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Remembering the Army’s historic battle for Attu Island

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John Pennell
Fort Richardson PAO

This map shows the attack routes of U.S. forces in the assault to retake Attu. The wide arrows show the May 29, 1943, Japanese final counter attack.Sixty-six years ago this week, two small, seemingly insignificant islands in Alaska’s Aleutian Chain became the first, and last, U.S. soil to be occupied by a foreign army since the War of 1812.

The fight to retake Attu and Kiska was a huge undertaking and became one of the bloodiest battles of the war, but is seldom remembered outside Alaska.

The invasion

Japan’s attack on the Aleutians was originally intended as a gambit to draw American naval forces away from Midway Atoll, according to Maj. Robert E. Burks, writing in the May-June 2003 edition of the Army Logistician magazine.

Japanese forces conducted an air raid on Dutch Harbor and stormed ashore on Attu and Kiska, captured the 40 Aleut inhabitants, killed radio operator Charles Foster Jones and took his wife, Etta, the island’s school teacher, prisoner.

The prisoners were sent back to Japan for the duration of the war. Jones survived, but nearly 40 percent of the Aleuts died of disease and starvation.

The Japanese plan did not call for permanent occupation of the islands, Burks wrote, but when their attack on Midway turned into a humiliating defeat, the capture of American soil allowed them to save face and claim a psychological victory back home in Japan.

For Americans, the loss of any territory – even two small islands that most had never heard of – could not go unanswered.

The campaign

By Burks’ count, the campaign to evict the Japanese from the Aleutians lasted more than a year, took 144,000 men, and covered 4 million square miles of ocean and land. Thirteen bases were carved into Aleutian Islands, with more than 1 million square feet of runways for bombers and support planes.

The drive to retake the islands began with a nearly yearlong bombing campaign by the 11th Air Force, according to a National Park Service pamphlet, The Battle of Attu 60 Years Later. By some estimates, the 11th dropped nearly 27,000 bombs on Kiska and Attu, with little effect on the Japanese forces who were dug in and hidden by near constant fog.

A follow-up naval bombardment was also less than effective, according to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers publication, The Battle of Attu, by author D. Colt Denfeld. Since the Japanese could not be dislodged by bombardment, the decision was made to undertake an amphibious assault with ground forces.

Initial plans called for American forces to tackle Kiska first, but logistical problems shifted the focus to the more lightly defended Attu. The plan called for a quick strike to evict the supposed 500 Japanese.

However, the proposed three-day operation turned into a bloody 18-day ordeal.

A view of Attu Island shows the incredible terrain United States forces had to battle, as well as the Japanese forces entrenched there.Attu Island

On the far end of the 1,000-mile Aleutian chain of islands, Attu is little more than a speck in the north Pacific. Windswept, with barren rocky peaks up to 3,000 feet high and devoid of trees, the island is barely 37 miles long and 15 miles wide.

Lower elevations are covered in deep, spongy muskeg. The island is perpetually shrouded in fog and can experience high winds up to 120 mph, with heavy snow or rain, depending on the season.

The Japanese defenders were dug in and reasonably well-equipped to deal with the harsh terrain and weather. They wore white uniforms and stayed in mountainous fighting positions, concealed by the fog but able to see the approaching U.S. forces.

The Americans were less well prepared for what was to come.

Ready or not

According to Guarding the United States and it Outposts, written by Stetson Conn, Rose C. Engelman and Byron Fairchild and published by the Army’s Center of Military History, seldom has an operation been planned with less knowledge of the conditions the troops would have to face:

“Only the bare details of the topography were known to those planning the assault,” they wrote. “The only available map of Attu was a Coast and Geodetic Survey chart showing the terrain back to approximately one thousand yards from the shore line, and warning all shipping not to approach closer than two and one-half to three miles. Very little was known about the harbors. Oblique aerial photographs filled in a few gaps, but, because of the prevailing fog, the coverage was far from complete.”

Further, Military Intelligence sources upped the estimated number of Japanese occupiers from 500 to nearly 2,500.

The American forces

The 7th Infantry Division was stationed at Fort Ord, Calif., and had trained in the Mojave Desert for combat in North Africa. When the motorized division set sail from San Francisco for the Aleutians in April 1943, they were not properly equipped for what awaited them.

