Long before WWII and the Japanese invasion of the two islands in the Aleutian Chain, Attu Island was part of the earliest Federally protected wildlife areas.
This year is the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Attu, and the National Park Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service are both commemorating the battle with several discussions, gatherings and art displays. Unfortunately, most are being held in Anchorage, but the big city, that’s a little closer to Alaska, has its merits too.
On 7 June 1942, the Japanese Northern Army landed, unopposed, on Attu Island. The island of Kiska had been invaded the day before. Allied command for the Aleutian Campaign spent the better part of the next year preparing to repel the Japanese from the Aleutian Islands.
Attu Island with 1943 Battle descriptions
On the morning of 11 May 1943, visibility off the coast of Attu was estimated at a “ship’s length”, due to the heavy fog blanketing the island. The 7th Division’s Northern Force was to land at Beach Red, a few miles north of Holtz Bay. Beach Red was a narrow strip, maybe 100 yards long, and surrounded by 250′ walls of rock. The Japanese had no defenses nearby, because they never considered it a viable landing point.
Captain William Willoughby had 244 men in his Scout Battalion. They came up to Attu in two submarines: the Narwhal and Nautilus. They shoved off in their rubber boats with 1-1/2 days rations, landing at Beach Scarlet in Austin Cove. The air temperature was 27 degrees.
The 7th Division’s Southern Force was the largest of “Operation Landcrab”. They landed at Massacre Bay All three landings were unopposed. The beach heads were secure and all forces had made gains, but they were now stalled. The Americans could not see the Japanese up in the fog, but the Japanese could see down out of it.
The very first shot fired by American land forces was a 105 mm howitzer. The big guns had been mired on the beach. Cat tractors tried to maneuver them, but their treads broke through the muskeg, and were quickly spinning uselessly in the black muck underneath. A Japanese mortar crew was spotted on a ridge, and a howitzer was moved into position by brute strength. The howitzer fired, and the recoil of the big gun slammed the gun’s sled 18 inches into the muskeg.*
Massacre Bay, Attu Island 12 May 1943
The following day, men and equipment streamed onto the beaches. The Navy ships bombarded the ridges. The Battleship Nevada unloaded her 14″ guns onto the mountain tops above Massacre Valley. The Japanese positions were heavily entrenched, the progress for the Allied forces was slow. The Arctic conditions were brutal, and exposure-related injuries common. Travel over the island was through mud, snow, ice and the unforgiving muskeg. After two weeks of endless fighting, the Japanese were finally pushed up against Chichagof Harbor.
Japanese troops lie at the bottom of Engineer Hill after the banzai charge
With no hope of victory, and little hope of rescue, Colonel Yasuyo Yamasaki led his Japanese troops in one final banzai charge. The Japanese broke through the front lines, and rear echelon troops suddenly found themselves in hand to hand combat with the Japanese. The Japanese charged Engineer Hill in an attempt to gain control of the big guns set up there. The 50th Engineers held their ground, however, and the charge failed. Almost all of the Japanese in the charge were killed, many by suicide by grenade after the charge failed. The failure of the banzai charge effectively ended the Battle for Attu.
American troops making their way across Attu
Officially, the Battle of Attu ended on 30 May 1943, but isolated Japanese troops continued to fight until early July.
549 men of the U.S. 7th Division were killed on Attu, 1148 wounded, and over 1200 suffered severe cold weather related injuries, 614 disease, 318 other casualties: accidents, drowning, self-inflicted.
The Japanese lost over 2350 men. Only 28 were taken prisoner.
The Battle of Attu, when considering numbers of troops engaged, would rank as the second most costly battle for the United States in WWII – second only to Iwo Jima.*
The Battle of Attu was the only battle of World War Two to have taken place on U.S. territory. It was also the only battle between the U.S. and Japan to have taken place in Arctic conditions.
The Japanese had assembled a massive fleet in Tokyo Bay to repel the Americans from retaking Attu. The fleet had 4 carriers, 3 battleships, 7 cruisers and 11 destroyers. The Allies captured Attu before the fleet could leave the bay.
A force of 1140 Japanese infantry, landed on Attu Island in the Aleutians. The island had been occupied by 45 Aleut villagers, a school teacher, and her husband. The school teacher’s husband was shot, and the others made prisoners of war, and shipped to Japan.
Ski troopers of the Japanese Imperial Army, Attu Island
Construction began immediately on an airbase and fortifications.
Japanese seaplanes in Holtz Bay, Attu Island, November 1942