Both sides learned that the isolated, rugged Aleutians are a difficult place to supply, much less fight. The weather, wicked currents, uncharted rocks and U.S. submarines hindered Japanese supply ships. A March 1943 IJN attempt to reinforce the garrisons led to the Battle of the Komandorski Islands, an encounter historian Samuel Eliot Morison argued "has no parallel in the Pacific war." Southeast of Siberian Russia's Kamchatka peninsula, IJN and USN warships fought a World War I style long-range gun duel, without the presence of combat aircraft.
On May 11, 1943, after days of foul weather and high seas, 11,000 U.S. soldiers invaded Attu. At the beach, they met sporadic resistance. The Japanese had prepared defenses in Attu's rugged valleys and ridges. For 18 days, pockets of Japanese infantry fought to the last man. At 0330 on May 29, over 1,000 Japanese soldiers trapped near Massacre Bay launched one of the war's largest banzai suicide attacks. The attackers broke the U.S. line and overran two headquarters and a medical station, where they stabbed wounded U.S. soldiers. When U.S. units counterattacked, surviving fanatics committed suicide using hand grenades. On Attu, 2,351 Japanese died; the U.S. took 28 prisoners. Attu cost 549 U.S. killed in action, 1,148 wounded, 1,200 very severe cold weather injuries and 900 other non-combat casualties. Attu may be forgotten, but it wasn't easy.
Kiska repeated Attu's tragedy as tragic farce. On Aug. 15, after weeks of bad weather, 35,000 U.S. and Canadian troops assaulted Kiska. The allied soldiers met fog and mist at the beaches, but no resistance. On Aug. 17, troops "groping through a clammy fog" (Morison's description) found the Japanese main base deserted. The Japanese had evacuated Kiska on July 28 -- a very foggy day.
Intelligence failure? In every sense. In the fog and mist, fratricidal gunfire killed 25 allied soldiers and wounded 31. That is a lesson no one should forget.
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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