The Army CMH publication Aleutian Islands: The U.S. Army Campaigns of World War II, states:

“The cold, damp Aleutian weather was far different from the warm California beaches they had just left. Because of shortages in cold weather equipment, moreover, most of the men would enter combat wearing normal field gear. While senior commanders realized that the troops would suffer from the weather, most believed that within three days the fight for Attu would be over, particularly since the assembled naval support for the landings included three battleships along with several cruisers and destroyers.”

Underestimating the weather, the enemy and the terrain ended up costing many American casualties during the 18-day assault.

American troops land on Attu, May 11, 1943. In this photo landing boats are shown pouring out scores of Soldiers and their equipment onto the black volcanic sand of Massacre Bay.The assault

American forces met no enemy resistance as they started coming ashore on Attu early May 11, but the landings quickly became off-schedule due to dense fog and high seas. By 9:30 p.m. that evening, only about 3,500 of the planned invasion force had made it ashore.

By the third day, when the operation was planned to be over, only about half of the needed supplies and equipment had been offloaded onto Attu’s beaches. Combat troops were pulled off the line to help unload supplies.

Artillery pieces were towed off barges and onto the beach by huge tractors to support infantry advances toward the mountain passes.

In the Infantry Journal publication The Capture of Attu: As Told by the Men Who Fought There, 1st Lt. Robert J. Mitchell of the 32nd Infantry collected the remembrances of Staff Sgt. Stanley E. West, Staff Sgt. Allen W. Robbins and Cpl. Howard B. Campbell, all of C Battery, 48th Field Artillery Battalion.

“Three of the guns had landed, and one was still coming in from the ship. The battery was busy getting up its own fire-direction center, as the big tractors lumbered onto the spongy, yielding tundra dragging the guns slowly behind,” Mitchell wrote. “About seventy-five yards from the beach the treads of the first cat chewed through the tundra and began to slip. In just seconds it was wallowing helplessly in the black oozy mud. The other two cats soon shared the same fate. When the tundra broke, the big treads turned round and round and only dug the machine deeper into the mud.

“What the hell, seventy-five yards was far enough initially! The crews swung the big guns around and pointed them into the valley.”

The guns were set up where they were stuck and began firing to support the infantry Soldiers. They would later play a role in the Japanese force’s final desperate effort.

Slow progress

Slowly, the Americans pushed their way up the mountain passes: fighting, killing and taking casualties of their own. Their lack of proper cold weather gear began taking its toll, as did the lack of preparation. The Soldiers had come ashore with only three days rations, and resupply was spotty at best, despite heroic efforts by engineers who rigged a complicated system of cableways to hoist supplies up the mountains.

Soldiers with cold, wet feet began suffering trench foot, while others succumbed to cold weather injuries like frostbite and exposure.

For conspicuous gallantry

The fighting was fierce in the area dubbed the Fish Hook May 26, 15 days after the initial invasion, and the advance of K Company, 32nd Infantry, had stalled near the top of the pass.

A young Hispanic Soldier from Colorado, Pvt. Joseph P. Martinez, broke the stalemate.

The citation for his Medal of Honor reads in part:

“In the face of severe hostile machinegun, rifle, and mortar fire, Pvt. Martinez, an automatic rifleman, rose to his feet and resumed his advance. Occasionally he stopped to urge his comrades on. His example inspired others to follow. After a most difficult climb, Pvt. Martinez eliminated resistance from part of the enemy position by BAR fire and hand grenades, thus assisting the advance of other attacking elements. This success only partially completed the action.

“The main Holtz-Chichagof Pass rose about 150 feet higher, flanked by steep rocky ridges and reached by a snow-filled defile. Passage was barred by enemy fire from either flank and from tiers of snow trenches in front. Despite these obstacles, and knowing of their existence, Pvt. Martinez again led the troops on and up, personally silencing several trenches with BAR fire and ultimately reaching the pass itself. Here, just below the knifelike rim of the pass, Pvt. Martinez encountered a final enemy-occupied trench and as he was engaged in firing into it he was mortally wounded. The pass, however, was taken, and its capture was an important preliminary to the end of organized hostile resistance on the island.”

Infantry Soldiers fire a mortar during the attack on Attu.The Pvt. Joseph P. Martinez Combined Arms Collective Training Facility at Fort Wainwright is named in his honor.

