John Zada)
After the Japanese attacks, the US military ordered the mandatory evacuation of the Unangax from the Aleutians for their safety and to prepare the island for arriving military forces. Residents were given less than a day’s notice, allowed one suitcase each and weren’t told where they were going or when they would return. In all, 881 Unangax were expelled from nine villages across the archipelago and were interned at abandoned canneries in the temperate rainforests of south-eastern Alaska for three years. Many had never left their homeland before, let alone seen trees. Around 10% of the camps’ population perished due to poor housing and sanitation conditions and limited access to health care. Those who returned to Unalaska in 1945 found their villages either looted or burned down.
In the 1980s, the Unangax sued for ill-treatment and deprivation of their rights in conjunction with Japanese-Americans who were also interned during the war. In 1988, a restitution law was passed granting financial compensation and an apology to the Unangax from both Congress and the President. The etched stone slab pictured here in the community of Unalaska is a memorial to that dark period. (Credit: John Zada)
The rise of a fishing mecca
After World War II, Unalaska became a hub of the US’ commercial fishing industry, which still dominates the island today. Dutch Harbor brings in more seafood than any other US port (it is the main delivery port featured on Discovery Channel’s hit reality show, Deadliest Catch). Four hundred vessels from 14 countries make port here each year, catching several hundred million pounds of fish – around 10% of the entire US fishing industry. Halibut, salmon, herring and several varieties of crab are among the species caught in nearby waters. (Credit: John Zada)
Where McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish comes from
Alaskan pollock comprises 80% of all seafood processed on the island and is used to produce fish oil, fish fillets (for frozen fish sticks and McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish sandwiches) and surimi (imitation crab meat) among other products.
UniSea, the largest seafood processing plant on the island, has some of the highest environmental standards of any fishery in Alaska, including traceable seafood and lowest by-catch. “We use every part of the pollock fish here and nothing goes to waste,” said Tom Enlow, president and CEO of UniSea and a resident of Unalaska. “Fish oil gives us a renewable hydrocarbon to help power and heat our plant and worker accommodations, thereby offsetting the burning of diesel.” (Credit: John Zada)
Bountiful marine life
In addition to an abundance of fish, Unalaska’s nutrient-rich waters play host to one of the largest concentrations of marine mammals in the world, including orcas, Dall porpoises, sea otters, harbour seals and whales (humpback, pilot and fin). Steller’s sea lions gather on isolated rocks known as rookeries to mate and give birth between May and July.
The Aleutian coastlines are also home to a nesting seabird population that is larger than that of the rest of the US combined. Bird enthusiasts travel from all over the world to see the varied waterfowl, especially the ultra-rare whiskered auklet. (Credit: John Zada)
Out on the land
Meanwhile, hiking Unalaska’s trails exposes the remote corners of the island. Traversing its rolling alpine meadows and dramatic mountains is to experience the palpable soul of the Aleutians. These poetic, lyrical landscapes soften the harsh and sometimes unforgiving attributes of a place deeply beholden to the elements. (Credit: John Zada)