Bitter Cold, Bitter War: The Battle for Alaska's Aleutian Islands in World War II

January 15, 2021 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IIAlaskaU.S. MilitaryJapanAleutian Islands

Bitter Cold, Bitter War: The Battle for Alaska's Aleutian Islands in World War II

U.S. forces were hampered by inclement weather, as well as Japanese soldiers, in the Aleutian Islands campaign.

Here's What You Need to Know: The combat was unforgiving and brutal.

In the early morning hours of May 11, 1943, the silhouettes of two subamarines silently rose to the surface in the icy cold waters off the coast of Attu, an island in the Aleutian chain. The vessels were the USS Narwhal and the USS Nautilus, and they were carrying nearly 250 men from the Provisional Scout Battalion of the 7th Infantry Division.

Captain William H. Willoughby, leader of the group, gathered his soldiers at the rear of the sub, and they quietly inflated their rubber boats for the ride to the shore. As the subs descended, the water rose, freeing the rafts. When the pair of vessels slipped away, the infantrymen started paddling toward their objective. The Battle for Attu was about to commence.

“The Aleutians theater of the Pacific war might well be called the Theater of Military Frustration,” wrote noted military historian Samuel Eliot Morison in his now classic work History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Volume 7. “Sailors, soldiers and aviators alike regarded the assignment to this region of almost perpetual mist and snow as little better than penal servitude.”

No truer words were spoken. The Aleutians, protruding from the tip of the Alaskan Peninsula for more than 1,000 miles, were a steppingstone to the western United States. Considered by most to be nothing more than barren, desolate countryside, their strategic value was nonexistent.

“While spared the arctic climate of the Alaskan mainland to the north, the Aleutians are constantly swept by cold winds and often engulfed in dense fog,” wrote George L. MacGarrigle in Aleutian Islands: The U.S. Army Campaign of World War II. “The weather becomes progressively worse in the western part of the chain, but all the islands are marked by craggy mountains and scant vegetation.”

This all changed when Japan sent bombers to raid Dutch Harbor, located on Unalaska Island, in June 1942. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Japanese fleet, decided to attack Dutch Harbor to convince the United States that the Japanese main thrust would be against America’s West Coast. He wanted to lure U.S. ships from Pearl Harbor. Then, the wily leader would strike at Midway in the Central Pacific, his real objective. Yamamoto figured the Americans would rush to defend the Aleutians. Realizing it was a feint, the U.S. Fleet would steam back to defend Pearl Harbor. Then Yamamoto would spring his trap and intercept the U.S. armada at Midway and annihilate it.

All of this elaborate planning might have succeeded if it were not for one major flaw. U.S. Naval Intelligence had broken the Japanese naval code, and the American defenders were ready to defend Midway.

U.S. Admiral Chester A. Nimitz, commander-in-chief in the Pacific, had received word of Yamamoto’s ruse in late May. Nimitz knew that Yamamoto had ordered Vice Admiral Boshiro Hosogaya’s task force, consisting of two small aircraft carriers, five cruisers, 12 destroyers, six submarines, four troop transports, and numerous support vessels, to the Aleutians.

After the air raid on Dutch Harbor, Hosogaya was to put a force ashore on Adak Island, about 500 miles to the west. After razing the U.S. base there (the Japanese would later discover there was no military installation located there), his soldiers would come ashore on Kiska, 240 miles west of Adak, and seize the island. Additional troops would then assault Attu, almost 200 miles away, the westernmost island in the Aleutian chain.

Opting to face both Yamamoto and Hosogaya, Nimitz split his force, dispatching Rear Admiral Robert A. Theobald to command Task Force 8. With his five cruisers, he was told to defend Dutch Harbor “at all costs” and stop the Japanese from moving on Alaska itself.

Yamamoto, however, had no intentions of striking at Alaska. His plan was to maintain a military presence on Attu and Kiska and keep the Americans from invading the Japanese homeland.

Likewise, the U.S. planners decided against the Aleutians as an invasion route as well. Nimitz wanted to oust the enemy from the islands and prevent any additional reinforcements from reaching Hosogaya.

Both sides, unfortunately, were saddled with the same problem: Most of the manpower and materiel was being diverted to the ongoing New Guinea and Solomon Islands campaigns.

