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The Imperial Japanese Navy light aircraft carriers in heavy seas, steaming into the wind 180 miles south of the American naval Ryūjō and Junyō were base at Dutch Harbor, Alaska, as dawn neared on June 3, 1942. To elude U.S. Navy PBY Catalina patrol planes, the fleet, commanded by Rear Admiral Kakuji Kakuta, had hidden in a storm front. Emerging from cover, the carriers each launched a mix of Mitsubishi A6M fighters—called Zeros by the Japanese and Zekes by the Allies—and Nakajima B5N torpedo bombers—Allied codename Kate—whose pilots timed their takeoffs to the pitch of the carriers’ bows as they surged vertically with oncoming waves.

A low ceiling, mist, and turbulence kept the 46 aircraft, led by Lieutenant Masayuki Yamaguchi, from flying in tight formation. Weather forced most of the Junyō aviators back to that carrier, grateful even to be able to find their ship. The remaining planes, mostly from the Ryūjō, continued north, reaching Dutch Harbor at 5:45 a.m. in fine weather, including an uncharacteristic 10,000-foot ceiling.

While Yamaguchi was positioning his Kate for a bomb run, Zeros strafed the naval base, where a Catalina was lumbering down the runway for the daily mail flight to Kodiak, some 600 miles east. More than 100 rounds riddled the PBY, knocking out an engine and killing two sailors. The flying boat caught fire, skidded onto a beach, and crashed. Another Catalina, taxiing in the bay, took fire from a Zero but avoided further damage when its pilot flew up a mountain draw and into the concealing mist.

Though the Japanese killed 25 American servicemen and wounded 25, the raid did relatively little material harm. Yamaguchi rallied his force and led it into a rainsquall to evade P-40 Warhawk fighters from nearby Cold Bay. Now the Japanese embarked on a harrowing return flight, as fog, rain, and turbulence forced Yamaguchi to fly only 50 feet above the deadly North Pacific. Sea spray iced the windshield as he endured his Kate’s unheated cockpit. Yamaguchi looked down at the whitecaps; if he had to ditch, he would live only minutes in those frigid waters. His mood improved when he saw the Ryūjō steaming into the wind, ready to take him and his aviators aboard.

Yamaguchi’s sortie was emblematic of the 14-month Aleutian Campaign, in which the Japanese and the Americans fought not so much one another as they fought weather, geography, and isolation. Like Yamaguchi’s raid, this conflict remains largely forgotten. “Both sides would have done well to have left the Aleutians to the Aleuts,” wrote naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison. The stuttering nature of ground actions there meant the battle was defined largely overhead, as opposing naval and air forces groped for a win in a setting so harsh that mere survival was a victory. But this confrontation had unexpected consequences that resonated through the Pacific Theater, especially in the air.


THE APRIL 18, 1942, Doolittle Raid, launched against Tokyo from the carrier USS Hornet, had staggered the Japanese; no one knew where those American B-25s had come from. Anxious to protect their northern flank, the Japanese decided that grabbing parts of the Aleutian chain would discourage attacks on the home islands while extending the Empire’s security perimeter. Many historians tie the invasion of the Aleutians to Japanese operations at Midway, but the northern campaign was distinct, and not at all the diversion often portrayed.

As the Japanese learned on their first sally, Aleutian weather plays no favorites. The region gets precipitation about 200 days a year. Overcast and thick dense clouds are constant, as are low ceilings, especially in summer. But the ceiling can vary wildly; one American pilot quipped, “The weather goes up and down like a whore’s drawers.” The wind gusts incessantly, often exceeding 24 knots for more than 24 hours straight, and while elsewhere wind and fog do not generally occur at the same time, in the Aleutians they persist together for days on end. The supreme danger is the williwaw, as the Aleuts call local bursts of hurricane-force wind that can exceed 100 knots. During the conflict williwaws were not only a threat to planes in flight but also to parked aircraft, and were the bane of ground crews. When a williwaw forced the cancellation of a scheduled air mission, a U.S. Navy commander called to inquire.

“Nothing around here flying but a few Quonset huts,” the duty officer at Amchitka replied.

Maintenance was a nightmare. At many airfields crews had to work outdoors on makeshift stands. Parts were scarce; crews fabricated what they could and looted hulks. In the cold, hydraulic fluid and oil congealed, grease froze, and crews had to heat engines to get them to turn over. “Don’t figure on getting any serviceable planes back from us,” Eleventh Air Force Chief of Staff Colonel Everett Davis wrote to air chief General Henry “Hap” Arnold. “We have been hard on them.”

