There has been growing concern in recent years over the state of the United States Arctic defenses. In fact, few Americans remember that Alaskan islands seized by Japanese forces remain one of the only case in which enemy forces successfully occupied U.S. territory during the twentieth century. The thirteen-month battle over the Aleutian Islands yielded numerous air and sea skirmishes fought over more than a thousand miles of frozen Arctic water. They concluded with a bloody amphibious invasion—and then one of the most bizarre intelligence failures of the war.
A Feint to the North
The Aleutians are a 1,200-mile-long archipelago of volcanic island stretching between the Alaska Peninsula and the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. The mountainous islands are uniformly treeless, ravaged by heavy winds and afflicted by bone-aching cold. A combination of frequent rain, snow and dense fog makes travel between them perilous to ships and aircraft.
In May 1942, a Japanese carrier task force composed of two carriers and three cruisers set sail for the Aleutians under Adm. Kakuji Kakuta. He was tasked with knocking out U.S. naval forces stationed at Dutch Harbor, Unalaska Island in the eastern Aleutians, and seizing the western Aleutian islands of Attu, Kiska and Adak. This attack was meant both serve as a diversion from a larger carrier task force sailing for the important U.S. naval base at Midway Island, as well as to deny the U.S. access to Attu Island, which could have been used as a base to bomb the Kurile Islands, which were then under Japanese administration. The Japanese high command was particularly sensitive to this threat after the Doolittle bombing raid of Tokyo on April 18, 1942.
Unfortunately for the Japanese, the U.S. Navy had decrypted the Japanese naval codes and knew about both carrier forces. But this foreknowledge coming was only modestly helpful to U.S. forces in Alaska, as the navy had only one operational radar in the area. Nonetheless, personnel began digging trenches and Army Air Force fighters at Fort Glenn Air Base on Umnak Island, seventy miles away, were placed on alert. Bombers of the 11th Air Force and U.S. Navy Catalina seaplanes scoured the northern Pacific in an effort to locate and destroy the attack force—but after a sighting on June 2, poor weather conditions prevented the aviators from reestablishing contact.
The Battle of Dutch Harbor
At 3 A.M. on June 3, thirty-two Japanese war planes—an even mix of A6M Zero fighters, B5N torpedo bombers and D3 Val dive bombers—launched from the carriers Ryujo and Jun’yo with orders to knock out Dutch Harbor. Fog and overcast skies caused many of the Japanese aircraft to lose their way and return to their carriers, but seventeen managed to locate the Alaskan naval base and blew up an army barracks located there, killing twenty-five. Fire from the 206th Coastal Artillery Battalion of the Arkansas National Guard, manning a mix of 76mm anti-aircraft guns, rapid-fire 37mm cannons, and .50 caliber machine guns, managed to down three of the attackers. However, communications with the fighters at Umnak failed, and they did not intervene in time.
The Japanese carriers sailed much closer for a follow up raid involving twenty-six aircraft on June 4 that struck with greater violence, destroying local fuel storage tanks, hangers, half a military hospital, and setting the barracks ship Northwestern ablaze. American aircraft were destroyed on the ground or while taking off, including six B-17 and B-26 bombers and a similar number of navy Catalina float planes. This time, the Army Air Corps was quicker to respond. A flight of six P-40 Warhawk fighters intercept the Japanese aircraft returning from the raid, shooting down three but losing four of their own.
During the raid, a .50 caliber machine gun shot up the Zero of Petty Officer Tadayoshi Koga. The Japanese pilot flew his damaged fighter to the nearby Akutan Island twenty-five miles away, where a submarine awaited to pick up ditched aircraft crews. However, Koga accidentally landed in a muskeg—an arctic bog—with the landing gear down, causing his plane to flip over, killing him. More than a month later, a U.S. Navy pilot spotted the wreck. The so-called “Akutan Zero” was recovered nearly intact and restored to flyable condition. Test flights of the Zero proved invaluable in devising tactics and new fighter planes to counter the agile but lightly-armored Japanese fighter, which outmatched most American fighters for during the first year of the Pacific War.
Meanwhile, further raids were called off when Admiral Kakuta received news of the Japanese defeat at the decisive Battle of Midway. Kakuta instead landed his troops on Kiska and Attu island on June 5—the Adak landing was canceled—and withdrew his carriers before land-based bombers had a chance to ascertain their position and bomb them.
Invasion of the Aleutians
Barren as the Aleutian islands might seem, they were home to a native people that would suffer greatly at the hands of both the Japanese and U.S. forces.