Note: The battle took place west of the international date line. Official Navy times are Hawaii/Aleutian time zone.
The Americans had been bombing the Japanese garrisons on Attu and Kiska endlessly, in spite of the brutal Aleutian weather, since the Japanese landings in June of ’42. Invasion of these islands were imminent. The Japanese were finding it more difficult every passing month to resupply their garrisons. They were desperate to get supplies and equipment in. The Americans were just as desperate to keep those supply lines cut.
Enter Admiral “Soc” McMorris on the ancient (1918) light cruiser Richmond. Out on patrol, 200 miles west of Attu, and 100 miles south of the Russian Komandorski Islands, McMorris had four destroyers with him: the Bailey, Dale, Coghlan, and Monaghan. Also in the task group, was the recent arrival, the heavy cruiser Salt Lake City. Known throughout the USN as the “Swayback Maru”, the Salt Lake City had been launched in 1929.
At 0730, radar showed 3-5 targets at approximately 21,000 yards. It appeared to be a group of lightly screened transports. “… a Roman holiday was in prospect”, McMorris would write later.
At 0824, the radar brought the number of total targets to ten. Within minutes, the tops of heavy cruisers appeared over the horizon. It was Japan’s entire Northern fleet. Along with at least two transport ships looking to resupply the island of Attu, were two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and four destroyers. The odds had flipped. The Americans had fewer ships, and what they had was slower and outgunned.
What happened next, was an oddity of naval engagements in WWII. There were no aircraft carriers. The battle took place without any air or submarine support. It was a daylight battle, with the enemy in sight, guns blazing. Lasting 3-1/2 hours, the Battle of the Komandorskis was the longest continuous gunnery duel in modern naval history.*
USS Salt Lake City with destroyer smoke screen during the battle
Since the Salt Lake City had the most fire power, it drew the most attention. By “chasing salvos”, and accurate fire, the American task force more than held its own. Rudder damage suddenly limited the heavy cruiser to ten degree course changes. The Salt Lake City took two hits: one midship; one hitting the seaplane in its catapult. Another hit flooded the forward compartments. Water in the fuel oil lines killed the boilers. The Salt Lake City was dead in the water. The smoke screen put up by the destroyers had concealed the severity of the damage to the Japanese, but now, it was just a matter of time.
At this point, three of the destroyers charged the Japanese ships for a torpedo run, the fourth destroyer stayed with the wounded heavy cruiser. The charge, led by the Bailey, drew fire away from the Salt Lake City. The Bailey was hit three times by 8″ shells, before launching five torpedoes. Engineers on the Salt Lake City managed to get the boilers fired, and the Swayback Maru was moving again.
Suddenly, the Japanese started to withdraw. They were low on fuel and ammunition, and Admiral Hosogaya assumed that American bombers would be overhead soon. Hosogaya had no way of knowing that the Americans were in even more dire straits as far as ammo and fuel went, and there were no American bombers rushing to the battle.
The USS Bailey in for repairs after the battle
The Salt Lake City had fired 806 armor-piercing projectiles, and 26 high-capacity shells during the battle. The heavy cruiser was hit by six 8″ shells. The Coghlan was hit once. The Americans suffered 7 dead and 20 wounded.
The Japanese had one heavy cruiser moderately damaged and one heavy cruiser with light damage. 14 Japanese were killed and 26 wounded.
The battle, in many ways, was considered a draw. Although, the Americans kept the Japanese from resupplying their garrisons, and the Japanese would not attempt again to resupply by surface ship. For the remainder of their Aleutian occupation, the Japanese would resupply by submarine only.
Crew members of the USS Bailey during their Aleutian campaign
* “The Battle of the Komandorski Islands” by John Lorelli
Photos courtesy of the National Archives
On 4 June 1942, during the Battle of Dutch Harbor, a 19 year old Japanese pilot, Tadayoshi Koga, left the carrier Ryūjō in his Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero. Upon reaching the harbor, Koga and his two wingmen shot down a PBY-5A Catalina Flying Boat. Koga strafed the PBY survivors while they were in the water, and when doing so, his Zero was hit by small arms fire.
Koga’s Zero above Dutch Harbor after it was hit by small arms fire. Notice the oil trail.
The fatal shot to Koga’s Zero hit the oil return line. Koga and his wingmen flew to Akutan Island, which was a recovery point for Japanese airmen. A submarine was nearby to pick anyone up who needed evacuation. The Zeros all circled the grassy field and Koga went in for an emergency landing. With his wheels down.
Koga’s inverted Zero
The wheels of the Zero immediately caught in the soft muskeg, and the plane flipped, killing Petty Officer Koga. The wingmen had orders to destroy any Zero to keep it out of enemy hands, but the wingmen could not fire on the upside down Zero, because they did not know if Koga was still alive. They flew off for their home carrier.
