Attu, Aleutian Islands, Alaska May 11, 1943

The Japanese assault on Alaska’s Aleutian Islands began with a carrier-based aerial attack on June 3 and 4, 1942, that targeted U.S. Navy and Army facil­i­ties at Dutch Harbor on Amaknak Island (see map below), the most popu­lous island in the Alaskan archi­pel­ago. The carrier strike force was part of a coor­di­nated oper­a­tion with a much larger Japa­nese strike force that was en route to capture Midway Atoll. The Japa­nese cam­paign against Midway was to both occupy the 2.4‑sq-mile atoll, which is roughly equi­distant between Japan and the U.S. main­land, and destroy the remaining U.S. naval forces in the Pacific in the half-year following Decem­ber’s horri­fic beating their navy had inflicted on the U.S. Pacific Fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The smaller Aleu­tian cam­paign was meant to extend Japan’s defen­sive perim­e­ter into the North Pacific in order to make it more diffi­cult for U.S. naval and air forces to attack the Japa­nese Home Islands and Japan’s naval bases in the Kurile Islands from the Aleu­tians after the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo on April 18, 1942.

U.S. Dutch Harbor facilities escaped with moderate damage and loss of life (78 dead). Two days later, on June 6 and 7, 1942, a Japa­nese inva­sion force of infantry, marines, and civilian laborers occu­pied the Aleu­tian islands of Kiska, home to a U.S. weather post, and Attu, the western-most island 180 miles from Kiska. Neither of the islands’ Unangax (or Aluets) offered serious resis­tance. Only the month before, the U.S. Navy had offered to evac­u­ate Attu Island but the offer was declined. The Japa­nese, how­ever, evac­u­ated all 42 native Aluet resi­dents in Septem­ber 1942, interning them on the northern Japa­nese island of Hok­kaido; only 25 Attu POWs sur­vived intern­ment. The U.S. mili­tary correctly feared both Kiska and Attu could be turned into stra­tegic Japa­nese air­bases from which Japan could launch aerial attacks against main­land Alaska and the rest of the U.S. West Coast states. How­ever, the remote­ness of the two islands and the chal­lenges of weather and ter­rain delayed for nearly a year a U.S.-Canadian response to the Japanese occupation.

Attu is a small island, 35 miles by 15 miles, but the rocky, snow-covered ter­rain is formi­da­ble most months of the year. Retaking the island was set for this date, May 11, 1943, because mili­tary experts thought the Japa­nese gar­rison there was smaller than that on Kiska. (On August 15, 1943, a U.S./Cana­dian inva­sion force of over 34,000 men stormed Kiska in the wake of a sus­tained three-week barrage, only to dis­cover that the Japa­nese Navy, making clever use of dark­ness and Arctic fog, had evac­u­ated all 5,183 men in the garrison without being spotted.)

Operation Landcrab, the more than two-week Battle of Attu, effec­tively ended with a banzai charge on May 29, 1943, that broke through Amer­i­can lines. In the brutal hand-to-hand finale and sui­cide with hand gre­nades almost all of the remaining enemy counted among the dead (over 2,351 in all) or cap­tured (28), although spo­radic fighting con­tin­ued until early July 1943. U.S. casual­ties amounted to 3,929: more than 580 men killed, 1,148 wounded, with another 1,200 suffering severe injuries from the cold and wet weather. An addi­tional 614 soldiers died from dis­ease, and 318 from mis­cel­laneous causes, mainly Japa­nese booby traps or friendly fire due to the heavy fog. In Tokyo Bay a power­ful Japa­nese armada of carriers, battle­ships, cruisers, and destroyers had assembled in late May in pre­par­a­tion for a sortie to repel the Amer­i­can attempt to recap­ture Attu and the sea high­way leading to the U.S. West Coast. It was weeks late to have affected the out­come. Instead, the Attu dis­aster prompted the Japa­nese Navy to dis­patch 7 destroyers to with­draw their garri­son from nearby Kiska over­night, there­by bringing clo­sure to the 14‑month Japa­nese occu­pation of the U.S. Aleu­tian Islands on July 28, 1943, and lifting the threat to America’s West Coast from the north.

