The Optical Aleutian
The Optical Aleutian

When American forces attempted to drive the Japanese from the Aleutian island of Kiska in August 1943, they found an unexpected enemy.

By Russell Martin


As Robert Parker departed from San Francisco Bay aboard the troop ship Zeilin in July 1943, the 22-year-old soldier felt the weight of his family’s military heritage. General Artemas Ward, his eighth great-grandfather, had once served as General George Washington’s second-in-command during the American Revolution. Captain John Parker, an ancestor on his father’s side, had led minutemen at Lexington, Massachusetts, in the first battle of the Revolutionary War. Most recently, Parker’s great-uncle, General Oliver Otis Howard, had commanded Union Army troops during the Civil War.

Equally determined to serve his country, the young Parker had dropped out of St. Lawrence University in 1941 to join the United States Army’s new ski unit, the 10th Mountain Division. After two years of training on the glacial slopes of Washington’s Mount Rainier, on Colorado’s towering snowscapes, and on California’s beaches, he was now a bona fide mountain soldier, assigned to the 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment. Parker had also qualified for the new intelligence and reconnaisance (I&R) platoon attached to his unit. Although eager for the opportunity to fight, Parker knew that his service might require the most fundamental kind of sacrifice.

After meeting their troop ship in San Francisco, the young and eager GIs of Parker’s unit had tried to figure out where they were going. The best guesses seemed to be enemy-occupied Burma, or perhaps the Japanese island of Hokkaido. Some thought they were bound for the Aleutians, the island chain that trailed away toward Asia from the southwestern tip of Alaska. As Zeilin steamed westward across the Pacific Ocean on July 29, 1943, it made a sudden and decided turn to the north, and the soldiers suddenly had their answer. Apparently they were the last to know. As they listened to the reassuring voices of the Andrews Sisters on short-wave radio, Japanese propaganda voice “Tokyo Rose” periodically interrupted the music to chillingly warn “all you boys on the Zeilin headed for Kiska Island” that a big surprise awaited them.

Kiska Island, Alaska Territory, was little more than a 4,000-foot volcanic mountain surrounded by a steep succession of hills, but it was American property under Japanese control. Japanese infantry had seized it, and the nearby island of Attu, a year earlier. Just two months before Robert Parker set sail with the 87th, 11,000 poorly prepared American troops had sustained heavy casualties while recapturing tiny Attu. They had been hampered by atrocious weather typical of the north Pacific–dense, pea soup-like fog punctuated by periods of high wind and cold, heavy rain. Shrouded in the mist covering the steep ridges of the 15-mile-wide outcrop, the hidden Japanese soldiers would open fire on the American troops slowly making their way inland, then silently slip away. It was nightmarish combat that ended only after the Americans wiped out the entire 2,500-man Japanese force.

With Attu cleared of any Japanese presence, American intelligence expected fierce resistance from the thousands of Japanese soldiers on Kiska. For 10 months United States warships and bombers had harassed the intruders with a steady rain of shells and bombs in preparation for an eventual amphibious assault. That invasion was now coming in the form of a joint army-navy task force made up of a large part of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and about 34,000 men­including the 87th Mountain Regiment, U.S. Army infantry, American Marines, and 5,300 Canadian troops. The 87th would have no use for their skis on the island’s muddy, rocky terrain. As Zeilin pitched its way toward Alaska, the soldiers learned that the attack would depend heavily on the element of surprise. Tokyo Rose’s apparent knowledge of their destination, however, made surprise seem unlikely.

Early in the 2,000-mile trek to the Aleutians, Parker managed to get himself selected for regular deck watch. Army enlisted men on deck watch shared meals with the navy men, whose food actually seemed palatable, and welcomed such small pleasures as hot, round-the-clock coffee and a night’s escape from the sardine-can sleeping conditions below deck. Parker slept on deck as often as he could manage it–quietly pulling back a lifeboat cover and crawling beneath it with his sleeping bag, to be lulled to sleep by the drone of the ship’s engines.

