Some Claim More Americans Died Defending Alaska In WWII than Pearl Harbor

Some Claim More Americans Died Defending Alaska In WWII than Pearl Harbor

Theodoros - August 6, 2018

On the morning of December 7, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was meant to lead to the United States’ entry into World War II and to change the course of history forever. On that day, the Japanese forces managed to destroy nearly twenty American naval vessels, including eight enormous battleships, sinking four of them. Also destroyed were 188 aircraft, and another 159 were damaged. Human casualties amounted to 2,403 American soldiers and 68 civilians, while another 1,178 soldiers and 35 civilians were wounded. Historians tend to focus on the destruction done to Pearl Harbor and the effects of the attack on history, but history often glosses over those who died in other parts of North America – such as Alaska – during the vicious battles of World War II. However, it is important to mention all of the effects of the attack on Pearl Harbor before we dive into the lesser-known events.

Because the attack happened without a declaration of war and without warning, it profoundly shocked the American people and caused President Franklin D. Roosevelt to proclaim December 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy.” The attack on Pearl Harbor was an event written with red ink in the American history of WWII and unfortunately, it was not the only one. Another crucial but not well-known battle was the bloody defense of the Alaska Territory. The importance of the territory was already declared in 1935 by U.S. general Billy Mitchell to Congress when he stated:

“I believe that in the future, whoever holds Alaska will hold the world. I think it is the most important strategic place in the world.”

Some Claim More Americans Died Defending Alaska In WWII than Pearl Harbor
The USS Shaw explodes during the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. National Archives.

After the Attack on Pearl Harbor

Once the smoke cleared from Pearl Harbor’s dramatic events, the American government started an investigation into the attack to understand how the sudden assault took place. Taking the fall for the events of the day and the failure to respond were Rear Admiral Husband E. Kimmel and Lieutenant General Walter Short. Both were relieved of their commands shortly after the attack for not preparing the base with an appropriate defense. The most important consequence of the attack on Pearl Harbor was the American declaration of war against Japan. A poll was taken between December 12-17, 1941, showed that 97% of American citizens supported a declaration of war against Japan.

Of course, the war against Japan had been decided way before any public poll would take place. President Roosevelt formally requested the declaration in his Infamy Speech, addressed to a joint session of Congress and the nation at 12:30 p.m. on December 8. The declaration was quickly brought to a vote and it passed the Senate, while it would later pass the House at 1:10 p.m. The vote was 82 – 0 in the Senate and 388 – 1 in the House. Jeannette Rankin, a pacifist and the first woman elected to Congress (in 1916), cast the only vote against the declaration, eliciting hisses from some of her peers.

Some Claim More Americans Died Defending Alaska In WWII than Pearl Harbor
Dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Morning Ticker.

By drawing the United States of America into World War II, Japan engaged a formidable enemy that eventually led to the total destruction of the Japanese military in 1945. Undoubtedly, the most catastrophic of the consequences of Pearl Harbor had on Japan was the dropping of two atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Contemporary historians suggest that at least a hundred thousand people lost their lives immediately, while various estimations imply that as many (if not more) died over the following month from the lethal effects of the bombs.

Some Claim More Americans Died Defending Alaska In WWII than Pearl Harbor
American soldiers taking part in Alaska’s Aleutian chain. Bookmice.

The Aleutian Islands Campaign

While historians mostly focus on the destruction done to Pearl Harbor and the effects of the attack on history, we often gloss over those who died in other parts of North America during vicious battles of World War II. In Alaska for example, even by the early twentieth century, a number of war strategies examined the possibility of conflict breaking out between the Japanese Empire and the United States. The Aleutian Islands, part of the Alaska Territory, were seen as a potential staging point for invasions by either side in the Pacific theater of WWII.

The Japanese reasoned that control of the Aleutians would prevent a possible U.S. attack across the Northern Pacific. Similarly, the U.S. feared that the islands would be used as bases from which to launch aerial assaults against the West Coast. However, it was not until June 1942 that the Japanese Imperial Navy attacked and captured two of the Aleutians Islands, Attu Island and Kiska, that were considered to be North American soil. The battle is known as the “Forgotten Battle,” because it was overshadowed by the simultaneous Guadalcanal campaign. Furthermore, the battle marked the first time Canadian conscripts were sent to a combat zone in World War II.

Even though it was only a small Japanese force that occupied the two islands, their remoteness and the difficulties of the weather and the terrain meant that it took nearly a year for U.S. and Canadian troops to eject them. The fear that both islands could be turned into strategic Japanese airbases from which aerial attacks could be launched against the West Coast made the islands’ recapture essential and imperative. On May 11, 1943, units from the 17th Infantry from Maj. Gen. Albert Brown’s 7th U.S. Infantry Division, made amphibious landings on Attu to retake it from Japanese forces led by Colonel Yasuyo Yamasaki.