Hosogaya’s dilemma was even worse. His supply base at Paramushiro in the Kuriles was situated 1,200 miles north of Tokyo and another 650 miles west of Attu. In addition, supplies reaching Kiska had to go nearly 400 miles farther and navigate through pea soup fog and treacherous reef-infested waters. Nevertheless, the Japanese had occupied Attu and Kiska and were in the Aleutians to stay. And it was Theobald’s job to get rid of them.

Major General Simon B. Buckner, Jr., headed the Alaskan Defense Command. He had 45,000 men at his disposal, with approximately 13,000 at Fort Randall, located at Cold Bay on the Alaskan Peninsula itself. The remainder of his troops were dispersed at Dutch Harbor and also at a newly constructed U.S. Army installation, dubbed Fort Glenn, 70 miles west of Umnak Island. Despite the seemingly large contingent of soldiers, Buckner’s command, in reality, only numbered slightly over 2,000, and some of these were engineer units sent to the Aleutians to build the new bases.

Also under Theobald’s charge was the 11th Air Force. Led by Brig. Gen. William C. Butler, it was a divided command as well. The force of 44 heavy and medium bombers and nearly 100 fighter aircraft was split between Elmendorf Airfield in Anchorage, Alaska, and other airstrips at Cold Bay and Umnak.

Although Buckner and Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt, in charge of the Western Defense Command, did make a case for invading Japan utilizing the Aleutians, their real purpose was purely psychological: driving out the Japanese occupying American soil, even if that soil was as desolate as Kiska and Attu.

After Yamamoto’s disastrous defeat at Midway in early June 1942, attention shifted to the Aleutians. The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) were disturbed about reports of Japanese warships operating between the Pribilof and St. Lawrence Islands. Their main concern was an invasion of Alaska itself. As a result, the Joint Chiefs recommended that Theobald and DeWitt begin planning for an amphibious assault against Kiska and Attu.

By mid-September of 1942, Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers were launched from the newly constructed airfield at Adak to attack Kiska. These repeated air assaults persuaded the Japanese that the Americans were planning to retake the islands. Troop transports began landing reinforcements at the two bases. They knew that with winter setting in the Americans would not be able to initiate a full-scale invasion until the following spring. The intolerable Aleutian weather had, once again, played a role in the strategy. And before the battle was over, it would be a decisive factor for all of those involved in the operation.

On January 11, 1943, U.S. troops slipped ashore on Amchitka Island, just 50 miles from Kiska. Although no enemy troops were stationed on Amchitka, the soldiers did do battle with the harsh elements. A willowaw, an Aleutian word for violent squall, struck the very first night. The swirling winds destroyed numerous landing craft and caused a transport vessel to run aground. If that were not enough, a blizzard started the next day and lasted for two weeks. Its howling winds, massive snowdrifts, and biting sleet lashed out at the invading force.

At the end of January, Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid presented a plan to invade Kiska, and the scheme was quickly approved by Admiral Nimitz and General DeWitt. DeWitt wanted to use the 35th Infantry Division as the assault troops commanded by Maj. Gen. Charles H. Corlett and Brig. Gen. Eugene M. Landrum, the assistant division commander. DeWitt felt comfortable with the unit because both Corlett and Landrum had previous service in the Aleutians, a huge plus DeWitt felt.

Kinkaid Had No Idea That His Sources Had the Enemy Troop Strength All Wrong.

The War Department, however, ignored DeWitt’s advice and tapped the 7th Infantry Division, commanded by Maj. Gen.l Albert E. Brown, for the job. Although highly trained and motivated, the unit had been practicing maneuvers in the California desert and was being sent to North Africa to fight against Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps. Althoug, DeWitt and Buckner argued, their pleas fell on deaf ears. The decision of the War Department was final.

To prepare for the amphibious assault, Buckner, Nimitz, and Kinkaid sent for individuals knowledgeable in that field—people like U.S. Marine Maj. Gen.l Holland M. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith and Army Colonel William O. Eareckson. Vice Admiral Francis W. “Skinny” Rockwell would have over all command of the Kiska operation.

By the end of February, however, Kinkaid had second thoughts about invading Kiska and, instead, eyed Attu. He had intelligence that said the Japanese had only 500 defenders on the island. By hitting Attu, Kinkaid “hoped to leave Kiska high and dry surrounded by American forces.” The War Department quickly gave thumbs up to Kinkaid’s revised plan to strike at Attu instead of Kiska with the 7th Infantry Division still slated to be the assault force. The operation was dubbed Landcrab, and the invasion date was set for May 7.