Tag Archives: WWII

The Aleutian Tigers


A picture of the Aleutian Tigers at the Glenn Curtiss Museum

While at the Glenn Curtiss Museum, I was excited to see the P-40 Warhawk being restored, and talk to several volunteers involved with the extensive rebuild.

Stationed at Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage in 1942, was the 11th Fighter Squadron, also known as the “Aleutian Tigers”. The Aleutian Tigers were commanded by Lt. Col. John Chennault, who was the son of Gen. Claire Chennault, the commander of the famed “Flying Tigers” in China.


P-40 Warhawk, 11th FS, 343rd FG

The 11th Fighter Squadron was one of 4 squadrons making up the 343rd Fighter Group, and were assigned the task of defending the Aleutian Islands during WWII. The 11th FS flew their final combat mission in Alaska in October of 1943. The 343rd FG remained in Alaska flying patrols until the end of the war.


Attu 75


Jarmin Pass, Attu Island; Photo Credit: USFWS

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.

Their website: https://www.attu75.org


Battle of Attu

Operation Landcrab
11 May 1943
75 years ago:


Map of the Aleutian Chain

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.

*The Thousand Mile War by Brian Garfield


Battle of the Komandorski Islands

26 March 1943
75 Years Ago

usn-cn-aleutians-2-1
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
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.

USS Bailey
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.

USS Bailey crew
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


The Akutan Zero

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.

Akutan Zero trailing oil
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.

Akutan Zero
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.

akutanzero1
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.

Tadayoshi Koga
Petty Officer Tadayoshi Koga


Attu Island

7 June 1942

attu_village_1937
Attu Village on the island of Attu in 1937

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.

Japanese ski patrol Attu
Ski troopers of the Japanese Imperial Army, Attu Island

Construction began immediately on an airbase and fortifications.

Holtz Bay Attu '42
Japanese seaplanes in Holtz Bay, Attu Island, November 1942


Kiska Island

6 June 1942

Japanese Tank Crew Kiska '42
Japanese tank crew on Kiska Island, 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.

12 man Kiska crew
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.

Photos courtesy of the National Archives