Remembering “The Forgotten Battle”

Many of you have heard of the great World War 2 battles that swept Europe. Many have heard of the battles that ranged across the wide Pacific Ocean. Some may have even hear about battles in North Africa, or China, or Burma. But how many of you know that Japanese troops actually occupied American soil for almost a year, and required great effort by the Army, Navy, and Army Air Force to recover that territory?

It started in 1942, as part of the great air-sea battle known as the Battle Of Midway

Map of Aleutian Islands

Map of Aleutian Islands

Island. As part of the Japanese offensive, a decoy assault was launched towards the Aleutian Islands, a chain of islands to the west of the-then Territory Of Alaska, attempting to draw off US forces from the defence of Midway. American code-breakers correctly identified the thrust as a decoy, and the limited US forces available (not even 6 months after the Pearl Harbor attack) were focused on Midway’s defence, allowing a great victory of the US Navy over the Japanese carrier fleet.

But up in the windswept, frigid Aleutian Islands, the Japanese successfully invaded and captured the islands of Attu and Kiska. What followed was a year including a few inconclusive naval engagements, several months of bombing by units of the US Army Air Corps’ 11th Air Force, airfields being built, material shipped, even the building of an entire highway from Washington state to Alaska – the famous Al-Can highway, constructed through Canadian wilderness by both Canadian and US personnel, many of them African-Americans, in an impossibly quick time. (Parts of today’s highway actually utilise the original roadbed cut through the Canadian tundra and woodlands over 70 years ago.)

Rather than recite a number of dry facts and dates, I want to give an insight into this conflict. The Aleutian Islands are a rocky, cold, wet environment. What soil there is remains frozen most of the year, and remains eternally frozen more than a few inches deep. Rain and fog are common, as are “williwaws” – vicious winds, strong enough to make walking (or even standing) impossible and capable of flattening tents and wooden structures. And most importantly, there are no trees. For an army, this is disastrous, as wood is used for shelter, cooking, heating, and even building roads. (Many dirt roads in Europe were covered with logs to make them more weather-resistant, resulting in so-called “corduroy roads”.) Everything had to be imported, and with the few airstrips being used by warplanes – including an airstrip on Adak built by literally pushing a mountain-side into a marsh to create suitable flat land – most everything had to come by ship until the Al-Can highway opened up. The men serving in this environment often said they missed trees more than their girlfriends, a bit of exaggeration that nevertheless showed the hardship of the barren environs. During the precious-few summer months, the surface snow would melt, the first couple inches of ground would turn to mud, and everything would flood horribly. There are many newsreels of airplanes taking off or landing spewing “rooster tails” high above rear of the planes. Hillsides were too steep for tanks, and in some cases, for any motor vehicles whatsoever, requiring men to “hump” in all their needs. Even the aircrews had to fly many hours to get to their targets, then fly many hours back to base, all of it over water that would kill them in seconds from hypothermia, if they were unlucky enough to ditch.

On this day, 70 years ago, the US forces had finally collected enough strength to begin the invasion, and recapture, of Attu. American forces landed on the island, initially with no resistance. What followed was a slogging campaign, facing increasing Japanese resistance,  by US troops who had initially trained to fight in the flat deserts of North Africa, instead thrust into a mountainous Arctic environment. It took 20 days to re-conquer the 344.7 square miles of island, with American losses of a total of 3,929 U.S. casualties; 580 men were killed, 1,148 were wounded, and another 1,200 suffered severe cold-weather-related injuries. In addition, 614 died of disease, and 318 from miscellaneous causes, mainly Japanese booby traps or friendly fire. The last major battle was on 29 May, when the remaining Japanese forces attacked without warning, near an area called (appropriately enough) Massacre Bay, in one of the largest banzai charges of the Pacific campaign. The Japanese attack penetrated U.S. lines so deeply that it encountered rear-area units of the American forces, including a hospital where wounded soldiers fought from their cots with IV tubes in their arms. After a furious and brutal battle, the Japanese forces were virtually exterminated. The Americans only captured 28 Japanese prisoners throughout the entire campaign, none of them officers.

