Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Aleutian Islands Campaign (1942–1943)

Title: Soldiers fight on the Aleutian Islands
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Military campaign for a 1,100-mile-long chain of U.S. islands stretching west from Alaska in the Bering Sea toward northern Japan. Though the Aleutians had a negligible population, no useful resources, and extreme climatic conditions that made them unsuitable for major military staging bases, they were nonetheless the scene of bitter fighting between the United States and Canada on the one hand and Japan on the other.

On 7 June 1942, elements of Japanese Vice Admiral Hosogaya Boshiro's Northern Naval Task Force seized the Aleutian islands of Attu and Kiska. The Japanese aim was twofold: to support Japan's advance on Midway Island by luring U.S. forces away from there, and to gain bases in the Aleutians to deter U.S. attacks on the Japanese Kurile Islands. By May 1943 the Japanese had more than 2,500 men on Attu and more than 5,400 on Kiska.

This Japanese foothold on U.S. soil triggered a substantial response from the United States and Canada, which together would eventually commit more than 100,000 troops to this remote region. Rear Admiral Robert A. Theobald commanded Task Force 8, an array of sea, air, and land units charged with expelling the Japanese from the Aleutians. Theobald intended to interdict Japanese lines of communication into Attu and Kiska by isolating the Aleutian waters and engaging Japanese transports and warships where possible.

Initially, the Allies employed submarine attacks in the western Aleutians. When Rear Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid replaced Theobald in January 1943, he doubled the effort to interdict Japanese supply convoys. On 26 March 1943, a small U.S. Navy task force intercepted and defeated a larger Japanese force of cruisers, destroyers, and transports in the Battle of the Komandorski Islands. This action ended further Japanese surface resupply efforts.

Along with naval interdiction, U.S. and Canadian aircraft harassed the Japanese from bases in Alaska and the eastern Aleutians. In August 1942, U.S. forces established an airfield on Adak Island, from which bombers could strike Japanese in the western Aleutians. By September, Allied aircraft bombed targets on Kiska nearly every day for three weeks. The Japanese were forced to rely on submarines as the most dependable conveyance to ferry minimal subsistence supplies. By April 1943, the Allies had succeeded in tightening an air-sea noose around the Japanese bases.

Even so, U.S. commanders determined that an invasion of Attu and Kiska was necessary. One consideration focused on unpredictable weather, especially fog, which could cloak naval activity and allow the Japanese to reclaim control of the seas. The U.S. 7th Infantry Division was designated as the landing force, and it received amphibious warfare training at Fort Ord, California, until April when it deployed north for operations. Attu was chosen as the first objective, because intelligence estimated Japanese troops there to be only 500 men, considerably fewer than on Kiska.

The 7th Division landed on Attu on 11 May 1943 with almost 11,000 men. At first, U.S. commanders thought they had surprised the Japanese when they met no resistance at the shoreline. However, as American troops traversed through mushy tundra and ascended mountains ranging more than 2,000 to 3,000 ft above sea level, they discovered more than 2,500 Japanese waiting in trenches along ridgelines, using the inhospitable terrain to their advantage. The supply-starved Japanese troops conducted a stubborn defense that exacted a heavy toll on the U.S. force. After 19 days of attrition defense, the Japanese conducted a final banzai suicide attack with more than 600 soldiers, many of whom blew themselves up with grenades rather than surrender. U.S. losses were 561 killed and 1,136 wounded. Only 28 Japanese were taken prisoner.

After the loss of Attu, the Japanese decided to evacuate the 5,400 troops remaining on Kiska. On the night of 28 July, while U.S. ships were off refueling in foggy weather, two Japanese cruisers and six destroyers, entered Kiska harbor and in one hour evacuated their troops from the island. Not knowing about the evacuation, on 16 August the Allies conducted the planned amphibious assault on Kiska with more than 34,000 U.S. and Canadian troops. It took the Allies several days to realize the Japanese had departed, but the operation cost some 300 casualties from friendly fire and Japanese booby traps.

The campaign in the Aleutians was an indecisive one that challenged both Japanese and Allied planners. In the end, the Allies removed the Japanese from the two islands, but at great cost in resources committed and for only questionable gain.

Steven J. Rauch


Further Reading
Chandonnet, Fern, ed. Alaska at War, 1941–1945: The Forgotten War Remembered: Papers from the Alaska at War Symposium, Anchorage, Alaska, November 11–13, 1993. Anchorage: Alaska at War Committee, 1995.; Conn, Stetson, et al. Guarding the United States and Its Outposts. Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 1964.; Garfield, Brian. The Thousand-Mile War: World War II in Alaska and the Aleutians. New York: Doubleday, 1969.
 

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