On June 7, 1942, Japanese soldiers began a nearly year-long occupation of the American island of Attu, the last piece of U.S. soil to fall to enemy forces in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska during World War II. The day before, 500 Japanese marines had gone ashore at Kiska Island, Alaska, as a separate campaign concurrent with the Japanese plan for the Battle of Midway. The forces captured the sole inhabitants of the island: a small U.S. Navy Weather Detachment consisting of ten men, including a lieutenant, along with their dog. One member of the detachment escaped for 50 days — starving, thin, and extremely cold, he eventually surrendered to the Japanese. The military importance of this frozen, difficult-to-supply island was questionable, but the psychological impact upon the Americans of losing U.S. territory was tangible. Attu was retaken at the end of May 1943 following a more than two-week battle that ended when most of the Japanese defenders were killed in brutal hand-to-hand combat after a final banzai charge broke through American lines. In August 1943, an invasion force consisting of 34,426 Allied troops landed on Kiska, only to find the island completely abandoned. The battlefield area and subsequent military sites on Attu Island were declared a National Historic Landmark in 1985 as was the Japanese occupation site on Kiska Island.
Attu is the westernmost and largest island in the Near Islands group of the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, and the westernmost point of land relative to Alaska, the United States, North America, and the Americas. The island became uninhabited in 2010. It was the site of the only World War II land battle fought on an incorporated territory of the United States (the Battle of Attu), and its battlefield area is a U.S. National Historic Landmark.
The name Attu is a transliteration of the Aleut name of the island. It was called Saint Theodore by the explorer Aleksei Chirikov in 1742. Attu, being the nearest to Kamchatka, was the first of the Aleutian Islands exploited by Russian traders. The first population estimate by the Russians put at most 175 Aleuts on Attu. However, the large number and size of archeological sites on Attu have led to estimates of 2,000–5,000 inhabitants during the centuries preceding European contact. Russians would stay several years on the island hunting sea otters, often clashing with the local Aleut population. After the initial wave of traders, Attu was largely overlooked by ships heading further east.
Attu Station, a former Coast Guard LORAN station, is located at 52°51′N 173°11′E, making it one of the westernmost points of the United States relative to the rest of the country. However, since it is in the Eastern Hemisphere, being on the opposite side of the 180° longitude line as the contiguous 48 states, it can also be considered one of the easternmost points of the country (a second Aleutian Island, Semisopochnoi Island at 179°46′E, is the easternmost location in the United States by this definition).
In the chain of the Aleuts, the next island to the west of Attu are the Russian Commander Islands, 208 miles (181 nmi; 335 km) away. Attu is nearly 1,100 miles (960 nmi; 1,800 km) from the Alaskan mainland and 750 miles (650 nmi; 1,210 km) northeast of the northernmost of the Kurile Islands of Russia, as well as being 1,500 miles (1,300 nmi; 2,400 km) from Anchorage, 2,000 miles (1,700 nmi; 3,200 km) from Alaska’s capital of Juneau, and 4,845 miles (4,210 nmi; 7,797 km) from New York City. Attu is about 20 by 35 miles (32 by 56 km) in size with a land area of 344.7 square miles (893 km²), making it #23 on the list of largest islands in the United States. The population in the 2010 census was 20 people, all at the Attu Station, though all inhabitants left the island later in the year when the station closed. It is the largest (by area) uninhabited island in the United States.
As of 1982, the only significant trees on the island were those planted by American soldiers at a chapel constructed after the 1943 battle when the Japanese occupation was over.
Although Attu Island is the westernmost body of land east of the International Date Line, its time zone is the same as other western Aleutian Islands, UTC-10, which means that locations to the south-southeast (such as the uninhabited Baker Island and Howland Island in UTC −12 and Niue, Midway Atoll and American Samoa in UTC −11) have earlier clocks.
Kiska is an island in the Rat Islands group of the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. It is about 22 miles (35 km) long and varies in width from 1.5 to 6 miles (2.4 to 9.7 km). It is part of Aleutian Islands Wilderness and as such, special permissions are required to visit it. In 1741, while returning from his second voyage at sea during the Great Northern Expedition, Danish-born Russian explorer Vitus Bering made the first European discovery of most of the Aleutian Islands, including Kiska. Georg Wilhelm Steller, a naturalist-physician aboard Bering’s ship, wrote:
On 25 October 1741 we had very clear weather and sunshine, but even so it hailed at various times in the afternoon. We were surprised in the morning to discover a large tall island at 51° to the north of us.
Prior to European contact, Kiska Island had been densely populated by native peoples for thousands of years. Kiska, and the other Rat Islands, were reached by independent Russian traders in the 1750s. After the initial exploitation of the sea otter population, Russians rarely visited the island as interest shifted further east. Years would frequently pass without a single ship landing. Starting in 1775, Kiska, the Aleutian Islands, and mainland Alaska became fur trading outposts for the Russian-American Company managed by Grigory Shelekhov.
In 1867, U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward negotiated the purchase of Alaska with the Russian Empire. The Aleutian Islands’ strategic value by the 1930s was their ability to control Pacific transportation routes. U.S. Army General Billy Mitchell stated to the U.S. Congress in 1935, “I believe that in the future, whoever holds Alaska will hold the world. I think it is the most important strategic place in the world.” The Japanese reasoned that control of the Aleutians would prevent a possible U.S. attack across the Northern Pacific. Similarly, the U.S. feared that the islands would be used as bases from which to launch aerial assaults against the West Coast.
