I spied an island full of deviants. What else could explain a cluster of geographic features with names such as Freak, Lunatic, Menace, Germ, Moron, Filthy and Maniac? I plotted my discoveries along with several other bizarre placenames I’d encountered within a single map. This included the only spot in the United States named, and I kid you not, Nazi — as in Nazi Creek — according to my search of the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS). They all tracked to remote Kiska Island, part of the Rat Island grouping in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands chain.
View Kiska Island Oddities in a larger map
I’d found the first couple of features accidentally. Others revealed themselves as I pulled at threads, and pulled some more. Every bump, every crevice, every rivulet, every rock, every windswept plain seemed to have a name. Some were labeled oddly like the ones I marked on my map while others reflected topics rather more ordinary and mundane. They also seemed to cluster alphabetically, with L-named features near other L-named features, and likewise for F and M and so on.
What could possibly account for such an unusual clustering and concentration of geographic features in a place so remote and desolate? The story began to appear as I consulted Geological Survey Professional Paper, Volume 567 (Google eBook) 1967, "Dictionary of Alaska Place Names." For instance, with Lunatic Lake the dictionary said "An arbitrary name beginning with ‘L’ to correspond to ‘L’ grid used by the U.S. Army for tactical purposes during World War II; published on a 1943 Army map." The reference provided a similar explanation for other Kiska Island features and other letters of the alphabet.
I’d stumbled upon the remnants of battlefield planning
Allied troops invade Kiska island in the Aleutians
The Japanese invaded and occupied a part of the United States during a mostly-forgotten phase of the Second World War. It’s been largely overshadowed and obscured by much more famous military campaigns both in the Pacific and throughout Europe during the conflict. Japanese forces captured Attu and Kiska Islands in 1942. While remote, these islands were strategic. They both sat along shipping lanes between North America and Asia. Potentially, whichever side controlled geography through this slot could use the islands as bases to disrupt enemy maneuvers or to launch attacks against the other.
The Pivotal Placement of Kiska Island
Most of a year would pass before Allies amassed sufficient forces and priority to even attempt to dislodge the dug-in Japanese troops from their Aleutian strongholds. Attu’s liberation arrived in May 1943. The fighting and the weather had been ferocious, with thousands of U.S. casualties plus a last-ditch suicide charge that left all but a handful of Japanese soldiers dead.
The Allies learned their lesson and would arrive better prepared when they got to Kiska Island. They amassed a much larger force of thirty-thousand Americans and five thousand Canadians, many trained in the intricacies of winter warfare.
Kiska Island 1943 in Wikimedia Commmons
via Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license
Operation Cottage would begin with rounds of shelling and bombardment then transition to separate invasions on different parts of the island beginning August 15, 1943. Allied forces stormed the beaches only to discover… the Japanese had abandoned Kiska a couple of weeks earlier. Even so friendly-fire mishaps occured in the fog and confusion, booby traps and mines maimed others, and cold weather took an inevitable toll. Allied casualties amounted to 168 soldiers including 71 killed on the destroyer USS Abner Reed when it struck a mine while patrolling near the island.
The place names I’d stumbled upon marked each of the significant geographic features on Kiska in a logical manner. Those would have served as preordained reference points during the retaking of Kiska had the Japanese not slipped away a few days earlier. I was not able to locate the original 1943 Army map, however, the names and locations survived within the U.S. Geological Survey’s database.
The Place Names Weren’t the Only Artifacts
Japanese Anti-Aircraft Guns by akseabird on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license
Evidence of Japanese occupation and the Allies’ response remained remarkably well preserved within the National Park Service Kiska Battlefield. As described in the Anchorage Daily News, Forgotten battlefield: Museum offers rare look at Kiska war relics:
Kiska is far and away the most significant intact battlefield remaining from World War II… Critical to the survival of Kiska’s relics has been its remoteness. Nearly 1,400 miles west of Anchorage, 800 miles east of Kamchatka, the island was so out-of-the-way that even the intrepid Russian fur hunters avoided it… “You can stand on a hill and look down at the valley and see the piers, the airstrips, the Japanese telephone poles, depressions for the Allies’ tents, thousands of them. It’s massive. And, 70 years later, it’s all still there.”
Hangman’s Ridge, Leper Lake and Mangy Hill might have become well-known battlefield names had events unfolded differently. Now they stand nearly forgotten along with the many physical scars on Kiska’s barren landscape.