Maybe it’s because the casualties, in relative terms, were light compared to those suffered in other theaters of conflict during World War II. Or perhaps the isolated front was destined to a gradual, ever-deepening obscurity because no storied battles with stirring names (Iwo Jima, Bastogne, Normandy, Saipan) were fought there. Or maybe it’s simply that, like countless other narratives in countless other wars, the story of the Aleutian Islands Campaign was gradually forgotten by those who did not fight or serve there, or by those families that did not lose a loved one there.
But in the early 1940s the Aleutian Campaign was news throughout the U.S. , as some of the islands in the North Pacific, in what was then the American territory of Alaska, had been invaded and occupied by Japanese troops. Was it a diversion ahead of another, critical attack elsewhere? Was it the vanguard of a far larger assault on America’s enormous, and perhaps fatally vulnerable, west coast?
Here, 70 years after Japanese forces seized control of Attu and Kiska islands early in the war, LIFE.com presents a gallery of photos—most of which never ran in LIFE magazine— by Dmitri Kessel chronicling the day-to-day existence of Allied troops serving in the dramatic and forbidding landscape of the Aleutians.
Ultimately, long before the war was over, the Japanese were routed from the islands they did occupy. But Allied casualties (U.S. and Canadian) during the year-long campaign to push them off of American territory were in the thousands, with a grim percentage killed or severely wounded by the same hazards that troops have always faced when fighting in a wilderness thousands of miles from home: friendly fire; exposure; minor wounds that turn mortal when transportation proves impossible.
And then there was the fatigue; the sheer lethargy-inducing sameness of the place. The old characterization of warfare as long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of terror might have been coined especially for the Aleutian campaign. Even the most adamant and dedicated nature lover could hardly remain enthralled, month after month after month, by the surroundings—endless snow-capped mountains, mud-filled tundra and water, water everywhere. As LIFE pointed out to its readers in the midst of the war, the weather and the landscape were relentless, monotonous enemies all their own:
The Aleutian Islands are a chain of high mountains rising our of the North Pacific between Alaska and Siberia. There, among fog and sudden storms, the world is still in the making. Volcanoes blow rings of steam. Islets pop out of the water and then mysteriously vanish again. Earthquakes make and unmake harbors, cliffs, beaches and caves.
The shortest route between the U.S. and Japan lies through Alaska and out the Aleutians. From Attu to Tokyo is only1,750 miles. . . . Whoever controls the Aleutians has a flanking position on the whole ocean. [In June 1942 Japan] seized Attu and Kiska and remained a constant threat to Alaska, Canada and the U.S. until August 1943 when they were finally driven off. To defend the Aleutians against another attack, thousands of Americans are still stationed there.
Of all the U.S. outposts the Aleutians are probably the wildest and most inhospitable. There are almost no trees on the islands. There are few animals. The temperature seldom drops below freezing in winter or goes above 60 degrees in summer. There are as many as 250 rainy days a year and as few as eight clear days.
Kessel’s pictures, meanwhile, suggest that despite the spartan lodgings, the often impassable terrain, the questionable food, the tricky climate, the grueling work and the ceaselessly challenging environment, thousands of troops, nurses and even some civilians stuck with it throughout the war years, and they made do.
In often primitive conditions, in one of the most unforgiving environments on Earth, they did what was asked of them. They are not forgotten.
Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com