Battle of Attu: Retaking the U.S. Aleutians, May 11–30, 1943

Location of Aleutian Islands in U.S. Territory of Alaska

Above: The Aleutians are a chain of small, volcanic rock islands that extend into the North Pacific from the main­land of Alaska, in 1943 a U.S. terri­tory (not a state). Despite having a cold, barren, and largely nasty repu­ta­tion, the U.S. Aleu­tian Islands were of im­mense stra­tegic value to both the Japa­nese and the Amer­i­cans in World War II. The map shows the three islands targeted by the enemy in early June 1942. Dutch Har­bor, the most popu­lous and heavily defended of the islands, was bombed over two days, June 3–4, 1942, while Kiska and Attu were invaded and occu­pied by Japa­nese forces until July 1943. Following two naval bom­bard­ments in Febru­ary and March 1943, efforts by U.S. armed forces to expel the invaders on Attu Island kicked off on May 11, 1943. Three battle­ships, 10 destroyers, an escort carrier with 24 planes, with assis­tance from Army B‑24 Libera­tors and B‑25 Mitchell bombers and P‑38 Light­ning fighters stationed on Adak Island, pro­vided the muscle behind the 15,000 men of the U.S. 7th Infan­try Divi­sion, which consti­tuted the Amphib­i­ous Force North Pacific under Rear Adm. Francis Rockwell.

Battle of Attu: Landing at Massacre Bay, May 12, 1943Battle of Attu involved battling climate and terrain

Left: Soldiers of the U.S. 7th Infan­try Divi­sion unloading landing craft on the beach at Massa­cre Bay, Attu Island, May 12, 1943. Massa­cre Bay pro­vided sandy inva­sion beaches for the Southern Landing Force, con­sisting of two infan­try regi­ments (four bat­tal­ions). A smaller Northern Landing Force con­sisting of two bat­tal­ions and a 410-man scout detach­ment that included Aleut Indians landed in dense fog 30 miles away on the west arm of Holtz Bay (Red Beach), the only other sandy beach on Attu Island. Because the enemy never expected landings where they occurred, neither force met initial resis­tance. Across the bay on the tip of a moun­tain­ous penin­sula formed by Holtz Bay and Chichagof Harbor was Attu Village (1942 popu­la­tion, 40), site of a pre-war U.S. Navy-operated weather station now aug­mented by enemy housing and storage areas. Tempo­rar­ily dug into the penin­sula’s high ground was the main Japa­nese force for a total of between 2,000 and 2,600 men equipped with small arms and a few artil­lery pieces. Entrenched enemy posi­tions in the mouths of the passes between Massacre and Holtz Bays retarded pro­gress. Rescue being out of the ques­tion (a U.S. task force had turned turned away a Japa­nese relief con­voy bound for the Aleu­tians on March 26), the Japa­nese meant to fight to the death. Aerial bombing, strafing, and naval guns rained shells down on Japa­nese defenders as they retreated under steady pressure toward Chichagof Harbor.

Right: U.S. troops navigate through snow, ice, and fog during the Battle of Attu, May 1943. Moun­tains rose 2,000 ft above sea level and sloped steeply into narrow, tree­less valleys. Under men’s feet was thawed tundra muskeg, boggy land covered in sphag­num moss. Vehic­u­lar traffic (trucks and tractors) was impos­sible, so sup­plies, equip­ment, artil­lery, and muni­tions had to be man­handled over steep and narrow passes and across valley floors. Two thousand yards (even a quarter of that!) was a good day’s gain.

Battle of Attu: Banzai charge deadBattle of Attu: Mopping up using mortar, June 1943

Left: The retreat of the enemy under U.S. pres­sure was attended by stub­born fighting south and south­east of Chicha­gof Harbor, i.e., south of Attu Village. In this photo dead Japa­nese lie where they fell after a do-or-die final banzai charge of 300 Japa­nese against Amer­i­can forces on May 29, 1943. Between 250 and 275 of the attackers, fighting well and achieving con­sid­er­able early suc­cess, were killed or mur­dered by their comr­ades or com­mitted sui­cide by pulling pins on gre­nades they held to their chests; the few sur­vi­vors scattered, some becoming snipers. In a single mopping-up operation, U.S. soldiers killed 61 snipers.

Right: On May 30, 1943, U.S. soldiers, meeting little opposition, captured Chicha­gof Harbor (Attu Village) and seized all the enemy housing and storage areas. The body count in two days of com­bat, the 29th and the 30th, stood at more than 400. Seen here are soldiers from the 7th U.S. Infantry Division launching trench mortar shells over a ridge into a Japa­nese posi­tion on June 4, 1943. Though the battle for Attu Island essen­ti­ally ended a week ear­lier, small groups of Japa­nese con­tin­ued to fight until early July 1943. A March 1945 report put combat losses as follows: U.S., 552 killed, 1,140 wounded. Another 932 died from dis­ease, expo­sure, and acci­dents, while over 1,200 suffered severe in­juries from the arctic cold and wet oper­a­tions. Japanese, 2,350 killed, 24 prisoners—no officers. As a percent­age of troops involved, Attu was the second costliest U.S. battle in the Pacific, exceeded only by Iwo Jima.

John Huston’s “Report from the Aleutians,” a U.S. War Department Film, 1943