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The Battle of the Komandorski Islands

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March 27, 2013, (or March 26 if you are going by Hawaiian time) marks the 70th anniversary of one of World War II’s forgotten naval clashes, the Battle of the Komandorski Islands. Although a minor engagement in which no ships were sunk, the battle off the Komandorskis was a significant strategic victory for the US Navy as it prevented desperately needed supplies from reaching Japanese forces in the Aleutian Islands.

The Battle of the Komandorski Islands came about as a result of an intercepted Japanese radio message notifying Japanese forces on Attu that supplies were en route from Japan. Once the message was decrypted in Hawaii, Rear Admiral Charles McMorris was ordered to intercept and destroy the Japanese convoy with one heavy cruiser, one light cruiser and four destroyers.

What should have been an easy victory was complicated by the fact that the Japanese convoy was escorted by two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and four destroyers. So, when the two forces collided off the Soviet-controlled Komandorski Islands early on the morning of 27 March 1943, McMorris’s ships found themselves in a stand-up fight with a superior Japanese force. What followed was a running gun battle that lasted over six hours. Both sides suffered damage, with the USS Salt Lake City being hit by six 8” shells. The Japanese cruiser Nachi was also heavily hit during the battle. Ultimately, around noon on the 27th, the Japanese convoy turned back.

USS Salt Lake City, shown during the Battle of the Komandorski Islands, 27 March 1943

Taken at Mare Island, this photo highlights the hits suffered by the Salt Lake City off the Komandorskis

No ships were lost on either side, and less than sixty casualties were suffered on both sides, but the damage done to the Japanese off the Komandorskis was much greater than the sum of damaged ships and wounded men. The battle effectively sealed off the northern supply route to the Aleutian Islands. After March 1943, Japanese forces in the Aleutians were only supplied by submarines, which were incapable of providing the amount of material needed for the Japanese force to hang on. Although nearly forgotten today, the Battle of the Komandorski Islands had a decisive impact on America’s victory in the Aleutian Islands.

Posted by Curator Eric Rivet

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