Battle of the Aleutian Islands: Recapturing Attu

6/12/2006 • World War II

In his classic History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Navy Lieutenant Commander Samuel Eliot Morison wrote that the Aleutian Islands campaign could well have been labeled the ‘Theater of Military Frustration.’ This phrase aptly describes the American effort to retake the Aleutian island of Attu from the Japanese in 1943. It was a campaign handicapped not only by the island’s fanatical defenders and the bitter Alaskan cold but also by the many miscalculations made by the Army itself. Yet this important campaign to take back U.S. soil, which witnessed the first American amphibious assault in the North Pacific as well as one of the first Japanese banzai attacks of the war, has been pushed into the background by many historians. Such obscurity is unwarranted, and an injustice to those soldiers who fought against extremely difficult odds to place the Aleutian Islands firmly back into Allied hands.

Attu is the westernmost island of the Aleutians, a chain of some 70 islands stretching 1,700 miles from the southwest coast of Alaska and reaching out to within 650 miles of the Kurile Islands. Since purchasing the Aleutians from Russia in 1867, the United States had done little to develop the area, and most of the islands had not even been fully mapped. As a result of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, the United States pledged not to construct any naval fortifications on the islands, a promise that it quickly revoked after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

By spring of 1942, there were 45,000 American servicemen in Alaska, 13,000 of whom were stationed on the partially fortified islands of Unalaska and Umnak. The only heavy fortifications were at Dutch Harbor, but even these were defended by a relatively small force.

In early June 1942, during the Battle of Midway, a Japanese carrier force staged a diversionary attack on Dutch Harbor. Although damaging, the raid failed to divert American carriers from Midway, resulting in a decisive U.S. naval victory there. On the way back to base, however, Vice Adm. Boshiro Hosogaya, commander of the Northern Area Force, ordered Rear Adm. Sentaro Omori to occupy Agattu, Kiska and Attu islands.

As it was American soil, the enemy presence in the western Aleutians was a source of embarrassment and discomfort to the U.S. government. It also brought several theoretical advantages to Japan. Although intense Arctic storms and fog around the islands made any attempt to use the Aleutians as a bridge to the Alaskan coast difficult, a gradual Japanese incursion onto the North American continent was not impossible. The islands also threatened vital shipping lanes between Seattle and parts of the Soviet Union. Finally, and perhaps most important, Japanese presence in the Aleutians meant that the airspace over the Home Islands might be relatively free of major U.S. bombing efforts.

Shortly after landing, the Japanese withdrew from Agattu and began building airstrips on Kiska. American troops landed on the island of Adak about 210 miles east of Kiska, and built two air bases there. They also occupied the island of Amchitka about 60 miles east of Kiska, although airstrip construction was nearly impossible due to weather and terrain.Because operations in the Central Pacific were of higher priority, American plans for the recapture of Kiska and Attu were shelved for months. By early 1943, however, the Joint Chiefs of Staff decided that it was time to dislodge the Japanese from the Aleutians once and for all. Attu was chosen as the first objective, since reconnaissance seemed to show that is was less heavily fortified than Kiska. After Attu was taken, the plan was for troops from that island and Amchitka to jointly invade Kiska.

The unit chosen to make the landing for what was code-named ‘Operation Sandcrab’ was the Army’s 7th Infantry Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Albert E. Brown. The ‘Hourglass’ Division had been reactivated at Fort Ord, Calif., in the summer of 1940 as a motorized infantry division. Following its reactivation, the unit had gone through extensive training in the Mojave Desert in preparation for service against the Italians and Germans in North Africa.

In January 1943, after the Allied landings in North Africa, military commanders determined that there was no longer a need for the 7th’s services in that theater. The division then began amphibious training on the beaches around Fort Ord. Unfortunately, the comparatively mild climate found along the California coast did little to prepare the men for the dense fog and bone-chilling cold of Attu.

When the 11,000 men of the 7th were loaded onto transport vessels in late April 1943, many of the troops believed they were going to Hawaii. This seemed plausible, since most of the soldiers were wearing summer uniforms. The quartermaster general had intended that special winter clothing be issued to the troops participating in the invasion. But the order was rescinded because it was thought that the extra weight of winter uniforms might slow the men down. Although some soldiers were issued special equipment just before the landings, most 7th Division GIs reached Attu in inadequate clothing.

The convoy arrived at Cold Harbor, at the eastern end of the Aleutians, on April 30. Due to bad weather, the ships stayed in anchorage until May 4, then headed west. Since a gale was pounding Attu at that time, the assault was postponed until May 9, and the convoy took off for the Bering Sea to avoid enemy detection.

