05/08/2013 07:24 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Forgotten Battle's Anniversary

No matter the definitions used, the United States of America has not been directly attacked by an enemy's military very often throughout its history. The biggest attack wasn't even on a state, since Hawai'i was only a territory at the time of Pearl Harbor. There's an even shorter list of times and places where American soil has been occupied by a foreign army. Roughly 200 years ago, the British held parts of the New England coastline in the War of 1812 and they burned down Washington, DC. Closer in time -- exactly 70 years ago this month -- American forces fought a mostly-forgotten battle to retake two of the Aleutian Islands from the Japanese. Starting on May 11, 1943 and lasting more than two weeks, the Battle of Attu Island was successfully fought on what is now the westernmost point of the United States. Though not often mentioned in the list of famous World War II battles in the Pacific, it was indeed an important strategic victory for America and deserves to be remembered.

A quick look at a globe (not a map) shows why the Aleutian Island chain was so militarily important to both America and Japan. Flying a "great circle" route from Japan to the West Coast of America takes you right over the Aleutian islands. Back then, heavy bombers didn't have the range they do today, necessitating the use of air bases halfway across the Pacific. Thus the importance of both Hawai'i and the Aleutians.

In June of 1942, Japan attacked the Aleutians, and they quickly occupied two of the westernmost islands, Attu and Kiska. Much closer to the Alaskan mainland, the town of Dutch Harbor was bombed as well. Japan wanted to take over the entire Aleutian island chain, which would have given them a foothold in North America to launch much more far-reaching attacks down the West Coast. Japan dug in on Attu and Kiska, and held the two islands for almost a whole year.

In May of 1943, the United States counterattacked. American naval forces had already been fighting Japanese ships in the area and had forced Japan to use submarines for resupplying the two islands they held. On May 11, American forces were landed on Attu. They landed unopposed, on the beach of the charmingly-named Massacre Bay and other points on the island. Normally, when you think of Pacific island fighting during World War II, you think of tropical heat and jungles, but the fighting on Attu would take place in severe cold, brutal weather, and volcanic mountainous terrain or tundra. Over 1,000 American soldiers either came down with frostbite or other ailments from the severe cold during the battle.

The Japanese forces allowed the Americans to land because they had already dug in on higher ground. The battleship Pennsylvania pounded the Japanese positions, but not decisively. There were approximately 2,600 Japanese fighters facing a force of around 16,000 American troops. The Americans faced constant sniper fire and had to go from cave to cave, eliminating two-man Japanese teams, one at a time. This was slow work, and the entire battle took 19 days. When the American forces thought they had eliminated the Japanese dug-in defenses, they were surprised by a desperate last-minute banzai charge, as Japanese soldiers overran their camp and broke through to the rear echelon soldiers. Furious hand-to-hand combat broke out, and when it was over the Japanese forces were finished.

Only 28 Japanese soldiers were captured. Over 2,350 were buried, and hundreds more had likely been killed (and buried) by the naval and air barrage preceding the invasion. On the American side, 580 were killed and the total casualty list was just under 4,000. It was a brutal fight in extreme conditions, which is why it deserves some sort of remembrance on its seventieth anniversary this month.

Japan capturing and holding the Aleutian Islands could have had very significant consequences in World War II. The battle to remove them and regain American control was equally as significant. American bombers attacked Japan directly from the Aleutians only months later. If Japan had been allowed to establish a major military presence in the Aleutians, they could have done the same thing to Seattle and San Francisco.

Perhaps. Although looking at their position on a globe shows how strategically important this island chain is, what it does not show is the horrendous weather conditions. Fog, rain, wind, and storms are the norm for the Aleutians -- which makes for very irregular and unreliable flight conditions for the airplanes and technology which existed at the time. While the islands' military and geographical importance cannot be denied, an airfield you can only fly out of perhaps one day every week or two is going to make planning offensive campaigns almost impossible. Coordination with other attacks or forces would not be easy, either.

Thankfully, we can only speculate and ask "What if?" sorts of questions about how important the Aleutian Islands would have been to the Japanese military. Because after the defeat on Attu, the Japanese pulled all their forces off Kiska Island by the end of the summer. There was no Battle of Kiska, because there was no one left to fight by the time the American forces got there.

Still, since American territory being held by enemies in wartime is such a rarity, you'd think the Battle of Attu would at least be remembered today. The Battle of Midway, for instance, has had many movies made about it and is generally well-known. But not, for some reason, the Battle of Attu. Starting this Saturday through the end of the month, I'll at least be marking seventy years since foreign troops occupied a small piece of America, and remembering the brave soldiers who fought to reclaim such a vitally important bit of real estate.

Monument on Attu Island memorializing the battle

[Note: for more details on this battle, see Wikipedia's entries for Attu Island, the Battle of Attu, and the Aleutian Islands Campaign.]


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