Recovery of the Akutan Zero
On 10 July 1942, Lt William Thies spotted the wreckage while on patrol in his PBY Catalina. The PBY circled the downed plane several times, marked its location on a map, and returned to Dutch Harbor with the news.
The next day, a recovery team flew out to inspect the Zero. Thies talked his way onto the team. The Zero was almost completely intact. Petty Officer Koga was believed to have died instantly when the plane’s canopy hit the earth. Koga was cut from the Zero and buried nearby.
On 15 July, the Zero was pulled out of the mud and transported to a barge. In Dutch Harbor, it was flipped upright, cleaned and loaded onto the USS St Mihiel. By 1 August, it was in Seattle, and then onward to San Diego, where it was repaired. By 20 September, the Zero was flying again, this time painted with the American Blue Circle/White Star insignia.
Several wrecked Zeros were recovered after the attack on Pearl Harbor, but none were in near flying condition as the Akutan Zero. The plane was analyzed thoroughly, and it is generally agreed that the recovery of the plane led to information which helped the pilots flying against it.
The Akutan Zero was destroyed in February of 1945, when a SB2C Helldiver lost control and ran into the Zero on the runway. The Helldivers propellers cut the Zero into pieces. Several museums, including the Alaska Heritage Museum, have parts of the aircraft.
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
After bombing Dutch Harbor on the 3-4 June, a Japanese landing force with 500 marines, stormed Kiska Island, Alaska. Stationed on the island was a U.S.N. Weather Station, with ten of the usual twelve man crew present.
The 12 man crew of the weather station on Kiska Island, 1942. Front & center, is their dog “Explosion”.
Two of the men were injured by machine gun fire on their shack, and were immediately captured. The other eight men, and the dog Explosion, escaped into the night. Seven were captured later, when they tried to visit their food caches for provisions. Senior Petty Officer William C. House managed to evade the Japanese for fifty days, eating plants and earthworms, and hiding in caves. Weighing 80 pounds, House would eventually turn himself in to the Japanese. All were now prisoners of war.
Twenty Japanese ships moved into Kiska Harbor, and by September, an additional 2000 troops had reinforced the island’s garrison.
On this date, 75 years ago, the Japanese launched two aircraft carrier raids on the remote Alaskan community of Dutch Harbor.
The Japanese had three reasons for attacking the Aleutian Chain*:
The first is that the Aleutians were thought to be a possible route for the U.S. to launch an attack on the main islands of Japan. As General Billy Mitchell said to Congress in 1935: ” “I believe that in the future, whoever holds Alaska will hold the world. I think it is the most important strategic place in the world.”
The second is that the Japanese wanted to have a north-south patrol line with Kiska, Alaska as its northern anchor. This was especially important after the Doolittle raid on Tokyo in April of 1942.
And thirdly, and probably most vital, the attacks on the Aleutian Islands was suppose to draw units and ships away from the looming Battle near Midway.
Fort Mears at Dutch Harbor
Because of the U.S. Navy code breakers, the Americans knew about both Midway and the attack on Dutch Harbor on the 21 May. With limited resources and unpredictable weather, the Americans were as prepared as they could be.
At 0258 hours June 3, 1942, the Japanese launched 12 Zero fighters, 10 Kate high level bombers, and 12 Val dive bombers towards Dutch Harbor. At 0407 the first planes appeared over the harbor. Anti-aircraft flak was heavy as the planes came in low enough for men on the ground to clearly see the pilots faces. 17 men of the 37th Infantry and 8 from the 151st Engineers died when a bomb exploded on a barracks at Fort Mears. Half of the Japanese planes did not reach their target. Some got lost in the fog, returning to their carriers, and some simply crashed into the rough seas.
\> The beached barracks ship Northwestern burning.
The Japanese once again launched attacks on June 4th. More targets were hit, but there were fewer casualties. Oil storage tanks were hit, as well as more barracks, a wing of the hospital and two merchant ships in port. The Northwestern was also hit. The transport ship had been grounded and used as a barracks. After the battle, the hull was saved, and the ship’s power plant continued to bring steam and electricity to the shore installations.
At this time, an amphibious attack on the island of Adak was launched, which was 480 miles to the west of Dutch Harbor. The Japanese would find that Adak was not occupied by any U.S. force.
78 American soldiers died in the battle. 14 U.S. planes were damaged. Ten Japanese died in the attack, and five were captured. Eight aircraft were destroyed.
* From “The Battle of the Komandorski Islands”, by John Lorelli
The remnant of Typhoon Nuri is leaving the coast of Japan and is now heading towards the Aleutian Islands. The intense storm is surpassing the strength of Superstorm Sandy of 2012. Hurricane force winds and waves of 50 feet are expected. The forecast then calls for the storm to weaken in the Bering Sea where it will join the jet stream and drop temperatures across the Great Lake states.
Interior Alaska is expected to continue to see rather mild temperatures.