History Class, Uncategorized, World War 2

The “Forgotten War”:WW2 in the Aleutians Part 2

Aleutian Islands 1942-1943 (banner)

France. North Africa. Singapore. Burma. The bloodiest war in human history, World War 2 spread over vast stretches of our little planet. It’s unfortuante, but not surprising with the scope of the conflict, that some of the struggles and sacrifices have faded from collective memory.

For instance, as I mentioned my first article on WW2 in the Aleutians, I realized that I knew nothing about the only land battles fought on my home country’s soil.

The battles of the U.S. forces against invading Japanese in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands never made it into my history books.

To briefly recap: In the spring of 1942, Japan’s Admiral Yamamoto sent ships north to lure Admiral Nimitz’s Pacific fleet into Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. However, this was a ploy to draw American aircraft carriers away from Midway Island, so that Japan’s main force could take the U.S. stronghold and gain control of the central Pacific.

Fortunately for the U.S., they’d broken Japan’s naval codes.

I’ll write on the Battle of Midway soon, but suffice it to say, Yamamoto’s plans didn’t work out. However, craving a victory to report to his superiors, he ordered the occupation of Kiska and Attu islands by Japanese forces.

Unwilling to leave any U.S. soil in the hands of the enemy, American officials built up their Alaskan forces, preparing to take the Aleutians back.

Drive the Japs from the Aleutians^ Our bullets will do it^ - NARA - 534788.jpg
U.S. poster, circa 1942-43

Kiska Island, occupied by an estimated 9,000 Japanese, had an operational airfield and a better harbor than Attu, as well as being closer to U.S.-held Amchitka Island. Rear Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, the man in charge, hoped to reclaim it first.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough shipping available to transport the 25,000 men he wanted to do the job.

However, word was that Attu island held only 500 Japanese troops.

Kinkaid adjusted his plans. If they could take Attu, Kiska would be cut off, and (hopefully) easier to reclaim.

Attu came with its own challenges. Following is a description of the terrain from an online brochure provided by the U.S. Center of Military History.

“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…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. ” (Aleutian Islands pg. 12)

As preparations went forward, more intelligence reports came in. Attu’s force was larger than the original estimate- perhaps three times as large.

Kinkaid didn’t have enough men to combat a force that large, but the 7th Division, currently in California could be sent up.

Of course, the weren’t exactly prepared for battle in Alaska, having  been trained for motorized combat in North Africa.

The change in plans also meant that the men didn’t have any cold-weather gear. However, the leadership figured that they’d be fine. Attu was bound to fall in three days at most. Following training in amphibious landings, they were sent north.

The U.S. forces began preparatory bombing campaigns against Attu and Kiska, but they were mainly limited to Kiska due to poor weather.

Weather also delayed the landings, pushing the departure from May 3, to May 4…to May 11 when they finally set out despite the continuing fog.

13 May, 1943 U.S. Landing craft approach Massacre Bay on Attu (Uf- what a name for a landing site…)

The U.S. landings on Attu were successful. However, slowed by the weather, the slippery ground, communication problems, and the determined Japanese holding the heights, the “quick” fight for Attu lasted until May 29th, with “mopping-up” operations lasting even longer.

Attu

Two and a half weeks of fighting on this tiny island in the cold took its toll. More than 2,300 Japanese and 549 U.S. troops were killed, and 1,148 U.S. troops were wounded. Around 2,100 U.S. troops were incapacitated by non-battle injuries, including trenchfoot.

When the time came to retake Kiska, Kincaid learned from the experience of Attu. He made plans to send 34,000 better equipped and trained troops. (They even got parkas.)

File:KiskaIslandWW2.gif

American and Canadian forces landed unopposed on Kiska on the 15th and 16th of August in unusually clear, calm weather. As the fog rolled back in, they waited for the inevitable attack from the heights.

It never came.

The Japanese had quietly evacuated their forces nearly three weeks earlier.

 

Thanks so  much for visiting!

If you’d like to learn more about this era, I found some excellent sources, including an interview with one of Attu’s naval veterans, listed below!

The 75th anniversary of The Battle of Attu was in 2018. If you’re on facebook, their page includes an interview with Aleutian veteran Bob Hinsdale, sharing his experiences. (Note: Mr. Hinsdale doesn’t appear onscreen until 4 and a half minutes into the linked video.)

Link to Aleutian WWII National Historic Area

Link to more info via Travel Alaska

Link to U.S. Army history brochure – Put together by the U.S. Army Center of Military History, there is a whole series of these available online covering the U.S. involvement in WWII. I’ve found them very helpful research tools.

The same site also has the book Guarding the United States and Its Outposts by Stetson Conn, Rose C. Engleman and Byron Fairchild available to read online. THIS chapter details the struggle in the Aleutians.

16 thoughts on “The “Forgotten War”:WW2 in the Aleutians Part 2”

  1. Thanks for the great history lesson, Ann. The closest I came to the Aleutians was kodiak and Katmai National Park. My son was stationed out there on occasion when he was working as a coast guard helicopter pilot on Kodiak Island. –Curt

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oooh, the Alaska national parks are definitely on my wishlist! And hurray for the Coast Guard pilots! The kids got to check out the cockpit of one of those helicopters not too long ago (and me, since I had to lift them up of course!) as we had a pilot friend stationed in northern WA. Reading about the weather in AK, I imagine it would be an interesting place to pilot one of those…
      Thanks for stopping by, Curt

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      1. Our grandkids have a blast sitting in the helicopters, Ann. Alaska has some of the most dangerous flying conditions in the world.Tony is sitting in my living room now and I read him your comment. He added, “and some of the most beautiful flying conditions in the world. –Curt

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Anne – after my year on Vancouver Island … I have more of an understanding of the area having read etc … so here you’ve just added a piece into the puzzle … I’m enjoying learning more about the history of north America and the eastern side of EurAsia – thanks for this – cheers Hilary

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for visiting, Hilary! I love getting to write these because they’re a chance for me to learn too.
      We made it up to Victoria once (that’s on Vancouver Island, right?) – lovely area, though I got so seasick on the ferry that it might be a once-only trip 😉

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      1. Hi Anne – yes Victoria is the capital of British Columbia … and is on the Island – a strategic point in the early days. You could fly in! I’m over here now – back home in other words. I too love writing the blog as I’m always learning about what ends up as posts … it’s an excellent way to increase one’s education … cheers Hilary

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t remember this, either! I wonder why our history books don’t cover it–because we don’t want to admit the enemy ever held our land? Because it didn’t directly impact major battles? Hmmm. I’m going with the former. s

    Liked by 1 person

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