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Hell on ice.

With dug-in Japanese forces, and Americans hitting the beach, the fight for the Aleutians was classic island warfare, only colder. But did it matter?

The battle over the Aleutians either mattered or it didn't. It depends on whom you ask. "None of the operations accomplished anything of great importance or had any appreciable effect on the outcome of the war," wrote historian Samuel Eliot Morison in volume seven of his History of United States Naval Operations in World War II (1951). "Both sides would have done well to have left the Aleutians to the Aleuts for the course of the war."

Others feel differently, including director Tom Putnam, who spent most of a decade making his documentary Red, White, Black and Blue (2006) about fighting in the Aleutian Islands. "Japan had invaded the island of Attu, and Kiska next to it, and was trying to build air bases to launch an Alaskan and Canadian invasion because they needed the natural resources," Putnam says. "Also, it is far away, but if you actually look at a globe, if you're planning to fly from Japan to bomb Seattle, you go right over the Aleutians. It's a perfect refueling station. So I think it was much more strategic than people give it credit for being."

The Unknown Campaign

Whoever is correct, it's remarkable that these events that happened 65 years ago in the 1,200-mile-long Alaskan archipelago aren't better known. The seminal history The Thousand-Mile War: World War II in Alaska and the Aleutians by Brian Garfield didn't appear until 1969, more than 25 years after the fighting. The story attracted him, he later said, because it "seemed to highlight a very long honor roll of people whose heroism in the face of unspeakably atrocious conditions was a stunning example of the very best of what human beings can be."

The Aleutians campaign lasted 15 months, from June 1942 to August 1943. It opened with a two-day Japanese bombing attack on the Americans' base at Dutch Elarbor on the island of Unalaska, after which the Japanese landed unopposed on Attu and Kiska, two Alaskan islands 900 miles to the west. Ten months later, a three-hour naval battle off the coast of Russia ended any hope Japan had of resupplying its Aleutian occupation forces. The United States then invaded Attu and Kiska and took them back. One landing was unopposed. The other led to some of the war's bloodiest fighting.

In those intervening 10 months, Garfield writes, "Life ran a gamut from tedium to boredom to madness" for the soldiers stationed there in the remote, icy wilderness. "The Campaign in the grey and windy Aleutians was the United States' first offensive campaign of World War II--the first to begin, the first to be won. Its major events included the first extensive aerial bombing campaign in American history; the first mass military airlift ever executed; the longest and last classic daylight surface battle in naval history; the first land-based American bomber attacks on the Japanese homeland; and, in the Battle of Attu, the US Infantry's first amphibious island assault landing and the second most costly infantry battle of the Pacific war (in ratio to the size of the forces engaged) [after Iwo Jima]."

"It constantly amazes me that it isn't a better known battle, the first time American and Japanese group troops faced off," Putnam says about the fighting on Attu in May 1943. He says that during his years of working on Red, White, Black and Blue, he would tell friends asking about his project, "It's a film about the Japanese invasion of Alaska, where 4,000 people died." A common response was, "Oh, science fiction?"

Attu is so remote that Berlin, Germany, is almost 700 miles closer to Washington, DC. Parcels sent to the Aleutians in the winter of 1942-43 marked "Do not open until Christmas" didn't arrive until April. The fact that the islands were so far away from where most Americans lived is one reason the campaign is not well known. Another is that in those perilous early months of the war, even after the Japanese had been defeated in the Aleutians, the American government didn't like to remind people that the invaders had occupied any part of North America. It didn't want people to think of the fighting on Attu as the only battle fought between sovereign nations on American soil since the War of 1812 (though, technically, Alaska was not made an American territory until 1943).

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One more reason for the obscurity of the Aleutians campaign is that the military didn't seem to want to talk much about a theater where it made a great many mistakes, right up to the end of the campaign, when planners sent almost 35,000 troops to take back Kiska, not realizing that the Japanese had evacuated their 5,500-man force three weeks earlier in an astounding 55 minutes. The Americans suffered more than 300 casualties in this unopposed landing.

