How many of us remember that the only time ever in history, that American soil was actually occupied was also in WWII, in part of the Aleutian Islands, and it was 65 years ago today that Dutch Harbor, Alaska (the “home base” so to speak, of Deadliest Catch), was attacked by Japanese forces. This information is from nps.gov
“The island of Unalaska, in the heart of the Aleutian Chain, is approximately 80 square miles in size with an elevation as high as 6,680 feet at the top of Makushin Volcano. The Port of Dutch Harbor, which is part of the City of Unalaska, is located on Amaknak Island and is connected to Unalaska by bridge. The current day population of the City of Unalaska is about 4,300. The population triples between August and May due to the arrival of commercial fisherman.” Unalaska is approximately 792 miles by air south and west of Anchorage.
December 7th, 1941 was proclaimed to be a day that would live in infamy by then President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, as a result of the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Hawaii of course isn’t connected to nor is it physically part of the contiguous 48 States. The attack on Pearl Harbor thus presented itself to Americans living on the “mainland” as an event that took place in a somewhat detached and remote location, given that Hawaii is located some 2,400 miles to the west of San Francisco by air.
On the 3rd and 4th of June, 1942, six months after the attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor, they attacked and bombed the port of Dutch Harbor. Now, Dutch Harbor, being around 792 miles from Anchorage, AK, is a little closer to home. You’d think that the mainland Americans would be outraged, concerned to the maximum extent…but given that American soil was attacked directly by the Japanese, and that this was seen as a demoralizing factor, the military clamped down on any news reporting of this event. Little was known at the time in the lower 48 about this attack on Dutch Harbor.
U.S. forces at Fort Mears met the first attack on June 3, with antiaircraft and small arms fire, but on June 4, the Aleutian Tigers (eight P-40s), engaged the Japanese planes in aerial dogfights. The U.S. planes were launched from Cape Field at Fort Glenn, a secret airbase on neighboring Umnak Island. The Japanese had thought the nearest airfield was on Kodiak, and Cape Field, disguised as a cannery complex, had remained undetected. The surprise aerial counter-attack destroyed four Val dive bombers and one Zero.
In the following days, U.S. amphibious and bomber aircraft searched the Pacific Ocean for the Japanese carriers and their escort ships, with Zeros. Low visibility weather exacted a heavy toll on the search planes. Of six Catalinas that came within sight of the Japanese fleet, four were downed by Japanese fighters, another was lost in the fog.
Notwithstanding the tragic loss of American lives, the first forty-eight hours of the Aleutian Campaign exacted little substantive damage on U.S. or Japanese forces. No Japanese vessels were damaged and Fort Schwatka at Dutch Harbor was quickly repaired. What had quickly become apparent to both sides however, was the role the capricious Aleutian weather would play in the campaign; at times an unpredictable ally, at times an uncertain foe. Weather claimed more than its share of lives. Soldiers shot their own in the fog; unable to penetrate fog and clouds, ships were thrown against rocks and sunk in heavy seas; pilots met the sides of mountains in low overcast skies, or flew off course never to be seen again.
|December 7, 1941
March 31, 1942
June 3, 1942
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June 7, 1942
August 30, 1942
September 14, 1942
September 20, 1942
January 12, 1943
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May 11, 1943
May 29, 1943
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July 28, 1943
August 15, 1943
Hostilities begin in the Pacific
On May 11, 1943, two contingents of U.S. soldiers, numbering approximately 12,500 men in total, landed on the north and south ends of Attu Island and began pressing towards the Japanese strongholds at Holtz Bay and Chichagof Harbor. Progress was slow and costly. Eight days of heavy fighting passed before the South Landing Force climbed its way out of Massacre Bay. The North Landing Force, amongst their numbers the unorthodox Alaska Scouts, forced the Japanese from Holtz Bay, then continued towards Jarmin Pass and the North Landing Force to complete the pincer movement. The approximately 2,300 Japanese troops that remained had retreated to the wild heights of Fish Hook Ridge above Chichagof Valley, waiting for reinforcements. None arrived. On May 23, a force of sixteen Japanese Betty bombers was met by U.S. P-38 Lightnings over Attu. Five of the Japanese bombers were downed. It was the last attempt by the Japanese to support their Aleutian troops by air.On the ground, American forces had increased to 15,000. Air strikes and U.S. ground force assaults up the precipitous Fish Hook Ridge further diminished Japanese forces. On May 29, Colonel Yamasaki, and the remainder of his Attu troops, numbering 750 or less, broke through American lines in a desperate attempt to reach Massacre Bay and needed stockpiles of U.S. supplies. They were finally halted at Engineer Hill, as a hastily organized U.S. defense repelled wave after wave of banzai attacks. Those Japanese troops that were not killed by U.S. fire, took their own lives. In the end, of the 2,300 Japanese troops, fewer than thirty soldiers of the North Sea Garrison were left alive, many ashamed that they had dishonored themselves by surrender. American dead numbered 549.
Escape from Kiska
After the expulsion of the Japanese from Attu, U.S. naval and aerial bombardment of Kiska increased in fervor. Japanese submarines attempted to evacuate the estimated 5,100 Japanese troops on the island, but the process proved too slow, and far too dangerous with a tightened U.S. blockade. On July 28, under the cover of thick fog, Japanese cruisers and destroyers managed to slip through U.S. naval forces and aerial reconaissance without detection. In thirty minutes, the 5,100 Kiska troops were boarded, and the fleet headed back to the safety of Paramishiro Harbor. The evacuation was so bold and well executed, U.S. commanders refused to believe it had taken place. However, U.S. fighters strafing Kiska no longer received return anti-aircraft fire. In one instance, four U.S. P-40s landed on the shell pocked Kiska airfield. The pilots left their planes and strolled near the runway, seeing no sigh of the enemy. In spite of this evidence, U.S. intelligence argued that the Japanese adherance to the Bushido Code forbade them from surrendering Kiska without a fight. The lessons of Attu, America’s first experience with Japanese suidice attacks, had been too well elarned. The invasion of Kiska prodeeded as planned. On August 15, 1943, U.S. and Canadian troops landed on Kiska. In the three day operation that ensued, over 313 allied soldiers died from “friendly fire,” booby traps, and land mines. The Japanese had occupied U.S. territory for over a year before being routed at Attu. Not since the War of 1812 had a foreign battle been fought on American soil.