After the Dutch Harbor raid, the Americans kept up their search for the enemy, but rain and fog obscured Kakuta’s seven-ship armada. The Japanese had sailed some 900 miles past the Kurile Islands, the Empire’s north edge, carrying 2,500 soldiers of the Special Naval Landing Force assigned to take Kiska and Attu. The elaborate planning for the invasion included designating one of the unpopulated islands, Akutan, as a haven where Japanese pilots in damaged planes were to land and await rescue.

The same weather that protected the Japanese fleet commander vexed him. In support of the landings, Kakuta had planned airstrikes at American bases on Atka and Adak, further to the west, but had to cancel those raids due to the murk.

While Kakuta was waiting early on June 3 for the clouds to break so his force could attack Dutch Harbor, his ships had shown up on the radar of a patrolling Catalina armed with two 500-pound bombs and a torpedo. Maintaining radar contact from above the overcast, the American pilot dove through the clouds and circled the enemy fleet at 1,500 feet. He was lining up for a run at one of the carriers when a cruiser opened fire, severing the seaplane’s left engine oil and fuel lines. The pilot banked, jettisoned his ordnance, and returned to base. Soon after, a dozen B-26s from Umnak and Cold Bay, each carrying a torpedo, flew to the attack. Again the weather closed in, and only one Marauder pilot located the enemy. He tried to use his torpedo as a bomb, flying low over a carrier and attempting to arm the weapon in-flight, but the tin fish overshot the target.

The afternoon of June 3, the weather cleared again. Kakuta decided to strike Dutch Harbor a second time, and launched Zeros, Kates, and Aichi D3A—“Val”—dive-bombers. This raid killed or injured 43 Americans but, like its predecessor, did little damage. The second strike, however, did have long-term consequences.


THE CARRIER BOMBERS’ escort of Zeros included one piloted by Petty Officer First Class Tadayoshi Koga. Before or after hitting Dutch Harbor amid heavy but inaccurate antiaircraft fire, Koga, 19, and two fellow pilots saw a PBY near Egg Island. They downed the Catalina and strafed survivors in a life raft.

At some point a round struck the engine oil return line on Koga’s plane. Realizing his Zero was trailing a black spew, he headed for Akutan, his designated ditching spot. He flew east from Dutch Harbor, with his two compatriots flying guard. Thinking he was looking at a level stretch of clear, firm turf, Koga dropped his flaps, lowered his landing gear, and bore in. But instead of a grassy field, he was setting down on muskeg— boggy ground that masked standing water. The Zero instantly nosed over. The crash snapped Koga’s neck, killing him.

Japanese pilots had standing orders to destroy downed aircraft to keep them out of enemy hands, but Koga’s companions, circling above, did not want to shoot up his Zero until he climbed out. They reconnoitered until low fuel forced them to return to the Ryūjō without having fired a round at the wreck.

Weeks later, a crewman aboard an off-course PBY spotted the upended fighter. A U.S. Navy salvage team recovered the Zero and technicians at North Island, San Diego, repaired it—then dissected the world-class warplane’s performance characteristics. (See “Zero for Nothing,” page 46.) Analysts discovered several vulnerabilities. When a Zero arced over at the top of a climb, for instance, its engine would cut out because its gravity-feed carburetors would not send fuel into the cylinders. The fighter also handled badly at high speed, lacked pilot armor and self-sealing fuel tanks, and rolled more slowly in right turns. These insights eroded the Zero’s mythical reputation and illuminated tactics American pilots could bring to bear against foes flying Zeros.

On June 7, Japanese forces landed on Kiska and Attu, at the Aleutians’ western reaches, establishing a toehold on North America. The 1,250 soldiers of Captain Takeji Ono’s landing force easily overpowered a small U.S. Navy weather detachment on Kiska. Ono’s men quickly fortified the island’s harbor with 75mm cannons and 23mm antiaircraft artillery. The landings at Attu went equally well, as 1,200 men came ashore at Massacre Bay with no American military to oppose them. However, seizing the islands was only the start; maintaining the resulting 900- mile supply line in this setting would prove brutally taxing.

