Relief map of southern Alaska

Alaska was large, sparsely inhabited, and lacking in infrastructure in 1941, a condition that is still largely true today. It was purchased by the United States from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million dollars, provoking criticism from politicians who thought that even two cents an acre (Alaska has a total land area of 570,374 square miles) was too much for frozen wasteland. In 1912 Alaska was made an incorporated territory of the United States, meaning the territory was fully subject to U.S. law and persons born there were birthright citizens.

A military presence was established as early as 1898 with the founding of Fort Kodiak. However, Alaskan forces were still small at the outbreak of war, consisting of four infantry regiments, a few small warships based at Kodiak Island and Juneau and a few aircraft based near Anchorage. The population was still only 72,600 when war broke out. Of these, 39,200 were Europeans and the remainder were indigenous peoples, except for 230 persons of Japanese ancestry, half of them citizens, who were interned. The population was swollen by over 100,000 workers after war broke out.

The southern coast of Alaska, particularly the Aleutian island chain, lies very close to the great circle route from the Pacific Northwest to Japan, suggesting that the territory would have great strategic significance in the war. In fact, the climate of the Aleutians was vicious enough to make large-scale military operations all but impossible. The Japanese seized Attu and Kiska in the western Aleutians, and the Americans expended considerable resources effort to drive them out, but the hope that the Aleutians would be a highway to the Kuriles and Japan itself was ill-founded. Alaska remained a secondary theater throughout the war.


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