After securing strategically located bases during its war with China,
Japan set out to create its long-coveted greater east Asia co-prosperity
empire. Opening with a crushing attack upon Pearl Harbor on 7 December
1941 that temporarily neutralized the U.S. Pacific Fleet, the Imperial
High Command quickly followed by dispatching large forces to seize
the Philippines, Malaya, and the Netherlands East Indies and preparing
plans for new bases from which to strike Australia and India. By June 1942
Japanese authority on the Asian mainland had extended beyond Malaya into
Thailand and Burma. In the western Pacific, it encompassed most of the
larger islands north of Australia and east of Midway.
In the wake of such astounding military success, Japan decided to push
onward rather than consolidate its gains. Its next objectives, New Guinea
and the Solomon Islands, were clearly to be used as steppingstones to Australia.
Between those objectives and the Australian continent was the Coral Sea,
where in early May the American Navy had checked a powerful Japanese fleet
in a battle that frustrated the enemy's hope for an early invasion of Australia.
Remaining on the defensive throughout the Pacific, the United States
hurriedly fortified island bases along a great arc extending from Pearl
Harbor to Sydney to keep open the shipping routes to Australia. With only
limited numbers of troops available, it nevertheless joined Australia in
planning an offensive in New Guinea and the Solomons to halt Japanese advances.
To command this offensive in what became known as the Southwest Pacific
Area, President Franklin D. Roosevelt selected General Douglas MacArthur,
leaving the remainder of the Pacific theater under the direction of the
Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.
Nimitz's command was divided into three combat areas (north, central,
and south). The North Pacific Area extended west from the continental United
States, Canada, and the Territory of Alaska across the Pacific to the Asian
mainland. Included within Nimitz's North Pacific Area were Japan's northern
islands, the Kuriles, and, just 650 miles to the east, Alaska's Aleutian
Protruding in a long, sweeping curve for more than a thousand miles
westward from the tip of the Alaskan Peninsula, the Aleutians
provided a natural avenue of approach between the two countries. Forbidding
weather and desolate terrain, however, made this approach militarily undesirable.
While spared the arctic climate of the Alaskan mainland to the north, the
Aleutians are constantly swept by cold winds and often engulfed in dense
fog. The weather becomes progressively worse in the western part of the
chain, but all the islands are marked by craggy mountains and scant vegetation.
Despite such inhospitable conditions, neither the United States nor Japan
could afford to assume that the other would reject the Aleutians as an
impractical invasion route.
Japanese concern for the defense of the northern Pacific increased when
sixteen U.S. B-25 bombers, led by Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle, took off
from the carrier Hornet and bombed Tokyo on 18 April 1942. Unsure
of where the American raid originated, but suspicious that it could have
been from a secret base in the western Aleutians, the Imperial High
Command began to take an active interest in capturing the island chain.
The Aleutians first appeared as a Japanese objective in a plan prepared
under the direction of one of Japan's most able commanders, Admiral Isoroku
Yamamoto. With help from the Japanese Army, Yamamoto intended to "invade
and occupy strategic points in the Western Aleutians" as well as Midway
Island on the western tip of the Hawaiian chain. He envisioned these two
sites as anchors for a defensive perimeter in the north and central Pacific.
His plan also included the final destruction of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
By using the Aleutians and then Midway as bait, he intended to lure the
already weakened American fleet from Pearl Harbor and annihilate it before
new construction could replace the losses it had sustained on 7 December.
An attack on the Aleutians in early June 1942, Yamamoto believed, would
draw the U.S. fleet north to challenge his forces. With the departure of
the U.S. warships from Pearl Harbor, he would then move his main fleet
to seize Midway. Because of Midway's importance—the island was within bomber
range of Pearl Harbor—he concluded that Nimitz would redirect his fleet
from the Aleutians to Midway to prevent the loss of the island. Waiting
off Midway to intercept that force would be the largest concentration of
naval power ever assembled by Japan. After overwhelming the American fleet,
Yamamoto would have undisputed control of the central and western Pacific.
Yamamoto commanded an armada of 176 warships and auxiliaries. A portion
of that force, the Northern Area Fleet, with 2 small aircraft
carriers, left the Kurile Islands to attack the Aleutians, while the
remainder of his fleet, which included 4 large aircraft carriers, 9 battleships,
and 12 transports, converged on Midway. The Aleutian attack was a sideshow,
yet it would reduce Yamamoto's overall available strength in carrier aircraft
during the fight for Midway on 4-5 June, one of the decisive battles of
all time and the turning point of the Pacific war.
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. It assumed that the United States had made
a major effort to increase defenses in the area and expected to find several
U.S. warships operating in Aleutian waters, including 1 or 2 small aircraft
carriers as well as several cruisers and destroyers. Given these assumptions,
Yamamoto provided the Northern Area Fleet, commanded by Vice Admiral
Boshiro Hosogaya, with a force of 2 small aircraft carriers, 5 cruisers,
12 destroyers, 6 submarines, and 4 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. After destroying the American base on Adak
(in fact, there was none), his 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 Aleutian's westernmost island, Attu, 180
miles from Kiska.
