Military Disaster in Aleutian Islands in Second World War
In warfare, stuff goes wrong. The great Prussian general Field-Marshal Count Helmuth von Moltke (1800-91) put it this way: “No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength.” This is often simplified to “No plan survives contact with the enemy.”
In August 1943, a joint Canadian-American military plan fell apart without even seeing the enemy.
Japan Takes Kiska Island
The Aleutian Islands are a chain of volcanic islands that swing out from the southern coast of Alaska in an arc more than 1,900 km long.
Warhistoryonline says they “are plagued by harsh weather [that] can change on a dime from cold, still, and dense with fog to blasting winds that can drive a person down at 100 mph. There are few if any trees and they are almost unlivable.”
Towards the western end of the archipelago is Kiska Island, which is volcanic, barren, and largely uninhabited.
The U.S. National Historic Landmarks Program notes that Japanese forces invaded and occupied Kiska on June 6, 1942. They captured nine Americans from a weather station.
The following day, the Japanese seized the island of Attu, about 320 km farther west, and took 45 native Aleuts and a couple from Ohio prisoner. Sixteen of these captives died in the Japanese camps in which they were held.
The islands are not the most desirable patches of real estate. Kiska is just eight kilometres wide by 35 km long and usually shrouded by fog. Attu is the same length but 30 km wide.
The islands may have a miserable climate, but Japan saw their strategic advantage as a possible air base from which to launch bombing raids. A garrison on these islands also meant control of vital sea routes.
Barren and isolated though these rocky places might have been, they represented a blow to U.S. morale. As Rhonda Roy notes in Esprit de Corps magazine, “For the first time since the War of 1812, an enemy occupied ... American soil - albeit a water-soaked, marshy soil that no one had ever heard of or cared about until now.”
On May 11, 1943, 11,000 U.S. forces landed on Attu, with the aim of ousting the Japanese. Their biggest foe was the terrain and its weather.
The plans were probably drawn up in some warm and cozy place. The soldiers faced wind, rain, and snow in far from adequate clothing. In addition, they didn’t have enough food.
Trench foot, gangrene, and terrible morale weakened the troops.
The Japanese defenders they came across fought fiercely and, when they faced defeat, committed suicide. A Japanese doctor in a field hospital wrote in his diary “The last assault is to be carried out … I am only 33 years old and I am to die ... I took care of all patients with a grenade.”
The Americans lost about 1,000 men in retaking Attu Island.
Plan to Oust Japanese Occupying Forces
The Allies decided to move on to take back Kiska island. Operation Cottage, as it was code named, was given to the planning geniuses to organize.
The Americans had already moved 94,000 troops into Alaska and they now began a bombing campaign against the Japanese occupiers of Kiska Island that was to precede an amphibious landing.
Military planners expected the estimated 5,000 to 10,000 Japanese defenders to put up a fierce fight of the island; casualties were going to be heavy among the more than 34,000 men, including 5,000 Canadians, that were to land.
On the morning of August 15, 1943 the invasion fleet arrived off Kiska Island. The first foul up was that someone had got the tides wrong and the shallow water of low tide meant some of the ships became grounded. The Americans were to land on one part of the island, the Canadians on another.
There was confusion as the boats of the first wave of troops got tangled in a jam and were slow to reach the beach.
Warships shelled deeper into the island and there was a constant barrage of machine gun and rifle fire. For two days the battle went on in dense fog and heavy, cold rain. Maps proved to be unreliable and radio transmissions were iffy.
On August 17 the fighting came to a halt and the invading soldiers counted their losses. As Rhonda Roy reports, “There were 28 dead American soldiers, four dead Canadians, and over 50 wounded Allied soldiers. There were no Japanese. Americans and Canadians had only been shooting each other.”
Some of the dead had the misfortune to encounter booby traps left behind by the Japanese.
The U.S. Navy suffered many more casualties when one of their destroyers suffered an explosion in her stern. The USS Abner Read had probably hit a mine that led to 71 men being killed or missing in action. A further 47 were wounded.
The Japanese occupiers had slipped away unnoticed almost three weeks earlier in the nearly perpetual fog that blankets Kiska Island.
A Snafu Portrayed as a Glorious Victory
When the Japanese invaded Kiska Island, one member of the weather station crew managed to escape capture. For 50 days, Senior Petty Officer William C. House hid in a cave and survived, barely, by eating plants and earthworms. His weight dropped to 80 pounds and he had to choose between starving to death and surrender. He chose the latter and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner in Japan.
The shambles of the Battle of Kiska Island gives life to the oxymoronic phrase “military intelligence.”
The USS Abner Read seems to have been an unlucky vessel. After losing most of her stern in the Kiska Island debacle she was towed back to the Puget Sound Navy Yard for repairs. Back in shipshape order, she was deployed to Pearl Harbor in February 1944, and almost immediately suffered a damaged propeller. On November 1, 1944, the Abner Read was hit by a kamikaze plane and sunk. Nearby destroyers were able to save all but 22 of her crew.
- “On Alaska’s Remote Kiska, World War Two Battle Relics Remain.” Mike Dunham, Anchorage Daily News, May 31, 2010.
- “The Battle for Kiska.” Rhonda Roy, Esprit de Corps, March 2002.
- “The Invasion of Kiska.” National Park Service, Undated.
- “Battles of Attu & Kiska: Retaking the Only US Soil Lost During WWII.” Jinny McKormick, warhistoryonline, February 19, 2016.