"Admiral Weather"

NO MATTER WHAT THE OPPOSING FORCES HAD IN MIND, their plans often failed simply because of the weather in the Aleutians, some of the worst in the world. "In the Aleutians," authors Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon write in The Williwaw War (1992), "they fought blinding, waist-deep snow; sleet that struck as from a sandblaster; fogs so thick and persistent that fliers claimed it was clear enough for takeoff if they could see their copilots; the williwaw, that incredible wind that seemed to blow from every direction at once, and that blew away anything not fastened down."

"Admiral Weather" was what the troops called their ultimate commander, Mother Nature. The inside cabin temperature of a B-17 flying over Alaska at 35,000 feet, for example, was minus 85 degrees. "If a bare finger touched the plane's aluminum skin," Garfield writes, "the flesh turned instantly to white, dead ice." On the ground, pilots on the runway awaiting takeoff often sat in such fog that they had to radio the plane in front of them to ask whether it had left yet. Several fighter planes landing on nearby Adak Island rammed into parked B-24s that were invisible in the fog. Every piece of equipment and supply--even coal for the stoves--had to be thawed before it could be used.

The weather collected its toll in US planes. "The Eleventh Air Force's ratio of total theater loss to combat loss was 6.5 to 1," Goldstein and Dillon point out, more than twice that of elsewhere in the Pacific. Garfield observes that in the fall of 1942, the United States lost only 9 planes in combat, but 63 to the weather and mechanical difficulties. In six days in January 1943, the Eleventh lost 13 planes, none to enemy action. And that was before the winter of 1942-43 took a turn for the bad and proved to be the worst in 34 years.

The minesweeper USS Wasmuth was one of the naval victims of the treacherous winter. In late December 1942, stormy surf rocked the Wasmuth until two depth charges broke loose on deck. They fell into the water, exploded beneath the fantail, and sank the ship.

A naval incident in July 1943 known as the Battle of the Pips remains unexplained to this day, but was perhaps weather-related. From 1 to 2 A.M. on the 26th, two American task groups--nine destroyers, four heavy cruisers, two battleships, and one light cruiser--fired several thousand shells in the direction indicated by seven radar blips, or pips, 12,000 to 20,000 yards away. No American ever spotted an enemy ship before or after the blips vanished off the radar screens.

Japan Invades ... and Waits

Japan took its first steps toward Alaska in June 1942. A task group--the aircraft carriers Junyo and Ryujo carrying 82 attack planes, accompanied by two heavy cruisers, three destroyers, and an oiler--headed for the Aleutians during the month's first week. On the 3rd, almost six months to the day after the raid on Pearl Harbor, this combined naval and air force attempted another Japanese surprise attack on a US harbor. Unlike the unsuspecting forces at Pearl Harbor, however, the Americans at Dutch Harbor knew the enemy was coming, thanks to cryptographers who had broken the top-secret Japanese naval code in late December.

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Due to thickening fog, the planes from the Junyo couldn't even find Dutch Harbor, and the 17 planes from the Ryujo that did find it were surprised to discover that the Americans seemed to be waiting for them. Early the next morning, the planes returned from the carriers and did more damage, bombing a naval barracks, a hospital, and a beached freighter, and exploding more than 750,000 gallons of fuel oil in four large tanks, which left plenty of smoke on the water but caused only moderate overall damage. Almost 80 Americans were killed, and 14 US aircraft were destroyed.

Some say Japanese naval head Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto's Alaskan plan was a feint, attempting to draw American forces away from the Battle of Midway, which started in the Midway Atoll on day two of the Dutch Harbor attack. But the maneuvers in the Aleutians were of little help to the forces at Midway, and Japan's streak of not having lost a naval battle in more than 100 years came to a dramatic end there.

Whether the initial attack on the Aleutians was a feint or a tentative invasion of the Pacific Northwest, Yamamoto decided to call it off and withdraw his forces from Alaska. But Vice Admiral Boshiro Hosogaya and senior staff officers managed to change Yamamoto's mind. The new plans called for an invasion of Attu and Kiska, two islands at the western end of the Aleutian archipelago.