Because U.S. intelligence had broken the Japanese naval code, Admiral
Nimitz had learned by 21 May 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. Nimitz decided
to confront both enemy fleets, retaining his three aircraft carriers for
the Midway battle while sending a third of his surface fleet (Task Force
8) under Rear Adm. Robert A. Theobald to defend Alaska. Theobald was ordered
to hold Dutch Harbor, a small naval facility in the eastern Aleutians,
at all costs and to prevent the Japanese from gaining a foothold in Alaska.
Theobald's task force of 5 cruisers, 14 destroyers, and 6 submarines
quietly left Pearl Harbor on 25 May to take a position in the Alaskan Sea
400 miles off Kodiak Island, there to wait for the arrival of Hosogaya's
fleet. In the meantime Theobald established his headquarters on Kodiak
and met with Maj. Gen. (later Lt. Gen.) Simon B. Buckner, Jr., the commander
of the Army's Alaska Defense Command.
Command authority in the North Pacific Area was divided and cumbersome.
Upon reaching Alaska, Theobald became commander of all Allied naval and
air forces. Authority over the ground forces remained under Buckner,
with whom he was to work in a spirit of "mutual cooperation." While Theobald
reported directly to Admiral Nimitz as his agent in the North Pacific Area,
Buckner answered to the commander of the San Francisco-based Western Defense
Command, Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt, who was responsible for the defense of
Alaska and western Canada. Any differences between Nimitz and DeWitt in
the North Pacific Area would be referred to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS)
in Washington for resolution.
As of 1 June 1942, American 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 a recently built Army
air base (Fort Glenn) 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 had been rushed
to the construction of bases.
On Theobald's arrival at Kodiak, he assumed control of the U.S. Army
Air Corps' Eleventh Air Force, commanded by Brig. Gen. (later Maj. Gen.)
William C. Butler. This force consisted of 10 heavy and 34 medium bombers
and 95 fighters, divided between its main base, Elmendorf Airfield, in
Anchorage, and at airfields at Cold Bay and on Umnak. Theobald charged
Butler to locate the Japanese fleet reported heading toward Dutch Harbor
and attack it with his bombers, concentrating on sinking Hosogaya's 2 aircraft
carriers. Once the enemy planes were removed, Task Force 8 would engage
the enemy fleet and destroy it.
On the afternoon of 2 June a naval patrol plane spotted the approaching
enemy fleet, reporting its location as 800 miles southwest of Dutch Harbor.
Theobald placed his entire command on full alert. Shortly thereafter bad
weather set in, and no further sightings of the fleet were made that day.
Buildings burning after the first enemy attack on Dutch Harbor,
3 June 1942.
Early the next morning, despite dense fog and rough seas, Hosogaya launched
some of his aircraft to attack Dutch Harbor. Only half reached their objective.
The rest either became lost in the fog and darkness and crashed into the
sea or returned to their carriers. In all, seventeen planes found the naval
base, the first arriving at 0545. As the Japanese pilots looked for targets
to engage, they came under intense antiaircraft fire and soon found themselves
confronted by U.S. fighter planes sent from Fort Glenn on Umnak Island. Startled by the
American response, they quickly released their bombs, made a cursory strafing
run, and left to return to their carriers. As a result of their haste they
did little damage to the base. But Hosogaya's fleet remained unlocated,
and the U.S. planes based at Cold Harbor had received no word of the attack
because of a communications failure.
The next day the Japanese returned to Dutch Harbor. This time the enemy
pilots were better organized and better prepared. When the attack finally
ended that afternoon, the base's oil storage tanks were ablaze, part of
the hospital was demolished, and a beached barracks ship was damaged. Although
American pilots had finally located the Japanese carriers, attempts to
destroy them proved fruitless. As bad weather again set in, all contact
with the enemy fleet was lost. In all, the Japanese raid claimed 43 U.S.
lives, of which 33 were soldiers. Another 64 Americans were wounded. Eleven
U.S. planes were downed, while the Japanese lost ten aircraft.
During the two-day fight, Task Force 8 had remained south of Kodiak
Island, taking no part in the action. Not until the 5th did Theobald send
it to investigate a report of enemy warships in the Bering Sea
heading south toward Unalaska Island, which he interpreted to be a landing
force intent upon seizing Dutch Harbor. In the meantime, he instructed
Butler to attack the enemy ships with all available aircraft. Rapidly developing
clouds in the area where the enemy ships were reported prevented Butler's
pilots from finding the enemy. Six recently assigned B-17 Flying Fortress
bombers equipped with radar reported scoring hits upon enemy ships, but
these later proved to be uninhabited islands in the Pribilofs chain—north
of Dutch Harbor.