Japanese submarines operating around Cold Harbor, however, had seen the convoy and had relayed the intelligence to the garrisons on Kiska and Attu. The Attu garrison was put on alert on May 3, and for six days the men stayed in their battle positions. By May 9, it looked as if no invasion was coming, so the alert was called off. The next day, the U.S. convoy left the Bering Sea and arrived offshore of Attu, unaware of its good fortune.

The Japanese forces on Attu were commanded by Colonel Yasuyo Yamazaki, whose garrison consisted of the 303rd Independent Infantry Battalion, along with engineer, artillery, mountain artillery and service troops. The Japanese were well dug-in, and were supplied with fur-lined uniforms and boots, kerosene stoves and sake. Initial American estimates of enemy strength were set at about 500, although this was later increased to 1,500.

Preinvasion reconnaissance had shown that the Japanese were concentrated around Holtz Bay and Chichagof Harbor in the north and Massacre Bay in the south. Therefore, two landings were planned. The Northern Force, commanded by Lt. Col. Albert Hartl, consisted of the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, and its attached artillery and auxiliary units. The Northern Force’s objective was to secure Holtz Bay and a valley lying to the southwest.

The Southern Force was the larger of the two and was commanded by Colonel Edward Earle. The force comprised the 2nd and 3rd battalions of the 17th Infantry; the 2nd Battalion, 32nd Infantry; and field artillery and auxiliary units. After landing at Massacre Bay, the Southern Force was to go up Massacre Valley, take Clevesy and Jarmin passes, hook up with the Northern Force at Holtz Bay and then destroy the enemy at Chichagof Harbor. The 1st and 3rd battalions, 32nd Infantry, along with some field artillery troops, were to stay on the transports as reserves.

Although the U.S. convoy included three battleships, destroyers and an escort carrier, to retain the element of surprise no preinvasion naval bombardment was ordered. Consequently, when the bulk of the Northern Force landed just west of Holtz Bay at 4:15 p.m. on May 11, the troops encountered no opposition. At 6:30 p.m. the force began moving toward its first objective, a series of small hill peaks collectively known as Hill X, located on the shelf west of Holtz Bay. The hill controlled the western arm of the bay. The first peak of the hill mass was only 800 yards to the south, there was still plenty of daylight left, and while it was foggy, the fog was very thin.

Yet soon after the Northern Force started moving, it came into contact with four Japanese soldiers who were manning a beach defense site. The force killed two, but the other two managed to escape to their main camp. Not much later, Japanese anti-aircraft batteries around Holtz Bay opened up on the beach. Having already moved inland, the Americans took no casualties, but the Northern Force’s advance was halted. Approaching nightfall, coupled with the lack of proper maps, persuaded Colonel Hartl to halt his men and have them dig into the soft, wet Aleutian muskeg.

Down at Massacre Bay, intense coastal fog forced postponement of the Southern Force’s landings from 7:40 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. When the landing craft finally came ashore, the weather had turned sunny and warm. Although the American landing was unopposed, the artillerymen found that moving their guns across the mucky muskeg was extremely difficult. Finally the gunners were forced to emplace their 105mm howitzers only 75 yards from the beach.

By 5:30 p.m., the Southern Force had begun its advance through Massacre Valley, a wide, gradually rising valley flanked by high ridges. The plan was to advance north for three miles, proceed through Clevesy and Jarmin passes, and join up with the Northern Force at Holtz Bay.

Although fog enshrouded the ridges around Massacre Valley, the valley floor was clear, and American troops advanced easily for about a mile. When the lead companies were well into the valley, however, Japanese soldiers hidden on the ridges opened fire with machine guns and mortars and rapidly mowed down GIs who tried to run for cover; other Americans twisted ankles in potholes in the muskeg and fell. As the advance bogged down, General Brown and his headquarters staff came ashore at Massacre Bay.

While the GIs received support from the 105mm guns back on the beach, naval bombardment was impossible because of the thick fog. With nightfall approaching, the two U.S. battalions tried to dig in around a small ridge that bisected the valley. Some soldiers, unable to find cover, lay down in the mud or crouched behind stream banks in the valley.

In the long daylight and short nights of spring in the Aleutians, evening on Attu began after 10 p.m. and ended just after 1 a.m. Although brief, the night was bitter for both the Northern and Southern forces. The Americans froze in their lightweight uniforms, while the Japanese, bundled in fur-lined coats, huddled around their kerosene stoves. Some of the GIs who had spent the night on the floor of Massacre Valley were later found frozen stiff, having burned the stocks of their rifles in a futile attempt to keep warm.

