by Austin Bay
May 28, 2013
Fifteen months of warfare in the frost and fog of subarctic weather ought to be tough to forget. But seven decades after the fight for the Aleutian Islands reached its banzai climax on May 29, 1943, the mistake-plagued allied campaign to drive Japanese forces from North America remains "the forgotten battle."
The campaign does rate a sensational headline: Japan Invades North America. The Aleutians campaign began in early June 1942 when a large Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) task force entered U.S. territorial waters and launched successful amphibious invasions of the Alaskan islands of Attu and Kiska.
Which leads to a second sensational headline: Japanese Invaders Conquer, Fortify U.S. Territory.
At a time when Americans, with good reason, feared a Japanese invasion of Hawaii and the continental U.S. West Coast, Kiska and Attu actually became Japanese Occupied America. On both Kiska and Attu, Japanese troops --occupation troops -- built airfields, barracks and bunkers, and then stationed combat aircraft on bona fide U.S. soil. The Battle of Attu (May 11 to May 30, 1943) was the only World War II land battle fought on incorporated U.S. territory.
Attu lies at the far western end of the Aleutians, where the cold North Pacific approaches the Bering Strait. Kiska is 180 miles east of Attu. Based on a quick scan of the map, the Aleutians look like a logical invasion route. Strategists in Tokyo and Washington saw the islands as stepping stones to the respective enemy homeland. Land-based aircraft could operate from airfields on the bigger stones.
Japanese planners did not think Alaska and British Columbia were realistic objectives. However, blocking a U.S. route to Japan's northern Kurile Islands and denying U.S. strategic bombers northern bases made sense in Tokyo.
After Pearl Harbor, the IJN had the offensive edge. The Aleutian invasion force was the northern prong of the IJN's June 1942 bid to deal the U.S. Navy (USN) a fatal blow. The southern prong is much more famous -- its troops had orders to take Midway Island, a stepping stone to Hawaii. The U.S. victory at Midway dramatically altered the Pacific war. In the latter half of 1942, the great American counteroffensive commenced. Japan's Aleutian garrisons were exposed to U.S. air and naval bombardment and -- even worse -- winter weather.
Both sides learned that the isolated, rugged Aleutians are a difficult place to supply, much less fight. The weather, wicked currents, uncharted rocks and U.S. submarines hindered Japanese supply ships. A March 1943 IJN attempt to reinforce the garrisons led to the Battle of the Komandorski Islands, an encounter historian Samuel Eliot Morison argued "has no parallel in the Pacific war." Southeast of Siberian Russia's Kamchatka peninsula, IJN and USN warships fought a World War I style long-range gun duel, without the presence of combat aircraft.
On May 11, 1943, after days of foul weather and high seas, 11,000 U.S. soldiers invaded Attu. At the beach, they met sporadic resistance. The Japanese had prepared defenses in Attu's rugged valleys and ridges. For 18 days, pockets of Japanese infantry fought to the last man. At 0330 on May 29, over 1,000 Japanese soldiers trapped near Massacre Bay launched one of the war's largest banzai suicide attacks. The attackers broke the U.S. line and overran two headquarters and a medical station, where they stabbed wounded U.S. soldiers. When U.S. units counterattacked, surviving fanatics committed suicide using hand grenades. On Attu, 2,351 Japanese died; the U.S. took 28 prisoners. Attu cost 549 U.S. killed in action, 1,148 wounded, 1,200 very severe cold weather injuries and 900 other non-combat casualties. Attu may be forgotten, but it wasn't easy.
Kiska repeated Attu's tragedy as tragic farce. On Aug. 15, after weeks of bad weather, 35,000 U.S. and Canadian troops assaulted Kiska. The allied soldiers met fog and mist at the beaches, but no resistance. On Aug. 17, troops "groping through a clammy fog" (Morison's description) found the Japanese main base deserted. The Japanese had evacuated Kiska on July 28 -- a very foggy day.
Intelligence failure? In every sense. In the fog and mist, fratricidal gunfire killed 25 allied soldiers and wounded 31. That is a lesson no one should forget.