A Soldier's Story: World War II and the Forgotten Battle for the Aleutian Islands

Nov 11, 2016

­It was morning on June 5, 1942. My father was in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, when the Japanese fighter and bomber planes made their first pass.  


“I was on boat detail; we was unloading the boat. When we see the bunch of planes coming over. We was waiting for them to come,” he recalled. “Before that happened, they sent 35 of us men from Dutch Harbor to the other end of the island, with nothing but our rifles and two .30-caliber machine guns – and that was it – to hold the other end of the island.”

Ramon Rivas in 1941.
Credit Courtesy of Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez

For 20 minutes, the Japanese planes struck Dutch Harbor. They hit an oil tank farm; some army barracks. They destroyed part of a hospital. U.S. anti-aircraft guns brought down a Japanese bomber.

“Anybody who says that, ‘I didn’t cry,’ and things like that, I say they have to be crazy. Something’s wrong with the cabeza, because when you see those bombs coming down and things like that., You cry and you pray because of your life.”

When it was over, 32 Americans were dead.

Dutch Harbor is on the island of Unalaska. It’s part of the Aleutian Island chain in the Bering Strait off the coast of Alaska.  The Aleutians are treeless, volcanic islands and had been fairly isolated, until the 1940s.  But World War II brought change to that remote part of the U.S. – and to people like my father.  

A photo of the 1942 Japanese attack on Dutch Harbor.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

The Aleutian Island campaign is not well known.

For more than a year, Japanese enemy forces occupied two U.S. islands – Kiska and Attu. They took 42 Aleut civilians – American citizens – and 10 sailors prisoner.  

Credit Wikimedia Commons

The U.S. military evacuated nearly 900 Aleuts from other islands and bombed the Japanese-held island of Kiska daily. Still, it took over a year for the U.S. and Canadians to take back the islands.

“I went in April 14, 1941. The war didn’t start until December. Everybody was going into the service back in those days, joining up,” my father recalled in 1999, when I interviewed him about his wartime experience in Dutch Harbor.

“We was the first soldiers that went over there. It was so beautiful. When we landed, there was lots of flowers, pink and light blue flowers and green – the whole thing, all the mountains and everything. It was so beautiful. We landed the 15th of September 1941.”

The soldiers settled into Unalaska. They dug tunnels and pillboxes – concrete dugouts with slits to observe and shoot from. Dutch Harbor would be a staging area to bring over equipment and supplies to the rest of the Aleutians.

A 1992 look inside a pillbox at the site of the battle in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.
Credit Courtesy of Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez

“By the time I finished there, you didn’t have to walk on top of the soil at all. We had even tunnels underneath it. Everything was camouflaged. We'd sleep under the ground and live there,” he said. “And we had to walk about a mile down to the base to eat three meals a day. Of course, we didn’t go three meals a day. We maybe went two meals a day.”

It was a war that threw together people from all backgrounds. Most of the soldiers were men like my dad – men who had seen little of the world before, but whose eyes were opened by their experiences.

“Back in those days, we didn’t know anything about the country or [they said], ‘Me, I’m to be proud to belong to this country because this is the United States of America,’  or things like that,” he said. “Now today, you ask me, I know something about it. But back in those days, we didn’t know any better.”

The military knew it had to find a way to assimilate the men into a fighting force.

They used the skills of movie directors, like Frank Capra, who made documentaries called “Why We Fight.” These were shown to servicemen and women so that they might understand where their efforts fit in.

They created propaganda: posters emphasizing different ethnic groups, but underscoring their American-ness. NBC radio made a series of programs called “They Call Me Joe.”  In one, Joe was Guiseppe, an Italian; in another, Joe was Jose, a Mexican-American; in another Joe was a Slav, and so on.

Movie director John Huston spent six months filming servicemen on the islands off Alaska. In his film “Report from the Aleutians,” Huston showed Americans rising above regional and ethnic differences. 

During the War, he was thrown together with men from all over the country.

“They treated me fairly good, I guess I say,” he told me. “Maggie, back in those days, I don’t think there was too much discrimination against me. For one thing, I don’t think the captain would allow that to happen. They called me spic and things like that. I didn’t know no better and I didn’t care. We didn’t have any fights or anything like that. I loved my men, all the time. And we had a pretty good captain, pretty good leadership.”

Ramon Rivas on a trip to Glacier National Park in Alaska.
Credit Courtesy of Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez

My father and his family were native Texans. But he could get by with only Spanish in the segregated ranching town he grew up in. At first he was the only Spanish speaker in his unit.

“When I was in the Aleutian islands, that I used to be on guard three o’clock in the morning, we used to hear a Spanish station here – Eagle Pass – that was a station that I could hear real clear,” he said.

This was one of the powerful so-called “border blaster” radio stations in Piedras Negras, across the border from Eagle Pass. When conditions were just right, those radio waves could bounce all the way up to Dutch Harbor, where my father could pick up the overnight Spanish language programs.

“People don’t think you can lose your language. If you don’t practice it, eventually, you gonna lose it,” he said. “And I used to catch myself speaking Spanish, so when I come back home I can talk to people.”

After the war, my father did return to Texas. He married my mother. He used the G.I. Bill to go to barber school and opened a pretty successful barbershop in a small town south of San Antonio.  He had one son and six daughters.

Ramon Rivas (left) and Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez visiting Dutch Harbor in September 1992.
Credit Courtesy of Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez

And, to his everlasting satisfaction, all seven of his children got at least a high school education.

“Second World War changed my life to what I am today,” he said.

My father died in November 2000 at the age of 79.

He flew an American flag every day, and he was forever proud that he gave his country four-and-a-half years of his life.