Written By: Ben Cosgrove

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. 

But in the early 1940s the Aleutian Campaign was news throughout the U.S..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, decades after Japanese forces seized control of Attu and Kiska islands early in the war, LIFE.com presents a gallery of photos 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 lethargy-inducing sameness of the place. The old characterization of warfare as long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of terror applied to 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.

Aleutian Islands, World War II, 1943

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

The rocky peaks of Attu Island, Alaska, 1943.

The rocky peaks of Attu Island, Alaska, 1943.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Aleutian Islands Campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Aleutian Islands, World War II, 1943

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

A P-38 Lightning above the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, 1943.

A P-38 Lightning above the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, 1943.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Dutch Harbor, Aleutian Islands, WWII, 1943.

Dutch Harbor, Aleutian Islands, WWII, 1943.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

American troops, Aleutian Islands, WWII, 1943.

American troops, Aleutian Islands, World War II, 1943

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Tents housing Seabees (members of the U.S. Navy's Construction Battalion), Adak Island during World War II, 1943. Among the first to land on Adak, Attu, Kiska and Amchitka, the Seabees -- carpenters, mechanics, electricians, welders boilerman, and plumbers -- built airfields, roads, barracks and wharves.

Tents housed Seabees (members of the U.S. Navy’s Construction Battalion), Adak Island during World War II, 1943.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Dutch Harbor, Aleutian Islands, WWII, 1943.

Dutch Harbor, Aleutian Islands, WWII, 1943.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Aleutian Islands Campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Aleutian Islands campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

On the island of Kiska, men build fires near wrecked equipment and cook their meals, Alaska, 1943.

On the island of Kiska, men built fires near wrecked equipment and cooked their meals, Alaska, 1943.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

The remains of a Japanese soldier, Aleutian Islands Campaign, Alaska, 1943.

The remains of a Japanese soldier, Aleutian Islands Campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Aleutian Islands Campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Aleutian Islands campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Attu Island, Aleutian Campaign, World War II, 1943.

Attu Island, Aleutian campaign, World War II, 1943.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Attu Island, Aleutian Campaign, World War II, 1943.

Attu Island, Aleutian campaign, World War II, 1943.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Kiska Island, Aleutian Campaign, World War II, 1943.

Kiska Island, Aleutian campaign, World War II, 1943.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

An American soldier leans against a wall in the captured Japanese headquarters on Kiska Island, beside graffiti caricatures of FDR and Churchill (left), 1943.

An American soldier leaned against a wall in the captured Japanese headquarters on Kiska Island, beside graffiti caricatures of FDR and Churchill (left), 1943.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Barracks, Aleutian Islands Campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Barracks, Aleutian Islands campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Unidentified military personnel, Aleutian Islands Campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Unidentified military personnel, Aleutian Islands campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Mail transports, Aleutian Islands Campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Mail transports, Aleutian Islands campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

In barracks, Aleutian Islands Campaign, Alaska, 1943.

In barracks, Aleutian Islands campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Laundry, Aleutian Islands Campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Laundry, Aleutian Islands campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Aleutian Islands Campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Aleutian Islands campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Aleutian Islands Campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Aleutian Islands campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Bathing in halved oil drums, Amchitka Island, Aleutian Campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Soldiers bathed in halved oil drums, Amchitka Island, Alaska, 1943.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

R&R, Aleutian Islands Campaign, Alaska, 1943.

R&R, Aleutian Islands campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Dutch Harbor, Aleutian Islands Campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Dutch Harbor, Aleutian Islands campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Makeshift soda fountain, Adak Island, Aleutian Campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Makeshift soda fountain, Adak Island, Aleutian campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Playing chess, Adak Island, Aleutian Campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Playing chess, Adak Island, Aleutian campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Dmitri Kessel Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Pin-up photos adorn the walls of a bomber-crew shack on Adak Island, Aleutian Campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Pin-up photos adorned the walls of a bomber-crew shack on Adak Island, Aleutian campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

An American nurse, Aleutian Campaign, Alaska, 1943.

An American nurse, Aleutian campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Nurses' quarters, Aleutian Campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Nurses’ quarters, Aleutian campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Nurses fishing, Dutch Harbor, Aleutian Campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Nurses fishing, Dutch Harbor, Aleutian campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Gardening with a teaspoon, Aleutian Campaign, Alaska, 1943.

A soldier tended his garden with a teaspoon, Aleutian campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Attu Island, American infantry camp, 1943. A hand-written note on the back of this print reads: "Because mess hall is too small, some men must eat outside."

Because the mess hall on Attu Island was too small, some men ate outside.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

A Seabee (of the U.S. Navy's Construction Battalion) strings wire for communications on the island of Adak, Aleutian Campaign, Alaska, 1943.

A Seabee (of the U.S. Navy’s Construction Battalion) strung wire for communications on the island of Adak, Aleutian campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Troops are carted by tractor to the movies from an isolated camp in Massacre Vally, Attu Island, Aleutian Campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Troops were carted by tractor to the movies from an isolated camp in Massacre Vally, Attu Island, Aleutian campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Seabee carpenters (of the U.S. Navy's Construction Battalion), Aleutian Campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Seabee carpenters (of the U.S. Navy’s Construction Battalion), Aleutian campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

"A fake tree built by the Army Engineers, Camouflage Division, on Attu Island." Aleutian Campaign, Alaska, 1943.

A fake tree built by the Army Engineers, Camouflage Division, on Attu Island.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

American troops study stone and bone implements and other objects recovered from an earlier settlement, Aleutian Islands Campaign, Alaska, 1943.

American troops studied stone and bone implements and other objects recovered from an earlier settlement.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

The "Press Club" on Adak Island, Aleutian Campaign, Alaska, 1943.

The “Press Club” on Adak Island.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Inside the "Press Club" on Adak Island, Aleutian Campaign, Alaska, 1943.

Inside the “Press Club” on Adak Island.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Street sign in the town of Unalaska during World War II, Aleutian Islands Campaign, Alaska, 1943.

A street sign in the town of Unalaska during World War II.

Dmitri Kessel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

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