May 12 dawned with the Southern Force still under enemy fire. Supporting U.S. artillery on the beach shelled suspected enemy positions for 40 minutes, then the Americans attacked nearby Jarmin Pass in an attempt to link up with the Northern Force. Their advance ran into heavy fire, most of it coming from the nearby Black and Cold mountains to the north. Further bombardment by the U.S. Navy did little to displace the Japanese, who thwarted a second American assault. When Colonel Earle went forward to see what was holding up the men, the Southern Force commander was killed by a sniper.

With little progress being made, Brown brought in additional manpower. Even reinforced with the 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry, the Southern Force spent four unsuccessful days trying to destroy the Japanese emplacements that surrounded Jarmin Pass. Artillery fire did little but leave craters in the snow, while three Navy fighters attempting to bomb Japanese positions crashed as a result of heavy winds. Movement was only a few yards per hour, with men holding on to the jackets or cartridge belts of the men to their front in order not to be separated. On the evening of the 14th, a frustrated Brown reported to higher headquarters that ‘progress through passes will, unless we are extremely lucky, be slow and costly, and will require troops in excess to those now available to new command.’

Meanwhile, on the morning of May 12, the Northern Force suffered its first casualties. While moving south down the western arm of Holtz Bay, one company of Americans began to climb up a small hill in an effort to secure the nearby ridge. As the men entered a gully, they were fired upon by enemy troops who had occupied the ridge only the night before. For 12 hours the company was pinned down by Japanese machine guns, mortars and artillery. Two other companies, supported by artillery and close air support, vainly tried to eliminate the Japanese. It was not until 5 p.m., however, after a massive naval bombardment, that the Americans began to slowly advance, eventually taking the ridge and forcing the enemy down the far side. The Japanese quickly turned and counterattacked. As they advanced, their artillery fire fell indiscriminately on friend and foe alike. In a fierce battle that lasted only about 20 minutes, the Americans staved off the Japanese and took firm control of the ridge thereafter known as Bloody Point.

The next day, the Northern Force was reinforced by the 3rd Battalion, 32nd Infantry, and a battery of coast artillery. This addition was soon further augmented by the 4th Infantry Regiment, which had arrived from Adak Island. American commanders then resumed their attack to clear out a Japanese camp south of Holtz Bay.

When the Americans reached the camp on May 15, however, the enemy had already sneaked away in the fog and moved to a ridge that separated the western and eastern arms of the bay. As the GIs moved down the western arm, U.S. fighter pilots sent to strike the new Japanese positions mistook the advancing Americans for enemy soldiers and proceeded to bomb and strafe them. This tragic misidentification resulted in numerous casualties and delayed the advance for two hours.

Finally, an American rifle platoon managed to fight its way to the ridge’s highest point. No sooner had GIs secured the position than they were attacked by about 45 Japanese, led by a saber-wielding officer. The Americans quickly cut down the attackers and completed their occupation of the ridge.

The Northern Force now overlooked Holtz Bay, and as soon as heavy weapons were brought up to Bloody Point, all Japanese positions on the rest of the ridge could be destroyed. Doing so would free the Southern Force, still pinned down in Massacre Valley, and allow it to link up with the Northern Force at Clevesy and Jarmin passes.

Despite this success, Brown’s superiors had grown impatient with the 7th’s slow progress and the general’s continued call for additional reinforcements. On the 16th Brown was replaced by Maj. Gen. Eugene M. Landrum.

Realizing the predicament that his troops were now in, Colonel Yamazaki quietly withdrew them from Jarmin Pass early on the morning of May 17. He placed most of his soldiers at the Chichagof Harbor defenses, but he also reinforced some of his positions around Clevesy Pass, which was the principal route to the harbor. The next day the two American forces linked up at Jarmin Pass.

The west flank of Clevesy Pass, leading to mountain peaks overlooking Chichagof Bay, was dominated by Cold Mountain. The east flank, which led to the Sarana Valley, was overlooked by Engineer Hill and an escarpment named Point Able. All these positions were occupied by the Japanese, and the Americans spent the next four days trying to take them.