Before Japan entered World War II, its Navy had gathered extensive information about the Aleutians, but it had no up-to-date information regarding military developments on the islands. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto provided the Japanese Northern Area Fleet, commanded by Vice-Admiral Boshiro Hosogaya, with a force of two non-fleet aircraft carriers, five cruisers, twelve destroyers, six submarines, and four troop transports, along with supporting auxiliary ships. With that force, Hosogaya was first to launch an air attack against Dutch Harbor, then follow with an amphibious attack upon the island of Adak, 480 miles (770 km) to the west. Hosogaya was instructed to destroy whatever American forces and facilities were found on Adak — the Japanese did not know the island was undefended. Hosogaya’s troops were to return to their ships and become a reserve for two additional landings: the first on Kiska, 240 miles (390 km) west of Adak, the other on the Aleutians’ westernmost island, Attu, 180 miles (290 km) west from Kiska.
Because United States Naval Intelligence had broken the Japanese naval codes, Admiral Chester Nimitz had learned by May 21 of Yamamoto’s plans, including the Aleutian diversion, the strength of both Yamamoto’s and Hosogaya’s fleets, and that Hosogaya would open the fight on June 1 or shortly thereafter.
As of June 1, 1942, United States military strength in Alaska stood at 45,000 men, with about 13,000 at Cold Bay (Fort Randall) on the tip of the Alaskan Peninsula and at two Aleutian bases: the naval facility at Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island, 200 miles (320 km) west of Cold Bay, and the recently built Fort Glenn Army Airfield 70 miles (110 km) west of the naval station on Umnak Island. Army strength, less air force personnel, at those three bases totaled no more than 2,300, composed mainly of infantry, field and antiaircraft artillery troops, and a large construction engineer contingent, which was used in the construction of bases.
The Army Air Force’s Eleventh Air Force consisted of 10 B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers and 34 B-18 Bolo medium bombers at Elmendorf Airfield, and 95 P-40 Warhawk fighters divided between Fort Randall AAF at Cold Bay and Fort Glenn AAF on Umnak. The naval commander was Rear Admiral Robert A. Theobald, commanding Task Force 8 afloat, who as Commander North Pacific Force (ComNorPac) reported to Admiral Nimitz in Hawaii. Task Force 8 consisted of five cruisers, thirteen destroyers, three tankers, six submarines, as well as naval aviation elements of Fleet Air Wing Four.
Dutch Harbor was ringed with anti aircraft artillery batteries from the 206th Coast Artillery (Anti Aircraft), Arkansas National Guard. The 206th CA (AA) was deployed to Dutch Harbor in August 1941 and had been on station for approximately four months when the Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7. The 206th CA was equipped with the 3-inch Gun M1918 (an older model with a vertical range of 26,902 feet (8,200 meters), .50-inch (12.7mm) M2 Browning machine guns, and 60-inch (150 cm) Sperry searchlights. The 206th had one radar in position at Dutch Harbor at the time of the attack.
When the first signs of a possible Japanese attack on the Aleutians were known, the Eleventh Air Force was ordered to send out reconnaissance aircraft to locate the Japanese fleet reported heading toward Dutch Harbor and attack it with bombers, concentrating on sinking Hosogaya’s two aircraft carriers. Once the enemy planes were removed, Naval Task Force 8 would engage the enemy fleet and destroy it. On the afternoon of June 2, a naval patrol plane spotted the approaching Japanese fleet, reporting its location as 800 miles (1,300 km) southwest of Dutch Harbor. Eleventh Air Force was placed on full alert. Shortly thereafter bad weather set in, and no further sightings of the fleet were made that day.
According to Japanese intelligence, the nearest field for land-based American aircraft was at Fort Morrow AAF on Kodiak, more than 600 miles (970 km) away, and Dutch Harbor was a sitting duck for the strong Japanese fleet, carrying out a coordinated operation with a fleet that was to capture Midway Island.
Making use of weather cover, the Japanese first raided the naval base at Dutch Harbor on June 3, 1942. A Japanese carrier strike force, under the command of Rear Admiral Kakuji Kakuta, comprising the carriers Ryūjō and Jun’yō, plus escort ships, sailed to 180 miles (160 nmi; 290 km) southwest of Dutch Harbor to launch air strikes at the United States Army and United States Navy facility to support a Japanese offensive in the Aleutians and in the central Pacific at Midway. The Japanese planned to occupy islands in the Aleutians in order to extend their defensive perimeter in the North Pacific to make it more difficult for the U.S. to attack Japan from that area.
Shortly before dawn at 02:58, given the geographic latitude and longitude, Admiral Kakuta ordered his aircraft carriers to launch their strike which was made up of 12 A6M Zero fighters, 10 B5N Kate high-level bombers, and 12 D3A Val dive bombers which took off from the two small carriers in the freezing weather to strike at Dutch Harbor. One B5N was lost on takeoff from Ryujo.
