aluetian islands world war 2

The “Forgotten Battle”: The fight for the Aleutian Islands.

In an effort to gain a strategic advantage during WWII, the Japanese ordered an air attack at Dutch Harbor on June 3, 1942. Situated in Unalaska, Alaska, within the Aleutian Islands, Dutch Harbor housed a Naval Operating Base constructed in response to growing threats in the Pacific. This Japanese attack would be the first time in United States history that an enemy airstrike would reach home soil.

The Day the Bombs Fell

Under a cloud of bad weather and less-than-optimal intelligence, the Japanese began bombing U.S. forces situated within Aleutian Islands on June 3rd, 1942. Constructed in 1940, the Dutch Harbor Naval Operating Base and Fort Mears were the targets – built to establish U.S presence in the Pacific as tensions rose leading up to WWII.

The initial June 3rd Japanese air raid wasn’t fruitful. Not only did the weather hurt Japanese accuracy, but the force was caught off guard by returned U.S. anti-aircraft fire. The Japanese returned on June 4, mounting a more organized attack. However, they were unable to invade the island due to the weather worsening. The attack left 43 Americans and 10 Japanese dead.

The Invasion

On June 7, Americans were shocked to learn two U.S. islands to the south had been successfully invaded by Japanese forces. The island of Kiska was occupied on June 6, followed by Attu on June 7. The U.S. feared that the Japanese would turn the islands into airbases, leaving major cities in the Northwest exposed to attacks.

The Response

By August 1942, a U.S. airbase was established to reclaim the area. However, there was little attention – outside of sporadic bombings – paid to the area until January 1943. It wasn’t until March that the U.S. would take direct action. The first effort saw the US set up a naval blockade to stop the flow of supplies to the Japanese-occupied islands. On March 27, Japanese cruisers and supply ships emerged upon the blockade. While the Japanese fleet was larger, U.S. ships were able to hold their positions. After several hours of fighting, the Japanese ships retreated. The U.S. had successfully kept the Japanese from resupplying the island and the battle would be officially known as the Battle of the Komadorski Islands.

aleutian islands soldiers eating at battle site
Allied troops enjoy a meal amid challenging weather conditions on Attu Island, AK.

Boosted by the Naval victory, it was now time for the U.S. to  move to the offensive. While air raids had started, the U.S. officially landed troops on Attu, on May 11, 1943. Soldiers were met with bad weather and even harsher conditions – stretching the campaign beyond what the U.S. expected. Thankfully, being cut off from supplies had measurable effects on the Japanese stationed on the island. In a final charge – the largest banzai charge of the war – the U.S. would defeat the Japanese forces. This securing of the island would leave 2,000 Japanese and approximately 1,000 Americans dead.

Up next was code-named Operation Cottage: 35,000 troops landed on Kiska on August 15, 1943. Prepared for the worse, U.S. solders were surprised to find that the Japanese had evacuated the island. With the island secured, the Battle of the Aleutian Islands officially ended on August 24th.

The Aftermath

There were a lot of “firsts” during this campaign. The Battle of Attu was the only battle fought on U.S. soil during WWII. It also marked the first time Canadian soldiers were sent to a combat zone during WW2. Although they didn’t see any action, this was also the first time the 1st Special Service Force was deployed.

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