Since human beings can’t remember everything that happens in the past, they concoct what we usually call a “historical narrative”—an accepted list of events and episodes, a kind of shorthand. We certainly have one for World War II, and battles that fit the narrative become immortal, while battles that don’t, get lost.
Consider the Aleutians campaign. The islands of Attu and Kiska define the word “remote,” as in “500 miles from Kamchatka, 1,100 from Nome.” The Japanese seize them in June 1942 prior to their great offensive at Midway, perhaps as a diversion to lure American attention away from the intended target, perhaps to protect the flank of their drive toward the east. They meet little opposition. The United States has barely 45,000 men in all of sprawling Alaska, widely dispersed at bases like Cold Bay (on the Alaskan Peninsula proper) or Dutch Harbor and Fort Glenn Army Airfield, both in the Aleutians.
The Japanese landings are small-scale, but they are a milestone. However faraway the Aleutian Islands may be, they do lie in North America, the first (and only) time Japanese ground forces breach the continent. The Japanese dig in on the islands and launch highly destructive bombing raids on Dutch Harbor; the Americans respond in kind, building an air base on Adak Island and striking back at Kiska and Attu. Mirroring the air raids is action aplenty at sea, with submarines of both sides preying on enemy destroyers. The surface fleets even stage a brisk little daylight action off the Komandorski Islands.
Finally, in May 1943, the Republic strikes back, landing forces of the U.S. 7th Infantry Division on Attu. The fighting is ferocious. The weather is horrible, the terrain a frozen, featureless tundra. The Japanese hold the high ground, and fire, frostbite, and disease take a toll on attacking American forces. They grind forward inexorably, though, and force the defenders into a smaller and smaller enclave around the appropriately named Massacre Bay. Colonel Yasuyo Yamasaki’s forces are outmanned, unsupplied, and desperate—so they do what Japanese soldiers tend to do in World War II: launch a last-second banzai bayonet charge that slashes through American lines before being stopped cold by hand-to-hand fighting and superior American fire. The fighting on Attu generates nearly 6,000 casualties on both sides, including almost 3,000 men killed in action and 1,800 injured from the cold or disease.
Attu teaches the Allies a lesson about Japanese intentions to die hard, and so the next Allied landing, on Kiska, is a massive affair, involving no fewer than 35,000 American and Canadian troops. This operation goes smoothly, and well it should: the Japanese have already evacuated the island.
All these events are dramatic enough, but they’re nearly forgotten. Indeed, Dutch Harbor is best known to Americans today because of a television show about the Alaskan King Crab fishing industry.
Why? Blame the narrative. To most of us, the Pacific War consists of two American strategic thrusts: Admiral Chester W. Nimitz driving across the central Pacific while General Douglas MacArthur leads troops up from the southwest. The Aleutians lie so far north they are off that map altogether. Likewise, our popular image of the Pacific envisions lush tropical islands with palm trees swaying—exotic places with musical names like Tarawa, Guadalcanal, and Vella Lavella. Kiska and Attu are two chunks of blasted heath, cursed places that are unlikely to be on anyone’s list of vacation spots.
It may be unfair, but it’s hard to imagine Hollywood making a musical called North Pacific, and no one will ever confuse Attu with Bali Ha’i. ✯