The planes arrived over the harbor at 04:07, and attacked the town′s radio station and oil storage tanks causing some damage. Many members of the 206th were awakened on June 3 by the sound of bombs and gunfire. While the unit had been on alert for an attack for many days, there was no specific warning of the attack before the Japanese planes arrived over Dutch Harbor. With no clear direction from headquarters, gun crews from every battery quickly realized the danger, ran to their guns stationed around the harbor and began to return fire. In addition to their 3-inch (76 mm) guns, 37 mm (1.46 inch) guns and .50-inch (12.7 mm) machine guns, members of the unit fired their rifles and one even claimed to have hurled a wrench at a low-flying enemy plane. Several members reported being able to clearly see the faces of the Japanese aviators as they made repeated runs over the island. The highest casualties on the first day occurred when bombs struck barracks 864 and 866 in Fort Mears, killing 17 men of the 37th Infantry and eight from the 151st Engineers.
When all the Japanese planes were recovered, there were erroneous reports of enemy ships in the vicinity, but search planes found no ships within the area. During the search, four Nakajima E8N2 “Dave” two-seat reconnaissance planes — launched from the heavy cruisers Takao and Maya —encountered U.S. fighters searching for the departing Japanese squadron.
The 206th CA spent much of the night of June 3-4 moving guns down off the mountain tops surrounding the harbor down into the city of Unalaska and into harbor facilities themselves. This was partially as a deception and partially to defend against an expected land invasion. Civilian contractors offered to help and were put to work filling sandbags to protect the new gun positions.
On June 4, the Japanese carriers steamed to less than 100 miles (87 nmi; 160 km) south of Dutch Harbor to launch a second attack. At 16:00, a second airstrike of nine fighters, 11 dive bombers, and six level bombers took off and attacked the U.S. facilities at Dutch Harbor again less than an hour later. More targets were damaged including some grounded aircraft, an army barracks, oil storage tanks, aircraft hangar, and a few merchant ships in the port. When the Japanese returned on June 4, the Zero fighters concentrated on strafing the gun positions while their bombers destroyed the fuel tanks located at the harbor. One wing of the military hospital at the base was destroyed.
After hitting the fuel tanks, the enemy dive-bombers and high-level bombers concentrated on the ships in the harbor, SS President Fillmore and Gillis. Driven away from these two targets by intense anti-aircraft fire, they finally succeeded in destroying the station ship Northwestern which, because of its large size, they mistakenly believed was a warship. Northwestern was actually a transport ship which had been beached and used as a barracks for civilian workers. Although in flames and badly damaged, firefighters managed to save the hull. Its power plant was thereafter used to produce steam and electricity for the shore installations. An anti-aircraft gun was blown up by a bomb and four U.S. Navy servicemen were killed.
Two Japanese dive bombers and one fighter, damaged by anti-aircraft fire, failed to return to their carriers. On the way back, the Japanese planes encountered an air patrol of six Curtiss P-40 fighters over Otter Point. A short aerial battle ensued which resulted in the loss of one Japanese fighter and two level bombers. Four out of the six U.S. fighters were lost as well.
As a result of the enemy actions the Eleventh Air force lost 4 B-17s, 2 Martin B-26 Marauders, 2 P-40s, the Fleet Air wing suffered the most with 6 PBY Catalinas destroyed and 23 killed. 3 POW, 10 MIA and 2 wounded.
None of the Japanese ships were harmed, but one above-mentioned Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero was damaged by ground fire and crash-landed on Akutan Island, about 20 miles (17 nmi; 32 km) northeast of Dutch Harbor. The Akutan Zero, also known as Koga’s Zero and the Aleutian Zero, was a type 0 model 21 Mitsubishi A6M Zero Japanese fighter aircraft. Tadayoshi Koga, a 19-year-old flight petty officer first class, was launched from the Japanese aircraft carrier Ryūjō as part of the June 4 raid. Koga was part of a three-plane section; his wingmen were Chief Petty Officer Makoto Endo and Petty Officer Tsuguo Shikada. Koga and his comrades attacked Dutch Harbor, shooting down an American PBY-5A Catalina flying boat piloted by Bud Mitchell and strafing its survivors in the water. In the process, Koga’s plane (serial number 4593) was damaged by small arms fire.
Tsuguo Shikada, one of Koga’s wingmen, published an account in 1984 in which he claimed the damage to Koga’s plane occurred while his section was making an attack against two American Catalinas anchored in the bay. This account omits any mention of shooting down Mitchell’s PBY. Both American and Japanese records contradict his claims; there were no PBYs in the bay that day. However, his claims do match American records from the attack against Dutch Harbor the previous day (June 3). Rearden noted, “It seems likely that in the near half-century after the event Shikada’s memory confused the raids of June 3 and June 4 … It also seems likely that in his interview, Shikada employed selective memory in not mentioning shooting down Mitchell’s PBY and then machine-gunning the crew on the water”.
It is not known who fired the shot that brought down Koga’s plane, though numerous individuals have claimed credit. Photographic evidence strongly suggests it was hit by ground fire. Members of the 206th Coast Artillery Regiment, which had both 3-inch anti-aircraft guns and .50 caliber machine guns in position defending Dutch Harbor, claimed credit, in addition to claims made by United States Navy ships that were present. Physical inspection of the plane revealed it was hit with small arms fire — .50 caliber bullet holes and smaller, from both above and below.
The fatal shot severed the return oil line, and Koga’s plane immediately began trailing oil. Koga reduced speed to keep the engine from seizing for as long as possible. The three Zeros flew to Akutan Island, 25 miles east of Dutch Harbor, which had been designated for emergency landings. Waiting near the island was a Japanese submarine assigned to pick up downed pilots. At Akutan, the three Zeros circled a grassy flat half a mile inland from Broad Bight. Shikada thought the ground was firm beneath the grass, but in his second pass he noticed water glistening. He suddenly realized Koga should make a belly landing. But by then Koga had lowered his landing gear and was almost down.
