Aleutian Islands Campaign

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Aleutian Islands Campaign
Part of World War II, Pacific War
Hauling supplies on Attu.jpg
American troops hauling supplies on Attu in May 1943 through Jarmin pass. Their vehicles could not move across the island's rugged terrain.
Date 3 June 1942 – 15 August 1943
Location Aleutian Islands, Alaska Territory
52°5′51.34″N 173°30′4.32″W / 52.0975944°N 173.5012000°W / 52.0975944; -173.5012000Coordinates: 52°5′51.34″N 173°30′4.32″W / 52.0975944°N 173.5012000°W / 52.0975944; -173.5012000
Result Allied victory
Belligerents
 United States
 Canada
Empire of Japan Empire of Japan
Commanders and leaders
United States Navy:
United States Thomas C. Kinkaid
United States Francis W. Rockwell
United States Army:
United States Albert E. Brown
United States Archibald V. Arnold
United States Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr.
Canadian Army:
Canada George R. Pearkes
Canada Harry W. Foster
Imperial Japanese Navy:
Japan Boshiro Hosogaya
Japan Kakuji Kakuta
Japan Monzo Akiyama
Imperial Japanese Army:
Empire of Japan Yasuyo Yamasaki 
Strength
144,000[1] 8,500[1]
Casualties and losses
1,481 killed
225 aircraft destroyed[2]
640 missing
3,416 wounded
8 captured

US Navy losses:
USS Abner Read (DD-526)[3]
USS S-27 (SS-132)
USS Grunion (SS-216)

4,350 killed
28 captured
7 warships sunk
9 cargo transport ships sunk[4]
1 civilian killed, 46 captured

The Aleutian Islands Campaign was a struggle over the Aleutian Islands, part of the Alaska Territory, in the Pacific campaign of World War II starting on 3 June 1942. A small Japanese force occupied the islands of Attu and Kiska, but the remoteness of the islands and the difficulties of weather and terrain meant that it took nearly a year for a far larger U.S./Canadian force to eject them. The islands' strategic value was their ability to control Pacific Great Circle routes. This control of the Pacific transportation routes is why U.S. General Billy Mitchell stated to the U.S. Congress in 1935, "I believe that in the future, whoever holds Alaska will hold the world. I think it is the most important strategic place in the world." The Japanese reasoned that control of the Aleutians would prevent a possible U.S. attack across the Northern Pacific. Similarly, the U.S. feared that the islands would be used as bases from which to launch aerial assaults against the West Coast.

The battle is known as the "Forgotten Battle", due to being overshadowed by the simultaneous Guadalcanal Campaign. In the past, many western military historians believed it was a diversionary or feint attack during the Battle of Midway meant to draw out the U.S. Pacific Fleet from Midway Atoll, and was in fact launched simultaneously under the same overall commander, Isoroku Yamamoto. However, historians Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully have made an argument against this interpretation, stating that the Japanese invaded the Aleutians to protect the northern flank of their empire and did not intend it as a diversion.[5]

Japanese attack[edit]

Before Japan entered World War II, its Navy had gathered extensive information about the Aleutians, but it had no up-to-date information regarding military developments on the islands. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto provided the Japanese Northern Area Fleet, commanded by Vice-Admiral Boshiro Hosogaya, with a force of two small aircraft carriers, five cruisers, twelve destroyers, six submarines, and four troop transports, along with supporting auxiliary ships. With that force, Hosogaya was first to launch an air attack against Dutch Harbor, then follow with an amphibious attack upon the island of Adak, 480 miles to the west. Hosogaya was instructed to destroy whatever American forces and facilities were found on Adak—the Japanese did not know the island was undefended. Hosogaya's troops were to return to their ships and become a reserve for two additional landings: the first on Kiska, 240 miles west of Adak, the other on the Aleutians' westernmost island, Attu, 180 miles west from Kiska.

Because United States Naval Intelligence had broken the Japanese naval codes, Admiral Chester Nimitz had learned by May 21 of Yamamoto's plans, including the Aleutian diversion, the strength of both Yamamoto's and Hosogaya's fleets, and that Hosogaya would open the fight on 1 June or shortly thereafter.

