(Painting by Artist Tomoharu Mikami-)
“Hang on” I hear you all say “The US was never invaded by Japan, Or was it?”
Well yes and no , not all of the US was invaded but technically Japanese troops did set foot on American soil.
In the early morning of 6 June 1942, 500 Japanese soldiers landed on Kiska, one of the Aleutian Islands of Alaska.
They took the only inhabitants of the island, a ten man (and six dog) US Navy Weather Detachment by complete surprise and quickly took control of American soil.
Kiska Aerological Unit, Dec. 1941 – May, 1942
“Explosion” (dog, in front)
Frt row – McCandless, J.C. (Cook 3c); Christensen, R. (RdM 2/c); Winfrey, W.M. (AG 2/c); Palmer, G.T. (S 1/c); Gaffey, W.T. (S 1/c)
Back row – Turner, J.L. (AG 2/c); Coffield, R.L. (PharM); House, W.C. (AG 1/c); Nulla (Lt?); Eckles, L.L. (GunM); Yagnoneli, L (PhotoM); Courntenay, M.L. (RdM 3/c) Nulla and Yagnoneli were returned to Dutch Harbor via ship. They were not captured.
Photo courtesy National Archives
High up in the northern Pacific, the Aleutians are indeed remote, but they were considered very strategically important in a global war. The Japanese thought their American foothold would stop American ships from travelling in the northern Pacific to attack them, the Americans feared they could be used as an air base against the population centres of the West Coast.
Because the battle for the Aleutians coincided with the massive Guadalcanal Campaign history has somewhat forgotten this tussle for American territory, and some historians have suggested the Japanese invasion was primarily a diversion.
In fact, the Japanese had had their eyes on the Aleutians from well before the war. They came well prepared in June 1942, while the Americans had to rush defence forces to this far outpost of their empire. The terrible weather did more damage to the Japanese advance than their opponents to begin with.
In May 1943, the Americans began to take back their islands. They too suffered in the freezing conditions, losing more men to Japanese booby traps, disease and friendly fire than to actual combat.
Another little known fact from this little known episode is that the great crime writer, Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon) served on the Aleutians as an army newspaper editor and wrote an account of the fight for this sliver of American territory that was once in enemy hands.
It is now known as The Forgotten Battle but the invasion caused widespread outrage in 1942. Pearl Harbor was still a fresh memory, having been attacked on December 7 of the previous year.
Yet a Japanese military force had stepped foot on American soil – and the 500 had grown to over 5,000 men.
Although Kiska and neighboring Attu (which had been overrun two days previously) were part of the distant Aleutian Islands they were, nevertheless, American. Plans were immediately drawn up to retake the island, known as the Aleutian Campaign. The campaign would not succeed for over a year and would claim many American lives.
Although the Japanese had taken the island with little opposition, one man managed to evade capture. Senior Petty Officer William C House, part of the Kiska detachment, managed to get away from the base. Incredibly, he managed to survive against the odds for 50 days. It was only then, after subsisting on a diet of earthworms and the island’s meagre vegetation that he surrendered to the Japanese. His weight had plummeted to only 80 pounds.he made a decision to either give up or die from lack of food; he chose to give up.
Looking at the desolate landscape today, still marked by craters caused by shell bombardment, one can only marvel at how Senior Petty Officer House managed to survive for so long. His surrender did not guarantee his safety, however. He and the others were sent to Japan for the duration of the war. In retaliation to the invasion, the Army Air Force and Navy Patrol Wing dropped seven million pounds of bombs on the island. The anti-aircraft response from the Japanese was formidable. This and the capricious Aleutian climate, where fog and hurricane force winds could rise in moments, led to the deaths of scores of American airmen.
The Japanese transport ship Borneo Maru was sunk on 5 October 1942 during early days of the campaign. Its remains are still in the harbour.
While the island was being bombarded, US Navy warships ensured that the Japanese supply line to the two islands was essentially strangled. This would ensure that the Japanese occupiers would be at their lowest ebb when the islands were retaken. A date was set – August 15 1943 the 11th Army Air Force and Navy Patrol Wing 4 launched 7,000,000 pounds in bombs on the Japanese at Kiska. Several of those flying the planes had just finished their education on how to fly. Those flying the planes had to deal with retaliation from Japanese pilots and the fickle weather of the island. Fog, strong winds, and extreme cold caused many fatalities. The constant Allies attacks on the island, plus an Allied blockade had a devastating effect on the Japanese’s connection between Kiska and Attu and helped make possible an attack by American and Canadian troops in August 1943.
A considerable fleet set out to retake Kiska. Yet, the Japanese had made their escape several weeks earlier. In late July they had wired Kiska City with charges and destroyed as many of their supplies and ammunition as possible. Then, on the evening of the 29th they set up a radar diversion
Royal Canadian Air Force No. 111 and No. 14 Squadrons saw active service in the Aleutian skies and scored at least one aerial kill on a Japanese aircraft. Additionally, three Canadian armed merchant cruisers and two corvettes served in the Aleutian campaign but did not encounter enemy forces.
The American warships which were around the islands fell for the ruse and left room for an evacuation fleet of eight warships to quietly steam in to Kiska Harbor. In less than an hour over 5,000 Japanese soldiers disappeared like ghosts in to the Aleutian mist leaving behind a base and harbor rigged to wreak havoc on whoever entered. Even today the island is littered with the ordnance they left behind, much of it unexploded.
At Kiska the Japanese planned their retreat 29 July 1943. Along with setting up explosives at “Kiska City,” they demolished necessities, ammunition, and structures. In the night, Allied ships around Kiska were distracted by signals that they took as Japanese forces fleeing. However while they were focused on this, the actual fleeing took place through Kiska Harbor. It only took the more than 5,000 Japanese 55 minutes to flee.
When almost 35,000 Allied soldiers arrived at Kiska on August 15, 1943 they were surprised to not find any Japanese; all they found upon arrival were 6 dogs, one being “Explosion” who had been owned by the Kiska Aerological Detail and was then looked after by the Japanese during their stay on the island. The Allies were reluctant to accept that absolutely no Japanese were still on Kiska.
Therefore, the next 8 days consisted of the soldiers looking around the island. While doing this the soldiers would shoot their guns in the bad weather conditions causing some of them to be mistakenly shot by fellow soldiers; 24 died due to this, 4 more died when they came into contact with the tricks that the Japanese left behind, and then another 71 perished when the Abner Read hit a mine resting in water.
Yet that was not the end. Incredulous at such a speedy and total evacuation, troops began a systematic search of the seven square mile island. The island took over a week to comb, during which time over thirty soldiers were killed by booby traps or friendly fire.
There were 168 Allied troops that were injured or became sick while at Kiska. This Aleutian Campaign was named as a practice fight and it stopped following 439 days of fighting.
The site where the Japanese occupied Kiska now holds the maximum level of recognition given to historic locations in the US. It is a National Historic Landmark, only one of 2,430 in such an immense country. Considerable amounts of relics scatter the hills surrounding the harbor, equipment dumps, gun emplacements, tunnels and those small experimental submarines.
My father’s father helped defend the Aleutians while my father was in the European Theater.
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