The plane’s landing gear mired in the water and mud, causing the plane to flip upside down and skid to a stop. Although the aircraft survived the landing nearly intact, Petty Officer Koga died instantly on impact, probably from a broken neck or a blunt-force blow to his head. Koga’s wingmen, circling above, had orders to destroy any Zeros that crash-landed in enemy territory, but as they did not know if Koga was still alive, they could not bring themselves to strafe his plane. They decided to leave without firing on it. The Japanese submarine stationed off Akutan Island to pick up pilots searched for Koga in vain before being driven off by the destroyer USS Williamson.
The crash site, which was out of sight of standard flight lanes and not visible by ship, remained undetected and undisturbed for over a month. On July 10, 1942, an American PBY Catalina piloted by Lieutenant William “Bill” Thies spotted the wreckage. Thies’s Catalina had been patrolling by dead reckoning and had become lost. On spotting the Shumagin Islands, he reoriented his plane and began to return to Dutch Harbor by the most direct course — over Akutan Island. Machinist Mate Albert Knack, who was the plane captain (note: the term “plane captain” in U.S. Navy usage refers to an aircraft’s assigned maintenance crew chief, not the pilot-in-command), spotted Koga’s wreck. Thies’s plane circled the crash site for several minutes, noted its position on the map, and returned to Dutch Harbor to report it. Thies convinced his commanding officer, Paul Foley, to let him return with a salvage team. The next day (July 11), the team flew out to inspect the wreck. Navy photographer’s mate Arthur W. Bauman took pictures as they worked.
Thies’s team extracted Koga’s body from the plane by having Knack (the smallest crew member) crawl up inside the plane and cut his safety harness with a knife. They searched it for anything with intelligence value, and buried Koga in a shallow grave near the crash site. Thies returned with his team to Dutch Harbor, where he reported the plane as salvageable. The next day (July 12), a salvage team under Lieutenant Robert Kirmse was dispatched to Akutan. This team gave Koga a Christian burial in a nearby knoll and set about recovering the plane, but the lack of heavy equipment (which they had been unable to unload after the delivery ship lost two anchors) meant their efforts failed. On July 15, a third recovery team was dispatched. This time, with proper heavy equipment, the team was able to free the Zero from the mud and hauled it overland to a nearby barge, without further damaging it. The Zero was taken to Dutch Harbor, turned right-side up, and cleaned.
The Akutan Zero was loaded into the USS St. Mihiel and transported to Seattle, arriving on August 1. From there, it was transported by barge to Naval Air Station North Island near San Diego where repairs were carefully carried out. These repairs “consisted mostly of straightening the vertical stabilizer, rudder, wing tips, flaps, and canopy. The sheared-off landing struts needed more extensive work. The three-blade Sumitomo propeller was dressed and re-used.” The Zero’s red Hinomaru roundel was repainted with the American blue circle-white star insignia. The whole time, the plane was kept under 24-hour military police guard in order to deter would-be souvenir hunters from damaging the plane. On September 20, 1942, two months after the Zero’s capture, Lieutenant Commander Eddie R. Sanders took the Akutan Zero up for its first test flight. He made 24 test flights between September 20 and October 15.
As a result of information gained from these tests, American tacticians were able to devise ways to defeat the Zero, which was the Imperial Japanese Navy’s primary fighter plane throughout the war. The Akutan Zero has been described as “a prize almost beyond value to the United States”, and “probably one of the greatest prizes of the Pacific War”. Japanese historian Masatake Okumiya stated that the acquisition of the Akutan Zero “was no less serious” than the Japanese defeat at the Battle of Midway, and that it “did much to hasten Japan’s final defeat”. On the other hand, John Lundstrom is among those who challenge “the contention that it took dissection of Koga’s Zero to create tactics that beat the fabled airplane”.
The Akutan Zero was destroyed in a training accident in 1945. Parts of it are preserved in several museums in the United States.
The day following the attack on Dutch Harbor, Admiral Kakuta received orders to break off further attacks and head for the central Pacific to support the Combined Fleet which was retreating after being defeated at Midway.
Initially, the only American military presence on Kiska was a twelve-man United States Navy weather station and a dog named Explosion, two of whom were not present during the invasion. The Japanese No. 3 Special Landing Party and 500 marines went ashore at Kiska on June 6, 1942, storming the weather station, killing two Americans and capturing seven. After realizing that Chief Petty Officer William C. House had escaped, a search was launched by the occupying forces. The search ended in vain, with House surrendering some fifty days after the initial seizure of the weather station, having been unable to cope with the freezing conditions and starvation. After 50 days of eating only plants and worms, he weighed just 80 pounds. Before his surrender, the other prisoners of war had been sent to Japan.
The day after the invasion of Kiska, on June 7, 1942, the 301st Independent Infantry Battalion of the Japanese Northern Army landed on Attu without opposition. Earlier, in response to Japanese aggression in the Pacific, American territorial authorities had conducted a mandatory evacuation of about 880 Aleuts from villages elsewhere in the Aleutian Islands. These people were interned in civilian camps in the Alaska Panhandle, where about 75 of them died of various infectious diseases over two years.