Some Claim More Americans Died Defending Alaska In WWII than Pearl Harbor
As American troops landed on Attu, the Aleutian Islands, on May 11, 1943, a navy combat photography unit accompanied the first wave of American troops ashore at Japanese-occupied Attu, the westernmost island of the Aleutian chain. Juneauempire.

Despite heavy naval bombardments of Japanese positions, the American troops encountered strong entrenched defenses that made combat conditions tough. Arctic weather conditions and exposure-related injuries also caused numerous casualties among U.S. forces. The American military’s task was extremely difficult because of Attu’s terrain; it was not hospitable for such an operation—much of the island’s landmass was not covered in snowy peaks but in muskeg, a marshy soil that was almost impossible to cross by foot. In addition, Attu Island was subject to frequent storms and soupy fogs.

However, after two weeks of relentless fighting, on May 29, without hope of rescue, Yamasaki led his remaining troops in a banzai charge. The momentum of the surprise attack broke through the American frontline positions. Shocked American rear-echelon troops were soon fighting hand-to-hand combat with Japanese soldiers. The battle continued until almost all the Japanese were killed. The charge effectively ended the battle for the island, although U.S. Navy reports indicate that small groups of Japanese continued to fight until early July.

Some Claim More Americans Died Defending Alaska In WWII than Pearl Harbor
The heavy cruiser Salt Lake City under fire off the Komandorski Islands. Wikipedia.

Casualties and Legacy of the “Forgotten Battle”

In nineteen days of battle, 549 soldiers of the 7th Division were killed and more than one thousand injured. The Japanese lost over 2,850 men and only twenty-nine were taken prisoner. The Battle of Attu is the only battle in history in which Japanese and American forces fought in arctic conditions. On the other hand, the recapture of Kiska happened differently. The invasion was an embarrassment for the Allied forces that landed on the deserted island. Under the cover of fog, the Japanese had successfully removed their troops on July 28 without the Americans noticing.

The Japanese may have been gone, but Allied casualties on Kiska nevertheless numbered 313. All were the result of friendly fire, booby traps, disease, or frostbite. The reoccupation of the Aleutian Islands gave the advantage to the American government, allowing it to think of a plan to attack northern Japan, even though such a plan was never executed. Before the end of the war, over 1,500 sorties were flown from the Aleutian Islands against the Kuriles, including the Japanese base of Paramushiro, diverting five hundred Japanese planes and forty-one thousand ground troops.

Some Claim More Americans Died Defending Alaska In WWII than Pearl Harbor
Part of the huge U.S. fleet at anchor, ready to move against Kiska. Wikipedia.

Several of the United States locations involved in the campaign are now commemorated on the National Register of Historic Places, while many of them have been designated National Historic Landmarks, including the battlefield on Attu and the Japanese occupation site on Kiska. As for the Americans who died in action defending the Alaska Territory? They may not outnumber those who were killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor, but the total losses and damage the American military suffered there included 1,481 soldiers and 1 civilian killed, 3,416 wounded, 8 captured, and 640 missing, as well as 225 aircraft destroyed. For a rarely mentioned battle, the total numbers are more than respectable.

Bonus Facts

  • The 2006 documentary Red White Black & Blue features two veterans of the Attu Island campaign, Bill Jones and Andy Petrus. It is directed by Tom Putnam and debuted at the 2006 Locarno International Film Festival in Locarno, Switzerland, on August 4, 2006.
  • Samuel Dashiell Hammett, an American author of hard-boiled detective novels and short stories, a screenplay writer, and political activist, spent most of World War II as an army sergeant in the Aleutian Islands, where he edited an army newspaper. He came out of the war suffering from emphysema. As a corporal in 1943, he co-authored The Battle of the Aleutians with Corporal Robert Colodny, under the direction of infantry intelligence officer Major Henry W. Hall.
  • Charles Paddock was an Olympic runner who won two gold medals and one silver at the 1920 Summer Olympics and one silver at the 1924 Summer Olympics. He served as a marine during World War I and was an aide during World War II to Major General William P. Upshur. They, along with four other crewmen, died in a plane crash near Sitka, Alaska, on July 21, 1943.


Where Do we get this stuff? Here are our Sources:

Haycox, Stephen; Mangusso, Mary (2015). An Alaska Anthology: interpreting the past. Seattle: University of Washington Press. p. 118. ISBN 0-295-97495-8.

MacGarrigle, George. Aleutian Islands: the U.S. Army campaigns of World War II. United States Army Center of Military History.

Kessel, Dmitri (September 13, 1943). Allied troops retake deserted Kiska. 15 (11 ed.). Life magazine. p. 30. Retrieved January 31, 2011.

The Long Blue Line: The attack on Pearl Harbor—”a date that will live in infamy”. Retrieved 8 December 2017.

Hemingway, Al. Bitter Cold, Bitter War: The Aleutian Islands in WWII. Warfare History Network. Retrieved 26 December 2018.