Native Alaskan walrus ivory carvings of a seal and walrus (U.S. Navy Seabee Museum Collection)
The Aleutian Islands Campaign (June 1942- August 1943) has unfortunately become known as the “Forgotten War” during World War II. In June 1942, six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Imperial Japan seized the remote islands of Attu and Kiska in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. This was the only instance when Imperial Japan claimed U.S. soil during the war in the Pacific. The maneuver was possibly designed to divert U.S. forces during Japan’s attack on Midway Island (June 4-7, 1942) in the central Pacific. It was also seen as a serious probe of American defenses, a move to prevent the United States from invading the Japanese homeland through the Aleutian Islands. In May 1943, with no help from the difficult weather and terrain, U.S. and Canadian troops retook Attu and three months later reclaimed Kiska.
The Aleutian Islands are a chain of 14 large volcanic islands and 55 smaller islands which separate the Bering Sea to the north from the Pacific Ocean. They extend about 1,100 miles from the tip of the Alaska Peninsula to Attu Island. It was believed that whoever controlled the Aleutian Islands would have a flanking position on the whole ocean.
Seabee camp on Adak Island (Courtesy of LIFE magazine)
Seabees, including those of the 12th Naval Construction Battalion (NCB) arrived in the Aleutian Islands in late June 1942, and began working on a number of projects for the U.S. Navy, Army, and Marine Corps building advanced bases on Adak, Amchitka, and other key islands in the Aleutian chain in a climate of never ceasing fog over the islands. The projects included operating floating dry docks, logging, construction of camp facilities, roads, navy airfields, and sewer and utility systems. While activity in the North Pacific was minimal, the flanking arm of Seabee-built bases pointing toward Japan served as a real threat to Imperial Japanese forces throughout the remainder of the war.
Snow-packed runway on Attu Island built by the Seabees (CEC Bulletin, U.S. Navy Seabee Museum)
Commander Bart W. Gillespie was the officer-in-command of the 12th NCB and was assigned to the Seabees early in the war. He was sent to Alaska where he directed the construction of two advance bases under the most difficult weather conditions and terrain. His command widened to the Fourth Regiment and later the Sixth where he was promoted to Captain. As a Californian, graduate of Stanford, and veteran of World War I, Captain Gillespie qualified for his assignment both as an engineer and expert oil man. He was hailed as an exemplary officer by his colleagues.
While stationed in Alaska, Captain Gillespie acquired a vast collection of native Alaskan arts and crafts which he generously donated to the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum. Many of these items include hand woven baleen baskets, scrimshaw, and ivory carvings.
Alaskan ivory carvings reflect practices and techniques that have been part of Alaskan culture for generations. They are the most popular crafts produced by Native Alaskans who hunted walrus for meat and utilize the skins and tusks for clothing and crafts. The term “ivory” is used for any animal tusk or tooth used as a material for carving. Only Alaska Natives are allowed to possess unworked ivory, which can only be sold after it is handcrafted.
The ivory carvings often portray animals and shows unique craftsmanship. These exceptionally detailed and elegant Native-carved walrus ivory pieces are still admired as works of art in their own right today. Visit the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum to see the many other pieces of art collected by the Seabees.
Meet the Curator: Robyn King “Meet the Curator: Robyn King is pursuing her master’s degree in Museum Studies and Nonprofit Management through Johns Hopkins University. She earned her Bachelors in History and Anthropology from the State University of New York at Oneonta. She has experience working at state museums, historic sites, the National Park Service, and most recently the Navy. She is an expert in collection management, and has worked closely with both natural and cultural collections. Robyn loves all museums and sharing her love of history. When she is not working, she is volunteering her time with the National Peace Corps Association, as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer from West Africa.”