While Task Force 8 entered the Bering Sea, Hosogaya's fleet moved south
to join Yamamoto, who had just suffered the loss of his four large carriers
off Midway. Unable to lure U.S. surface ships into range of his battleships,
Yamamoto ordered his fleet to return to Japan. Rather than have the Northern
Area Fleet join him, Yamamoto now instructed Hosogaya to return to
the Aleutians, execute his original mission, and thereby score a success
to help compensate for the Midway disaster. Forgoing the planned attack
on Adak, Hosogaya moved directly to the western Aleutians, occupying Kiska
on 6 June and Attu a day later. He encountered no opposition on either
island, but the Japanese public was in fact told that this was a great
victory. It learned about the disaster at Midway only after the war was
At Japanese Imperial Headquarters, the news of Yamamoto's great
loss prompted the dispatch of two aircraft carriers from Japan to reinforce
Hosogaya. Having correctly anticipated Nimitz's next move—the dispatch,
on 8 June, of his two carriers to destroy Hosogaya's fleet— Imperial
Headquarters saw an opportunity to immobilize the U.S. Pacific Fleet
by eliminating its only carriers. When Nimitz learned of the capture of
Kiska, he countermanded his order. Unwilling to risk the loss of his only
carriers in the Pacific to land-based planes from Kiska, and presumably
informed that Hosogaya would soon have four carriers at his disposal in
the North Pacific, he decided to retain his carriers for spearheading a
major advance in the Central Pacific.
For the Japanese, Kiska without Midway no longer had any value as a
base for patrolling the ocean between the Aleutian and Hawaiian chains,
but Kiska and Attu did block the Americans from possibly using the Aleutians
as a route for launching an offensive on Japan. Originally intending to
abandon the islands before winter set in, the Japanese instead decided
to stay and build airfields on both islands. Although Generals Buckner
and DeWitt would in fact argue for a northern approach to Japan along the
Aleutians, the real motive for planning the recapture of the two remote
islands was mainly psychological—to remove the only Japanese foothold on
American soil in the Western Hemisphere.
By mid-June the Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed that the sooner a determined
effort was made to oust the Japanese from the Aleutians, the lesser the
means required to do it would be. They also theorized that the attack on
the Aleutians and the occupation of its westernmost islands might be part
of a holding action designed to screen a northward thrust by Japanese forces
into Siberia's maritime provinces and the Kamchatka Peninsula. As a result,
they informed Theobald and Buckner of their concern about a possible Japanese
attack upon the Soviet Union that might also include the occupation of
St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea and of nearby Nome and its adjacent
airfields on the Alaskan mainland.
Adak served as the forward staging base in the Aleutians for attacking
Attu and Kiska. Note the airstrip in the foreground. (DA photograph)
Supporting the possibility of an invasion of the Alaskan mainland were
reports of a Japanese fleet operating in the Bering Sea. On 20 June alone,
three separate sightings placed an enemy fleet somewhere
between the Pribilof and St. Lawrence Islands, suggesting that either an
enemy raid on or an outright invasion of the Alaskan mainland was imminent,
with Nome the likely objective. As a result, a sense of urgency bordering
on panic set in that triggered what was to become the first mass airlift
in American history. Within thirty-six hours, military as well as commandeered
civilian aircraft flew nearly 2,300 troops to Nome, along with artillery
and antiaircraft guns and several tons of other equipment and supplies.
Not until early July— when U.S. intelligence reported with some certainty
the departure of Hosogaya's fleet from the Bering Sea—did the threat of
invasion of the Alaskan mainland decline, allowing for the redeployment
of many of the troops hastily assembled at Nome.
In keeping with the Joint Chiefs' desire to move quickly to regain Kiska
and Attu, Theobald and Buckner agreed to establish a series of airfields
west of Umnak from which bombers could launch strikes against the closest
of the enemy-held islands, Kiska. First to be occupied was Adak, 400 miles
from Umnak. Landing unopposed on 30 August, an Army force of 4,500 secured
the island. Engineers completed an airfield two weeks later, a remarkable
feat that they were to duplicate again and again throughout the campaign.
On 14 September U.S. B-24 heavy bombers took off from Adak to attack Kiska,
200 miles away. Repeated bombings of Kiska during the summer and into the
fall convinced the Japanese that the Americans intended to recapture the
island. As a result, by November they had increased their garrisons on
Kiska and Attu to 4,000 and 1,000 men respectively. During the winter months
the Japanese would count on darkness and the habitually poor weather to
protect them from any serious attack.