However, Attu Village had not yet been evacuated when the Japanese invaded. At the time, Attu’s population consisted of 45 native Aleuts and two white Americans — Charles Foster Jones (1879-1942), a radio technician originally from St. Paris, Ohio, and his wife Etta (1879-1965), a schoolteacher originally from Vineland, New Jersey. The village consisted of several houses around Chichagof Harbor. The 42 Attu inhabitants who survived the Japanese invasion were taken to a prison camp near Otaru, Hokkaidō. Sixteen of them died while they were imprisoned. Mr. Jones, 63, was killed by the Japanese forces almost immediately after the invasion. Mrs. Jones, 63, was subsequently taken to the Bund Hotel in Yokohama, Japan, which housed Australian prisoners of war from the 1942 Battle of Rabaul in Papua New Guinea. Sometime later, Mrs. Jones and the Australian prisoners were taken to the Yokohama Yacht Club and kept there from 1942 to 1944 and then the Totsuka prisoner of war camp from 1944 to 1945 before their release in August 1945. Mrs. Jones passed away in December 1965 at age 86 in Bradenton, Florida.
Before the Attu villagers were returned to the U.S., the American government stated publicly that it was not aware of their status.
According to Gen. Kiichiro Higuchi, the Commander of the Japanese Northern Army, the invasion of Kiska and Attu was part of a threefold objective:
- To break up any offensives against Japan by way of the Aleutians.
- To place a barrier between the U.S. and Russia in case Russia decided to join the war against Japan.
- To make preparation for air bases for future offensive action.
After landing on Attu, the Japanese soldiers began constructing an airbase and fortifications. The nearest American forces were on Unalaska Island at Dutch Harbor and at an airbase on Adak Island. Throughout the occupation, American air and naval forces bombarded the island. On June 19, 1942, American aircraft attacked and sank the Japanese oiler Nissan Maru in Kiska Harbor and on June 30 American naval forces bombarded the island.
On July 5, 1942, the American submarine USS Growler (SS-215) was on her first patrol from Pearl Harbor to Alaska, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Howard Gilmore. Growler was cruising 7 miles (6.1 nmi; 11 km) east of Kiska Harbor naval base when she came across three Japanese destroyers at anchor a fair distance away. These were the 2,490 long tons (2,530 t) Kagerō-class destroyer Shiranui with 240 crewmen and six 5-inch (127 mm) guns, several anti-aircraft guns, eight large torpedo tubes and 36 depth charges; and two 2,370 long tons (2,410 t) Asashio-class destroyers Arare and Kasumi, each with about 200 men and mounting the same armament as Shiranui.
Submerged, the submarine closed on the enemy and launched a spread of torpedoes from her six forward torpedo tubes at a position in which the enemy vessels appeared to be overlapping one another. Growler then surfaced. The Japanese were completely unaware of Lieutenant Commander Gilmore’s attack. Of the six torpedoes fired, at least three struck their targets. Two of the destroyers were hit amidships almost simultaneously and were severely damaged. Just before the third destroyer was hit in the bow, it maneuvered and fired two torpedoes of her own. Growler was almost destroyed when one of the torpedoes swished by just off her port side and the other off her starboard. Both missed their target though so the Americans dived deep to avoid depth charges and escaped. Japanese forces did not continue the battle however, Arare exploded, so Shiranui moved to rescue the survivors while Kasumi was out of action. Over 200 Japanese naval personnel were killed or wounded. Of Arare‘s 200 man complement, only 42 men were saved by Shiranui, while the Americans sustained no damage or casualties.
Finding no more enemy ships in Aleutian waters, Growler returned to Hawaii and ended her first patrol. For his distinguished leadership, Howard Gilmore was promoted to the rank of Commander and received the Navy Cross. Gilmore was later killed off the Philippines on February 7, 1943, when he rammed Growler into a Japanese gunboat. In a quick surface action, Commander Gilmore was wounded by machine gun fire and ordered his ship to submerge while he was still on deck. The commander became one of the seven American submariners to be awarded the Medal of Honor for duty in World War II. Growler went on the engage in nine more successful patrols in the Pacific.
Ten days after Growler‘s successful action off Kiska, the Gato-class submarine USS Grunion (SS-216) on her own first patrol was attacked by three Japanese submarine chasers in Kiska Harbor, with two of the patrol craft sunk and one other damaged. Her first report, made as she patrolled north of Kiska Island, stated she had been attacked by a Japanese destroyer and had fired torpedoes at her with inconclusive results. She operated off Kiska throughout July. On July 30, the submarine reported intensive antisubmarine activity and was ordered back to Dutch Harbor.
The Grunion was never heard from again. Air searches off Kiska were fruitless, and on October 5 the Grunion was reported overdue from patrol and assumed lost with all hands. Her name was stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on November 2, 1942. Captured Japanese records show no antisubmarine attacks in the Kiska area, and the fate of Grunion remained a mystery for 65 years, until the discovery in the Bering Sea in August 2007 of a wreck believed to be her. In October 2008, the U.S. Navy verified that the wreck is the Grunion.