The launch of the invasion produced some ludicrous events, beginning on June 5, when the Americans' first six B-17s in Alaska, which had been shelled by their own anti-aircraft batteries upon arrival, bombed the abandoned Pribilof Islands, thinking they were a Japanese fleet. Despite numerous American mishaps, however, it was the Japanese who made the most significant errors in the Aleutians, according to Goldstein and Dillon. "No military operation, by its very nature, can be truly comical," they write, "but the invasion of Attu and Kiska came perilously close."

On June 6, 1942, on Kiska, some 1,250 invaders came storming ashore around 1:30 A.M., to find a mere 10 hapless Americans. They were manning a weather observation radio station along with their canine mascot Explosion. Nine of the men were captured. The last, station chief William House, escaped and waited for the invaders to destroy the station and leave. But they didn't. He remained free, roaming on the island's 70,000 acres for a remarkable 50 days, living in caves, sleeping under dried grasses, and eating worms to stay alive. Finally, starving and having lost 80 pounds, he gave himself up.

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The day after first attack on the radio station, another 1,200 Japanese landed on Attu, 400 miles west of Kiska, to capture about 40 Aleut natives and an elderly white couple--the island's schoolteacher and her husband. Again the invaders dug in for the duration, and in less than one week, the Aleutians campaign revealed its true self. "At great expense, Japan had captured a pair of islands she did not really want and had precious little use for," Garfield writes. "At equal expense, the United States had made strenuous but impotent efforts to defend the same unwanted and useless islands."

A standoff between the two sides lasted for a year. The Americans built airfields farther and farther west along the island chain, despite terrible weather and hostile terrain, as the brave pilots using those fields tried to stay alive through the winter while flying under appalling conditions. As the Americans drew nearer, the Japanese on Attu and Kiska suffered more and more, too, living under continual bombing raids with few supplies on hand.

Confusion at Sea

THE JAPANESE SUPPLY PREDICAMENT GOT WORSE after a unique naval battle in late March 1943. Two American cruisers and four destroyers commanded by Rear Admiral Charles McMorris, who a few months later would be named chief of staff of the US Pacific Fleet, came upon a larger Japanese fleet, a supply convoy consisting of three large transports protected by four cruisers and four destroyers. The gunnery duel that ensued lasted more than three hours before ending in a draw.

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The ships were dueling in a remote area of open ocean, closer to Russia's Komandorski Islands than to the Aleutians, which made any chance of getting support for the attack a long shot from the start. McMorris requested air support from Adak, but the bombers there had been loaded for a typical daily raid on Kiska. By the time they were unloaded and rearmed with torpedoes and armor-piercing bombs, it was too late to reach the battle. No water-landing PBY flying boats fast enough to get there in time were available.

The battle ended abruptly when the Japanese commander, Admiral Hosogaya, withdrew suddenly from the fight, not realizing that the cruiser USS Salt Lake City was completely dead in the water and almost out of ammunition. The Japanese had become confused a short time earlier in the battle when the Salt Lake City, having exhausted its supply of armor-piercing shells, began firing explosives instead. Dropping through the clouds, these looked exactly like aerial bombs, so Japanese anti-aircraft gunners began firing into the sky, trying to hit planes that weren't there. The irony, according to North Pacific Fleet commander Rear Admiral

Thomas Kinkaid, was that "the Japanese could have sunk Salt Lake City with a baseball."

Each side lost only a few men in the duel--7 Americans killed and 14 Japanese. No ships were sunk. But the outcome was important for the Americans: the convoy was turned back, and from then on submarines alone could supply the Japanese forces on Attu and Kiska.

Island Warfare

Through all the bad weather, mishaps, and foolish moves, the Aleutians campaign came down to the uncommon valor of the common American foot soldier. "We were straight-leg infantry," said Bill Jones of Company G, 17th Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division. "We went J where they told us to go. We didn't know anything about the big picture."

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In late February 1943, Kinkaid suggested that the best option was to leapfrog Kiska and land forces on Attu. The assault, known as Operation Landcrab, was scheduled for early May. Planning took place in Southern California, far from the Aleutians, where in early April the worst storm in the islands' recorded history destroyed at least one anemometer capable of measuring winds up to 127 miles per hour. In sunny and mild San Diego, it was difficult to imagine conditions like those on Attu, where mist or rain falls five or six days a week and the temperature during the invasion would average from 25 to 37 degrees. The army argued with the navy, and advisers down from Alaska who were familiar with the islands argued with planners who were not. Not far away, the 10,000-strong 7th Division, expecting to be thrown into the fight in North Africa, had gone out from Fort Ord to practice maneuvers in California's Mojave Desert.

