The only campaign of World War II fought on North American soil took place in the Aleutian Island chain that stretches for a thousand miles south and west from Alaska. Although inhospitable due to ugly weather, craggy mountains, scant vegetation and remoteness, the islands became a strategic target of Japanese expansion and correspondingly important to the defense of the Western approaches to the United States.
Japanese Zero, A6M2, crashed on Akutan Island in the Aleutians on 4 June 1942, killing the pilot. The Zero was discovered by a PBY patrol plane one month after the crash. The plane is pictured at Dutch Harbor Naval Base.
Today in WW II: 21 Nov 1942 ALCAN Highway opened for its first full day of traffic. More↓
Japanese and American Forces Opposed in Alaska, 1942
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy's Combined Fleet dominated the Pacific. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto intended to "invade and occupy strategic points in the Western Aleutians" as well as Midway Island (west of Hawaii) as anchors for a defensive perimeter in the north and central Pacific. Admiral Yamamoto hoped the island attacks would draw the U.S. Navy under Admiral Chester Nimitz into an open sea battle, where the Japanese would destroy the remnants of American naval power left after Pearl Harbor, leaving the Pacific to the Japanese.
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. The U.S. Army Air Corps' Eleventh Air Force consisted of 10 heavy and 34 medium bombers and 95 fighters, divided between its main base, Elmendorf Airfield, in Anchorage, and the airfields at Cold Bay and on Umnak.
Attack on the Aleutian Islands: June 1942
Remains of a Japanese Bunker on Kiska Island, 1943.
While Yamamoto's main force moved on Midway Island, on 3 June 1942 the Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor, then followed with an amphibious attack upon the island of Adak, 480 miles to the west. They landed troops on Kiska (6 June), 240 miles west of Adak, and on the Aleutian's westernmost island, Attu, 180 miles from Kiska, capturing the small number of inhabitants: 41 native Attuans, an American schoolteacher and his wife. After the Japanese disaster at Midway (4-5 June 1942) the small success of the capture of the Aleutian Islands was isolated and strategically almost meaningless. The Japanese took up defensive positions to prevent any American action against Japan through the Aleutians, but had little else to do.
American Response to the Aleutian Invasion
The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff were concerned that the Aleutian invasion could be the first move in a Japanese campaign to invade the eastern edge of the Soviet Union and move from there into Alaska as a foothold in North America. To foreclose this possibility, a series of airfields were established west of Umnak from which bombers could launch strikes against Kiska, the closest island held by the Japanese. Adak was reoccupied by the U.S. Army with an unopposed landing of 4,500 soldiers on 30 August. In a remarkable feat of combat construction, Army Engineers completed an airfield two weeks later, a miracle that became routine during the Aleutian Campaign.
On 14 September U.S. B-24 heavy bombers took off from Adak to attack Kiska, 200 miles away, and followed with more attacks during the summer and into the fall. Wrongly convinced that the bombings meant the Americans planned to invade, the Japanese reinforced garrisons with 4,000 soldiers on Kiska and 1,000 on Attu by November.
By January 1943, U.S. Army had 94,000 soldiers in the Alaska Command despite competition for resources from the South Pacific. By then an additional thirteen bases had been built in Alaska, including the Aleutians. An unopposed Army landing on Amchitka Island on 11 January brought Alaska Command forces within fifty miles of Kiska.
The 11th AF conducted operations against the Japanese positions, but were often restricted by severe weather. During the first six months of the campaign, the 11th AF lost 72 planes, only nine destroyed in combat.
As U.S. forces came close to Kiska and Attu, the Japanese had increasing difficulties with resupply. In mid-March, the Navy blockaded the islands and sunk or drove off supply ships. A large Japanese resupply effort on 26 March 1943 precipitated the Battle of the Komandorski Islands (in the Bearing Sea), the largest sea battle of the Aleutian Campaign, and the last and longest daylight surface naval battle of fleet warfare. The smaller U.S. force compelled the Japanese to withdraw and thereafter the Japanese on Attu and Kiska had to subsist on meager supplies brought by submarine.
American Return to Attu: May 1943
Although Kiska was a more important military target, it was decided to retake Attu first. On 11 May 1943, American forces returned to Attu finding the Japanese dug in on the elevated positions, ready to defend their hold on the island. The Americans were further disadvantaged by inadequate cold weather clothing and equipment, causing many casualties due to frostbite and hypothermia. As the main American force approached Attu from the southeast, landing craft collided or foundered in low lying fog and uncharted reefs. The troops aboard were thrown into the near freezing water of the Baring Sea. When Attu's shore was finally reached, the tundra could not support the weight of heavy vehicles and artillery, putting the entire burden of the expedition on unsupported infantry.
The Japanese in the hills wore white camouflage and stayed hidden within the abundant fog. Using mortars, hand grenades, and snipers they picked off the American forces as they advanced up Massacre Valley. The battleships Nevada, Idaho, and Pennsylvania bombarded targets above the advancing Americans, strikes that brought snow, Japanese machinery, soldiers and supplies down the slopes. A second American force landed and came from the north, but could not maintain the planned schedule of advance, delaying their contribution to crushing the defenders.
Attu was expected to be recaptured in three days, but it took twenty as the increasingly desperate Japanese waged a fierce fight to the last. At the end of the battle the Japanese had lost 2,622 men and only 28 survived to surrender. The Americans had lost 549 and had 1,148 injured, many from the severe weather conditions on the island.
Kiska Retaken: August 1943
Following heavy bombardment from air and sea, an amphibious force of nearly a hundred ships moved toward Kiska, reaching the island early on 15 August. 6,500 troops went ashore on the west side of the island, unopposed in calm, clear weather. The next day Canadian troops came ashore onto another beach farther north, also unopposed. The allied troops pushed inland, encountering dense fog and chilling rain and wind, expecting to find the Japanese waiting on the high ground. But the Allies had attacked an uninhabited island. The entire Japanese garrison of 5,183 men had slipped away on 28 July, almost three weeks before the Allied landing. On 24 August 1943, Kiska was declared secure, marking the end of the Aleutian Islands Campaign.
Aftermath of the Aleutian Islands Campaign
On 10 July the Army Air Force began raids against the Kurile Islands, the Northern Territories of Japan about 650 miles west of the Aleutians. Bombing raids against the Kuriles were limited, although the presence of American forces immobilized substantial numbers of Japanese aircraft as a defense against a major attack on the northern Japanese islands that never materialized.
By the end of 1943, American and Canadian troop strength in Alaska dropped from a high of about 144,000 to 113,000. 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.
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