75 years ago, US troops threw the Japanese off North American soil in a frigid, 'forgotten' World War II battle
May 30, 2018, 01:10 IST
Japan's Northern Area Fleet, which included two small aircraft carriers, left the Kuril Islands for the Aleutians in May. The Aleutians are swept by cold winds and frequently shrouded in dense fog. Many of the islands have craggy mountains and scant vegetation.
The US knew of the Japanese plans by May 21. Adm. Chester Nimitz, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, kept his carriers for Midway but sent one-third of his surface fleet to the Aleutians. The first days of June 1942 saw scattered contact between US and Japanese forces, including a Japanese raid on Dutch Harbor that did little damage.
The Japanese launched another raid on Dutch Harbor the following day, killing 43 US personnel and destroying 11 US planes at the expense of 10 Japanese planes. US planes located the Japanese fleet but couldn't attack. Nimitz's surface ships did not engage during this period.
After Yamatomo's devastating loss of four carriers at Midway, he ordered the Northern Area Fleet to proceed with its mission to compensate for his failure. The island of Kiska was occupied on June 6, and the next day Japanese forces took Attu, the westernmost island in the Aleutians. No opposition was encountered on either island.
The US started planning to retake the two occupied islands, and bombing raids continued on each throughout the summer, which convinced the Japanese of US plans to attack. They increased their garrisons to 1,000 men on Attu and 4,000 on Kiska.
The bulk of US resources were focused elsewhere in the Pacific, but preparations for the Aleutian campaign continued during the latter half of 1942. By January 1943, the Alaskan Command had 94,000 troops. After an unopposed landing on Amchitka Island on January 11, US forces were within 50 miles of Kiska. Despite harsh winter weather and Japanese attacks, US personnel had built an airfield there by mid-February.
On April 1, US Navy Rear Adm. Thomas C. Kinkaid, the commander of the Northern Pacific Fleet, got permission to invade Attu in what was called Operation Sandcrab.
A bombing campaign began in early April, but it was largely focused on Kiska, as Attu was shrouded in fog.
Progress was slow for the next week, as US force dealt with poor communications and faced both Japanese resistance and weather conditions that prevented air support.
A break came on May 18, when the Japanese withdrew to Chichagof Harbor.
The Japanese attack startled US troops on Engineer Hill, and many retreated.
A force of medics, engineers, and other support personnel mounted a frantic defense, throwing grenades at the advancing Japanese.
Hundreds of Japanese troops were killed in the assault, and hundreds more took their own lives, many by holding hand grenades to their chests.
US troops reclaimed Attu on May 30, 1943.
More US troops fell to the elements than did to enemy fire — 2,100 were put out of action by disease or noncombat injuries.
The lessons of Attu were applied to the assault on Kiska, called Operation Cottage.
Activity and troop levels were reduced in the Alaskan theater after Kiska was retaken, but the campaign had an important impact on the war.
"I wake up in the middle of the night, and I can't go back to sleep," said Seroll, the now 102-years-old Army signalman. "That's what this has done to me. That's how much it affected me and still does."