When Allied troops moved to retake the Alaskan island of Attu in 1943, the place itself proved tougher than the Japanese

In 1942 Japan believed that by seizing Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and adjacent sea-lanes, it could prevent the United States from attacking from the north. Thus on June 3, 1942, a Japanese aircraft carrier task force attacked the U.S. military installation at Dutch Harbor on Amaknak Island, after which troops landed unopposed on Kiska on June 6 and Attu on June 7. For nearly a year the North Pacific remained a cold, dreary sideshow. On May 11, 1943, the Allies launched Operation Landcrab, as units from the 17th Infantry Regiment of the 7th Infantry Division landed on Attu, supported by two fighter-bomber squadrons and one recon squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force. Defending the island was the 301st Independent Infantry Battalion under Col. Yasuyo Yamasaki, whose well-prepared defenses inflicted heavy losses. On May 29, however, with his men cornered in Chichagof Harbor, Yamasaki led them in a banzai charge that ended organized resistance. The battle had cost the Americans 549 killed, 1,148 wounded and 1,814 sidelined by cold or disease. Of the 2,900 defenders, 2,351 were killed and only 28 taken prisoner. On July 28 a small Japanese naval force evacuated Kiska’s entire garrison in heavy fog under the noses of American and Canadian forces. The Aleutian campaign was over. For the rest of the war North Pacific operations centered on U.S. bombing attacks against the Japanese naval base at Paramushir in the Kuril Islands.

 

  • Troops of the 17th Infantry Regiment use grenades and small arms to clear a Japanese gun emplacement during the 19-day battle to reclaim Attu. (University of Alaska Fairbanks)
  • Bleak, mountainous Attu had a prewar population of 47 people, most of whom lived in Attu village on the shore of Chichagof Harbor. They were sent to an internment camp in Japan, where 16 of them died. (Library of Congress)
  • Members of the Japanese 301st Independent Infantry Battalion rest after coming ashore at Attu on June 7, 1942. They had landed unopposed. (HistoryNet Collection)
  • Japanese troops sight in an artillery piece from a dug-in position. By the time of the May 11, 1943, Allied landings most of the island’s defenders occupied high ground inland and offered little opposition. (University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections)
  • U.S. troops unload gear and supplies from landing craft at Massacre Bay on May 12. Tundra and thick mud made it difficult to distribute vital materials, including cold-weather gear and rations. (U.S. Navy (Naval History Heritage Command))
  • A 105 mm howitzer battery dug in near Massacre Bay fires at targets on the slopes of a nearby mountain. The desperate Japanese later sought to overrun similar positions with banzai charges. (Frederic Lewis (Getty Images))
  • U.S. soldiers carry a fallen comrade to an aid station. Many rear-echelon troops, medical personnel and bed- ridden wounded were killed when the Japanese broke through the front on May 29. (Library of Congress)
  • Following their failed, last-ditch banzai charge against American positions on Engineer Hill, hundreds of Japanese soldiers killed themselves with grenades, bayonets and firearms. (University of Alaska Fairbanks)
  • The rusting cases from .50-caliber machine-gun rounds line a trench on Attu. They bear mute testimony to the ferocity of the only World War II land battle fought on incorporated U.S. territory. (Galaxiid (Alamy Stock Photo))