The men of the 7th Division shipped out from San Francisco in late April not knowing even which hemisphere they were headed for. They arrived off Attu in early May, outfitted completely wrong for the conditions. The troops hadn't been given arctic clothing in California, ostensibly because enemy spies might have been watching their departure, but someone should have supplied them before they reached Alaska.

The invasion plan was simple on paper. One US force would land near the mouth of Holtz Bay on Attu's northern shore (after scouts went ashore to protect the landing). Another would land in Massacre Bay, on the island's southern shore. The two forces would then move inland until they met, forcing the Japanese into Attu's northeast corner.

Things went wrong from the start. The night before the invasion, the destroyers Sicard (the control ship for the landings) and Macdonough rammed each other in the fog, and the former had to tow the latter back to Adak. On D-day, May 11, the landings were unopposed; the Japanese had withdrawn up the island's ridgelines to wait on high ground. But while the northern force landed without a hitch, the southern force's first wave floated around in open boats for five or six hours because no one could find the beach through the thick fog. Then one landing craft hit a reef and two others capsized, drowning a dozen men. Not until late afternoon was the southern force finally ashore.

Besides having the wrong clothing and, worse, leather footgear which quickly froze, the Americans carried few supplies. They'd been told the battle would last only 36 hours, three days at most. Even though no enemy confronted them, writes historian D. Colt Denfeld, "the 7th would have done well to have walked the spongy tundra in that length of time.... Not only were the fighting troops stopped, but artillery, ammunition, and supplies piled up on the beaches" on Massacre Bay, where the southern force landed, because nothing on wheels could easily be moved across the swampy ground.

Thirty-six hours turned into a week, then two weeks. Both sides grew more and more desperate. Communications deteriorated into static even before the chartered merchant ship Perida struck a reef and ruined important radio equipment. By the invasion's fourth day, Kinkaid and Rear Admiral Francis Rockwell, commander of amphibious operations, were disgusted with Major General Albert E. Brown, commander of the 7th Division, because he had sent them no progress reports. Brown had actually written detailed summaries, but the PBY assigned to deliver them to the battleship Nevada had accidentally dropped them in the ocean. Not knowing that, Kinkaid summarily replaced him with Major General Eugene Landrum.

A typical fog enveloped the island during the invasion, Bill Jones says, and the Americans were grateful for it, because it hid them from Japanese snipers on the high ground. "A lot of people call Attu Fog Island," Jones continues. "One night I was on guard duty, at about 400-500 feet [of elevation], and the fog at my stomach level looked like the sea. I couldn't see my feet. That's how thick it was."

Compounding the difficulties the Americans ran into was the fact that they couldn't pinpoint where they were. "There were no maps," Jones says, "and an infantry officer without a map is like a preacher without his Bible. You can't call in to artillery and have them fire on a position if you can't give them the coordinates. We had to just feel our way." Despite being frozen, hungry, exhausted, and wounded, the infantry kept moving, and finally, after almost three weeks, it had pushed the Japanese to the island's northeastern edge.

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From the GIs' perspective, things didn't get better anytime soon. "From the day we landed we were wet," Jones recalls. "We had no dry socks, no dry clothes at all. We had no tents to get into to get warm, and [it wasn't] until about halfway through the battle that we finally got sleeping bags. Before that we were out in the elements. We just curled up on the ground and slept, when we slept."

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Fight to the Death

At the bloodiest spot on Attu, GIs found the diary of medical officer Nebu Tatsuguchi on his dead body. One day before his death, on May 28, Tatsuguchi had written, "Our artillery is completely wiped out.... Continuous cases of suicide.... Ate half-dried thistle, first I have eaten something fresh in months." The following day, he logged, "Today at 0200 we assembled at Headquarters. The field hospital took part too. The last assault is to be carried out. All patients were made to commit suicide.... Only thirty-three years of living and I am to die. I have no regrets. Banzai to the Emperor."