Although continually restrained by the greater importance and more pressing
needs of the Solomons and New Guinea Campaigns, the buildup of U.S. Army
forces in the Alaska Command continued, reaching 94,000 soldiers by January
1943. By then an additional thirteen bases had been built in Alaska, many
of which were in the Aleutians. With an unopposed Army landing on Amchitka
Island on 11 January, Alaska Command forces were now within fifty miles
Just surviving the weather on Amchitka was a challenge. During the first
night ashore, a "willowaw" (a violent squall) smashed many of the landing
boats and swept a troop transport aground. On the second day a blizzard
racked the island with snow, sleet, and biting wind. Lasting for nearly
two weeks, the blizzard finally subsided enough to reveal to a Japanese
scout plane from Kiska the American beachhead on Amchitka. Harassed by
bombing and strafing attacks from Kiska, engineers continued work on an
airfield on Amchitka completing it in mid-February. Japanese attacks on
the island then sharply declined.
As U.S. forces came close to Kiska and Attu, the enemy's outposts became
increasingly more difficult to resupply. In mid-March, Rear Adm. Thomas
C. Kinkaid, who had replaced Admiral Theobald in January, established a
naval blockade around the islands that resulted in the sinking or turning
back of several enemy supply ships. When a large Japanese force, personally
led by Admiral Hosogaya, attempted to run the blockade with 3 big transports
loaded with supplies escorted by 4 heavy cruisers and 4 destroyers on 26
March, the largest sea fight of the Aleutian Campaign took place, remembered
best as the last and longest daylight surface naval battle of fleet warfare.
Known as the Battle of the Komandorski Islands, the closest land
mass in the Bering Sea, the smaller U.S. force compelled Hosogaya to
retire without completing his mission and resulted in his removal from
command. Henceforth, the garrisons at Attu and Kiska would have to rely
upon meager supplies brought in by submarine.
Of the two islands, Kiska was the more important militarily. Containing
the only operational airfield and having the better harbor, Kiska was scheduled
to be recaptured first. For that purpose, Kinkaid asked for a reinforced
infantry division (25,000 men). When not enough shipping could be made
available to support so large a force, he recommended that Attu be substituted
for Kiska as the objective, indicating that Attu was defended by no more
than 500 men, as opposed to 9,000 believed to be on Kiska. If the estimate
was correct, he indicated, he would require no more than a regiment to
do the job. Kinkaid also noted that U.S. forces based on Attu would be
astride the Japanese line of communications and thus in a position to cut
off Kiska from supply and reinforcement, which in time would cause Kiska
to "wither on the vine."
After gaining JCS approval on 1 April for the Attu operation (code-named
SANDCRAB) and obtaining the needed shipping, work began to recapture the
little, fog-shrouded island at the western end of the Aleutian chain. Attu
is 35 miles long and 15 miles wide, with snow-capped peaks that reach upward
to 3,000 feet. Steep slopes extend down from the peaks to treeless valleys
below, carpeted with muskeg, a "black muck" covered with a dense growth
of lichens and moss. Because the Japanese current has a moderating effect
on temperatures, much of the time in the outermost Aleutians the muskeg
is barely firm enough for a man to cross on foot. The same current accounts
for the pea-soup fogs, the constant pervading wetness, and the frequent
storms that make the outer Aleutians so forbidding.
Kinkaid, the commander of Northern Pacific Force, pulled together an
imposing armada to support the invasion. In addition to an attack force
of 3 battleships, a small aircraft carrier, and 7 destroyers for escorting
and providing fire support for the Army landing force, he had 2 covering
groups, composed of several cruisers, destroyers, and submarines, for early
detection of a possible challenge by the Japanese Northern Area Fleet.
Reinforcing the naval support, the Eleventh Air Force was to provide
54 bombers and 128 fighters for the operation, holding back a third of
the bomber force for use against ships of the Japanese fleet.
Click on the map below to greatly enlarge it
Troops hauling supplies forward to units fighting the Japanese
in the Chichagof area, May 1943. (DA photograph)
Early in the planning phase, U.S. intelligence upgraded the estimated
enemy strength on Attu threefold from its original figure of 500 men, prompting
a request for additional forces. Because Buckner had but a single infantry regiment in Alaska, widely dispersed throughout
the territory, the War Department provided the needed troops from DeWitt's
Western Defense Command, selecting the 7th Infantry Division, then stationed
near Fort Ord, California, as the unit to recapture Attu. Trained as a
motorized force and at one time scheduled for duty in the deserts of North
Africa, the 7th Division was reported to be in a high state of readiness;
because of its location near the coast, it could readily undergo the amphibious
training required for its new mission. After completing that training during
April 1943, the men of the division embarked from San Francisco on transports
with their commander, Maj. Gen. Albert E. Brown.
Arriving at windswept, partially snow-covered Fort Randall (Cold Bay)
on the 30th, the troops spent the next four days on the crowded transports.
The cold, damp Aleutian weather was far different from the warm California
beaches they had just left. Because of shortages in cold weather equipment,
moreover, most of the men would enter combat wearing normal field gear.
