Remembering 'forgotten' Aleutians war

In June 1942, the Japanese attacked Dutch Harbor, Attu and Kiska in Alaska's Aleutian islands.

That same month, Angelo Marinaro received his draft notice. With the war taking place on so many fronts, Marinaro gave little thought to the remote Aleutians. He was teaching school near his hometown of Elkhorn City, Ky.

Marinaro was ready to serve. During high school, he and four classmates had spent a month each summer at a Citizens Military Training Camp in Indiana, which offered military training to civilians without an obligation to serve.

However, those who completed four consecutive camps could be commissioned as second lieutenants. After finishing high school in 1939, Marinaro went to Louisville to get his commission.

'Can you hear thunder?'

"I passed the test, but I was too young. You had to be 21," he said. Instead of the Army, Marinaro enrolled in Pikeville Junior College and became a teacher.

Then, in 1942, he was drafted.

"I went down to get in the Air Corps, but I didn't pass the eye test," Marinaro said, sitting in his home in Sequim's Dominion Terrace. The Air Corps sent him to an Army recruiter, who had a few questions for him:

"Can you hear thunder? Can you see lightning?"

When Marinaro answered in the affirmative, he was sent to Fort Thomas, Ky., to be sworn in. After some medical training in Illinois, he said, "I was shipped to Fort Lewis, Washington."

Togs for tropics

Nobody knew where they would be assigned, but Marinaro was issued clothing for the tropics.

"We said we must be going to Australia or somewhere like that," he said.

"When we got down to the docks, we were at the Alaska docks. On board we turned in all the clothes we were issued and got mukluks and cold weather gear."

Marinaro arrived in Alaska on Nov. 5, 1942, and spent several months training at Fort Richardson before shipping out to Adak. From there, he said, "We got on a ship and zigzagged for nine days." By this time, Attu Island had been retaken at a cost of nearly 900 lives of Allied troops and more than 3,000 other casualties. At least 4,000 Japanese died in their failed defense, which included one of the largest banzai charges of the Pacific campaign on May 29, 1943.

Fatal friendly fire

On August 15, 1943, the U.S. Army 7th Division and the Canadian 13th Infantry Brigade landed at different points on Kiska, where the Japanese had taken over the weather station and established an outpost the previous summer.

In dense fog and nearly impassible muskeg, more than 20 men were killed by friendly fire. In the medical tents, Marinaro treated the injured.

"We asked if they had seen the Japanese, but no one had," he said.

"It was two weeks before we found out that there were no Japanese left."

The Japanese had abandoned the island some weeks earlier.

'Alaska haunts me'

"Alaska haunts me," Marinaro wrote in his memories of the Aleutian campaign.

"Our troops were ill-clothed and during the battle, ill-fed, ill-supplied, ill-trained for the terrain they faced. Our losses were second only to Iwo Jima in killed and wounded."

"When we took back Attu and Kiska," Marinaro said, "that ended the Japanese yen to take Alaska."

Although the combat losses were high, the weather - and poor preparation for it - caused many lasting injuries from frostbite and foot damage.

One casualty was Clarney Mullins, a friend of Marinaro's from Elkhorn City, Ky.

"I was privileged to serve with him as a medic in our tent-hospital on Kiska Island," he said. Mullins returned to Elkhorn City and eventually became mayor there.

Quonset fever

The following months on Kiska were difficult.

"We couldn't go into the caves because we were afraid of booby traps," he said.

"We found a huge mound of food the Japanese had in tins. They were planning a big invasion of Alaska, for sure."

The American troops lived in Quonset huts, with "just a pipe sticking out of the snow." The treeless tundra, high winds and constant wet weather wore on them.

They created their own entertainment, playing musical instruments and making "raisin jack" in a still made from 5-gallon water cans and copper tubing from downed Japanese planes.

Back home to the altar

"I got my first furlough in 1944," Marinaro said.

Back at Fort Lewis, he met a young telephone operator named Joyce. In June 1945, they were married and Angelo was discharged from the Army in November that year. Soon they returned to Kentucky so Angelo could complete his education.

"When I married him," Joyce said, "I had two big adjustments to make.

"One was the Italian culture, which was a lot of fun. The other was the Southern culture. That was harder. I nearly got fired from a job because I called a black person 'sir.'"

The Marinaros returned to Washington in 1950 after Angelo had earned a bachelor's degree and master's degree in education. He worked as a teacher and principal in the Puget Sound area until retiring in 1973.

In March 1999, they moved to Sequim after making a visit to see their son who lived here.

More than 65 years after the Aleutian campaign, Marinaro seems frustrated that most people know so little about the effort so hard-fought on American soil.

"There are still many Americans who have never heard about it," he said.

"I can't forget it."

Contact Sandra Frykholm at

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