Monday, January 11, 2016

American History 101: The Battle of Attu in the Aleutian Islands

It is a common misconception that Pearl Harbor is the only time in history that a foreign power has launched an attack on American soil.  In truth, not only did the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941 but they also invaded and staged a protracted military campaign to invade the Aleutian Islands off the coast of mainland Alaska that lasted for almost a year.  The Battle of Attu is the lost war of the North Pacific that was more significant to the invading Imperial Japan than to the United States on a tactical level.  The Battle of Attu took place between May 11th, 1943 and May 30th, 1943 between the United States, with aid from Canada, and the Empire of Japan as a part of the Aleutian Campaign.  This was not only the only battle in World War II fought in arctic conditions, it was also the only land battle that was fought on American soil.

The foundations of the Battle for Attu, and the control of the Aleutian Islands is rooted deeply in supposition and assumptions.  Admiral Yamamoto’s goal when Japan entered the war was to destroy the Pacific Fleet, and cripple America’s ability to wage war in the Pacific.  After Pearl Harbor, Yamamoto turned his attention to the Aleutian Islands for several reasons.  First, he thought that controlling a piece of American soil would deal a blow to American morale.  In fact, the occupation of American soil by the Japanese did cause a fear among the American population that there must be an impending invasion of the American mainland coming.  Second, he and other Japanese leaders were concerned with America’s ability to stage long bombing runs from the Aleutian Islands and hitting mainland.  In particular, the bombing raid lead by LT. COL James Doolittle with a squadron of B-25 bombers that bombed Tokyo on April 18, 1942 had the Japanese running in circles.  They were unsure as to where the bombing raid originated, but there was a feeling that it may have been launched from the Aleutian Islands.  And lastly, Yamamoto had hoped that the invasion of the Aleutian Islands on June 7th, 1942 would attract the attention of the United States Pacific Fleet away from the on going Battle of Midway, and buy the ailing Imperial Japanese Fleet some time.  History tells us that this did not happen.

One of the most interesting features of The Battle of Attu, and the entire Aleutian campaign, was that it was the only battle during World War II that was fought in arctic conditions.  In addition to the cold, and generally icy conditions that exist on the western most islands off the Alaskan coast, the American forces had to deal with wintry storms that came and went seemingly without warning.  The Aleutians are still known today for ever changing, and severely shifting weather patterns.  The Aleutian Islands were taken and occupied on June 7th, 1942, exactly six months after the Pearl Harbor invasion.  America had only paid lip service to taking the islands back from the Japanese until May of 1943 by running small, ineffective bombing runs.  But early in 1943, the need to push Japan off American soil was pushed forward and plans were put in place to take back the Aleutian Islands.  However, America had not fought a battle in this terrain before and their initial planning proved inadequate because they based it on incorrect assumptions.  The initial assault was planned for May 7th, 1943 but had to be put off because of severe weather that hit the islands.  This caused the United States to have to stop the planned troop movement into the area and wait out the weather.  It also created a timeline issue with the military brass and caused them to make the mistake of not launching a naval bombardment ahead of the assault.  This wasn’t all bad, however, because it is thought that the Japanese were expecting an attack on the 7th, and by the time the attack was launched the Japanese were not ready.  The United States chose an uncharted bay to launch their invasion, they did so because they thought they understood the bay based on reports instead of doing an in-depth reconnaissance.  This proved to be a problem when it wasn’t deep enough for the American ships to navigate and deploy troops onto the coast.  This forced American troops to deploy in the cold water, and be colder and wetter for a longer period of time.  Additionally, the Seventh Infantry that was being deployed to lead the mission was trained in Monterey Beach, California, and lacked the cold weather training and gear required to operate in the bitter environment of northwestern Alaska.   These troops were green to battle, and trained in warm conditions, they walked into an environment that must have been a nightmare for them.  These mistakes combined with the environmental concerns created an increased risk and casualty rate.  Tactically speaking, the American forces were trained to hit the coast line hard and fight their way inland, while the Japanese forces were ready to stand their ground and pound away at the invading force, never accepting defeat.

The American forces, lead by Admiral Thomas Kinkade, General John Dewitt and Generals Albert Brown, Archibald Arnold and later General Eugene Landrum replaced General Brown as the mission commander, were attacking Attu in order to reclaim it as American controlled territory.  The initial invasion came from the north in Holtz Bay, a direction the Japanese would not expect.  As previously mentioned, the United States did not adequately scout the bay and troops were deployed into the water by paddling small boats to shore.  This could have been disastrous for the invasion, but the bay was chosen because it was the least likely location for an assault of this size.  And this choice was a wise one, because the Japanese assumed an invasion from the larger and easier to access Massacre Bay in the south.  When the nearly 8,000 American troops were deployed, the Japanese fortifications and defenses were woefully inadequate and unprepared.   When the troops hit the ground out of Holtz Bay, they were cold and wet and quickly found fighting in these conditions to be a huge challenge.  Shortly after landfall, they then had to deal with the barren, mountain-laden terrain of Attu. 

