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Attu: A Land of Contrast

Near the end of the Aleutian Island chain, nearly 1,100 miles away from the Alaskan mainland and at the westernmost point of the United States, lies Attu island. This barren, treeless island has been uninhabited since 2010. Though Attu now receives few visitors, its rolling hills hold a rich history of conflict and tragedy, as well as a treasure trove of discovery for dedicated birdwatchers.

Green, treeless hills of Attu island.

Attu was originally inhabited by the Unangan (Aleutian) people, the indigenous people of the Aleutian islands. During WWII, Japanese forces invaded Attu and the nearby island of Kiska. Though other Aleutian islands were evacuated prior to the attack, the inhabitants of Attu were not. Japanese forces quickly seized the island, taking the 42 inhabitants captive. Almost half of these captives died in prison camps during the war. Even after the war, when the survivors were returned to the United States, none were allowed return to Attu. The loss of this historic native land is still felt by descendants today.

Attu was one of only two invasion sites in North America during WWII, and the battle to reclaim the island came with a heavy cost. The battle of Attu lasted for 18 days and was fought by 12,500 American soldiers and 2,600 Japanese soldiers. Alongside hidden snipers, US soldiers struggled against brutal 120 mph winds and relentless rain, and many died to exposure. It was the second deadliest battle in the Pacific Theater, but because of the island’s remoteness, this battle is often forgotten.

Since the tragic events of WWII, Attu has become a paradise to one surprising group of people: birdwatchers. For birders, Attu is a miracle hotspot where travelers can see a greater variety of bird species than anywhere else in the US. This is mostly due to the vagrant Asian birds who often visit the island along their migration. Attu is the only place to see many of these birds in the US. While summer flights to the island used to be common for birders, the island has become more difficult to reach since the closing of the Coast Guard station. Now the only way to visit is by boat. One company, Zugunruhe, still runs tours to the island.

Though the breathtaking green hills of Attu may seem remote and abandoned, they are still full of meaning to the descendants of Attu’s inhabitants, the family of those who sacrificed their lives there, and people who seek after its wealth of natural beauty. With such a rich legacy, Attu is an island that shouldn’t be forgotten.