As of June 1, 1942, United States military strength in Alaska stood at 45,000 men, with about 13,000 at Cold Bay (Fort Randall) on the tip of the Alaskan Peninsula and at two Aleutian bases: the naval facility at Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island, 200 miles west of Cold Bay, and the recently built Fort Glenn Army Airfield 70 miles west of the naval station on Umnak Island. Army strength, less air force personnel, at those three bases totaled no more than 2,300, composed mainly of infantry, field and antiaircraft artillery troops, and a large construction engineer contingent, which was used in the construction of bases. The Army Air Force's Eleventh Air Force consisted of 10 B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers and 34 B-18 Bolo medium bombers at Elmendorf Airfield, and 95 P-40 Warhawk fighters divided between Fort Randall AAF at Cold Bay and Fort Glenn AAF on Umnak. The naval commander was Rear Admiral Robert A. Theobald, commanding Task Force 8 afloat, who as Commander North Pacific Force (ComNorPac) reported to Admiral Nimitz in Hawaii. Task Force 8 consisted of five cruisers, thirteen destroyers, three tankers, six submarines, as well as naval aviation elements of Fleet Air Wing Four.[6]

When the first signs of a possible Japanese attack on the Aleutians were known, the Eleventh Air Force was ordered to send out reconnaissance aircraft to locate the Japanese fleet reported heading toward Dutch Harbor and attack it with bombers, concentrating on sinking Hosogaya's 2 aircraft carriers. Once the enemy planes were removed, Naval Task Force 8 would engage the enemy fleet and destroy it. On the afternoon of 2 June, a naval patrol plane spotted the approaching Japanese fleet, reporting its location as 800 miles southwest of Dutch Harbor. Eleventh Air Force was placed on full alert. Shortly thereafter bad weather set in, and no further sightings of the fleet were made that day.

Attack on Dutch Harbor[edit]

The Navy radio station at Dutch Harbor burning after the Japanese Attack, 4 June 1942

According to Japanese intelligence, the nearest field for land-based American aircraft was at Fort Morrow AAF on Kodiak, more than 600 miles away, and Dutch Harbor was a sitting duck for the strong Japanese fleet, carrying out a coordinated operation with a fleet that was to capture Midway Island.

Making use of weather cover, the Japanese first raided the Naval Base at Dutch Harbor on June 3, 1942. The striking force was composed of Nakajima B5N2 "Kate" torpedo bombers from the carriers Junyō and Ryūjō. However, only half of the striking force reached their objective.[7] The rest either became lost in the fog and darkness and crashed into the sea or returned to their carriers. Seventeen Japanese planes found the naval base, the first arriving at 05:45. As the Japanese pilots looked for targets to engage, they came under intense antiaircraft fire and soon found themselves confronted by Eleventh Air Force fighters sent from Fort Glenn Army Air Field on Umnak. Startled by the American response, the Japanese quickly released their bombs, made a cursory strafing run, and left to return to their carriers. As a result, they did little damage to the base.

On June 4 the Japanese returned to Dutch Harbor. This time the pilots were better organized and better prepared. When the attack finally ended that afternoon, the oil storage tanks were left burning, the hospital was partly demolished, and a beached barracks ship was damaged. Although American pilots finally located the Japanese carriers, attempts to sink them proved fruitless. Bad weather again set in, and all contact with the enemy fleet was lost. Foul weather forced the cancellation of Japanese plans to invade Adak with 1200 men.[8]

The Japanese invasions of Kiska on June 6, and Attu on June 7 initially met little resistance from the local Aleuts. Much of the native population of the islands had been forcibly evacuated by the US military before the invasion and interned in camps in the Alaska Panhandle.

Allied response[edit]

US military propaganda poster from 1942/43 for Thirteenth Naval District, United States Navy, showing a rat representing Japan, approaching a mousetrap labeled "Army - Navy - Civilian", on a background map of the Alaska Territory, referred to as future "Death-Trap For The Jap".

In August 1942, the U.S. Army established an air base on Adak Island and began bombing Japanese positions on Kiska. U.S. Navy submarines and surface ships also began patrolling the area. Kiska Harbor was the main base for Japanese ships in the campaign and several were sunk there, some by warships but mostly in air raids. On 5 July, Lieutenant Commander Howard Gilmore — commanding the submarine Growler — attacked three Japanese destroyers off Kiska. He sank one and heavily damaged the others, killing or wounding 200 Japanese sailors. Ten days later, the Grunion was attacked by three Japanese submarine chasers in Kiska Harbor, with two of the patrol craft sunk and one other damaged. On 12 May 1943, the Japanese submarine I-31 was sunk in a surface action with the destroyer Edwardsmi (4.3 nmi; 8.0 km) northeast of Chichagof Harbor.

Komandorski Islands[edit]

The heavy cruiser Salt Lake City under fire off the Komandorski Islands.

A cruiser and destroyer force under Rear Admiral Charles "Soc" McMorris was assigned to eliminate the Japanese supply convoys. They met the Japanese fleet in the naval Battle of the Komandorski Islands in March 1943. One American cruiser and two destroyers were damaged, with seven U.S. sailors killed. Two Japanese cruisers were damaged, with 14 men killed and 26 wounded. Japan thereafter abandoned all attempts to resupply the Aleutian garrisons by surface vessels, and only submarines would be used.