Some might ask if this campaign for small, rocky, frozen islands was worth it. Some of the most important benefits of these great sacrifices were:
1) Establishment of air bases to attack the northern Kurile Islands of Japan, forcing the enemy to move both ground and air forces to the area to defend it.
2) Establishment of air bases to intercept “balloon bombs”, hydrogen-filled balloons carrying both explosive and fire-starting bombs on the jet stream in an attempt to burn the great expanses of forest in the Northwest.
3) During the fighting, a Japanese A6M “Zero” fighter crash-landed nearly intact on

Captured Japanese "Zero" fighter Retrieved from Akutan Island

Captured Japanese “Zero” fighter Retrieved from Akutan Island

Akutan Island. The plane was recovered by American forces, rebuilt, and flown by American test pilots to obtain previously unknown information about the Japanese fighter for the next generation of American fighters being built. Two resulting American fighters, the Grumman F6F Hellcat and Voight F4U Corsair, were the first American fighters to not only equal (and surpass) the Zero’s performance, but to also out-range the Zero and better survive any successful attacks.
4) The bases established in the Aleutian Islands served as transfer stations for providing ships and aircraft to the Soviet Union as aid in their battle against the Nazis, and later against the Japanese in the Kurile Islands, the northernmost of the Japanese home islands at the time.
5) The battles saw the close co-operation of US and Canadian forces for the first time in World War 2, and the first deployment of Canadian draftees outside Canada. (A law stated that draftees could not be deployed outside “North America”, which the Canadian government stretched to include the Aleutian Islands.)
6) A number of the WW2 bases continue to serve as Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard facilities, including radar stations that became part of the “DEW” (Distant Early Warning) Line that watches for nuclear missiles coming over the North Pole.
7) The commanding officer, Willliam O Eareckson, introduced the concept of “skip bombing”, dropping bombs from low altitude at high speeds to make them skip across the water like rocks, and used to destroy shipping far more accurately than dive bombing or level bombing (such as used by the B-17s over Europe).

The Aleutian Campaign is often referred to as “The Forgotten War” or “The Forgotten

11th Air Force Shoulder Patch

11th Air Force Shoulder Patch

Battle”. For the brave men in the 7th Infantry Division, the 11th Air Force, and all the other units, this was a necessary battle for tactical reasons, and for reasons of home front morale. Not since then has any American territory fallen into enemy hands, and the lessons learned in the Aleutians made the later battles against the Japanese less bloody for our forces. For all the reasons listed above, and for the courage and valour shown in a truly hostile environment, the Battle For The Aleutians deserves to be held in the same regard as the battles for Normandy or Iwo Jima, where the Marines famously raised the flag. It is up to us, and our children, to make sure that the Battle For The Aleutians is never forgotten.

Aleutians Map from http://www.World-geography.Org.
Akutan Zero Photo from discussion forums on http://www.warrelics.eu.

(Apologies if this isn’t my best work. I had planned on Friday afternoon to clean up the rough draft, but kept getting interrupted by a wet basement, driveway repairs, and our usual stormy-day visit from a neighbor’s dog. If anything’s unclear, just ask in the comments and I’ll do my best to explain further. Thanks you for your patience!)

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24 Responses to Remembering “The Forgotten Battle”

  1. twindaddy says:

    I was not aware of any of this.

  2. whiteladyinthehood says:

    Well, you obviously have a love and passion for military history. (I stink at remembering dates and historical facts – just stink) Since you peppered your story with phrases like, “williwaws”, “rooster tails” high above the rear of the planes “, “wounded soldiers fought from their cots” and mention things like the soldiers missed the trees – it really brings your story to life. I can see why you are a recipient of the inspiring blogger award.

    • Thanks! I’m a sucker for the “underdog” parts of history, such as little-known battles or unfamiliar aircraft. When I needed an Army Air Corps persona for re-enacting, I specifically chose 11th Air Force, rather than the well-known 8th, 12th, or 15th. My Canadian persona serves with the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry because of the Invasion Of Dieppe, a little-known 1942 invasion attempt by the Canadians against the French port city. I really like getting those lesser-known stories out into the public. I’m glad I could put a “human face” on history for you!

      • whiteladyinthehood says:

        I always root for the underdog! My fav t-shirt was: It’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog! and…um….I am a terrible typist…so I hate to point this out, but don’t you mean get the stories out into the public?

      • Oh dang, for all the typos I coulda possibly made! AARRGGHH! I will fix that immediately. Glad SOMEBODY’s brain is online today!

  3. tom says:

    Send your script to Clint Eastwood as he needs to redeem himself after his empty chair lecture.

    • I don’t know. He did darn good with the Iwo Jima pair, especially the one from the Japanese viewpoint. Then again, there’s no sand on the Aleutian Islands, so he may not be able to combine “spaghetti Western” and snow! 😀

  4. fasab says:

    Great story well told. I thought I knew a lot about WWII but I didn’t know this. So job well done on both of the preceding counts.
    On the Eastwood theme, they made a movie about invading Grenada but ignored this great story? Contact Hollywood immediately!!

