Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Japanese Invasion of Alaska

While I tend to post articles pertaining to happy times, ‘Firsts’ are also traumatic experiences. And I cannot think of a much more somber time than that of war. Among the few things that adults may remember from social studies class is World War II. Stories and images from the attack on Pearl Harbor, D-Day, and the Holocaust are ever present in our minds. But one battle of WWII has since been long forgotten, if people even knew of it in the first place. I will now recount the melancholy and epically frank tales of the “thousand mile war” when Japan invaded Alaska.

With a newfound enemy only 2,200 miles from Seattle, WA, the United States military sought to build air bases in the Aleutian Islands, a chain of more than 300 volcanic islands extending 1,200 miles west of the Alaskan Peninsula. The future battleground would consist of 70 of these islands from the peninsula to Attu, the U.S.’s most westward territory. Attu is only some 650 miles from Paramushiro, the northern most bastion of the main Japanese defenses.

After Pearl Harbor, Japan’s top naval strategist, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, believed that by defeating the Pacific Fleet at the island of Midway, we would be forced to consider peace terms. He decided that a diversionary attack would be made on Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island at the same time to draw a percentage of the Pacific Fleet away from Midway. Ground force would then occupy Attu and another island, Kiska, establishing bases to shield their home land against further attacks.

On May 5, 1942, an armada of 200 ships, including five heavy and three lights carriers, and 700 aircraft headed towards Midway from Japan. Halfway there, carriers Ryujo and Junyo changed course towards the Aleutians under the command of Admiral Kakuji Kakuta. The now established Alaska Defense Command (later designated the Eleventh Air Force) had developed bases at Otter Point and Umnak Island for the defense of the naval installation at Dutch Harbor. Two 5,00 foot airstrips made from pierced-plank steel matting each held a squadron of Curtiss P-36s and P-40 Warhawks, Douglas B-18s, and Martin b-26 Marauders.

P-40 Warhawk

Navy patrol pilots began searching on June 1 as far as their fuel loads would permit. The carriers were soon spotted about 400 miles south of Kiska. At 4:30 a.m. on June 3, Japanese Zero fighter planes and Kate dive bombers attacked Dutch Harbor and nearby Fort Myers killing 78 men. Attacks continued through the next day with Japanese planes attacking fuel tanks, barracks, gun positions, and SS Northwestern, a barrack’s ship and power plant.

A landing party of 1,250 men went ashore on Kiska on June 7, along with 1,200 more the next day on Attu. A reconnaissance plane soon radioed that there were four Japanese troop transports and a destroyer lurking in Kiska harbor.

Japanese invasion fleet gathers in Kiska Harbor.

America’s first move was on August 26 when a fleet of 250 tugboats, barges and fishing scows put engineer troops ashore at Adak Island 250 miles east of Kiska to construct an airfield. On September 11, 1943, American engineer troops landed on Amchitka, 75 miles east of Kiska, constructing an airfield. Bombers could now make the flight from there to Kiska 4-6 times a day.

Though the enemy is also your biggest opposition during war, weather, especially In Alaska, took more lives than fighting. By the end of October 1942, 72 American planes had been lost, but only nine to enemy fire.

The only sea battle during the Aleutian campaign was the Battle of the Komandorskis in late March. The battle lasted 31 ½ hours and is noteworthy as one of the longest continuous gun duel in naval history.

American land forces did not enter Attu until May 11th on what was called “Operation Landcrab”. With 4,000 troops ashore, the island was soon under U.S. control. Thanks to Japanese suicide attacks, only 28 of their 2,300 soldiers survived. American losses totaled 549. Allied planes could now run bombing runs in the Kuriles, a string of islands running southwest from the Kamchatka Peninsula.

PBY Catalina over Alaska

After the fall of Attu, Japan realized that their time in the Aleutians was done and soon withdrew all their men from the island. Unaware that they had retreated, Allied hit the island with heavy shelling for 36 hours straight from battleships, cruisers, and destroyers along with 300,000 pounds of bombs. When the 34,000 strong combat force was assembled to go ashore, 5,300 men of the Thirteenth Royal Canadian Infantry Brigade was there to help. However, they were to find nothing except a dozen dogs the Japanese had left behind.

On September 11, 1943, B-24 and B-25 bombers dropped 12 tons of explosives on targets at Paramushiro and Shimushu. The Japanese managed their last attack on October 13, when nine heavy bombers dropped bombs in Massacre Bay and the nearby airfield. During the Kuriles campaign, six enemy ships were sunk, 29 planes were downed, and 155 Americans died.

Fewer than 10,000 Japanese troops tied up 300,000 Allied troops from June 1942 to August 1943. The last intelligence report of the Eleventh Air Force in 1945 summarized the war as thus: “The Aleutian Islands, on the Great Circle Route from North America to the Orient, may not have fulfilled their hope of becoming the ‘Northern Highway to Victory’, but they certainly are destined to be aerial highways to peace.”

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