Fifteen months of warfare in the frost and fog of subarctic weather ought to be tough to forget. But seven decades after the fight for the Aleutian Islands reached its banzai climax on May 29, 1943, the mistake-plagued allied campaign to drive Japanese forces from North America remains "the forgotten battle."
The campaign does rate a sensational headline: Japan Invades North America. The Aleutians campaign began in early June 1942 when a large Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) task force entered U.S. territorial waters and launched successful amphibious invasions of the Alaskan islands of Attu and Kiska.
Which leads to a second sensational headline: Japanese Invaders Conquer, Fortify U.S. Territory.
At a time when Americans, with good reason, feared a Japanese invasion of Hawaii and the continental U.S. West Coast, Kiska and Attu actually became Japanese Occupied America. On both Kiska and Attu, Japanese troops --occupation troops -- built airfields, barracks and bunkers, and then stationed combat aircraft on bona fide U.S. soil. The Battle of Attu (May 11 to May 30, 1943) was the only World War II land battle fought on incorporated U.S. territory.
Attu lies at the far western end of the Aleutians, where the cold North Pacific approaches the Bering Strait. Kiska is 180 miles east of Attu. Based on a quick scan of the map, the Aleutians look like a logical invasion route. Strategists in Tokyo and Washington saw the islands as stepping stones to the respective enemy homeland. Land-based aircraft could operate from airfields on the bigger stones.
Japanese planners did not think Alaska and British Columbia were realistic objectives. However, blocking a U.S. route to Japan's northern Kurile Islands and denying U.S. strategic bombers northern bases made sense in Tokyo.
After Pearl Harbor, the IJN had the offensive edge. The Aleutian invasion force was the northern prong of the IJN's June 1942 bid to deal the U.S. Navy (USN) a fatal blow. The southern prong is much more famous -- its troops had orders to take Midway Island, a stepping stone to Hawaii. The U.S. victory at Midway dramatically altered the Pacific war. In the latter half of 1942, the great American counteroffensive commenced. Japan's Aleutian garrisons were exposed to U.S. air and naval bombardment and -- even worse -- winter weather.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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