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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Sunday Ship History: The Aleutians Campaign

We tend, for good reason, to think of the Pacific Ocean part of World War II as happening in the balmy South Pacific Islands, with the pleasures promised by Bali Hai counterpointed with Tarawa, Peleliu and the "Great Marianas Turkey Shoot." But for several thousand American soldiers, sailors and airmen, the war was not grass huts and coconut palms, but rather a a war in a place described as "a region of almost perpetual mist and snow" ( The Two Ocean War, Samuel Eliot Morison, p. 265) and that same historian was inspired to describe the Aleutian Campaign as one of massive frustration:
For over nine months after Midway, events in this sector were a sequence of naval bombardments by us which did no damage, reinforcement missions by the enemy which accomplished nothing, and operation by United States submarines which usefully diminished the Japanese merchant marine.
How did this "campaign" come to pass? It is, mostly, geography's fault, I suppose. That and the Japanese plan to stage a diversion in the effort to draw the American fleet out of Pearl Harbor for a great battle ... an effort thwarted when the Japanese code was broken and the intent to make Midway the focus of their main attack became known to the Americans (remember the trap set by the American code breakers when a plain language message was sent out by Midway reporting a casualty that the Japanese dutifully encrypted and allowed the U.S. to learn that the main target of the Japanese was "AF" known to them to Midway). The Japanese diversion turned into an invasion and capture of U.S. soil in the forms of the islands of Attu and Kiska, at the end of the Aleutian island chain.

Sometime before the Japanese occupation of these islands, there was some interest in the American military in using the Aleutian chain as a possible staging area for operations as set out here:
American interest in the North Pacific as a potential theater of operations in a war against Japan antedated Pearl Harbor. Based originally on the hope of gaining air bases in the Soviet Maritime Provinces within easy reach of Japan, this interest was reinforced later by the desire for an air ferry route to facilitate the delivery of lend-lease planes. But those pushing for air operations based on Soviet territory made little headway against Stalin's determination to maintain a neutral position in the Far East. Moreover, the requirements from other parts of the Pacific and the plans for an offensive in Europe left little for an area that was not in urgent need and where operations did not hold out the promise of decisive results.
In addition, events overcame the "North Pacific" plan:
By the spring of 1942 the Army planners in Washington, despite strong arguments from the commanders in the theater and from the Army Air Forces, were beginning to view the idea of bombing Japan from Siberia with increasing skepticism. To the argument that such air attacks would relieve the pressure on Russia, the Army planners replied that the Soviet Union would benefit more if the Allies undertook an offensive in the South Pacific. Such action, they thought, would have the effect of containing Japanese forces, thus removing the danger of a Japanese attack against Siberia.
In the absence of any indication of cooperation from Russia, operation in the Aleutians were to be defensive in nature while the main thrust of American efforts was to be in the South and Central Pacific. The North Pacific was a backwater.

This changed somewhat when the Japanese were reported to have attacked Siberia and did, in fact, successfully invade Attu and Kiska:
The seizure of Attu and Kiska on 6 and 7 June, combined with the movement of Japanese air forces to Paramushiro in the Kurils, seemed ample confirmation of this information. Moreover, it was feared that as a preliminary step in their invasion of the Maritime Provinces the Japanese would seize additional positions in the North Pacific in order to cut the line of communications between Siberia and Alaska. To this fear was added the real concern felt by officers in the theater and in Washington and by the American people that Japan would use its newly acquired bases in the Aleutians as a springboard for invasion of the United States.
This fear spurred development of other project that would assist the war effort in Alaska and Western Canada, including the heroic completion of the Alcan Highway - the first road from the lower states running all the way into Alaska.

If the weather and location didn't complicate matters enough, there were problems in cooperation among the Navy and Army forces assigned to the area. Rear Admiral Theobald was supposed to have operational control of forces but there is many an misunderstanding possible when there is not a unified command structure. In short, Admiral Theobald did not seem to get along well with his Army counter part, Lt. Gen. John L. De Witt

Lots of other arguments militated against the use of the Aleutians as a staging base for operations against the Japanese homeland- including a horrendous climate and the tremendous logistical pipeline which was needed to sustain even the minimum forces...

LtGen DeWitt, however, was not content to be a backwater commander and kept urging grand schemes of reconquest of the American soil being retained by the Japanese (also at the end of a long logistics pipeline). Most of these plans fell on deaf ears in Washington as there were more urgent needs elsewhere in the global war being fought and support shipping and equipment were not available in numbers sufficient to sustain an offensive in the Aleutians.