Corporal Leo “Oley” Kohlman, at age 32 an old man compared to most of the soldiers, had to endure the cramped conditions below Zeilin’s deck. He shared a cabin with 11 other soldiers, and his narrow bunk with all of his heavy gear and his cold M-1 rifle. Kohlman, a raconteur and practical joker, was the supplier of everything from underwear to ammunition for the 87th’s Company K. His additional duties as company armorer and artificer included overseeing, maintaining, and giving instruction on all the unit’s weapons.

During the long journey to the Aleutians, Kohlman spent much of his time issuing special gear such as gas masks and blanket-lined pants, and inserting rounds into the many hundreds of automatic rifle magazines awaiting use. He and his subordinates spent more time screwing fuses onto the thousands of hand grenades stored in wooden crates like so many bottles of soda pop.

The men did find time for more leisurely activities, such as playing pinochle, telling stories, or just thinking about what lay ahead. The army was expecting heavy casualties on Kiska–estimates ran as high as 90 percent–and Kohlman knew that his first campaign might be his last. “But I didn’t really sweat it,” he remembers. “I wasn’t religious. I wasn’t a Catholic any more. But I thought, well, if I come back alive or if I don’t, I’ve had a good life. I’ve done what I wanted to for 10 or 11 years. I just never dwelt on it, I don’t guess.”

Like Parker, Kohlman had been more than willing to register for the military draft. Having been a trapper, cowboy, and skier in Colorado, he responded enthusiastically to the formation of the mountain units. While the 87th was still in training, Kohlman had been detailed to familiarize himself with Japanese weapons—pistols, rifles, machine guns, and even rocket launchers and grenades—so that if they were picked up on the battlefield they might be put to good use. Samples of each weapon were aboard Zeilin, and Kohlman continued his studies whenever he could. He couldn’t help thinking that if the fighting proved as fierce as most of the men feared it would, he just might get the chance to use the weapons himself.

On August 9, after more than 10 days at sea, Zeilin and the rest of the fleet stopped off at Adak Island, 200 miles east of Kiska. For three days the soldiers made final preparations for the invasion and hoped for a miraculous improvement in the weather. Back aboard their ships for the final leg of their journey, many of the men grew jittery and nervous. Regular army-issue crew cuts were modified to suit the coming conflict. Many soldiers had Mohawk-style stripes shaved onto their naked scalps; others left only bold “X”s or jagged lightning bolts. The ceaseless card games seemed to have lost their allure, while the horseplay and the bickering ebbed. Letters addressed to sweethearts, parents, and friends now took on special urgency.

With the squadron of ships anchored in the Bering Sea off the northwest coast of Kiska on the night of August 14, the thousands of soldiers consumed their last meals before they stormed ashore. Oley Kohlman ate heartily but many men only picked distractedly at their food. Platoon and company commanders urged their men to get as much rest as they could. With their nerves taut and minds worriedly focused on the coming task, however, the soldiers found sleeping just about impossible. They could do little more than lie on their bunks and think, until sometime in the middle of the night when the loudspeakers began to blare. D-day on Kiska had officially arrived.

The first phase of the attack plan called for a three-battalion formation of mountain troops to follow a smaller scouting party ashore at a protected cove on the northwest side of the island. Additional landings would be made in the following days. These lead commandos were to scale the steep slopes and “seek out and contact the enemy” on the ridgelines where the Japanese soldiers were believed to be entrenched. After the balance of the infantry had disembarked on the island, the entire force would “prepare to launch a coordinated attack for the complete destruction of the enemy.”

From the outset, the invasion plan’s flaws proved frighteningly obvious. An advance party of rangers slipped onto the island in the early morning darkness, but did not immediately report its findings. Meanwhile, simply getting the first wave of mountain soldiers and their gear loaded into assault boats took far too long. As searchlights skittered across the choppy surface of the sea, army officers cursed their navy comrades through megaphones, and soldiers struggled to climb down from the ships on nets and squeeze into the bobbing landing craft. The various boats began to back up, and soon the tiny cove was snarled with dozens of landing craft that couldn’t reach the cramped beach. Amid much shouting, the transports finally began to bump past one another to let their heavy ramps thud down on the wet sand, and the impatient soldiers inside them stumbled out into knee-deep water and lunged for solid ground.

