Aleutian Islands Campaign
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
Battle of the Komandorski Islands
26 Mar 1943
By Mar 1943, the Americans were planning to reclaim the islands of Attu and Kiska, which had been captured by the Japanese in 1942. The first step the Americans had taken was to deploy a task group in the area to interdict Japanese supply convoys. On 26 Mar 1943, this task group, led by Rear Admiral Charles McMorris, found a convoy of the converted cruiser Akasa Maru and the transport Sakito Maru escorted by eight warships, including two heavy and two light cruisers. McMorris opened fire against one of the armed transports despite being outgunned, and resulted in one of the rare pure long-range naval gunfire engagements of the Pacific War.
McMorris had the heavy cruiser Salt Lake City and light crusier Richmond, his venerable flagship. Admiral Boshiro Hosogaya himself led the escort group, ordering Asaka Maru and Sakito Maru to move behind the escort group. Salt Lake City drew first blood against Nachi, damaging her superstructure and weather decks, killing many topside personnel and knocking out electric circuits. The fire control system was also knocked out, render Nachi's guns silent for several minutes. Destroyer Baily closed in and fired on Nachi as well, causing ammunition explosions. Nevertheless, the concerted firing from the Japanese task force hit Salt Lake City repeatedly, flooding one engine room. The American destroyers laid a smokescreen which allowed Salt Lake City to escape. The Japanese task force fired torpedoes, set at a slow speed and maximum range, but they all missed. Fearing American aerial intervention, Hosogaya disengaged his ships from combat and fell back to rejoin with Asaka Maru and Sakito Maru. His fear was confirmed when Asaka Maru reported two groups of American bombing aircraft were approaching from the direction of Adak; a PB2Y aircraft came close enough to Asaka Maru for positive identification, and the converted cruiser subsequently opened fire. Hosogaya was forced to retire from naval service shortly thereafter as a result of his rather under-aggressive performance.
Colonel Yasuyo Yamazaki, who was supposed arrive at Attu Island to take command of the garrison by means of this Japanese convoy, was subsequently delivered to Attu by submarine in Apr 1943.
Battle of Attu Island
11-29 May 1943
In late Sep 1942, the bulk of the Japanese garrison at Attu was transferred to Kiska, leaving Attu barely defended; distant from friendly bases, the Americans did not attempt to reclaim the island. On 29 Oct 1942, however, 500 Japanese troops returned, establishing a base at Holtz Bay under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Hiroshi Yanekawa. The size and strength of the garrison grew steadily over the next few months. By 10 Mar 1942, 2,300 men were present on the island, but after the action off Komandorski Islands in late Mar, the Japanese ceased attempts to supply Attu Island by surface vessels. Supplies trickled in by submarine only.
On 11 May 1943, Americans landed on Attu Island without resistance on the beach, and the officers smiled to each other as they thought it would be a easy battle. In fact, they believed that the island was so weakly held that the invasion troops only carried one day's worth of K-ration meals. They were proven wrong as soon as the troops moved further inland. Japanese troops in well-defended positions on high ground fought back ferociously. Meanwhile, the cold weather worsened the already-inefficient American logistics situation as trucks and other vehicles became trapped in the icy mud. Frostbite also was a major problem among the infantry. "It was so dang cold up there," said Edwin Trebian, an US Navy supply clerk; he vividly recalled the US Army soldiers staying in tents, keeping warm by means of a small stove while constantly fighting against the muddy ground that served as the tent floor. It took the Americans over two weeks to contain Japanese resistance in the area of Massacre Bay. On 29 May, Yamazaki led a suicide charge that penetrated the American line, surprising the rear echelon troops with hand-to-hand combat, nearly reaching the American artillery positions. Nevertheless, the Japanese final offensive was ultimately defeated. The Japanese who remained by that time committed ritual suicide, including Yamazaki.
The final casualty counts were stunningly high for both sides, especially considering that Attu was an island so remote in the North Pacific. Fighting nearly to the last man, the Japanese suffered 2,351 killed as counted by the Americans, though the actual number could be hundreds higher because some Japanese bodies might had been blown apart and made impossible to count, and because the Japanese regularly buried their dead in secret locations to hide their casualty numbers. The Americans suffered 3,929 casualties. Of that number, 549 were killed in combat; many more were killed by friendly fire or by booby traps installed by the Japanese. "There were so many [bodies]", recalled Trebian. "The Army just cut a path with a bulldozer and then shoved 'em in.... What else could they do?"
At Dutch Harbor, Unalaska, Alaska, United States, the Americans constructed a prisoner of war camp in anticipation of receiving prisoners from Attu. After the battle, they were surprised to find that only a handful of prisoners arrived.
Landing of Kiska Island
15-16 Aug 1943
During the winter of 1942 to 1943, Kiska Island was reinforced by sea. Like Attu, however, surface ships ceased visiting Kiska after the Komandorski Islands action. Nevertheless, by Jul 1943, 5,200 Japanese were present on the island. After the tough fight on Attu Island, Americans feared a similarly difficult battle, therefore a much larger force was deployed for the Kiska operation. 29,000 Americans and 5,300 Canadian troops landed on the island on 15 Aug and 16 Aug, respectively, supported by a powerful fleet centered around three battleships and a heavy cruiser and 168 aircraft, only to find the island deserted. Taking advantage of heavy fog more than two weeks before the invasion, the Japanese successfully evacuated the island of Kiska without detection on 28 Jul 1943. The Japanese did, however, leave deadly booby traps that killed upwards of 20 men as they secured the island.
Conclusion of the Campaign
The victories at Attu and Kiska Islands represented the first lost American territory to be recaptured, boosting American morale. With the Americans uninterested in a campaign across the Kuril Islands and the Japanese not holding Attu and Kiska for offensive purpose anyway, the Aleutian Islands became of little strategic importance for the remainder of the Pacific War.
Sources: A Soldier's Flag, Interrogations of Japanese Officials, Nihon Kaigun, Wikipedia.
Aleutian Islands Campaign Interactive Map
Aleutian Islands Campaign Timeline
|15 Jul 1942||The US Joint Chiefs of Staff held its first discussion on recapturing Attu and Kiska in the Aleutian Islands.|
|26 Mar 1943||In the Aleutian Islands, American warships intercepted Japanese troops attempting to reinforce Kiska, engaging in the Battle of the Komandorski Islands.|
|31 Mar 1943||US leadership gave the order to invade Attu in the Aleutian Islands on 7 May 1943.|
|11 May 1943||US 7th Infantry Division landed on Attu, Aleutian Islands.|
|24 May 1943||US troops mopped up the final Japanese opposition groups in the Aleutian Islands. Overall in this campaign, the 2,600 Japanese men were wiped out at a cost of 550 American lives.|
|31 May 1943||US troops completed their occupation of Attu in the Aleutian Islands.|
|3 Jun 1943||All Japanese resistance on Attu, Aleutian Islands ceased.|
|18 Jul 1943||2 B-24 and 6 B-25 bombers of the US Eleventh Air Force B-24 attacked Japanese positions at Kiska Island, Aleutian Islands.|
|21 Jul 1943||9 B-24 bombers of US 11th Air Force bombed Kiska, Aleutian Islands while two US Navy destroyers bombarded the Gertrude Cove area of the same island.|
|15 Aug 1943||Supported by a massive bombardment from three battleships, cruisers and destroyers and under a protective umbrella of 170 aircraft, 35,000 American and Canadian troops stormed ashore on Kiska Island in the Aleutian Islands only to discover that the Japanese had fled nearly three weeks earlier.|
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General Douglas MacArthur at Leyte, 17 Oct 1944