Remembering the Aleutian Campaign of World War II

In mid-1942 Japanese forces attacked the Aleutians, a series of islands running southwest from the Alaska Peninsula. Meant to distract the American fleet from the planned attack on Midway Island, Japanese forces captured Attu Island and Kiska Island on June 6 and 7, 1942. While the Japanese originally intended to abandon the islands before winter, they instead chose to settle in and planned to build airfields on both islands. They hoped that holding this American territory might have a profound, negative, psychological effect on the United States.

American leadership understood the symbolism and practical importance of these geographic locations and wanted to retake Attu and Kiska as soon as possible. But in order to do so, American positions on nearby islands had to be shored up. American troops arrived on Adak Island, about 250 miles east of Kiska, at the end of August 1942 with the intent of building an airfield. Inventive engineering allowed completion of a runway in just two weeks, and by mid-September B-24 heavy bombers began launching strikes from Adak. Over the next few months, forces continued to increase in the region, and by 1943 100,000 American troops were based in Alaska and 13 new bases had been built.

These successes did not come easily though. Weather and geography played a major role. Forward bases depended on supplies and reinforcements from distant sources. Fog, blizzards, heavy seas and hurricane force winds wrecked ships and aircraft. Weeks of persistent adverse conditions and long nights in high latitudes placed great stress on the soldiers, sailors, and airmen. Troops faced rocky coasts and crags, snowfields, and muskeg, a type of black muck that could thaw and swallow heavy equipment. Away from bases and coastal settlements, supplies and material were moved laboriously by hand. The nature of the theater of operations in the Aleutians proved the greatest source of American casualties during this campaign.

Despite these challenges, American air and naval forces reached into the seas around Attu and Kiska, sinking Japanese vessels and choking off supply lines. The biggest naval engagement in the campaign, the Battle of the Komandorski Islands, occurred March 26, 1943. A strong Japanese task force escorting three transports encountered an American naval squadron. The Japanese inflicted more damage, but feared American airpower and turned back. After this battle the Japanese only supplied Aleutian garrisons by submarine.

By spring 1943 the 7th Infantry Division was training to retake Attu and Kiska. Several thousand Japanese occupied Kiska, while only 500 occupied Attu. Despite being geographically further from the nearest American base, American leadership decided to attack Attu first, and then use the airfield to blockade Kiska. American forces landed simultaneously on May 11 on both the north and south sides of the peninsula. Poor maps and bad weather prevented effective support from artillery, naval gunfire, or airstrikes. It took a week through challenging terrain for the forces to join up and trap the Japanese, who defended from well-concealed positions on high ground. After the linkup the Japanese withdrew toward Chichagof Harbor. On May 29 the Japanese Attu garrison radioed home news of their defeat. That night the Japanese participated in a desperate attack on American positions, leaving only 28 Japanese to be captured. Five hundred forty nine Americans were killed in the fight for Attu with another 1,148 wounded. Weather, disease, and terrain accounted for 2,100 non-battle casualties.

The short but tough campaign made the American command reconsider its plans for Kiska. Assault and support forces were increased for Operation Cottage, the attack on Kiska, and plans reformulated. From June to August Allied forces bombarded Kiska from the air and sea. With almost 30,000 American and 5,000 Canadian ground troops committed to Cottage, forces landed in mid-August and found that the Japanese had secretly evacuated. Victory on Kiska had been won on Attu and the Japanese had been forced from American territory. The difficult lessons of one battle had been applied to planning for a second, and the experience of each contributed to planning subsequent Pacific island campaigns.

After the fall of Kiska American air and naval forces had secure bases from which to patrol and raid the North Pacific.  American bombers began occasional long distance raids on Japan’s northern Kurile Islands. Though remote, control of the Aleutians had far reaching effects. Victory there assisted the war in Europe. Russian lend-lease cargo ships passed through Kiska and Dutch Harbor on their way to Vladivostok, and aircraft for Russia flew through Nome, bringing crucial materiel to the Eastern Front and the fight against Germany.