On June 10 an LB-30 Liberator cargo plane crew over Kiska Harbor found a hole in the clouds and went in for a closer look. The Japanese spotted the American plane and opened fire. A Navy PBY reported a similar encounter. Unable to mount a ground offensive, the Americans went after the invaders from the air.

Colonel William Eareckson, head of XI Bomber Command, based at Cold Bay, began attacking the Japanese with B-24s and B-17s from fields on Umnak. To reach Kiska, heavy bomber crews flew a 1,200-mile circuit that demanded extra fuel tanks and smaller payloads. The first few bombers went hitless.

Also anxious for a scrap, Captain Leslie Gehres, Commander of Navy Patrol Wing 4, ordered his PBY crews into the fray. The durable Catalina had a 3,000-mile range and could carry 4,000 pounds of bombs or torpedoes, but was an unlikely combat plane. It had a top speed of only 200 mph and for protection only a few .30-caliber and .50-caliber machine guns. Even so, Gehres threw his planes into a 48-hour bombing marathon. The “Kiska Blitz” saw his pilots employ unusual techniques in their efforts to overcome the terrain, the weather, and Japanese defenses: using clouds as protection, the bomb-laden PBYs would dive through holes in the undercast, drop their ordnance, and pull out at only 500 to 1,000 feet hoping to find cover again in the clouds.

After months of fruitless North Pacific patrols that could easily exceed 10 hours, many U.S. Navy fliers welcomed this mission. Others pilloried Gehres for risking their lives this way. When Gehres directly ordered an airborne PBY to attack the Japanese fleet at Kiska, the radio operator went to the pilot with the message in one hand and his .45 caliber pistol in the other. “You aren’t going to do this,” the radioman asked. “Are you?”

From June 11 to June 13, more than 20 PBYs shuttled constantly over the 650 miles separating Kiska from Atka, where at Nazan Bay the crew of the seaplane tender USS Gillis did yeoman service refueling and rearming Catalinas. Over Kiska, pilots dove through the overcast to drop bombs amid antiaircraft fire that could be punitively accurate. One PBY completed a run with 200 holes from flak or small-arms fire, an engine shot out, and a missing aileron—then hightailed it for the clouds hanging at 500 to 1,500 feet. In addition to Japanese ordnance, crews endured fatigue. Airmen collapsed in bunks that Gillis crewmen voluntarily vacated. One pilot flew more than 19 hours in a 24-hour period. As losses and damage mounted, aviators began referring to Kiska as the “PBY elimination center.”

The three-day long-distance bombing spree ended only when the Gillis ran out of aviation fuel and ammunition. The blitz, which inflicted a few hits on enemy ships, did destroy three four-engined Kawanishi H6K “Mavis” flying boats, as well as damage antiaircraft emplacements on Kiska. Overriding complaints that the bombing marathon had been a waste, Gehres kept up the raids, albeit at a reduced pace, and against resistance by Japanese pilots in newly delivered Nakajima A6M2-N “Rufe” amphibious fighters. During those six weeks, Navy Patrol Wing 4 lost another four PBYs and 19 men. By the end of July, the wing had lost a third of its flying boats.

As the Japanese hunkered in their new holdings, the Americans, hamstrung by distance, weather, and the limits of combat power, turned to harassment bombing of Kiska and Attu. They also sent air and surface attacks against Japanese convoys supplying the lodgments. To beat the overcast, XI Bomber Command’s Eareckson had crews attack the enemy at Kiska by working from a single reference point and using time-distance-heading calculations. Flying for a set time from a fixed point, such as a peak, allowed a pilot to reach his objective without needing to see it. These dead-reckoning runs did little damage, but they kept the Japanese off-balance, interrupted airfield work, and occasionally hit a ship in the harbor or a building.

Weather permitting—a rarity—heavy bombers could attack from the high altitudes that they were built for, but did better coming in low. On September 14, a dozen B-24s escorted by 14 P-38 and 14 P-39 fighters flew from a new American base on Adak and approached Kiska at wave-top—so far down Japanese gunners could not lower their 75mm barrels enough to get a bead on them. The Liberators sank two ships, set three others afire, damaged midget submarines in dry dock as well as a number of buildings, and killed some 200 Japanese soldiers. The P-38s strafed and damaged seven Rufe fighters anchored in the bay. American pilots quickly dispatched another five Rufes that got aloft. From then on Eareckson had his fighters suppress Japanese antiaircraft fire while his bombers delivered low-flying blows.