Attu Island[edit]

On 11 May 1943, the operation to recapture Attu began. Included with the invasion force were scouts recruited from Alaska, nicknamed Castner's Cutthroats. A shortage of landing craft, unsuitable beaches, and equipment that failed to operate in the appalling weather made it difficult to bring any force against the Japanese. Soldiers suffered from frostbite because essential supplies could not be landed, or could not be moved to where needed because vehicles would not work on the tundra. Led by Colonel Yasuyo Yamasaki, the Japanese defenders did not contest the landings, instead digging in on high ground far from the shore. This resulted in fierce combat, with a total of 3,929 U.S. casualties; 580 men were killed, 1,148 were wounded, and another 1,200 had severe cold injuries. In addition, 614 died of disease, and 318 from miscellaneous causes, mainly Japanese booby traps or friendly fire.

A map of the Bering Sea region.

On 29 May, the last of the Japanese forces attacked without warning near Massacre Bay in one of the largest banzai charges of the Pacific campaign. Led by Colonel Yamasaki, the attack penetrated U.S. lines so deeply that it encountered rear-echelon units of the American force. After furious, brutal, often hand-to-hand combat, the Japanese force was virtually exterminated. Only 28 had been willing to be taken prisoner, none of them officers. American burial teams counted 2,351 Japanese dead, but it was thought that hundreds more bodies had been buried by bombardments during the battle.

Kiska Island[edit]

On 15 August 1943, an invasion force of 34,426 Canadian and American troops landed on Kiska. Castner's Cutthroats were part of the force, but the invasion consisted mainly of units from the U.S. 7th Infantry Division. The force also included about 5,300 Canadians, mostly from the 13th Canadian Infantry Brigade of the 6th Canadian Infantry Division, and the 1st Special Service Force, later known as the "Devil's Brigade," a 2,000 man Canadian-American commando unit formed in 1942 in Montana and trained in winter warfare techniques. The Brigade included three regiments: the 1st was to go ashore in the first wave at Kiska Harbor, the 2nd was in be held in reserve to parachute where needed, and the 3rd was to land on the north side of Kiska on the second day of the assault.[9]

Royal Canadian Air Force No. 111 and No. 14 Squadrons saw active service in the Aleutian skies and scored at least one aerial kill on a Japanese aircraft. Additionally, three Canadian armed merchant cruisers and two corvettes served in the Aleutian campaign but did not encounter enemy forces.

The invaders landed to find the island abandoned. Under the cover of fog, the Japanese had successfully removed their troops on 28 July. The Army Air Force had bombed abandoned positions for almost three weeks without suspecting the Japanese were no longer there. The day before the withdrawal, the U.S. Navy fought an inconclusive and possibly meaningless Battle of the Pips 80 mi (70 nmi; 130 km) to the west.

The Japanese may have been gone, but Allied casualties on Kiska nevertheless numbered 313. All were the result of friendly fire, booby traps, disease, or frostbite. As with Attu, Kiska offered an extremely hostile environment.

Aftermath[edit]

Although plans were drawn up for attacking northern Japan, they were not executed. Over 1,500 sorties were flown against the Kuriles before the end of the war, including the Japanese base of Paramushiro, diverting 500 Japanese planes and 41,000 ground troops.

The battle also marked the first time Canadian conscripts were sent to a combat zone in World War II. The government had pledged not to send draftees "overseas", which it defined as being outside North America. The Aleutians were considered to be North American soil, thus enabling the Canadian government to deploy conscripts without breaking its pledge. There were cases of desertion before the brigade sailed for the Aleutians. In late 1944, the government changed its policy on draftees and sent 16,000 conscripts to Europe to take part in the fighting.[10]

The battle also marked the first combat deployment of the 1st Special Service Force, though they also did not see any action.

American troops negotiate snow and ice during the battle of Attu in May 1943.

In the summer of 1942, the Americans recovered the Akutan Zero, an almost intact Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighter. This enabled the Americans to test fly the Zero and contributed to improved fighter tactics later in the war.

Captured Japanese Zero. It was captured intact by U.S. forces in July 1942 on Akutan Island, after the Dutch Harbor Attack and became the first flyable Zero acquired by the United States during the Second World War. It was repaired and made its first test flight in the U.S. on 20 September 1942

Killed in action[edit]

During the campaign, two cemeteries were established on Attu to bury those killed in action: Little Falls Cemetery, located at the foot of Gilbert Ridge, and Holtz Bay Cemetery, which held the graves of Northern Landing Forces. After the war, the frozen tundra began to take back the cemeteries, so in 1946 all American remains were relocated as directed by the soldier's family or to Fort Richardson near Anchorage, Alaska. On May 30, 1946, a Memorial Day address was given by Captain Adair with a Firing Squad Salute and the playing of Taps. The Decoration of Graves was performed by Chaplains Meaney and Insko.[11]

Veterans[edit]

The 2006 documentary film Red White Black & Blue features two veterans of the Attu Island campaign, Bill Jones and Andy Petrus. It is directed by Tom Putnam and debuted at the 2006 Locarno International Film Festival in Locarno, Switzerland on August 4, 2006.

