In the middle of the northern Pacific Ocean, on a desolate Alaskan island closer to Russia than to continental North America, amid the vast Aleutian tundra, there resides Nazi Creek.
The 0.7-mile-long stream’s official name has existed since World War II, even though the eponymous German regime never set foot on Little Kiska Island, seeing as their battlefront was on the exact opposite side of the planet.
How did the creek get such a bizarre name? And as mainland America grapples with newly empowered neo-Nazi groups and geographic locations named for the similarly evil ideology of the Confederacy, how has Nazi Creek’s name remained unnoticed or unchanged for more than half a century?
Well, for one, few if any people have ever actually set foot near Nazi Creek. The closest population center is 242 miles away on Adak Island (population: 329). And because the creek is part of the federally protected Aleutian Islands Wilderness, visitors can only come with a permit or as part of an official tour group.
Although the Third Reich’s troops never touched the island where Nazi Creek lies, there is extensive WWII history for Little Kiska and its big sister, Kiska Island.
The Nazi-allied Japanese military invaded and occupied both islands in June 1942, as part of their campaign to control the Aleutian island chain. Allied forces retook Kiska one year later, but not without enduring one of the most embarrassing battles of the entire war.
In the early hours of Aug. 15, 1943, as part of Operation Cottage, American and Canadian troops began landing on Kiska Island after a month of shelling the island’s Japanese stronghold. A thick, soupy fog overtook the island, which soon, according to Esprit de Corp magazine, “reduced visibility to near zero. As night fell, disoriented troops scratched shallow foxholes in the rocky tundra in which to await daylight and some semblance of order.”
“Sleep was impossible,” the Canadian military magazine recalled. “Sporadic firing could be heard in all directions, and the eerie glow of tracer bullets tearing through fog only added to the confusion. Voices trying to organize and coordinate were muffled and swept away by the wind.”
The next morning was no less confusing. Kept on their toes by having faced down ruthless, tenacious Japanese defensive units months earlier while retaking Attu Island, Allied infantry cautiously advanced to higher ground as artillery, marine support fire, and fog-laden gunfights raged on in the background.
After three days of Operation Cottage, the fighting had subsided and Allied troops took count of their casualties. In total, 92 troops died and an additional 221 were wounded—70 of those deaths came from when the U.S. Navy destroyer Amner Read hit an explosive mine in Kiska harbor.
The cause of the remaining casualties? According to military writer Del C. Kostka: “Friendly fire, vehicle accidents, land mines, and booby traps.”
As it turns out, there were no Japanese soldiers on the island. Their tunnels, bunkers, and artillery placements were all swiftly abandoned weeks before, in a matter of hours, under the cover of heavy fog.
The Allied forces had only been fighting themselves.
Little Kiska acted as a Japanese barrier island against an Allied invasion of their main camp on the island’s larger, volcanic sibling only a half-mile away. Today the 4-mile-wide little island is littered with artillery, firearms, and ammunition left abandoned by the Japanese during their hasty and unprecedented retreat.
Dr. Ian L. Jones, a biology professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland who’s performed long-term field research on both islands, recounted to The Daily Beast having discovered old weapons on Little Kiska during one research trip. It was a fairly dry summer and the ponds had dried out, he said, when he found a WWII-era 16-gauge shotgun—presumably used for recreational hunting—that had been tossed into the water during retreat.
The embarrassing but victorious chapter of the Allied campaign in the North Pacific, Jones said, had nothing to do with the decision to name a creek after Adolf Hitler’s genocidal regime. Nor does Nazi Creek’s moniker have a clever connection to how, as he discovered through his studies, the islands are overrun by an enormous, non-native rat population.
In fact, the professor revealed, the naming decision was far more innocuous.
“Around 1943, the American military began a project of making very detailed, topographic maps of the Aleutian Islands,” Jones said. “None of lakes or geographic features had any names, other than the local Aleut names. And so when they divided Kiska and Little Kiska into sectors, each area was given a letter, and then all features within those grids were designated with made-up names beginning with their corresponding letter.”
Indeed, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Dictionary of Alaska Place Names confirmed Jones’ recollection. “An arbitrary name beginning in ‘N’ to correspond with ‘N’ grid used by the U.S. Army for tactical purposes during World War II,” the federal government explained. “Published on 1953 [Army Map Services] map.” The Daily Beast found Nazi Creek mentioned on even earlier federal maps, dating as far back as 1943, when the mapping project began.
And though the names are ostensibly arbitrary—Rookie Lake, Sargeant Cove, etc.—other place names give some insight into what might have been on the naming personnel’s mind at the same time he thought up Nazi Creek.
Just 8 miles northwest, across the harbor and up a few ridges on Kiska, there exists another “arbitrarily” named body of water.
It’s called Moron Lake.