As Leo Kohlman recalls, it was nearly noon before he and the rest of K Company waded ashore on Kiska Island, six long, edgy hours after the first disorganized wave of soldiers stormed up the mud-slicked, green sod slopes. Fortunately, they encountered no resistance. Yet as the members of the small supply contingent made their way with their heavy packs across the beach toward the imposing hills, they met four stunned soldiers carrying a dead man back toward the water, his body bloodied and soaked. No one spoke, not even the normally garrulous Kohlman. This grim welcome to combat washed away any remaining visions of glory the young troops might still have harbored.

On the island’s ridge-tops, soldiers worked desperately to dig foxholes in the matted, root-gnarled tundra. Messengers circulated among platoons with word that abandoned enemy bunkers had been encountered up ahead, some still containing caches of food and ammunition; one rumor held that the Japanese had even abandoned a hot container of tea. Shells fired from the supporting warships steadily exploded in the distance, and sometimes very close at hand. Radio communication was faulty, and platoon and company leaders couldn’t be sure how to proceed as long as the enemy continued its apparent retreat.

With nightfall came rain, and heavy fog off the Bering Sea rolled across the island like a thick, icy blanket. Gunfire suddenly began ringing out, and soldiers dove into their shallow foxholes which were already filling with water. Rifle shots cracked in the heavy rain; tracer bullets whistled overhead, ricocheting off rocks and scudding into the soil and mud; machine guns rattled incessantly, while loud, angry artillery fire continued to boom out of the blackness. Kohlman remembers, “What I learned that night was that your first night in combat you just dig a deep hole and occupy the very bottom of it.”

Fear and dread permeated the dark, misty air of Kiska. The young soldiers had been imbued by their officers with intense fear of the mysterious Japanese soldiers, and in the darkness and fog they expected to be bayoneted at any moment. A second lieutenant named Roger Eddy remembered that they “were all scared stiff; we were green; and everybody expected to die.” Death seemed to be lurking everywhere. Eventually, as Eddy later recalled, a machine gunner spotted some figures approaching and opened up, and “then everyone started shooting.”

As the gray sky brightened over the bleak landscape the next morning, Eddy and the men around him awoke to the realization of what had happened. In the confusion of the previous night, American and Canadian soldiers had fired at each other. “We were exhausted, disgusted, and ashamed. And we knew we’d done all the killing ourselves,” Eddy recalled. Light rain continued to fall, but one by one, the soldiers eased themselves out of their holes to stretch their legs in a kind of exhausted daze before taking cover again. Radios broadcast static-filled casualty reports, and soldiers began to shout from hole to hole to see if friends had survived the night. Kohlman, meanwhile, sought out a nearby officer and told him that he had not heard any Japanese weapons. “He told me I couldn’t tell the difference,” Kohlman remembers. Kohlman explained to the lieutenant that he knew those weapons well, and he was certain none had been fired during the night. The frustrated corporal returned to his cold, muddy foxhole, convinced that neither the army nor navy brass knew who or what they were fighting.

Robert Parker came within a whisper of adding to the death count during that sober second day on Kiska. As part of the 87th’s I&R platoon, he had been constantly on the move in the 30 hours since he had waded ashore. Walking alone through the blanketing fog to rejoin his unit after escorting an infantry company to a new position, Parker was startled when the figure of a single soldier suddenly materialized out of the mist. Equally taken aback, the other man immediately pointed his gun in Parker’s direction. “Paul,” Parker managed to call through his terror. He had nearly shot it out with company mate Paul Dunn. Their nerves remained shaken by the close call for the rest of the day, a condition not helped by the renewed shooting that filled the second night.

By the morning of August 17, 48 hours after the start of the invasion, bodies of fallen soldiers had been wrapped in their ponchos and laid aside until they could be carried back down to the beach. In the welcome sunshine of that morning, troops on the island’s high volcanic ground began to crawl out of their holes to search for friends, rations, or personal effects abandoned or lost during the fighting in the disorienting mist. The exhausted men began to mutter disgustedly that the Japanese had somehow figured out a way to make themselves invisible. As far as the task force command was concerned, however, the Japanese forces had probably anticipated the invasion and moved to the island’s southern side. They had to be routed, and before mounting another assault, the Allied forces needed to know precisely where the enemy was.

