Attu, Aleutian Island, June 4, 1943. Soldiers hurling their trench mortar shells over a ridge into a Japanese position. Library of Congress image.
May 11, 2013, marks the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Attu. The largest of the Near Islands of Alaska, Attu was the site of the only land battle fought on an incorporated territory of the United States during World War II.
The Japanese Northern Army had taken Attu unopposed in June 1942. Fearing that the island would be used as an airbase to launch strikes along the West Coast of North America, the United States initiated Operation SANDCRAB.
Over 1,000 miles from mainland Alaska, Attu’s bedfellow is extremely hostile weather, and the challenges confronting SANDCRAB were colossal. Turgidly confident, American commanders were convinced superior air and naval forces would rid the island of a majority of enemy forces. The day of the landing unremitting fog had enshrouded Attu, reducing the effect of air and naval strikes. American soldiers were met with violent opposition the moment their boots hit the ground.
And those boots might as well have been sandals! Soldiers of the 7th Infantry Division waded ashore clad in gear suited more for the sun-basted beaches of California than the frigid air of Attu. Commanders were aware of this, but regarded Attu as an island easily won. Days surely would not turn to weeks. The environmental forces that produce frostbite would be outgunned, outnumbered and wholly avoided by taking Attu quickly.
Unfortunately frostbite took its toll while brutal environmental forces pounded Americans already beset by entrenched Axis forces.
The advance into the interior took weeks not days, as American troops were hindered by extremely bitter weather conditions and a determined foe. The Americans did push forward and the end finally did arrive when Japanese Colonel Yasuyo Yamasaki, realizing Attu had been lost, ordered the last of his troops to conduct a banzai charge. The Colonel himself lead the ill-fated charge and was killed with sword firmly in hand.
When the bloodletting had finally ceased, 2,351 Japanese and 549 Americans were dead.
By clearing the Western Hemisphere of Japanese forces, the Western United States were free from threat and an ebullient sense of security prevailed. But the cost of human life was high, and the Aleutian Islands never factored into an American invasion plan of mainland Japan. Bored American troops stationed there spent the remainder of the war puffing on their cigarettes and kicking the dry earth beneath their feet.
Posted by Ryan Casalino, Interactive Content Intern.
Read Staff Sergeant James A. Liccione, Sr.’s personal account of the Aleutian Campaign.
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