DeWitt persisted and finally hit on plan that met with some approval - he would capture an island close enough to Kiska to negate the Japanese air base located there. He asserted that this mission could be accomplished by the forces he had on hand - and as in most organizations, doing something that cost no more than doing nothing generally meets with approval. However, here the lack of a unified command reared up it ugly head - the Navy vetoed the island selected by DeWitt, obstensibly due to navigation issues and after some delays while the Navy did its own investigation, the Navy decided that Adak would be preferable to the island chosen by DeWitt. After substantial wrangling the decision was deferred to Washington and the Navy view prevailed. Adak was selected over Tanaga. This, of course, did not improve Army-Navy relations in the area:
Although the Tanaga-Adak debate had finally been settled and the operation successfully concluded, relations between the Army and Navy officers in the area were such that there was grave doubt in Washington that joint operations in the theater would be conducted with the degree of cooperation required for success. Many factors contributed to this lack of harmony, not the least of which was the personality of some of the senior commanders. Unified command, difficult to attain under ideal conditions, was impossible without a determination on the part of all commanders to subordinate their individual convictions to the common good.
In short, sometimes the rumors of disagreements amongst flag officers of different (or even the same) services are true, much to the exasperation of both superiors and subordinates.

The Navy did use the harbors of the Aleutians for routine maintenance of submarines, such as the one shown in drydock nearby.

Back at Pacific Fleet Headquarters, Admiral Nimitz saw the need to free up ships being tied down in messing with the Japanese forces on Attu and Kiska and was hoping for a resolution of the issue the the North Pacific. Nimitz urged a plan to eliminate the Japanese forces. This, in turn, drove an Army training plan for amphibious operations in the Aleutians. Planning was helped by the arrival of RADM Kinkaid in relief of Theobald. In Janaury 1943, American forces landed on Amchitka Island and set up an airbase for operations against Kiska.

The stage was being set for an assault on Kiska, which was being bombed and attacked by ships as often as weather permitted. Admiral Kinkaid seeing that he hadn't the likelhood of getting sufficient ships to support a Kiska operation, proposed instead an attack against Attu, believing there were already assets on hand to carry out that mission. The attack on Attu was set for May 1943.

Before the assault on Attu, a surface naval action broke out, later described by Morison:
Finally, on 26 March 1943, a really interesting event broke: the Battle of the Komandorski Islands.

A small task force ...fought a retiring action against a Japanese force of twice its size and fire power; the battle lasted without a break for three and a half hours of daylight; the contestants slugged it out with gunfire at ranges of eight to twelve miles, without intrusion by air power or submarines. It was a miniature version of the sort of fleet action that the Navy, after World War I, expected to fight in the next war, with the important difference that neither side did the other any great damage.
It was, as noted here, "...the only engagement exclusively between surface ships in the Pacific Theatre, and the last pure gunnery duel in American naval history." Somewhere nearby is a map of the action, but what matters is that the outgunned, underdog Americans showed superior gunnery skills and, apparently, so confused and confounded the Japanese admiral that he abandoned the fight and headed for home. Black shoes did it all by themselves! Of course, the Japanese might have been aware that bombers might be arriving at any time from Dutch Harbor, so that may have help to convince him to withdraw..


On May 11, 1943, the 7th Infantry Division landed on Attu and after a tussle, reclaimed that bit of American muskeg. The Japanese force, outnumbered and with no hope of rescue or assistance, chose to die fighting.


Psychological warfare was used to attempt to lower the Japanese morale through a series of leaflet drops, as set out here, though it didn't seem to lower their morale all that much:

Attu was recaptured by the U.S. Army Seventh Infantry Division in May 1943. The battle to reclaim Attu lasted three weeks. 2,351 Japanese soldiers were found dead; only 28 surrendered. 549 out of 15,000 US soldiers were killed; 1,100 were wounded. 60,000 of the kiri leaflets were dropped over Attu and Kiska before troops landed on Attu in May 1943. The American Air Force regularly bombed and leafleted the Japanese garrisons.
After another big build up, including a vigorous bombing campaign, Kiska was reclaimed in July 1943 when it was discovered that the Japanese had, under the cover of the fog of war, withdrawn their forces from the island. The unopposed invasion included 29,000 U.S. troops and 5,300 Canadian soldiers.

And, thus, with a whimper, ended the Aleutian Campaign. The Aleutians went back to being a backwater, Admiral Kinkaid went on to greater fame and his relief, VADM Fletcher was "awarded" the job of managing the bleak Aleutians.

Remembering that our sailors, soldiers and airmen do not get to choose where they will fight their wars, the courage and tenacity of the men who served in the Aleutians should not go unrecognized. Offer up a salute to these men who fought bravely in a harsh and unrelenting area of the world, while their brothers were also carrying the fight to the enemy.

As a side note, the son of General Claire L. Chennault of Flying Tigers fame, served in the Aleutians.

Among the good things that came out of the Aleutian Campaign was the Naval Air Station Adak, which served as a Cold War base for U.S. anti-submarine aircraft, and this Academy award winning documentary about the Aleutian front here:









Additional reading suggestions here and here.

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