One last stand

The success in the Holtz-Chichagof Pass was mirrored at other locations, and slowly the Japanese were forced toward Chichagof Harbor, with the Americans controlling high ground on three critical hills: Fish Hook, Buffalo and Engineer by May 28.

According to the NPS brochure, The Battle of Attu, that night the Japanese commanding officer on Attu, Col. Yasuyo Yamasaki, drew up plans for a last-ditch suicide charge toward the American’s artillery pieces behind Engineer Hill. His hope was to turn the artillery against the Americans and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. He had about 800 uninjured soldiers and another 600 wounded.

Before their banzai attack May 29, the Japanese killed their injured compatriots with shots of morphine and hand grenades, as documented by Dr. Paul Nebu Tatsuguchi in his diary.

“The last assault is to be carried out. All the patients in the hospital are to commit suicide…At 1800 (hours) took care of all the patients with grenades. Good-bye, Taeki, my beloved wife, who loved me to the last.”

Yamasaki’s forces attacked before dawn and caught the Americans off guard.

They successfully overran the advance aid station commanded by Capt. John Winfield Bassett of the 7th Medical Battalion, 7th Infantry Division. The Japanese stormed through the aid station, killing wounded Soldiers by using bayonets to conserve bullets, according to the U.S. Army Medical Activity - Alaska Web site.

Despite efforts to organize the medics and walking wounded into a makeshift army, Bassett was shot and killed by the surging Japanese force. Bassett’s acts of heroism were recognized by the U.S. Army, and he was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart Medal and the Silver Star Medal for heroism in the face of the enemy. Bassett Army Community Hospital at Fort Wainwright is named in his honor.

Kamish Consolidated Health Clinic at Fort Wainwright was named in honor of another medical hero from the battle for Attu.

Col. Robert J. Kamish commanded the 7th Medical Battalion on Attu. It was during this, his first campaign, that he earned a Silver Star Medal for gallantry in action. Kamish, then a major, brought his portable medical unit forward into Jarmin Pass under the cover of fog, where he and his men distributed morphine and evacuated wounded Soldiers. The casualties had to be strapped to litters and roped up the steep cliffs of the pass, under heavy machine gun fire.

Sappers save the day

The small Japanese force surged toward Engineer Hill, where a desperate battle ensued with a hodgepodge force of noncombatants. Soldiers from the 50th Engineers and Company A, 13th Engineers, saved the day, turning back the Japanese with heavy losses.

Yamasaki was killed in a second attack on Engineer Hill, and the majority of his remaining forces committed ritual suicide by holding hand grenades to their heads or stomachs.

In Denfeld’s The Battle of Attu, he writes more than 250 Japanese soldiers’ bodies were found around Engineer Hill after the battle, many armed only with bayonets tied to sticks.

Japan announced the loss of Attu May 30.

The cost of war

By the battle’s end, the American forces had suffered 549 Soldiers killed, 1,148 wounded, 1,200 with severe cold injuries and another 932 suffering from disease or other causes.

Denfeld reports that of the Japanese defenders, 2,350 were counted dead, and fewer than 30 were taken prisoner. Others were thought to have been buried in the mountains by their compatriots before the final charge.

On to Kiska

With Attu retaken, American forces stepped up planning for the pending invasion on the more heavily defended Kiska.

According to the CMH publication Guarding the United States and it Outposts, by the time the assault began Aug. 15, the 11th Air Force had dropped 424 tons of bombs on Kiska just in the month of July. Naval bombardment added another 330 tons of explosives July 6 and 22. Two hundred tons of shells hit the island from planes and ships Aug. 2, along with another 152 tons Aug. 4. Between Aug. 10 and 15, the 11th dropped an additional 335 tons of bombs on Kiska.

When the invasion forces came ashore, they found Kiska was uninhabited. The Japanese forces had slipped away as early as July 28, almost three weeks before the landing forces arrived.

American and Canadian ground forces suffered 21 dead and 121 sick or wounded during the invasion of Kiska, mostly to friendly fire or booby traps left behind by the Japanese. The Navy reported 70 dead or missing and 47 wounded when the destroyer Abner Read struck a mine.


Editor’s note: Although the fight to retake Attu Island occurred 66 years ago, reminders of the conflict linger, to include the remains of Japanese soldiers buried on the island. Next week, the Alaska Post will feature an article detailing how the Japanese government and the U.S. Army are working together to determine the location of the soldiers and bring closure to their families.