The first attacks against Point Able and Cold Mountain, led by the 32nd and 17th infantries, respectively, were stopped by enemy machine guns. The second assault on Cold Mountain was preceded by heavy artillery fire. The Americans swiftly wiped out a series of Japanese positions along the lower edges of the mountain, but were soon stopped by heavy Japanese fire.In the meantime, a company of the 17th Infantry had managed to secure a high point within Clevesy Pass, thanks in part to a smoke screen laid down before the assault. Thinking it was poison gas, the Japanese either donned masks or fled from their positions. Those who remained did not begin returning fire until the Americans had occupied that section of the pass.

From their newly won position, two platoons of Americans were able to seize the closest enemy position on Engineer Hill. While Japanese soldiers farther up the hill fired down on the two platoons, U.S. artillery pounded the enemy positions, spraying shell fragments over the heads of American soldiers, but also blowing the Japanese out of their trenches. Despite continued artillery support, the Americans came under increasing enemy fire and were unable to move farther up Cold Mountain.

By the afternoon of May 19, companies from the 17th and 32nd regiments had begun a slow ascent up the snowy slope of Cold Mountain. Despite heavy fire from above, the Americans gradually moved up the slope that faced Massacre Valley. The Japanese attempted to stay in their holes, but the GIs ousted them using grenades and bayonets. American attempts to reach the north side of the mountain, however, were held up until high explosives and smoke rounds were fired into the enemy positions. Again mistaking the smoke for gas, the Japanese were either killed while putting on their masks or simply fled toward Chichagof Harbor.

Just before the peak of Cold Mountain was finally taken on the morning of May 20, the Americans on Engineer Hill were able to directly assault the northern slopes. The last obstacle, Point Able, was slowly climbed by companies of the 32nd Infantry just after Engineer Hill was taken. The snow was thick, the cold bitter and the night so bright that soldiers silhouetted against the whiteness could be seen for 200 yards.

As the Americans reached the lower positions of the enemy strongpoint, the Japanese lobbed grenades down the hill, their explosions mingling with the flat crack of small arms. The Americans found cover among some rock outcroppings while a Japanese officer yelled insults at them in English. Following a few moments of chaos, more GIs reached the strongpoint and destroyed it. After a mortar section chief directed fire at the crest of the peak, the Americans secured Point Able on the morning of May 22. The last Japanese defender, after killing two Americans, hurled himself off the peak, screaming.While the final assaults on Cold Mountain and Point Able were being made, the 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry, along with the 3rd Battalion, 17th Infantry, cleared the ridges surrounding the entrance of Chichagof Valley.

Also on May 22, the Americans began pushing the Japanese closer to Chichagof Harbor. The two ridges leading to the harbor, Fish Hook and Buffalo, contained numerous Japanese defensive positions, most of which had to be cleared out by machine guns and grenades. American advances were slow, supplies often ran low and casualties from gunfire and weather were high.Often the leadership of individual enlisted men helped push U.S. troops ahead. Such a leader was a Pfc Barnett of the 4th Infantry. While the rest of his outfit struggled slowly down a muddy hill studded with Japanese, Barnett managed to slide and walk down the hill, lobbing grenades and firing into a nearby trench system. His company began to follow him, but by the time the rest of the men had caught up, Barnett had killed all 47 enemy soldiers who had held the position.

It was also on Fish Hook Ridge that Pfc Joe P. Martinez made his mark. The 32nd Infantry Regiment GI saw his battalion pinned down twice by the Japanese on May 26, and twice he got to his feet and took action. Cradling his BAR, Martinez advanced through a hail of enemy fire and coolly emptied his weapon into Japanese foxholes, reloading as he went. The men of his company followed Martinez as he led two assaults. It was only as he approached one final foxhole after the second assault that Martinez was shot in the head, dying of the wound the following day. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery.

By May 28, the Japanese had been pushed back into a small corner of Chichagof Harbor. The 3rd Battalion, 17th Infantry, along with one company of the 32nd, was positioned close enough to the Japanese to thwart any attempted withdrawal. Other U.S. units secured various valleys and passes, although Chichagof Valley itself was thinly occupied.

On the 28th, all American commanders were notified of a pending attack against the enemy to begin no later than 5 a.m. the next day. All able-bodied men were ordered to leave the aid stations and on-ship hospitals and return to their outfits for what was meant to be the final American push. The fate of the Japanese seemed sealed.

Colonel Yamazaki, however, had plans of his own. Rather than withdraw into a nearby harbor that provided better defenses but could not easily be reached by supply ships, he decided to counterattack. From Chichagof Harbor, he would have his remaining men, who numbered about 1,000, sweep down through lightly defended Chichagof Valley. His soldiers would then go on to reoccupy Point Able and Clevesy Pass, then take over the artillery in Massacre Valley. If the attack succeeded, the Japanese could then hold down the GIs in the valley, cut off the main American supply line and wait for help from the Kuriles.

