By Carey Restino
One of the countless heroes of the World War II battle in Alaska will get some much-deserved recognition this summer as his efforts during the bloody Battle of Attu 70 years ago are to be commemorated with a plaque on Attu as part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.
The plaque will tell the story of Pvt. Joseph P. Martinez, who attempted to clear a mountain pass by charging into enemy fire, an act for which he was posthumously awarded a Medal of Honor for his sacrifice. On May 26, 1943, the 23-year-old Taos, N.M. man spearheaded a second attempt to secure Holtz Bay with Company K. Japanese forces were entrenched on the slopes of Fishhook Ridge and Cold Mountain. While other forces were battling foxhole to foxhole, Martinez exposed himself to enemy fire as he advanced to the forefront of the assault, killing more than 60 of the invaders in his effort.
“Carrying his Browning automatic rifle, Joe had made it to the top of the pass and was firing down into an enemy trench when he received a fatal head wound,” the plaque reads. “As you read these words, please remember that your view to the east is the same as the last view seen by this brave and courageous infantryman on May 26, 1943.”
Poppy Benson, a Homer-based public programs supervisor with the refuge, said the Maritinez plaque is part of an interpretive site being installed on Attu in honor of the 70th anniversary of the second deadliest battle in the Pacific Theater. Some 549 Americans and more than 2,400 Japanese died on Attu island, which was invaded in 1942 and occupied for almost a year. On May 11, 1943, some 11,000 American troops landed on Attu and battled with Japanese forces for 19 days. In addition to the soldiers’ loss, the Japanese invasion forever changed life for the villagers of Attu Village near Chichagof Harbor. All 43 Aleuts, plus the town’s schoolteacher, were imprisoned on Hokkaido, Japan for the remainder of the war and only 24 survived. Since their village was destroyed, the village residents were resettled in Atka Village after the war.
In 2008, portions of Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, as well as Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, were designated as national monuments, and the upcoming installation of the interpretive site dedicated on the 70th anniversary of the battle is part of that designation, Benson said.
“There are incredible photos of what the terrain looked like – this ridge that (Martinez) went up is just an open slope all the way down to the ocean,” Benson said. “Just what an individual will do in battle is amazing. But he did it, and he paid for it with his life.”
Several events will be held in Homer to recognize the historical aspect of the refuge. From Friday through Tuesday, the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center will present three films starting with “Alaska at War” at 11:30 a.m. and 3:45 p.m., “Alaska’s Bloodiest Battle” about the battle on Attu at 1 p.m., and “The Aleut Story” at 2 p.m. about the people of Attu. In addition, Benson will present a talk at 1 p.m. on Wednesday about the historic significance of the day, the 70th anniversary of the day the Japanese were defeated on Attu.
Benson said the wildlife refuge, which was dedicated in 1916, decades before the battle, is one-of-a-kind in that it is also a historic site now. She said the interpretive plaques may help people understand the significance of what occurred in the area, and she hopes will encourage people visiting the area to be more respectful of the artifacts that they find there, such as large Japanese guns, etc.
“I hope people will realize this isn’t just abandoned stuff, this is part of history,” Benson said.
Despite the island’s remote location, around 200-300 people visit Attu each year, Benson said, and this year, local vessel owner Billy Choat will bring two groups of people to the island, some of whom are interested in the area’s history while others are interested in its birds. The U.S. Coast Guard stops by on occasion, Benson said, as do private vessels, often fishing boats.
Benson said the installation will occur when the Tiglax, a research ship, arrives on the Alaska Peninsula. A dedication event will occur on June 5, but images and video from the dedication will not be available to the public until June 10 because of the area’s remote location.
On Attu, refuge biologists and archeologists will also assess environmental threats from wartime debris, chemical contaminants and unexploded ordnance. They will set guidelines for disposing of remains that threaten human safety and island wildlife such as salmon, sea lions and seabirds, including two rare species: Evermann’s rock ptarmigan and Aleutian cackling geese, Benson said.
Benson said Attu is an amazing place, not only because of its far-flung location and abundant wildlife but also because of its history.
“It’s the only American soil that’s ever been occupied, and it’s certainly the only wildlife refuge that’s ever been occupied,” she said.
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