An hour after that grim assembly, 800 to 1,000 Japanese troops made a full-scale charge in the darkness, screaming "We die! You die!" as they swept across Attu's Chichagof Valley toward the American lines on Engineer Hill. "I've read two different stories about it," Jones says, "one that Colonel [Yasuyo] Yamasaki, the Japanese commander, was trying to get to our artillery, to turn it around on the Americans and kill them, the other one that he had told his men they were going to Massacre Bay, where Japanese ships were waiting to take them home."

Jones lay in a hospital clearing station tent directly in the path of the charge, having been shot in the leg two days earlier--his fourth wound on Attu. "It was not a suicide charge," he says. "It was a do-or-die. They killed everybody [they found], bayoneted and shot all the wounded soldiers in two of our tents. Fortunately, I was in the third tent."

One of the few other soldiers who survived the charge in that area was Victor Unrein, a technical sergeant in Company E of the 50th Combat Engineer Battalion. Years later, Unrein told a writer for DAV, a magazine for disabled American veterans, that he was shot and fell into a ditch where he lay undiscovered for about eight hours. Fortunately, the article said, due to the severe weather, "a frozen clot of blood about the size of a baseball [formed] at the exit wound, [which] probably staunched his bleeding and saved his life."

Descriptions of this banzai attack resemble accounts of Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg. As the startled, frightened Americans--cooks, engineers, construction workers, and anti-aircraft troops, as well as infantrymen--rushed to close up their lines, the Japanese fell upon them in desperate hand-to-hand combat. When this first charge and then a second, lesser one were repelled, the hundreds of Japanese still standing committed mass suicide, holding grenades close to their chests or heads and pulling the pins. The fight had come to an end.

Of the approximately 2,500 Japanese on Attu, only 28 survived. Of the 15,000 Americans, 549 were killed and 1,148 wounded in battle, and more than 2,100 others suffered from non-combat injuries, mostly exposure and trench foot. These were high I prices to pay--especially in the light of the landing on Kiska in August, when the Americans discovered the Japanese had already left. The Japanese, it turned out, had been willing to leave the Aleutians without a fight if they could find a way out.

Alaska and her islands were back in American hands, and Japan's would-be passage to the continental United States was now a pathway by which US aircraft began bombing bases on Paramushiro, one of Japan's Kuril Islands. The ongoing threat of a US invasion through Alaska caused Japan to divert tens of thousands of men and hundreds of aircraft that were more urgently needed elsewhere.

Kogas's zero

Whether or not the campaign in the Aleutian Islands had much impact on the war, it did yield a priceless spoil to the Americans. After the second day of bombing the Americans' base at Dutch Harbor, three Japanese Zeros were returning to their carrier, the Ryujo, when one of them, damaged in the fighting, lost oil pressure. The pilot, Petty Officer Tadayoshi Koga, attempted to land on the small island of Akutan, which the Japanese had designated as a recovery spot. Koga tried to come in with the landing gear down, an unwise tactic in the tundra marsh. His Zero flipped upside-down and broke his neck.

The two other Japanese pilots, still in the air, were supposed to destroy any downed Zero with incendiary bullets. They weren't sure whether Koga was still alive, however, so they simply returned to the Ryujo. Japanese submarines tried to find the plane but could not, due to the weather.

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Koga's Zero (left, at Dutch Harbor), as the plane became known, remained in place for more than a month before an American in a passing PBY flying boat spotted it. It was unearthed from its bog and taken back to North Island Naval Air Station in San Diego. There, it was reassembled, flown, and inspected, allowing the Allies to get their first detailed look at the Japanese fighter that had been giving them so much difficulty. "The captured Zero was a treasure," Rear Admiral William N. Leonard later said. "To my knowledge no other captured machine has ever unlocked so many secrets at a time when the need was so great."

--Richard Sassaman

Richard Sassaman wrote America in WWII cover stories in 2007 about Bataan, the Doolittle Raid, and Bob Hope. He notes that director John Huston made the first of his three WWII documentaries about the air war in Alaska. It can be viewed at www.archive.org/details/ReportFromTheAleutians.
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Author:Sassaman, Richard
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Date:Jun 1, 2008
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