While senior commanders realized that the troops would suffer from the
weather, most believed that within three days the fight for Attu would
be over, particularly since the assembled naval support for the landings
included three battleships along with several cruisers and destroyers.
The west arm of Holtz Bay viewed from the ridge over which the troops
advanced onto Attu. Note the crashed Japanese Zero.
Three weeks before, a concerted air and naval bombardment of both Attu
and Kiska had begun, but it had been largely limited to Kiska because of
the continual fog covering Attu. Poor weather caused Kinkaid to postpone
the departure of the invasion force from Cold Bay to 4 May, a day behind
schedule, and as the convoy neared Attu storms and poor visibility forced
yet a further delay until the 11th. The bad weather also seriously reduced
the air and naval strikes against Attu.
Despite unremitting fog, the much-delayed assault opened on 11 May at
widely separated points on the eastern portion of the island. In a predawn
attack the 7th Scout Company paddled ashore from submarines onto a small
beach (Beach SCARLET), nine miles northwest of Chichagof Harbor, the location
of the main Japanese base and General Brown's ultimate objective. Meeting
no opposition, the scout company moved inland. At noon, the 7th Division's
reconnaissance troop (less one platoon) landed at SCARLET and moved to
join the scout company. Upon linkup, the two units, which constituted
a provisional battalion, were to occupy the head of the valley
where a pass gave access to one of the valleys leading back from Holtz
Bay. In the meantime, at the end of the western arm of Holtz Bay, the 1st
Battalion of the 17th Infantry came ashore at Beach RED. If the 1st Battalion
encountered opposition when advancing on its first objective, a camel-back
hill mass designated as "Hill X," the provisional battalion was to attack
the enemy from the rear.
The men of the 1st Battalion, after passing through a rock-studded approach
to Beach RED in landing craft, had to scale a steep escarpment that began
about 75 yards from the water's edge and rose 200 to 250 feet above the
beach. From there they started working their way down the west side of
Holtz Bay virtually unopposed until 1800 when heavy enemy fire halted their
advance short of Hill X.
When the 1st Battalion came ashore Beach RED, the main attack at Massacre
Bay finally got under way as the 2d and 3d Battalion Combat Teams of the
17th Regiment landed unopposed on Beaches BLUE and YELLOW, approximately
6 miles south of Chichagof Harbor. Had the landing not been delayed because
of dense fog and high seas, a third combat team—the 2d Battalion, 32d Infantry
Regiment, attached to the 17th Regiment—would also have come ashore. As
it was, that unit remained aboard ship until the next day.
Slowed by the slippery muskeg, the 2d and 3d Battalions stumbled side
by side up Massacre Valley, dividing on either side of a hogback. Both
battalions came under fire at 1900; part way up the ridges overlooking
the valley, the enemy, occupying dug-in positions obscured in a thin mist,
pinned them down. Attempts by the 3d Battalion, on the left (southwest),
to reach Jarmin Pass, the regimental objective at the head of the valley,
failed, resulting in heavy losses. (A platoon from the 7th Reconnaissance
Troop made subsidiary landings at Alexai Point and joined the main body
at Massacre Bay without opposition.)
The fog, which had hampered the landings, likewise concealed the attackers
from the enemy. Not until midafternoon did the Japanese commander, Col.
Yasuyo Yamazaki, order his men from their caves to the prepared outer defenses
surrounding Chichagof Harbor, a trace that extended from Hill X on the
west arm of Holtz Bay, southward to Jarmin Pass, and then eastward to Sarana
Click on the map below to greatly enlarge it
When General Brown came ashore at Massacre Bay toward the end of D-day,
the tactical situation was far from clear, but what information was available
would not have indicated that a long drawn-out struggle was in prospect.
By 2130, five hours after the main landings commenced, he had a total of
3,500 men ashore; 400 at Beach
SCARLET, 1,100 at Beach RED, and 2,000 at Beaches BLUE and YELLOW. On
the northern front, the 1st Battalion was close to Hill X and within twenty-four
hours the 32d Regiment, with its 1st and 3d Battalions, was due to arrive
from Adak. In the southern sector, the 2d Battalion of the 17th reported
that it was within 1,000 yards of Sarana Pass, and the 3d Battalion indicated
that it was about 600 yards short of Jarmin Pass. The next day, the 2d
Battalion, 32d Regiment, on ship in Massacre Bay, was to come ashore to
reinforce the 17th Regiment. If additional forces were needed, General
Buckner had agreed to release the 4th Infantry Regiment, an Alaska unit,
on Adak Island. Everything considered, it would not have been unreasonable
to suppose that within a few days Attu would be taken.