Robert Parker and his I&R unit comrades received orders to troop across the island and find the enemy. “We thought we were going into the jaws of death,” Parker recalls. “None of us was sure whether we’d ever climb back up those hills.” Half expecting an ambush, the small group nervously hiked their way over the barren landscape. All that was visible was a new batch of dense fog; the soldiers’ tension built, and they fought “the urge to fire every bit of ammunition [they] had out into the fog, just in case there was someone out there.” Finally, the reconnaissance party came across a Japanese artillery installation. It was deserted.

After thoroughly searching the area for signs of life and hidden booby traps, the unit reported their findings, or the lack of them, by radio. At this point the group began “to wonder out loud about the possibility that had been gnawing at the backs of our minds, I think, since very early on,” Parker recalls. “Maybe there weren’t any [Japanese] at all on Kiska Island.”

The men had good reason for their doubts. More than two weeks before the invasion, Japanese ships had daringly slipped through the navy’s blockade and evacuated the last of the island’s 5,600-man garrison. In retrospect, all the signs had been there. Japanese radio on Kiska had gone off the air on July 28, and American bomber pilots flying over the island since then had not received a single round of antiaircraft fire. Four 11th Air Force P-40 pilots had even landed on Kiska’s bombed-out runway to confirm their own suspicions that the island was deserted. Still, Rear Admiral Thomas Kinkaid had ordered the invasion to go on as planned. Even if the enemy had left, he had concluded, the assault would be a “super dress rehearsal, good for training purposes.”

For the troops on the ground, confirmation of the shocking truth came as a kind of final blow after witnessing the miserable conditions and the loss of at least 20 fellow soldiers. The lone enemy casualty was a Japanese soldier found dead of natural causes. The massive effort had been unnecessary, diverting essential funds, ships, and soldiers from other fronts where the war truly raged.

For the men of the 87th, the introduction to combat had been disastrous in every respect. Although considered an elite fighting force, they had been humiliated in their initial foray, not by the enemy but by themselves. As the spent and shaken men wandered aimlessly about, they seemed sick at heart. All that remained to do was await their own evacuation from an island they hadn’t needed to capture.

Down on the beach at Kiska Harbor, still on their own and feeling more relieved than broken, the I&R patrol made camp. Certain now that they weren’t in any danger, the soldiers built a large fire and tried to dry out. Three men waded into the cold water and emerged holding fat and flopping salmon. At the end of that very odd and unsettling day, the small group ate a glorious salmon supper and sat around the fire long into the night, talking about what had happened and how it had gone so wrong, imagining the next fight and whether they might be lucky enough to be on skis when it came.

The following morning, a special unit of engineers wound its way down from the hilltops to the harbor to begin sweeping the shoreline with metal detectors, searching for Japanese mines and booby traps. “We were still hanging around there, waiting for orders,” Robert Parker recalls, “and the engineers were moving along the beach, and then right where we had built our fire, they began to get a loud beep, beep, beep.”

What the engineers uncovered after an hour of slow, painstaking probing with bayonets was a pressure-activated platter mine, designed to explode when a heavy vehicle crossed it. Neither the piled wood nor the troopers’ collective weight had been enough to detonate the mine, and it seemed likely that the fine shingle on the beach had dissipated the fire’s heat, surely saving many lives.

In the end, the United States had achieved its objective; it had driven the Japanese out of American territory. Although the Kiska campaign may have helped with planning for future island invasions, it was an incomprehensible waste of life and resources to the GIs who went ashore. Parker shakes his head with that final memory of Kiska–his first glimpse at the freakish vagaries of war. “Twice I’d already come very close to getting killed,” he says, “and not in a way I’d ever imagined I might. I really began to wonder whether I, or any of us, had much of what you could call a future.”

Colorado resident Russell Martin is the author of one novel and numerous non-fiction books.

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