On the evening of May 28, a small American patrol from the 17th Infantry penetrated Japanese lines, seeking any information that might help the impending U.S. attack. When the patrol got about 500 yards into enemy territory, the GIs could hardly believe what they saw–groups of frenzied Japanese jumping up and down, yelling at the top of their lungs and guzzling bottles of sake. They were dispatching their own wounded, either through morphine injections or self-inflicted pistol shots.

When the patrol returned to American lines, its members could not recall the password and almost were shot by their own troops. Then one man started yelling, ‘Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Yankees, Joe DiMaggio,’ and the patrol was allowed to pass through.

The leader of the patrol, Tech. 5 Lee J. Bartoletti, reported what he had seen. His lieutenant shrugged off the information, but Bartoletti began to crawl from foxhole to foxhole, warning the men in his company that a Japanese attack was coming. Bartoletti’s was the only warning the GIs would receive before coming under one of the largest Japanese banzai charges of the war.

At about 3:30 a.m., a thousand screaming Japanese soldiers came running through the bivouac area of the 32nd Infantry. They carried rifles, grenades, even bayonets attached to sticks. The Americans, who had been ordered a few minutes earlier to leave their positions and have a hot meal at a regimental kitchen, were caught totally off guard. Some found cover on high ground, but many were overrun by the enemy. Much of the ensuing combat was hand to hand, and gunfire and screams rang throughout the valley. But the darkness kept the rest of the American troops unaware of what was happening.

After the main Japanese assault began, diversionary forces attacked the 17th Infantry in Chichagof Valley. Screaming ‘We’ll drink your blood,’ the Japanese butchered any GIs they could get their hands on. The main body of Japanese then stormed into the lower valley, where an American aid station was set up. They swept through the station, slashing the tent ropes and killing the wounded, who were trapped in their sleeping bags by the fallen canvas.

When they had finished destroying the aid station, the main Japanese force headed down toward Clevesy Pass, occupied mostly by engineer, medical and artillery troops. The only warning these troops had came from retreating GIs shouting, ‘The Japs are coming!’

Several groups of screaming Japanese, led by Yamazaki himself, hurled themselves at a detachment of artillerymen. With small arms and two heavy machine guns, the Americans fought them off, killing many. The engineer companies also managed to mount a hasty defense, while the cooks and bulldozer drivers grabbed a few automatic weapons from retreating infantrymen and proceeded to further decimate the enemy.

As Japanese numbers dwindled, they became disorganized and began to run off in different directions. They also stopped killing Americans and began killing themselves with grenades.

When the fighting was over, Chichagof and Sarana valleys looked like dug-up graveyards, with dead Americans and Japanese littered everywhere. Some wounded GIs could still be heard calling out to their mothers, or to God. The ghastly sight caused a chaplain of the 7th to exclaim, ‘I am glad they’re [the Japanese] dead, really glad….How can I go back to my church when I’ve got it in me to be glad men are dead?’

Although the last big battle was over, American patrols continued to search out and destroy isolated pockets of resistance. Most of the last Japanese defenders fought to the death, as Americans made no attempts to take prisoners. But one Japanese soldier clearly realized that neither continuing to fight nor taking his own life was worth the effort. Bundling himself up in the same Japanese uniform that some GIs were now wearing to keep warm, he managed to get into an American chow line. He might have actually gotten a hot meal had he not turned around and asked the man behind him how the Brooklyn Dodgers were doing. At least he left the island as a prisoner, instead of remaining as a corpse.

By the evening of May 31, the island was fully in American hands, but at a terrible price for both sides. Out of the Japanese defenders, 2,351 were killed and only 29 were taken prisoner. The American figures were 549 killed, 1,148 wounded and about 2,100 listed as casualties from exposure, trench foot and shock.

The subsequent campaign to retake Kiska, which was to involve 34,000 U.S. and Canadian troops, never got past the landings. Unknown to the Americans, the Japanese had come to realize the uselessness of defending such remote positions of minor importance in the overall struggle. When the first Allied units reached the beaches on August 15, 1943, they discovered that the island was defended by four dogs and the corpse of a Japanese soldier. Just three weeks earlier, the 5,000-man garrison occupying the island had been loaded onto transports and had headed back to Japan.

This article was written by Lee F. Bartoletti and originally appeared in the November 2003 issue of World War II. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!

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