The next day, with naval and air support, Brown's men continued their
two-pronged attack toward Jarmin Pass. Frontal assaults from Massacre Bay
by the 17th Infantry failed to gain ground. As patrols probed to develop
enemy positions, the 2d Battalion, 32d Infantry, came ashore at Massacre
Bay. In the meantime, in the northern sector, the 1st Battalion, finding
the enemy dug in on Hill X, made a double envelopment which succeeded in
gaining a foothold on the crest of the hill, but the Japanese held firm
on the reverse slope. That night the first casualty report of the operation
revealed that forty-four Americans had been killed since the start of the
Further efforts of the Massacre Bay force on the 13th to gain Jarmin
Pass again failed, even with the 2d Battalion, 32d Infantry, entering the
fight to reinforce the 3d Battalion, 17th Regiment. As U.S. losses continued
to mount, front-line positions remained about the same as those gained
on D-day. Vicious and costly fighting occurred to the north as the enemy
attempted to drive the 1st Battalion troops from Hill X, but the crest
remained firmly in American hands at nightfall. The 3d Battalion, 32d Regiment,
by then had landed on Beach RED and was moving forward to reinforce the
hard-pressed 1st Battalion on Hill X. Naval gunfire and air support of
the ground troops continued insofar as weather conditions allowed.
Weather as well as the enemy continued to frustrate the American advance.
Although surface ships continued to bombard reported enemy positions ashore
on the 14th, close air support was extremely limited due to incessant fog
that engulfed the island. In an attempt to hasten the capture of Jarmin
Pass, Brown ordered a combined attack by his North and South Landing Forces,
by then each with three battalions. While the South Landing Force attempted
to inch forward up Massacre Valley to gain the pass, North Landing Force
was to drive the enemy off the reverse slope of Hill X, continue on to seize
Moore Ridge, and then take Jarmin Pass from the rear.
Each attack quickly bogged down. In the northern sector the provisional
battalion that had landed on Beach SCARLET remained checked, unable to
break out to reach the immobile 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry, and when
3d Battalion, 32d Regiment, failed to reach its assault positions in time,
Brown canceled the combined attack. That evening in a report to higher
headquarters, he summarized the four days of fighting, concluding that
"progress through passes will, unless we are extremely lucky, be slow and
costly, and will require troops in excess to those now available to my
The next morning, the 15th, success remained elusive until 1100 when
the fog lifted in the northern sector, revealing that the enemy had withdrawn
to Moore Ridge in the center of Holtz Valley, leaving behind food and ammunition.
The pullback by the Japanese allowed the provisional battalion to break
out and eventually link up with the two battalions near Hill X. As the
men of North Landing Force then entered the valley in chase, the relatively
clear sky allowed enemy troops on occupying Moore Ridge to place accurate
fire upon them. Already slowed by that fire, the pursuit ended when a friendly
air strike hit advancing American troops by mistake.
Back on Adak, the forward command post for Admiral Kinkaid and General
DeWitt, the reported situation at Attu appeared grim. Of special concern
to Kinkaid was the exposed position of the ships directly supporting Brown's
forces ashore. A Japanese submarine had already attacked (unsuccessfully)
one of Kinkaid's three battleships, and reports persisted that a Japanese
fleet would soon arrive to challenge the landing. As a result, Brown was
told that the Navy would withdraw its support ships on the 16th, or in
any event no later than the 17th, leaving him with an unprotected beachhead
and a major reduction in supporting fire.
Communication problems between Brown and Kinkaid and DeWitt, located
more than 400 miles away, coupled with Brown's continued requests of reinforcements—the
latest, on the 15th, for part of Buckner's 4th Infantry Regiment—and a
long dispatch requesting large quantities of engineer and road-building
equipment, and the lack of any positive indications of a speedy breakthrough
on Attu persuaded Kinkaid that Brown had bogged down. When he consulted
with DeWitt and Buckner, both agreed with him that Brown should be replaced.
Upon their recommendation, Kinkaid appointed Maj. Gen. Eugene M. Landrum
to take command of Attu on the 16th.
"Aleutians Cemetery" by Edward Lanning. More than 3,000 Japanese
and Americans died in the fighting at Attu. (Army Art Collection)
An advance by North Landing Force broke the deadlock on Attu the same
day Landrum assumed command. By then a foothold on the northern end of
Moore Ridge had been won in the center of Holtz Valley, thereby gaining
control of the entire ridge. The Japanese, greatly outnumbered by the Americans
and in danger of being taken from the rear, withdrew that night (16-17
May) toward Chichagof Harbor for a final stand.
Well before dawn, troops controlled by the 32d Regiment in the northern
sector moved forward and by daylight discovered that the enemy had gone.
Patrols reported that the east arm of Holtz Bay was free of the enemy,
allowing for much-needed resupply by sea. In the meantime, the 17th Regiment
in the southern sector (at Massacre Valley) also found previously defended
enemy positions abandoned, and it occupied Jarmin Pass.
