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Aleutian Islands

Relief map of Aleutian Islands

The Aleutian Islands are an island arc of about 70 large and many small islands totaling about 6800 square miles (17,612 km2). About fifteen of these were large enough to be of military significance. They reach some 1100 miles (1770 km) from the Alaskan Peninsula to Kamchatka and lie just north of the great circle route from the Pacific Northwest to Japan. This would seem to make the Aleutians a natural highway for invasion from either side, and the Japanese seized Attu and Kiska, on the western end of the chain, during the Midway campaign. The Americans later expended considerable effort to eject the Japanese. However, the climate of the islands is sufficiently abominable that the Aleutians remained a secondary theater for the rest of the war.

The terrible weather of the Aleutians is the result of two factors. First, the Aleutians lie on the boundary between the polar easterlies and the temperate westerlies. This boundary is a storm belt, with cyclonic systems moving to the east at three to five day intervals. These can brings winds of up to 140 miles per hour (225 km/h) building up in thirty minutes and lasting for days. Second, the Aleutians divide the Bering Sea from the North Pacific, and the Kuroshio Current (the Pacific equivalent of the Gulf Stream) brings warm water to the area just south of the islands. This water moistens and warms the air above it, which when it moves north over the islands is suddenly chilled by icy water from the Bering Sea. This results in more or less permanent banks of fog throughout the island chain from July onwards. Overall, the climate is cold enough that all but the lowest elevations are snow-clad throughout the year. Rainfall is about 40" to 50" (100 to 130 cm) per year, a considerable quantity in such a cool climate.

The terrain is also very unfavorable for military operations. The islands are rugged and volcanic, with little vegetation and no timber whatsoever. The highest elevation is 9372' (2857 meters) on Unimak in the eastern end of the chain. There is little flat ground, and such flat ground as exists is often arctic bog — a thin covering of moss over a mixture of mud and decayed vegetation with about the consistency of Jell-O. This makes military construction, particularly of airfields, extremely difficult. During the summer, the islands are infested with swarms of mosquitos, but these do not usually transmit malaria.

There are only four deep-water channels between the islands east of Andreanof and the Rat Islands, through which ships may safely pass between the Bering Sea and the Pacific. These are Unimak (164.783W 54.290N), Umnak (167.822W 53.357N), Amukta (172.017W 52.459N), and Seguam (173.075W 52.185N) Passes.

The American effort to clear the Japanese from the Aleutians was not an entirely wasted effort. It allowed Lend-Lease aircraft for the Russians to fly to Petropavlovsk in Kamchatka without the danger that the planes would be attacked by the Japanese before entering Soviet airspace. The American campaign also posed a credible enough threat to the Kuriles that the Japanese held back significant troops and aircraft that were badly needed elsewhere. However, Japan was watching her back for a surprise Soviet intervention throughout the war, so it is possible these resources would have been diverted anyway.

The most important settlement in the Aleutians was Dutch Harbor, on the island of Unalaska near the eastern end of the chain. Other anchorages were numerous. The best were at Nazan Bay (Atka Island), Adak Island, Constantine Bay (Amchitka Island), Vega Bay (Attu Island), and Holz Bay (Kiska). These were completely undeveloped before the war. The only airstrip in the entire chain was at Umnak, near Dutch Harbor, and pilots reported that landing on the strip was like landing on a spring mattress — the strip was Marston mat over arctic bog.

The Aleutians Campaign

The Japanese seized the islands of Kiska (6 June 1942) and Attu (7 June 1942) after conducting carrier raids against Dutch Harbor on 3-4 June 1942. The landings were unopposed (and, in fact, it was several days before the local American commanders could confirm that they had taken place.) A further landing on Adak was canceled after the Japanese disaster at Midway and the discovery of fighter cover over Dutch Harbor. Meanwhile, Theobald held most of his forces back to cover Dutch Harbor, and never got into action against the Japanese.

The first Aleutians campaign has been characterized by many historians as a diversionary operation for the Midway campaign. However, the Japanese records show that the Aleutians campaign was conceived independently, and that the strike on Dutch Harbor would actually have taken place after the strike on Midway had the Japanese stuck to their original schedule. The Japanese valued the western Aleutians as the northern anchor of their defense perimeter.

