Aleutian Campaign remembered during Air Force Ball|
Posted 9/14/2012 Updated 9/14/2012
Commentary by Air Force Staff Sgt. Angel Carrasco
673d Logistics Readiness Squadron
9/14/2012 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- Editor's note, this year's Air Force Ball, hosted Saturday 6 p.m. at the Dena'ina Center, will highlight the Battle of Dutch Harbor and the Aleutian Campaign.
As we celebrate the 65th birthday of the Air Force, we - as Alaskans and Airmen - take a moment to reflect on Air Force history. The Air Force played a vital role in the Battle of Dutch Harbor and the Aleutian campaign right here on Alaska soil.
On June 3, 1942, the Japanese launched two attacks against the U.S. Naval Base at Dutch Harbor and nearby Fort Mears as a diversion from its planned offensive against Midway Island the following day. After the two day offensive, Japanese forces landed on and took control of Kiska, an isolated island inhabited only by a handful of military personnel manning a weather station.
The Japanese military captured every American military member on the island and sent them to Japan, where they were placed in POW camps. The next day, the Japanese landed on the island of Attu, where the invasion force surprised the Aleuts during morning church services. All 42 inhabitants were taken prisoner. Forty of them were sent to Japan for the remainder of the war, but only 24 survived and only one of the four children born in captivity survived.
Though Kiska and Attu had little strategic value for either country, the United States was unwilling to allow the enemy to occupy American soil. Reinforcements were sent to Alaska and only then did the real campaign began.
The battle was brutal as a result of the unpredictable weather, the bleak and rugged terrain, and the confused command relationships between the Navy and Army. The operation was primarily an air war, conducted by bombers and fighters of the Eleventh Bomber Command and the Eleventh Fighter Command.
The first phase of the campaign involved the occupation of the uninhabited island of Adak and the construction of a runway, which put U.S. forces within 250 miles of Kiska.
The next phase moved U.S. forces to the island of Amchitka, which provided a launching point for an amphibious assault to retake Kiska in early May 1943. However, the Navy convinced the Joint Chiefs of Staff that Kiska could be bypassed and Attu taken easily.
Accordingly, on May 11 1943, after training in California for desert warfare in North Africa, the 7th Infantry Division invaded a mountainous, cold, damp and fog-shrouded Attu Island. The plan called for two landings, which would then join up in the Jarmin Pass behind the main Japanese forces at Holtz Bay and Chichagof Harbor. The trapped enemy forces could then be dealt with by sustained aerial and sea bombardment. The whole operation was expected to last three days.
Instead of the 500 Japanese troops they were expecting, the 7th Infantry Division faced more than 2,300 Japanese troops. Fighting was fierce, and the planned aerial bombardment was prevented by bad weather, as was usual in the Aleutians. The battle finally came to an end May 29, when the surviving Japanese made a suicide charge that almost broke through American positions.
Augie Hiebert, the first Alaskan to hear of the assault on Pearl Harbor and father of communications in Alaska, said a friend of his was a reporter on Attu with the Americans. Since they were trained for desert combat, the troops were outfitted for desert combat as well.
Though some military leaders tried to tell the commanding general the troops needed heavier boots and better gear, they were ignored. Hiebert's friend reported that many men came crawling to the beach from the fighting areas because they could not walk due to frostbite on their feet. Many young men were injured from the cold because they were not given the right equipment.
The final stage of the Aleutian campaign was the retaking of Kiska. Using the lessons learned from the invasion of Attu, a larger assault force was gathered to fight the estimated 5,000 Japanese on the island.
On Aug. 15, 1943, U.S. forces arrived onshore only to discover the enemy had abandoned the garrison on 28 July. The occupation of Kiska marked the end of the Aleutian campaign. The Aleutian campaign accounted for the highest operational loss of aircraft in any theater of the war. About 75 percent of those losses were due to causes other than combat, particularly the weather.
This moment in history shall never be forgotten. It reminds every American military force the importance of protecting this astonishing piece of land we call Alaska.