The Japanese pullback to Chichagof Harbor followed by the linkup of
U.S. forces on the 18th provided the turning point of the battle. While
nearly another two weeks of hard, costly fighting remained, the uncertainty
and frustration of the first few days on Attu never recurred. It was slow
business taking the machine-gun and mortar nests left manned on the heights
by the retreating Japanese,
but eventually the combined American force, reinforced with a battalion
of the 4th Infantry, drew a net around Chichagof Harbor. The end came on
the night of 29 May when most of the surviving Japanese, about 700 to 1,000
strong, charged madly through American lines, screaming, killing, and being
killed. The next day the enemy announced the loss of Attu, as American
units cleared out surviving enemy pockets. Although mopping-up operations
continued for several days, organized resistance ended with the wild charge
of 29 May, and Attu was once more in American hands.
The Americans reported finding 2,351 enemy dead on the island; an additional
few hundred were presumed to have been buried in the hills by the Japanese.
Only 28 Japanese surrendered. Out of a U.S. force that totaled more than
15,000 men, 549 had been killed, another 1,148 wounded, and about 2,100
men taken out of action by disease and nonbattle injuries. Trench foot
was the most common affliction. Most of the nonbattle casualties were exposure
cases, victims of the weather and inadequate clothing.
Taking heed of the Attu experience, Kinkaid sought to ensure that the
final assault in the Aleutians, against Kiska, would be made with better-equipped
and more seasoned soldiers. For the coming invasion his assault troops
would wear clothing and footwear better suited for the cold weather; parkas
were substituted for field jackets and arctic shoes for leather boots.
The landing force would consist of either combat veterans from Attu or
troops trained at Adak in the type of fighting that had developed on Attu.
U.S. intelligence now upgraded its earlier estimates of enemy strength
on Kiska to about 10,000 men. In keeping with that increase, Kinkaid arranged
for his ground commander, Maj. Gen. Charles H. Corlett, U.S. Army, to receive
34,426 troops, including 5,500 Canadians, more than double the original
strength planned for the operation earlier in the year. Code-named COTTAGE,
the operation was to begin on 15 August, onto an island 3 to 4 miles wide
with a high, irregular ridge dividing its 22-mile length and with a defunct
volcano at its northern end. The Japanese had occupied only the central, eastern
portion of the island, locating their main base and airfield at Kiska Harbor.
They also had small garrisons on Little Kiska Island and south of the main
harbor at Gertrude Cove.
Unlike Attu, Kiska was subjected to a heavy preinvasion bombardment.
Reinforced during June and operating from new airfields (at Attu and nearby
Shemya), the Eleventh Air Force dropped a total of 424 tons of bombs on
Kiska during July. During the same month, a strong naval task force lobbed
330 tons of shells onto the island. The combined air and surface bombardment
continued into August, interrupted only by bad weather.
Starting in late July, most pilots reported no signs of enemy activity
on the island, although a few noted that they had still received light
antiaircraft fire. These reports led intelligence analysts to conclude
that the Japanese on Kiska had been evacuated (as was done from Guadalcanal
six months before) or had taken to the hills. Convinced that the later
contention was more probable, Kinkaid ordered the attack to take place
as scheduled, noting that if the Japanese were not there the landings would
be a "super dress rehearsal, good for training purposes," and the only
foreseeable loss would be a sense of letdown by the highly keyed up troops.
Departing Adak, the staging area for the invasion, an amphibious force
of nearly a hundred ships moved toward Kiska, reaching the island early
on 15 August. Unlike the dense fog experienced at Attu on D-day, the seas
were strangely calm and the weather unusually clear. After threatening
to land at Gertrude's Cove on Kiska's east side of the island, Corlett's
men went ashore on the west side of the island; by 1600 a total of 6,500
troops were ashore. The next day Canadian troops came ashore onto another
beach farther north. As with the fight for Attu, the landings were unopposed.
As Allied troops pushed inland, the weather returned to the more normal
dense fog and chilling rain and wind. Veterans of the Attu campaign, in
particular, expected that the enemy was waiting on the high ground above
them to take them under fire.
The only guns that were fired, however, were those of friend against
friend by mistake; partly on that account, casualties ashore during the
first four days of the operation numbered 21 dead and 121 sick and wounded.
The Navy lost 70 dead or missing and 47 wounded when the destroyer Amner
Read struck a mine on 18 August. By the time the search of the island,
including miles of tunnels, ended, American casualties totaled 313 men.
The Allies had attacked an uninhabited island. The entire enemy garrison
of 5,183 men had slipped away unseen. To make the embarrassment complete,
the Kiska evacuation had been carried out on 28 July, almost three weeks
before the Allied landing. The original plan of the Japanese Imperial
General Headquarters had been to withdraw the garrison gradually by
submarine, but this scheme had been abandoned in late June because most
of the submarines assigned to the operation had been lost or damaged. The
Japanese also feared that by gradually weakening the garrison over a prolonged
period, the operation might fail. It was then decided to evacuate the force
at one time, in one movement, using cruisers and destroyers as transports.