The second invasion did indeed come from the south via Massacre Bay and the Japanese were ready.  When General Brown’s troops came ashore in the south they were met with heavily entrenched Japanese defenses combined with the same cold, wet conditions that the troops in the north had to deal with plus there was heavy fog hampering their progress.  The two pronged attack at Massacre Bay, code named Beach Yellow and Beach Blue had a rough go of it.  The Japanese entrenchments were positioned on the high ground overlooking the shoreline, giving them a strong position.  In addition, some of the artillery was hidden from view by caves in the surrounding mountains.  The shelling of the mountains by the USS Philadelphia helped, but the Philadelphia was essentially shooting blindly.  The combination of these difficulties lead to a casualty rate in the south that was higher than the north, and a fierce fight to get inland.

The American assault came from the north via Holtz Bay and the south via Massacre Bay.  Lead by Major General Albert Brown’s 7th Infantry, a total of 15,000 American troops were dropped on Attu Island between the two assaults called Beach Red and Beach Scarlet, plus 3 Royal Canadian Air Force Squadrons which helped with the initial bombardment at Massacre Bay.  Initially, the Americans assumed the battle would only last a few days because of intelligence gathered that put Japanese forces at about 800.  But when it became evident that the Japanese were putting up a significant fight, the Americans ramped up the aerial support which aided the ground troops progress.
From the north, the Americans came across from two attack points at the Japanese, after initial success the combination of the weather and Japanese fortification slowed progress inland.  But with the increased aerial support, the Japanese were pushed back across Moore’s Ridge by May 14th.  The attack from the south was far more difficult because of the Japanese defense fortifications.  The fighting was intense and bloody but by May 13th reinforcements arrived from the 32nd Regiment Infantry, and aerial bombardments began to have a significant impact.  As the fighting continued, the American forces were making headway, but the movement was slow and costly because of the continuing combination of difficult terrain and ghastly fog.  But on the morning of May 15th, the fog lifted and the American forces got a nice surprise.  In the night the Japanese forces retreated to Moore Ridge, and left behind supplies including food and ammunition.  At this point both sides of the Japanese forces had been pushed back over Moore Ridge and the and they were amassed at Chicagoff Harbor.  But this also allowed the American troops the ability to do the same, combine forces and continue moving towards the Japanese forces.

At this point in the battle there had been a number of communication issues between General Brown and Admiral Kinkaid, who was stationed 400 miles away and giving orders and intelligence.  Kinkaid had become tired of Brown’s constant lack of communication, and consistently asking for more and more reinforcements.  On May 16th Admiral Kinkade replaced General Brown as commander of the Attu forces with Major General Eugene Landrum.  This change in leadership was significant because there were communications issues throughout the battle because of the weather and terrain.  The mountains posed a huge problem in communications, but Admiral Kinkade did not seem to take this into account when he replaced Brown, but he still sent the reinforcements that Brown had requested. The replacement boosted the spirits of the American troops who had been suffering in morale because of the intense fighting and harsh conditions.  The combination of new leadership, and uniting with the northern forces gave the Americans a boost as they prepared for the final push into the Japanese forces, who were on the run with their backs to the water.

Once passed Moore Ridge, the Americans occupied the high ground and had the Japanese forces cornered.  Severe fighting ensued but by the end of May it was clear that the Americans were going to take back the Aleutians.  But the Japanese forces, lead by Colonel Yamasaki were governed by the traditional Japanese Bushido Code, The Way of the Warrior, and that code forbade surrender.  The act of surrender for the Japanese was the ultimate dishonor.  Driven by the Bushido Code, the Japanese forces mounted one last offensive against the overwhelming American forces.

Yamasaki changed the tactics of the Japanese and the plan was to mount a surprise banzai attack at Engineer’s Hill.  With the element of surprise on their side the Japanese hoped to be able to take enough of the American artillery and use it to win the battle.  It was a desperate move, and most historians think that Yamasaki knew there was no chance of it succeeding.  It was clearly a do or die situation.  Instead, it was designed to give his men one last chance to die with honor.  The ensuing battle at Engineer’s Hill was a massacre, with the Americans cutting down the Japanese attack with relative ease as they offered little resistance.  And by the evening of May 30th the Japanese evacuated the remaining forces to nearby Kiska Island, yielding control of Attu to the United States.  By the end of August in 1943 the Japanese had abandoned the Aleutian Islands all together.  There was no battle, however, as the Japanese forces simply left the island before American forces got there.  The American forces lost 549 men, with 1,148 wounded and over 2,100 Americans taken from Attu with climate related diseases or injuries.  The Japanese lost over 2,800 of the 2,900 men on Attu, with 30 captured.  What is often overlooked is the loss of 44 Unagan villagers in defense of their homeland at the Battle of Attu.  Another point that is not well known is that when the Japanese left Attu, they fled with only the clothes on their backs.  When they evacuated on May 30th, 1943 they left behind artillery, ammunition, supplies, food and anything they could not carry in their hands.  They just wanted off the island and out of harm’s way.  It seems that even though the Bushido Code says never surrender, apparently living to fight another day was acceptable when defeat was inevitable.