Japanese order of battle, 6 June 1942

Northern Area Force (Hosogaya)

 
CA Nachi


DD Ikazuchi


DD Inazuma

Supply Group


 
3 AK



AO Fujisan Maru



AO Nissan Maru (10,059 tons, 15 knots)     
Sunk

2 Mobile Force (Kakuta)



CVL Ryujo




16 A6M Zero







21 B5N Kate






CVL Junyo




22 A6M Zero






10 B5N Kate






21 D3A Val






CA Takao



CA Maya


DD Akebono



DD Ushio


DD Sazanami


AO Teiyo Maru (9850 tons, 17 knots)


Adak-Attu Occupation Force (Omori)



DD Wakaba



DD Nenohi


DD Hatsuharu


DD Hatsushimo


AP Magane Maru
Carrying Northern Sea Detachment (1200 men)


AP Kinugasa Maru


CVS Kimikawa Maru




6 float planes






DD Shiokaze



Several AMc


Kiska Occupation Force



CL Kiso



CL Tama


CX Asaka Maru



DD Hibiki



DD Akatsuki


DD Hokaze



AP Hakusan Maru (10,380 tons, 18.5 knots)     
Carrying 550 men of Maizuru SNLF


AP Tamagawa Maru
Carrying 700 labor troops and equipment


3 SC



Several AMc


Patrol and Reconnaissance Group (Yamazake)



SS I-9



SS I-15



SS I-17


SS I-19


SS I-25


SS I-26

U.S. order of battle, 6 June 1942

Task Force 8 (Theobald)     

 
Task Group 8.6 Main Body(Theobald)     


 
CA Indianapolis



CA Louisville


CL Nashville



CL St. Louis



CL Honolulu


Destroyer Division 11



 
DD Gridley




DD McCall



DD Gilmer




DD Humphreys

Task Group 8.1 Air Search Group



Patrol Wing 4




20 PBY Catalina



1 B-17 Flying Fortress



AVD Williamson (at Sand Point)



AVD Gillis (at Dutch Harbor) Equipped with radar


AVP Casco (at Cold Bay)


Task Group 8.2 Surface Search Group (at Kodiak)     



PG Charleston



AO Oriole



14 YP



Coast Guard Cutters




Haida




Onondaga




Cyane




Aurora




Bonham


Task Group 8.3 Air Striking Group (Butler)     



Cold Bay



21 P-40 Warhawk




12 B-26 Marauder




2 B-18 Bolo



Umnak




12 P-40 Warhawk


Kodiak



15 P-39 Airacobra




17 P-40 Warhawk



5 B-17 Flying Fortress



2 LB-30



Anchorage




25 P-38 Lightning




15 P-39 Airacobra



4 P-36 Hawk




7 B-17 Flying Fortress



5 B-18 Bolo



12 B-26 Marauder



2 LB-30

Task Group 8.4 Destroyer Striking Group



DD Case



DD Reid


DD Brooks



DD Kane


DD Dent



DD Talbot


DD King


DD Waters

Task Group 8.5 Submarine Group



SS S-18



SS S-23


SS S-27


SS S-28


SS S-34


SS S-35

Task Group 8.9 Tanker Group



AO Sabine



AO Brazos



AO S.S. Comet
Civilian charter

The loss of territory was a blow to American pride, and some commanders feared it presaged a Japanese invasion of mainland Alaska. On 28 August 1942, 38 men from the Alaska Scouts landed on Adak and determined that the Japanese had visited the island but had no permanent garrison there. Two days later, 4 Regiment and 807 Aviation Engineer Battalion landed on Adak. The engineers drained a small lagoon and turned it into a usable airfield in just 10 days. The first large low-level strike on Kiska took place on 14 September.

On 12 January 1943 2100 troops under Brigadier General Lloyd E. Jones occupied Amchitka and began construction of an airfield. The first fighters were flown in on 28 January.

On 18 February American naval units caught and sank the Akagane Maru, serving notice to the Japanese that the blockade was on. The Japanese began convoys to Attu and Kiska. The first convoy, on 9 March, was successful. The departure of the second convoy from Paramushiro on 23 March was noted by Allied code breakers, and Charles McMorris moved to intercept with his cruiser force. This resulted in an American victory at the Battle of the Komandorski Islands on 23 March.

On 12 May 1943 the Americans invaded Attu with 11,000 troops from 7 Division. The island fell on 29 May 1943. The Japanese responded by concentrating naval units at Ominato in preparation for a battle in the Aleutians. Their plans for a naval offensive were apparently called off when Hiyo was torpedoed and damaged by Trigger on 8 June and Mutsu was destroyed by an accidental magazine explosion at Hashirajima the same day.

Instead, the Japanese evacuated Kiska on 29 July 1943, taking just 55 minutes to embark the garrison. Unaware of the evacuation, the Americans stormed ashore on 15 August to find the base deserted. With the recapture of Kiska, the Aleutians campaign came to an end. The North Pacific would remain a secondary theater for the rest of the war.

References

Garfield (1965)

Parshall and Tully (2006)

Prados (1995)

Rottman (2002)

Spector (1985)

Wikipedia: Aleutian Islands

Willmott (1983)



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