Seventy years after World War II ended, Japan and Russia are still trying to sign a peace treaty. The persistent bone of contention? The Kuril Islands, seized by Soviet troops in a bloody amphibious landing after Japan announced it was ready to surrender.
But how and why did the Soviets seize the Kurils in the first place?
The Kuril Islands—also known as Chishima or the Northern Territories in Japan—are a chain of fifty-six volcanic islands stretching 810 miles from the northeastern Japanese island of Hokkaido to Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. Originally populated by the indigenous Ainu people, the archipelago began receiving Japanese administration during the seventeenth century under the Tokugawa Shogunate.
The Japanese began encountering Russian explorers traveling southward after the settlement of the Kamchatka Peninsula in the eighteenth century. In 1855, Edo Japan and Imperial Russia signed a treaty in which the former claimed the southernmost islands—Kunashir, Iturup, Shikotan and the Habomai Islands—while Urup Island and everything north of it went to Russia. Then an 1875 treaty gave Japan all the Kurils, in exchange for Russia gaining all of Sakhalin, a large island to the west. You can see a map of the island treaties here.
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However, after Japan dealt a shocking defeat to the czar’s forces in 1905, Tokyo got full control of the Kurils as well as the southern half of Sakhalin. In subsequent decades, the Japanese government built up towns, administrative services and infrastructure across the remote islands. Thousands of ethnic Japanese began settling there to fish and mine valuable minerals.
The Japanese carrier task force that bombed Pearl Harbor actually assembled off Iturup Island, profiting from the persistent fogs for concealment. The islands would soon become a target themselves, causing Japan to deploy fighters and two infantry divisions to protect its northern flank. After U.S. forces repelled the Japanese invasion of Alaska , B-25 and B-24 bombers began striking the distant islands in 1943 and 1944, with limited success.
Fuel-starved bomber crews sometimes landed in Soviet territory seeking assistance—but were always interned, as Moscow had signed a neutrality pact with Tokyo in 1938.
That was something Washington was keen to change, as it contemplated the possibility of a bloody invasion of the Japanese home islands. At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, an ailing Roosevelt got Stalin to promise that once Nazi Germany was defeated, the Soviet Union would break the neutrality pact. Stalin stipulated that he would require U.S. military aid, and three months to transfer the necessary forces to the east.
The Yalta agreement also bluntly stated, “The Kuril Islands shall be handed over to the Soviet Union.” After all, the archipelago offered convenient stepping stones for a Soviets invasion of Hokkaido.
Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945. Exactly three months later as promised, the Red Army unleashing a massive ground offensive in Manchuria that swiftly demolished the Japanese Kwantung Army—and also secured the southern half of Sakhalin Island.
Stunned by the loss of China and the U.S. atomic bombings, Tokyo announced on August 15 that it was ready to surrender, and instructed Japanese troops to cease offensive military operations, and to only fire in self-defense. But the same day, the Soviet Second Far East Front received orders to invade the two northernmost Kuril Islands, Shumshu and Paramushiro. Stalin wanted to snatch them before American occupiers arrived.
Unlike their Western allies, the Soviets lacked specialized boats for amphibious landings on defended beaches. But under Project Hula, the U.S. secretly transferred 149 ships to the Soviet Navy through Cold Bay, Alaska—and trained twelve thousand Soviet personnel how to operate them. This included thirty Landing Craft Infantry: forty-eight-meter-long shallow-draft vessels capable of depositing two hundred troops directly onto an unprepared beach.
The Soviet amphibious fleet eventually mustered sixty-two ships, including sixteen LCIs, to transport 8,821 troops of the 101st Rifle Division and a naval infantry battalion. The landing force lacked tanks, and had only the minesweeper Okhotsk to provide heavy fire support with its 130-millimeter gun. However, there were four 130-millimeter shore batteries within range of Shumshu Island on the Kamchatka Peninsula to provide artillery support. In addition, the 128th Composite Aviation Division would assist with seventy-eight warplanes, including two regiments of American P-63 Kingcobra fighters , as well as a mixed regiment of SB-2, Il-4 and A-20 Havoc bombers.
The Kurils were notoriously foggy, and the Soviets had limited opportunity to conduct reconnaissance. The amphibious force set sail early on August 17, and at 2:30 the following morning, the first wave of naval infantry hit the Takeda Beach on the flat, windswept island of Shumshu. The Japanese were taken completely by surprise due to the fog, and initially could not determine which country was attacking them!