Collection Highlights Little Known Theater of WWII

The Japanese attack a Navy radio station in the Aleutian Islands

Brynn Hoffman has a summer of surprises in store for her. She is learning the inspiring story of Rev. Elmer P. Gibson, an African American chaplain during World War II and the Korean War, through the study of his papers and war documents. Hoffman is a graduate student in the Public History program at North Carolina State University and is interning with the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources in the Office of Archives and History in Raleigh.  She will be blogging about what she learns about him, and what it’s like to be an archivist working with the Military Archives. 

During most of World War II, Elmer Gibson was stationed as a chaplain in the Aleutian Islands. After learning this fairly early in my exploration of his papers, I had to answer two simple questions for myself  in order to better understand Gibson’s service: Where are the Aleutian Islands? And why was it important for troops to be there during World War II?  

First Step: Finding the Aleutians on a Map

Admittedly, my knowledge of any geography outside the continental United States is below average for most people my age, so I had to do some research to really be able to answer these questions. Here’s a quick summary for those of you as geographically challenged as I am: The Aleutian Islands are a chain of small volcanic islands off the coast of Alaska that form an arch stretching westward from the Alaskan Peninsula. Most of the islands are part of Alaska, with only a few of the western-most islands belonging to Russia.

A map showing the Aleutian Islands in relation to Alaska

The Aleutian Islands are usually considered to be the most untouched part of the Alaskan wilderness and contain 57 volcanoes in total, making the islands the northern edge of the Pacific Ring of Fire. 

The Only Time America Was Invaded

A U.S. government propaganda poster highlighting the Aleutian conflictThe fight for control over the Aleutian Islands was part of the Pacific Campaign during World War II, and started in June of 1942. Japanese troops occupied two of the islands, Attu and Kiska, and due to the remoteness of the islands and the difficulty that extreme weather created, it took the United States nearly a year to force the Japanese out. 

The Aleutian Islands were very valuable to both sides because whoever occupied the islands controlled most of the Pacific transportation routes. In addition, the United States feared that if the Japanese had stayed on the islands they would have had an easier time launching aerial assaults against the west coast of the United States. The battle for control over the Aleutian Islands is often forgotten by historians because of the simultaneous campaign taking place at Guadalcanal in the Pacific. 

There seems to be a constant debate over the significance of the Aleutian Islands campaign amongst professional historians, some claiming it was a diversionary tactic used by the Japanese to draw U.S.troops out of Pearl Harbor, while others believing the Japanese were truly concerned with protecting the northern edge of their empire.

Regardless of the reasoning, the battle on the Aleutian Islands was hard on Allied troops and many lives were lost. Besides just the threat of war, soldiers had to deal to with a rocky and barren landscape covered by snow that made traveling difficult and supplies scarce.  The conflict on the Aleutian Islands lasted only a year, but soldiers were stationed there for the entirety of World War II.

Gibson and Alaska

Gibson spent the majority of World War II on the islands as a chaplain for the troops.

Many of the pictures he took while in the Aleutian Islands show only snow covered mountains surrounded by rocky terrain. Often times Gibson and the other chaplains had to hold religious services outside on the snow and ice because the tents were not big enough to hold a large group at once. 

Imagine spending such a long period of time stationed on a small island that is covered in a dense fog for the majority of the time and has an average of 250 rainy days a year! How miserable!

Often times the Aleutian Islands campaign is forgotten in the midst of other more dramatic conflicts during World War II. Working on the Elmer Gibson Collection has helped me become more aware of the situation that many Allied troops found themselves in throughout World War II, even if they were not stationed in areas more commonly recognized as war zones during this time period.

Thanks to Rusty Edmister whose generosity is making this project possible.

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