In the battle of the Aleutian Islands in June 1942 to August 1943 during World War II, U.S. troops fought to remove Japanese garrisons established on a pair of U.S. owned islands west of Alaska. In June 1942, Japan and seize the remote, sparsely inhabited islands of Attu and Kiska, in the Aleutian Islands. It was the only U.S. soil Japan would claim during the war in the Pacific. The maneuver was possibly designed to divert U.S. forces during Japan's attack on Midway Island in the Central Pacific. It is also possible the Japanese believed holding the two islands could prevent the U.S. from invading Japan via the Aleutians. Either way the Japanese occupation was a blow to American morale. In May 1943, U.S. troops retook Attu and three months later reclaimed Kiska. This process help them prepare for the long island hopping battles to come as World War II raged across the Pacific Ocean.
In June 1942, six months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, that drew the U.S. into World War II the Japanese targeted dilutions, and American-owned chain of remote, sparsely inhabited, volcanic islands extending some 1200 miles west of the Alaskan peninsula. After reaching the Aleutians, the Japanese conducted airstrikes on Dutch Harbor, cited to American military bases on June 3 and 4. The Japanese then made landfall at Kiska Island on June 6 and Attu Island approximately 200 miles away on June 7. Japanese troops quickly established garrisons and military bases on both islands, which belonged to the U.S. since it purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867.
The native people of the Aleutian Islands were originally known as the Unangan. Russian fur traders who arrived in the region in the mid-18th century renamed them the Aleuts. In 1942, after the Japanese took Attu, the island's population of some 40 Aleuts were taken prisoner.
Like the other volcanic islands in the Aleutians, Attu and Kiska appeared to have little military or strategic value because of their barren, mountainous terrain and harsh weather, infamous for its sudden dense fog, high winds, rains and frequent snow. Historians believe Japan seized Attu and Kiska mainly to divert the U.S. Pacific Fleet during the Japanese attack on Midway Island in the Central Pacific. They also believed that holding the two islands could prevent the U.S. from any attempt to invade Japan's home islands by way of the Aleutian chain.
Americans were shocked that Japanese troops had taken over any U.S. soil, no matter how remote or barren. Some also fear that Japan's occupation of the two islands might be the first step toward an attack against mainline Alaska or even the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Despite the nationwide anger, American war planners at first paid relatively little attention to the Japanese garrisons as they were still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor and in the process of building up forces in the South Pacific and preparing for war in Europe. In fact, after the initial months after Japan occupied the islands, the U.S. military conducted only occasional bombing raids from nearby Aleutian Islands.
In the meantime, during the months following the occupation, Japanese soldiers learned to acclimate to the extreme conditions and the Japanese Navy kept the soldiers well supplied. But by January 1943, U.S. Army forces and the Alaska Command had grown to 94,000 soldiers, with several bases recently constructed on other Aleutian Islands. On January 11, troops from the Alaska Command landed on Amchitka Island 50 miles from Kiska.
By March 1943, U.S. Navy rear Adm. Thomas C. Kincaid had set up a blockade of Attu and Kiska that restricted the flow of supplies to Japanese occupiers. On March 26, 1943 Japanese ships in the Bering Sea attempted to deliver supplies to Attu, and were spotted by U.S. vessels patrolling the area and the two sides engaged in what was known as the Battle of the Komandorski Islands. The Japanese fleet outnumbered the U.S. fleet and inflicted more serious damage on the Americans, but after several hours of fighting, the Japanese ship suddenly withdrew. In addition to running low on fuel and ammunition, the Japanese reportedly feared the arrival of U.S. bombers. The Japanese were also unaware of the extent of the damage they cause to the U.S. fleet. Following the battle, the Japanese soldiers on Attu and Kiska were now virtually isolated and were reduced to meager supplies delivered by submarine. Taking advantage of these conditions, the Americans prepared to land troops for ground combat against the Japanese garrisons.
American ships and planes bombed Attu and Kiska for several weeks before the U.S. military began Operation Landgrab on May 11, 1943 landing 11,000 troops on Attu. The Americans expected the operations take no more than several days, but harsh weather and rugged, muddy terrain extended the combat for more than two weeks. The Japanese troops, greatly outnumbered, had withdrawn to higher ground rather than contest the initial landings. However U.S. soldiers with uniforms and equipment ill designed for harsh weather conditions, suffered more casualties from frostbite, trench foot, gangrene and other illnesses than from enemy fire. Food shortages added to their misery as they crisscrossed the barren island, fighting mostly small but fierce engagements while scouring the rocks and slopes for booby-traps, snipers and Doug and enemy troops.
The fate of the Japanese had been sealed when the Americans established air and naval supremacy over the island, cutting Japanese supply lines and making it unlikely those reinforcements would arrive. By late May, the last remaining Japanese troops were starving and had insufficient ammunition when U.S. troops trapped them in a corner of the island. The Japanese commander, Col. Yamasaki decided to make a last-ditch final charge. Shortly before daybreak on May 29, he and his soldiers began one of the largest bonsai charges and the war in the Pacific. Yamasaki's troops charge wildly into the American lines, sweeping through their combat outposts and penetrating all the way to shock support troops in the rear of the American camp. But the gambit ultimately failed. After final attack on May 30, U.S. soldiers counted more than 2000 Japanese dead, including Yamazaki. Americans lost some 1000 men in the retaking of Attu. Within two days, the U.S. forces secured the island and the Battle of Attu, the only land battle fought on American soil in World War II was over.
Having learned bitter lessons at Attu, American commanders made certain that their soldiers had better equipment and proper clothing for the assault on Kiska. It was codenamed Operation Cottage, where they expected to encounter several times as many Japanese troops as they faced on Attu. However when U.S. ships arrived early on August 15, 1943, the weather was strangely clear and the seas quiet and the approximately 35,000 soldiers landed unopposed. After several days of scouring the island, they discovered that the Japanese had evacuated the entire garrison several weeks earlier, under cover of fog. On August 24, when U.S. troops declared Kiska Island secure, the Battle of the Aleutian Islands ended.
Following his defeat in the Aleutians, the Japanese Navy reassigned some of its Pacific forces to defend Japan's northern flank against a possible American invasion from the Alaskan Peninsula. This decision removed a significant number of Japanese troops and resources that might otherwise have been committed to resisting U.S. forces in the South Pacific that were then island hopping toward Japan. To feel Japan's perception that it was threatened from the U.S. Northwest, American planes in the Aleutians conducted occasional bombing raids against Japan's Kuril Islands, which lie between Japan and Alaska. Two years after the battle of the Aleutian Islands, Japan formally surrendered to the Allies on September 2, 1945, effectively ending World War II.