The date, at first set for early July, was postponed until 28 July. Between
then and D-day, Kiska had been under attack and close surveillance by American
naval units and the Eleventh Air Force, but the erroneous reports of flak
and Japanese activity—which inexperienced observers brought back—had gone
unquestioned. Surprise was achieved, but it was not the Japanese who were
On 24 August 1943, Corlett declared the island secure, marking the end
of the Aleutian Islands Campaign. By year's end, American and Canadian
troop strength in Alaska would drop from a high of about 144,000 to 113,000.
By then the North Pacific Area had returned to complete Army control. During
1944 the Canadians would leave and U.S. Army strength in the Alaska Defense
Command decrease to 63,000 men. Although interest in the theater waned,
it was in the Aleutians that the United States won its first theater-wide
victory in World War II, ending Japan's only campaign in the Western Hemisphere.
In clearing the Japanese invaders from the Aleutians, the objective
had been partly to eliminate a potential military threat but mainly to
eradicate a psychological blot. Japan's foothold in the Western Hemisphere
was gone. Starting in June 1942 the Japanese had threatened America's northern
flank. Fourteen months later the reverse was true, although the idea of
using the western Aleutians as steppingstones to Japan had no official
approval. General DeWitt and others from time to time urged an assault
by this route upon Japan's Kurile Islands, but commitments to other theaters,
and the desire of the Soviet Union not to have its neutrality with Japan
compromised, thwarted sanction of the proposal.
From the Japanese perspective, however, the threat remained. The bored
American troops stationed in the Aleutians during the
last two years of the war were not involved. But harassing attacks by
the U.S. Eleventh Air Force from bases in the Aleutians against the Kurile
Islands during that period resulted in Imperial Headquarters' maintaining
a large defensive force in the area which, toward the war's end, amounted
to about one-sixth of Japan's total air strength.
The centerpiece of the campaign was the battle for Attu. In terms of
numbers engaged, Attu ranks as one of the most costly assaults-in the Pacific.
For every 100 enemy found on the island, about 71 Americans were killed
or wounded. The cost of taking Attu was thus second only to Iwo Jima. Of
some consolation, the invasion of Rendova in the Solomon Islands during
June proceeded well largely because of the struggle for Attu. In an attempt
to either reinforce or evacuate Attu, the Japanese Imperial Headquarters
had ordered the Fifth Fleet north from Truk in May to the western
Aleutians, thereby greatly reducing Japanese naval strength in the Solomons
area. While the fleet never reached the Aleutians, its absence from the
Solomons allowed the American landings at Rendova to be virtually unopposed.
Stung by the brutal fight for Attu, Admiral Kinkaid sought to avert
the same mistakes at Kiska. While the full-blown attack three months later
upon the deserted island was an embarrassment, the detailed preparation
for Kiska was worth the effort. Lessons learned by the Army in preparing
and equipping troops to survive the rigors of combat in wretched weather
and difficult mountain terrain would prove useful during the upcoming Italian
campaign. Many amphibious warfare techniques developed during the Attu
landings were refined for Kiska and were further improved and applied to
advantage in later amphibious operations in the Pacific.
In one sense the departure of the Japanese from Kiska without a fight
was unfortunate. It gave American commanders a false picture of what might
be expected from the enemy when the odds were hopelessly against him. Instead
of fighting to the death, as at Attu, he had faded into the fog without
a struggle. But Attu, not Kiska, was to provide the pattern of future battles
against the Japanese.
- For those who wish to study the Aleutian Islands Campaign in more detail,
the following official histories provide a carefully documented account
of the operation:
- Stetson Conn, Rose C. Engelman, and Byron Fairchild, Guarding the United States and Its Outposts (1964);
- Samuel Eliot Morison, Aleutians, Gilberts, and Marshalls, June 1942 - April 1944 (1964);
Wesley F. Craven and James L. Cate, eds., The Pacific: Guadalcanal to Saipan, August 1942 to July 1944 (1950) (The Army Air Forces in World War II, Vol. 4).
- The best known popular history of the campaign is Brian Garfield's The Thousand-Mile War: World War II in Alaska and the Aleutians (1969).
- Another book that provides a vivid account of the ground fighting on Attu,
one with personal anecdotes from all ranks, is The Capture of Attu as
Told by the Men Who Fought There (1944, and has been reprinted at least twice in recent years).
Historic advertisement - Mitchell B-25 guarding the Aleutians
This article was originally published in brochure form by the United States Army
Center of Military History (CMH Pub 72-6), and is republished here with permission.
Cover: The reinforcing 4th Infantry moves inland from Massacre Bay.