    • Oh, I’d LOVE to see this tale get the big screen “Private Ryan” treatment. Problem is, except for the actual battles on Attu, most of the time was spent building roads/runways and flying bombing runs. The Japanese got off Kiska before our troops landed (yet, somehow, we racked up 313 casualties – go figure), after Dutch Harbor was bombed (at the same time the Japanese landed on Attu) the Japanese carriers left so the Japanese ground forces had no airpower, and the couple of naval battles were literally shots through the fog, with casualties on both sides tallying about a half-dozen or so sailors killed and a dozen wounded per side. Not sure if America is ready for a war movie that consists of cutting down Canadian trees and plowing up island dirt and rock.
      Then again, there is that “Ax Men” show on History, and there’s a car-dedicated channel called Velocity…. “Rough Lumbermen and Road Layers”? Beats the snot outta Honey Boo-Boo! 😀

  5. Elyse says:

    Well done, John. I didn’t know about this battle, either. So many things happened that are forgotten as we lose the old vets.

    Really well told, John. I love your war stories.

    • Thanks! I’m thinking my next post might be a war story – namely, the time I almost killed my re-enacting buddy! 😀 It’s a combination of “Lost”, “The Amazing Race”, a cross-country road rally, and a horror show. (The horror part, especially for ME!)
      Either that, or a primer on how to talk to animals… 😉

  6. benzeknees says:

    I didn’t know about the Aleutians being in enemy possession. This was interesting John & since I worked for the DEW line for a few years, I understand the importance of the northern territories to the defense of North America.

    • I’m glad I could touch upon your experience. I’ll give you one other cheap bit of trivia – there were actually fatalities in the lower 48 states from the war. One of those balloon bombs fell intact into a forest (Oregon, I think) where it was found, and accidentally detonated, by a minister and his children. Killed him and the kids – the only civilian casualties, in the continental United States, caused by enemy weaponry.
      Oh, and there’s an active Coast Guard base on Kiska Island, based on the old military facilities, so the Aleutians campaign still has impact today, on civilians too!

  7. benzeknees says:

    BTW, since Dutch Harbor is part of this history, maybe they could do something about this with Deadliest Catch?

    • Interesting – never having seen the show, I didn’t know that. They did just have a couple of the captains on “Mythbusters”. I know History Channel does a lot with “History Detectives” and similar show, but I don’t know if Discovery has an equivalent. If so, that’d be a GREAT show – take us up to Dutch Harbor, show all the history there, then go out on the boats and check out the islands while they fish! I’d watch it! 😀
      Now all you need to do is suggest it to Discovery.com…. 😉

  8. aFrankAngle says:

    Well … once again … stuff I didn’t know any clue about. Cheers.

    We had an interesting local story this week of a WW II vet getting his medals.
    http://wenstrup.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=333527

    • Sad to hear he had to wait so long to get his medals. I checked out the bomb group he flew with – two Unit Citations, quite an accomplishment for any bombing group even in the busy European Theater. And he flew on the missions to Regensburg – that’s TOUGH. It was a long trip to and from, and at the time, without long-range fighter cover, so just surviving was a real accomplishment. Glad to know he finally got his awards, even if it DID take 70 years.
      Thanks!

  9. BrainRants says:

    John, you did well recounting one of the little-known operations of WW II. The Japanese also managed one or two submarine-based attacks on the coast of California besides occupying our territory in Alaska.

    • Thanks for that, my friend. I don’t think they landed any troops (except for possibly some spies), just did some shelling (contrary to what John Belushi and the movie “1941” might have you believe). Did you know they actually built several aircraft-carrying subs, with the idea of blowing up the locks on the Panama canal? One of the great blessings of WW2 in the Pacific was, the Japanese Navy were very familiar with submarines, but never thought to use them in commerce warfare – whereas we showed the German U-boat fleet how to REALLY screw an enemy by sinking his merchant fleet!

  10. gpcox says:

    Excellent post, amazing that these days that so many people still don’t know about this. What are they teaching in school today besides computers?

    • Last time I checked, I think it was something about he Germans bombing Pearl Harbor, by a Professor Blutarski…
      It’ll be a year late for the 70th, but maybe I’ll do you a Dieppe post come this August. And yes, I do indeed do requests – if the price is right. 😉

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