Admiral Kinkade took the strategic and tactical lessons learned at Attu seriously.  When the intelligence estimates of the number of troops on Kiska Island was revised up to 10,000, Kinkade revised his battle plan to include over 34,000 troops for the land invasion.  He also ordered that his soldiers be outfitted with parkas and arctic boots to protect them from the elements.  He also executed a naval bombardment of Kiska that dwarfed the pre-landing bombings on Attu to soften up the enemy as much as possible.  This tactic seemed to work well, as the Japanese abandoned the island before American troops ever hit the ground.

Soldiers at Chicagof on Attu
One of the key points often overlooked by people when studying the Battle of Attu is the terrain in which the battle was fought.  While you can’t discuss the battle without talking about the barren surface, and the mountains that populate the island.  However, it can be easily understated if not taken a close look.  Attu Island is heavily covered with mountains and valleys.  The movement of troops and supplies through this difficult terrain created soldiers that were not only being battered by the elements, but also were exhausted from braving the rocky, craggy ground and steep slopes of the mountains that seemed to never end.

Another overlooked item from the Battle of Attu are some of the lessons that America learned.  America took away an increased knowledge of how exposure to the elements impacted soldiers and their performance, which lead to improvements in the equipment, supplies and uniforms that were issued throughout the remaining days of  World War II.  In addition, there were many found diaries and intelligence reports taken.  This increased the Americans knowledge of how the Japanese thought and operated, especially when in a no-win situation.

In the grand scheme of importance to the outcome of World War II, the Battle of Attu is often forgotten because its relative importance when compared to D-Day, Hiroshima, The Battle of Midway, Guadalcanal and the Atlantic Blockage seems to be minor.  When the Japanese took the Aleutian Islands in 1942, the United States government nary batted an eye.  They only ran the occasional bombing raid to remind the Japanese that United States knew they were there.  And while the occupation of the Aleutians was important to Admiral Yamamoto at the time of the original, uncontested invasion, it seemed the Americans didn’t share his enthusiasm for controlling the islands.  It would seem that while Yamamoto wanted to protect against the possible bombing of Japan from Alaska, America didn’t have the same thoughts and did not want to waste the resources on defending the islands the way Yamamoto hoped they would.  What is interesting about the Battle of Attu and the ultimate loss of control for the Japanese is that is was just another domino in the succession of defeats that the Japanese were experiencing at the time.  The Battle of Attu in and of itself did not defeat the Japanese, we know they fought until the bitter end when we dropped the two atomic bombs on their homeland, but it did serve as aa demoralizing loss for a country that was already on the ropes.  For the Americans, the Battle of Attu served its purpose.  It got the Japanese off of American soil, and once off Attu the Japanese did not put up a fight, they turned tail and ran home avoiding a conflict on Kiska Island, thus returning control to the Americans.

When discussing the relative importance of The Battle of Attu in the context of World War II, one can not overlook the lasting impact on the small population of Attu Island.  As previously mentioned, over 500 American soldiers were
Japanese Memorial at Attu
killed on Attu and 44 local Unangan villagers died during this battle, as well.  Today, on Attu there are several memorials to the fallen.  There is one commemorating the American soldiers that died, along with a military cemetery on the island.  In 2013, a memorial was placed on the island commemorating the Unangan that died.  However, there is a controversial monument dedicated to the Japanese soldiers who died on Attu that the local residents and families of those who fought there are fighting to remove from Engineer’s Hill.  The monument was placed their with the permission of the United States government, but three additional memorials were placed there by the Japanese without permission.  The people pushing for the removal of these memorials are asking that they be moved off Engineer’s Hill because of its significance in the battle, and placed somewhere with no significance.

Bruce holds a degree in Computer Science from Temple University, a Graduate Certificate in Biblical History from Liberty University and is working towards a Masters Degree in American History at American Public University.  He has worked in educational and technology for over 18 years, specializes in building infrastructures for schools that work to support the mission of technology in education in the classroom.  He also has served as a classroom teacher in Computer Science, History and English classes.  

Bruce is the author of five books: Sands of TimeTowering Pines Volume One:Room 509The Star of ChristmasPhiladelphia Story: A Lance Carter Detective Novel and The Insider's Story: A Lance Carter Detective Novel

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