Although it is not absolutely certain, the evidence strongly suggests that the Grunion was lost as a result of horrific torpedo performance during an encounter with the Kano Maru. Her first torpedo ran low, but despite its magnetic pistol failed to detonate. Two more bounced harmlessly off the Kano Maru without exploding. However, the remaining torpedo missed its target and circled back, striking the periscope supports on the submerged submarine without exploding. It is thought that the damage the torpedo inflicted, combined with a jammed rear dive plane, triggered a sequence of events that caused the loss of depth control. The Grunion may have lunged below her maximum operational depth, and at about 1000 feet would have imploded. What remained of the ship struck the seabed, breaking off about 50 feet of her bow. The wreckage then slid two-thirds of a mile down the side of an extinct volcano, coming to rest on a notch in the underwater mountain.
The Grunion received one battle star for her World War II service.
In August 1942, the U.S. Army established an air base on Adak Island and began bombing Japanese positions on Kiska. U.S. Navy submarines and surface ships also began regularly patrolling the area. Kiska Harbor was the main base for Japanese ships in the campaign and several were sunk there, some by warships but mostly in air raids. On August 8, the Japanese cargo ship Kano Maru was sunk at Kiska Harbor by PBY Catalinas. Days before, the cargo ship had been damaged by one of Grunion‘s torpedoes. Troopship Nozima Maru was also bombed and sunk in Kiska Harbor on September 15. On October 5, the Japanese steamer Borneo Maru was sunk at Gertrude Cove and on the 17th, the destroyer Oboro was sunk by American aircraft. RO-65 sank off Kiska on November 4, Montreal Maru on January 5, 1943, and Uragio Maru on April 4. I-7 was grounded and abandoned by her crew on June 23 while assisting in removing Kiska’s garrison. She was chased onto the rocks by USS Monaghan.
Initially the Japanese intended to hold the Aleutians only until the winter of 1942; however, the occupation continued into 1943 in order to deny the Americans use of the islands. In August 1942, the garrison of Attu was moved to Kiska to help repel a suspected American attack. From late September, Attu was essentially left unoccupied but American forces made no attempt to occupy the island during this time. On October 29, 1942, the Japanese reestablished a base on Attu at Holtz Bay under the command of Lt. Col. Hiroshi Yanekawa. Initially the garrison was about 500 troops, but through reinforcements, that number reached about 2,300 by March 10, 1943. then under the command of Colonel Yasuyo Yamasaki.
No more reinforcements arrived after that time, owing mainly to the efforts of the U.S. naval force under Rear Admiral Charles “Soc” McMorris, and U.S. Navy submarines. A cruiser and destroyer force under McMorris was assigned to eliminate the Japanese supply and reinforcement convoys. They met the Japanese fleet on March 7, 1943, in the North Pacific, south of the Soviet Komandorski Islands. The battle was a daylight surface engagement in which air support played a negligible role and in which the inferior American force escaped complete destruction mostly by luck.
The fleet commanded by McMorris consisted of the heavy cruiser Salt Lake City, the light cruiser Richmond and the destroyers Coghlan, Bailey, Dale, and Monaghan. U.S. naval intelligence estimated that the Japanese escort consisted of one heavy cruiser, one light cruiser, and four destroyers. However, the Japanese 5th Fleet had been reinforced by two more cruisers, so that the Japanese escort force actually consisted of the heavy cruisers Nachi and Maya, the light cruisers Tama and Abukuma, and the destroyers Wakaba, Hatsushimo, Ikazuchi, and Inazuma, commanded by Vice Admiral Boshiro Hosogaya.
On the early morning of March 26, the Japanese convoy was intercepted by the American picket line some 100 miles south of the Komandorski islands and 180 miles west of Attu, just to the west of the International Date Line. Because of the remote location of the battle and chance encounter on open ocean, neither fleet had air or submarine assistance, making this one of the few engagements exclusively between surface ships in the Pacific Theater and one of the last pure gunnery duels between fleets in naval history.
Although the Japanese cruisers heavily outgunned the American force, the engagement was tactically inconclusive. Both fleets suffered damage, with the U.S. Navy warships escaping almost by luck. One American cruiser and two destroyers were damaged, with seven U.S. sailors killed. Two Japanese cruisers were damaged, with 14 men killed and 26 wounded. With the Japanese fleet on the edge of victory, Admiral Hosogaya — not realizing the heavy damage his ships had inflicted and fearing American war planes would appear — retired without destroying his enemy. This amounted to a strategic defeat, as it ended Japanese attempts to resupply the Aleutian garrisons by surface ship, leaving only submarines to conduct supply runs. Hosogaya was accordingly retired from active service after the battle and assigned to govern a group of South Pacific islands.
The new Japanese garrison of Attu continued constructing the airfield and fortifications until May 11, 1943, when a 15,000 man army of American troops arrived and the American operation to recapture Attu began. Units from 17th Infantry, of Major General Albert Brown’s 7th U.S. Infantry Division made amphibious landings on Attu (“Operation Landcrab”). A shortage of landing craft, unsuitable beaches, and equipment that failed to operate in the appalling weather caused great difficulties in projecting any force against the Japanese. Many soldiers suffered from frostbite — because essential supplies could not be landed, or having been landed, could not be moved to where they were needed. Army vehicles would not work on the tundra. The Japanese defenders under Colonel Yasuyo Yamasaki did not contest the landings, but rather they dug in on high ground away from the shore. Despite heavy naval bombardments of Japanese positions, the American troops encountered strong entrenched defenses that made combat conditions tough.
