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.
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.