The Japanese campaign, at first successful, began to drown in operational costs. In June 1942 the seaplane carrier Kimikawa Maru had delivered 18 Rufe fighters to Kiska; by early August, only two were airworthy, as was only one of six huge Mavises at that island. American hectoring had Rufe pilots flying as many six times a day, sapping efficiency and proficiency. And the Americans were not only willing to fly in weather the Japanese loathed but were also tightening a noose of submarines, picket ships, and aircraft around Kiska and Attu, cutting off supplies. Japanese morale sank in fall 1942, when a freighter whose cargo included letters from home reached Kiska only to fall prey to a PBY’s bombs before troops got their mail.

In the second half of 1942, air-war attrition on both sides worsened due to weather and combat. Between June and October, the Eleventh Air Force claimed 45 Japanese aircraft. That fall, the Japanese lost dozens of Rufes and several ships to American attacks. In early October, when the Japanese finally found and attacked the American air base at Adak, their largest raid could only muster three planes. Distance and conditions accounted for most losses. Between July and December the Eleventh Air Force lost 72 planes, only nine of them from combat. In January the unit lost another 11 aircraft, none in combat.

Finally American planners scheduled an assault on Attu for May 11, 1943. Escort carrier USS Nassau arrived off Kiska with 30 F4F-4 Wildcats, but instead of providing air cover the fighters served as observation and naval-gunfire spotting craft. With Japanese air power in the Aleutians withered, pre-invasion strikes at Attu’s enemy garrisons went unhampered.

But air superiority meant nothing. On D-day, the weather was horrible. Fog and clouds socked in the objective from 2,000 feet to the ground. Early in the invasion, airstrikes were few. On May 14, three Wildcat pilots attempting to provide air support dodged beneath the overcast, flew up Jarmin Pass—and were slammed into the mountainside by a williwaw. With 11 of 20 critical days of the assault not flyable, U.S. Army troops recaptured Attu largely without help from above.


HOWEVER, THE JAPANESE did manage to attack from the air. On May 22, a dozen G4M1 “Betty” bombers flying from Paramushir in the northern Kuriles strafed and launched torpedoes at American vessels patrolling the entrance to Holtz Bay, Attu. The torpedoes missed; both ships had only minor strafing damage. The next day, 16 Bettys were making another pass at Attu when a Catalina crew spotted them and summoned five P-38s from Amchitka. Intercepted by the Lightnings, the Betty pilots jettisoned their loads and closed formation. P-38 pilots claimed five, perhaps seven Bettys against two Lightnings lost. The Japanese launched no more airstrikes. By May 30, American forces had secured Attu; within a week they built an airfield at Alexei Point. Now American bombers could strike the Kuriles, and raids began on that extremity of the Japanese homeland.

The Americans now eyed Kiska and its estimated enemy garrison of 5,000. An invasion was set for August 15, 1943, and in mid-July airstrikes began. August 4 marked American fliers’ busiest day: in 134 sorties they dropped 152 tons of bombs. Reconnaissance flights showed no Japanese vehicle movement or effort to repair the runway on Kiska. As on Attu, the D-day weather scrubbed air support, but none was required. In June the Japanese had realized their situation in the Aleutians was untenable and decided Attu’s 5,000 troops should defend the Kuriles instead. Unknown to the Americans, on July 28-29, using two light cruisers and five submarines, the Japanese secretly and efficiently evacuated the entire garrison without a loss.

Even though it slid into the shadows of history, the battle for the Aleutians did affect the course of the war beyond improving intelligence about the Zero. Mounting a defense against the threat of invasion from the north and bombings in the Kuriles kept some 500 planes and 40,000 Japanese troops far from the fighting elsewhere in the Pacific, and an empire chronically short on men and material could hardly afford the price of keeping Kiska and Attu in a conflict in which nature would be the true victor. Despite the Aleutians’ limited utility, the enemy invasion demanded that the United States eject the Japanese interlopers from its soil. Having satisfied their moral imperative, the Americans then took on the cost in lives and resources of bombing sorties further west. As Samuel Eliot Morison suggests, the entire sideshow might have been avoided. The Japanese assaulted the Aleutians in part to discourage American encroachment on the Kuriles—triggering an American counterattack that culminated in the very action Japan sought to preclude.


Originally published in the June 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.