On May 12, the Japanese submarine I-31 was forced to surface five miles (4.3 nmi; 8.0 km) northeast of Chichagof Harbor, she was then sunk in a surface engagement with USS Edwards.
On May 21-22, 1943, a powerful Japanese fleet assembled in Tokyo Bay in preparation for a sortie to repel the American attempt to recapture Attu. The fleet included the carriers Zuikaku, Shōkaku, Jun’yō, Hiyō, the battleships Musashi, Kongō, Haruna, and the cruisers Mogami, Kumano, Suzuya, Tone, Chikuma, Agano, Ōyodo, and eleven destroyers. However, the Americans succeeded in recapturing Attu before the fleet could depart.
On May 29, without hope of rescue, the remaining Japanese troops suddenly attacked near Massacre Bay in one of the largest banzai charges of the Pacific campaign. The charge, led by Colonel Yamasaki, penetrated U.S. lines far enough to encounter shocked rear-echelon units of the American forces who were soon fighting hand-to-hand combat with Japanese soldiers. After furious, brutal, close-quarter, and often hand-to-hand combat, the Japanese force was killed almost to the last man: only 28 prisoners were taken, none of them officers. U.S. burial teams counted 2,351 Japanese dead, but it was presumed that hundreds more had been buried by naval, air, and artillery bombardments over the course of the battle. The charge effectively ended the battle for the island, although U.S. Navy reports indicate that small groups of Japanese continued to fight until early July 1943. In 19 days of battle, there were 3,929 U.S. casualties: 580 were killed, 1,148 were injured, 1,200 had severe cold injuries, 614 succumbed to infectious diseases, and 318 died of miscellaneous causes — largely from Japanese booby traps and from friendly fire. The Japanese lost over 2,351 men, including Yamasaki; only 28 prisoners were taken.
The Americans then built “Navy Town” near Massacre Bay. The USAAF built a larger airfield, the Alexai Point Army Airfield, and then used it on July 10, 1943 as the base for an air attack on the Japanese-held Kurile Islands, now a part of Russia. This was the first air attack on the Japanese “homelands” since the famous Doolittle Raid in 1942. Other attacks followed.
The Japanese, aware of the loss of Attu and the impending arrival of the larger Allied force, successfully removed their troops on July 28 under the cover of severe fog, without being detected by the Allies. Allied casualties during this invasion nevertheless numbered close to 200, all either from friendly fire, booby traps set out by the Japanese to inflict damage on the invading Allied forces, or weather-related disease. As a result of the brief engagement between U.S. and Canadian forces, there were 28 American and four Canadian dead. There were an additional 130 casualties from trench foot alone. The destroyer USS Abner Read hit a mine, resulting in 87 casualties.
During the night of July 28, the Imperial Japanese Navy warships, thinking they were engaged by Americans, shelled and attempted to torpedo the island of Little Kiska and the Japanese soldiers waiting to embark. Admiral Ernest King reported to the secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, that the only things that remained on the island were dogs and freshly brewed coffee. Knox asked for an explanation and King responded, “The Japanese are very clever. Their dogs can brew coffee.”
The bombing of Kiska resumed for over two months, until a larger American force was allocated to defeat the expected Japanese garrison of 5,200 men. On August 15, 1943, an invasion force consisting of 34,426 Allied troops, including elements of the 7th Infantry Division, 4th Infantry Regiment, 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment (the only major U.S. force specifically trained for mountain warfare), 5,300 Canadians (mainly the 13th Canadian Infantry Brigade from the 6th Infantry Division, with supporting units including two artillery units from the 7th Infantry Division), 95 ships including three battleships and a heavy cruiser, and 168 aircraft landed on Kiska, only to find the island completely abandoned. Over 313 Allied casualties resulted from this attack on the unoccupied island, due to friendly fire, accidents, landmines, and booby traps. After the landing, the soldiers were greeted by a group of dogs who had been left behind. Among them was Explosion, who had been cared for by the Japanese.
During the Aleutian campaign, two cemeteries were established on Attu to bury those killed in action: Little Falls Cemetery, located at the foot of Gilbert Ridge, and Holtz Bay Cemetery, which held the graves of Northern Landing Forces. After the war, the frozen tundra began to take back the cemeteries, so in 1946 all American remains were relocated as directed by the soldier’s family or to Fort Richardson near Anchorage, Alaska. On May 30, 1946, a Memorial Day address was given by Captain Adair with a 21-gun salute and the sounding of Taps. The Decoration of Graves was performed by Chaplains Meaney and Insko.
After the war, the survivors of the Otaru prison camp were shipped to other Aleutian islands or to the mainland of Alaska, as there were not enough survivors to sustain their old village at Attu. The United States government decided to construct a LORAN station on the southern tip of Attu, at Theodore Point. This installation was manned by a crew of about twenty members of the United States Coast Guard. The equipment to build the station came out of Holtz Bay and was ferried on barges and landing craft to Baxter Cove, about one mile east of the station. Bulldozers were used to cut a road from Baxter Cove to Theodore Point.
In 1954, the station was moved to Casco Cove, near the former Navy Base at Massacre Bay. In 1960, it was moved to Massacre Bay.
The battlefield area and subsequent military sites were declared a National Historic Landmark in 1985.
In 1987, with the approval of the U.S. Department of the Interior, the government of Japan placed a monument on Engineer Hill, site of the hand-to-hand finale of the battle against the Japanese. An inscription, in Japanese and English, reads: “In memory of all those who sacrificed their lives in the islands and seas of the North Pacific during World War II and in dedication to world peace.”