Dashiell Hammett spent most of World War II as an Army sergeant in the Aleutian Islands, where he edited an Army newspaper. He came out of the war suffering from emphysema. As a corporal in 1943, he co-authored The Battle of the Aleutians with Cpl. Robert Colodny under the direction of Infantry Intelligence Officer Major Henry W. Hall.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b Cloe, Aleutian Warriors, p. 321.
  2. ^ Cloe, Aleutian Warriors, p. 321–322.
  3. ^ MacGarrigle, George L. Aleutian Islands. The U.S. Army Campaigns of World War II. United States Army Center of Military History. CMH Pub 72-6. 
  4. ^ Cloe, Aleutian Warriors, p. 322–323.
  5. ^ Parshall, Jonathan; Anthony Tully (2005). Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway. Potomac Books. ISBN 978-1-57488-924-6. 
  6. ^ http://www.navweaps.com/index_oob/OOB_WWII_Pacific/OOB_WWII_Midway.htm, and http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USN/Aleutians/USN-CN-Aleutians-3.html#page22, accessed November 2011
  7. ^ Banks, Scott (April/May 2003)."Empire of the Winds" American Heritage. Retrieved 7-29-2010.
  8. ^ Nagle, John Copeland (2010). Law's environment: how the law shapes the places we live. Yale University Press. p. 39. ISBN 0-300-12629-8. 
  9. ^ "The Devil's Brigade" by Robert Adleman & George Walton, pp. 103-106, Naval Institute Press and "First Special Service Force 1942 - 1944" by Bret Werner, pp. 14 & 15, Osprey Publishing
  10. ^ Stacey, C. P.; Canada. Dept. of National Defence. General Staff. (1948). The Canadian Army, 1939–1945; an official historical summary. Ottawa: E. Cloutier, King's Printer. OCLC 2144853. 
  11. ^ http://www.hlswilliwaw.com/aleutians/attu/html/attu-kia.htm

Bibliography[edit]

  • Cloe, John Haile (1990). The Aleutian Warriors: A History of the 11th Air Force and Fleet Air Wing 4. Missoula, Montana: Pictorial Histories Publishing Co. and Anchorage Chapter – Air Force Association. ISBN 0-929521-35-8. OCLC 25370916. 
  • Cohen, Stan (1981). The Forgotten War: A Pictorial History of World War II in Alaska and Northwestern Canada (Volumes 1-3). Missoula, Montana: Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., Inc. ISBN 0-933126-13-1. 
  • Dickrell, Jeff (2001). Center of the Storm: The Bombing of Dutch Harbor and the Experience of Patrol Wing Four in the Aleutians, Summer 1942. Missoula, Montana: Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., Inc. ISBN 1-57510-092-4. OCLC 50242148. 
  • Feinberg, Leonard (1992). Where the Williwaw Blows: The Aleutian Islands-World War II. Pilgrims' Process. ISBN 0-9710609-8-3. OCLC 57146667. 
  • Garfield, Brian (1995) [1969]. The Thousand-Mile War: World War II in Alaska and the Aleutians. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press. ISBN 0-912006-83-8. OCLC 33358488. 
  • Goldstein, Donald M.; Katherine V. Dillon (1992). The Williwaw War: The Arkansas National Guard in the Aleutians in World War. Fayettville: University of Arkansas Press. ISBN 1-55728-242-0. OCLC 24912734. 
  • Hays, Otis (2004). Alaska's Hidden Wars: Secret Campaigns on the North Pacific Rim. University of Alaska Press. ISBN 1-889963-64-X. 
  • Lorelli, John A. (1984). The Battle of the Komandorski Islands. Annapolis: United States Naval Institute. ISBN 0-87021-093-9. OCLC 10824413. 
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot (2001) [1951]. Aleutians, Gilberts and Marshalls, June 1942 – April 1944, vol. 7 of History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Champaign: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-316-58305-7. OCLC 7288530. 
  • Parshall, Jonathan; Tully, Anthony (2005). Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway. Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books. ISBN 1-57488-923-0. OCLC 60373935. 
  • Perras, Galen Roger (2003). Stepping Stones to Nowhere, The Aleutian Islands, Alaska, and American Military Strategy, 1867–1945. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press. ISBN 1-59114-836-7. OCLC 53015264. 
  • Urwin, Gregory J. W. (2000). The Capture of Attu: A World War II Battle as Told by the Men Who Fought There. Bison Books. ISBN 0-8032-9557-X. 
  • Wetterhahn, Ralph (2004). The Last Flight of Bomber 31: Harrowing Tales of American and Japanese Pilots Who Fought World War II's Arctic Air Campaign. Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-7867-1360-7. 

External links[edit]