In July 2007, the boots and foot bones of a Japanese soldier were found on the island, and on May 23, 2008, the remains of two more Japanese soldiers were discovered by U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Richard Brahm, a public affairs specialist who was a documentarian for the remains recovery team. More remains were located at the burial site, but were left untouched with plans to return at a later time and have them exhumed properly.
In February 2008, a group of American veterans led by John E. Jonas TSgt USAF (Ret.) began a petition to have the Japanese memorial removed or relocated from the island and replaced with two U.S. funded markers: one to the Japanese soldiers who died on the island and one to the Americans.
On August 1, 2010, the United States Coast Guard LORAN station on Attu permanently ceased operation. On August 27, 2010, the station was decommissioned and the Coast Guard personnel left, leaving the island with no resident population.
On June 7, 2012, the 70th anniversary of the Japanese invasion, Senator Lisa Murkowski and United States Coast Guard Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo dedicated a memorial to Attu Village, its residents who died in Japanese captivity, and the survivors who were unable to return.
In 2015, Attu Island was visited by pilot and world circumnavigator, Michael Smith. The island was a crucial refueling stop for Michael as he made his way from Adak island in the Aleutian Islands to Japan. As the island is uninhabited, he had to first fly containers of fuel there and then return as part of the journey from Adak to Japan. He was advised against staying overnight as there are large rats on the island.
The Japanese occupation site on Kiska is now considered a National Historic Landmark and is protected under federal law. The island is also a part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge (AMNWR) and contains the largest colony of least auklets (over 1,160,000 birds) and crested auklets. Research biologists from Memorial University of Newfoundland have been studying the impact of introduced Norway rats on the seabirds of Kiska since 2001.
Much of the aftermath of World War II is still evident in Kiska. The slow erosion processes on the tundra have had little effect on the bomb craters still visible both from the ground and in satellite images on the hills surrounding the harbor. Numerous equipment dumps, tunnels (some concrete-lined), Japanese gun emplacements, shipwrecks, and other war relics can be found, all untouched since 1943.
In 1983 a memorial plaque was placed on Kiska by the 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment, inscribed:
To the men of Amphibious Task Force 9 who fell here August 1943 placed here August 1983 by 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment.
On August 22, 2007, the submarine USS Grunion, which disappeared with a crew of 70 during World War II, was found in 3,300 feet (1,000 m) of water off Kiska.
The 2006 documentary film Red White Black & Blue features two veterans of the Attu Island campaign, Bill Jones and Andy Petrus. It is directed by Tom Putnam and debuted at the 2006 Locarno International Film Festival in Locarno, Switzerland on August 4, 2006. Dashiell Hammett spent most of World War II as an Army sergeant in the Aleutian Islands, where he edited an Army newspaper. He came out of the war suffering from emphysema. As a corporal in 1943, he co-authored The Battle of the Aleutians with Cpl. Robert Colodny under the direction of Infantry Intelligence Officer Major Henry W. Hall.
Many of the United States locations involved in the Aleutians campaign, either directly or indirectly, have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and several have been designated National Historic Landmarks. The battlefield on Attu and the Japanese occupation site on Kiska are both National Historic Landmarks, and are included in the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument. Surviving elements of the military bases at Adak, Umnak, and Dutch Harbor are National Historic Landmarks. The shipwrecked SS Northwestern, badly damaged during the attack on Dutch Harbor, is listed on the National Register, as is a crash-landed B-24D Liberator on Atka Island.
In 1991, the United States Postal Service began a five-year series of commemorative sheets of ten stamps each year to mark the fiftieth anniversary of World War II, Each full pane of twenty stamps yields two identical miniature sheets when torn along the perforations dividing them. Each miniature sheet features ten individual commemorative stamps that recall a series of key events from America’s participation in the war. The stamps are positioned horizontally in two rows of five, one above and below a Mercator-projection world map with text, arrows, and color shadings to depict theaters of war and historical events of each year from 1941 to 1945. William H. Bond of Arlington, Virginia, designed the stamps, and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing printed the stamps in the offset/intaglio process, perforated 11.
The 1942 set of ten World War II stamps was issued on August 17, 1992, in Indianapolis, Indiana, at the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States (VFW) national convention. The map is entitled “1942: Into the Battle” and pinpoints the year’s theaters of operations and events, such as the Battle of Midway, the landing of Allied troops in North Africa, and the Battle of the Coral Sea. The miniature sheet of ten stamps and center map label is assigned listed in the Scott catalogue as #2697 with each stamp given a lower-case letter designation. The Aleutians campaign stamp is Scott #2697e and depicts the buildings at Dutch Harbor ablaze during the Japanese attack of June 4, 1942. There were 6,000,000 copies of the stamp printed.
The other stamp designs recalling war scenes of 1942 include B-25’s take-off to raid Tokyo on April 18; ration coupons; dive bomber and deck crewman during the Battle of the Coral Sea in May; prisoners of war at the fall of Corregidor on May 6; headphones and coded message symbolizing Allies’ deciphering secret enemy codes; Yorktown lost and the victory at Midway; woman with drill commemorating the millions of women who joined war effort; marines landing on Guadalcanal on August 7; and Allies landing in North Africa in November.