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The Aleutian War

The Aleutian chain of island stretches across 1,000 miles, marking the northern boundary of the Pacific ring-of-fire, with the Bering Sea to the north of the mostly submerged volcanic mountain range. Needless to say, it’s named after Vitus Bering, as is Bering Island, where he died of scurvy on a return trip from Alaska.

The impact of the Crimean War in the 1850’s reached far beyond the boundaries of the ‘eastern question’ – Russia’s financial woes forced them to sell off Alaska and the Aleutians to the USA. Japan wasn’t pleased with the Aleutians’ new ‘ownership’, so a pact was signed on which both parties agreed to not build any military bases on the islands (Japan dropped the treaty in 1934).

The Aleutians host one of the world’s nastiest climates. The warm Japanese current meets the Siberian cold, dry air mass, resulting in terrible weather, with fogbanks, williwaws (sudden, fierce wind storms) and rain for all but 8-10 days per year. No trees bother to take root here, with vegetation comprising only bunch grass that breaks down to impassable muskeg sitting atop slushy mud and volcanic ash.

In 1940, the whole of Alaska, with 34,000 miles of coastline, was defenceless. There was no road to the ‘lower ’48’, nor between the capital Fairbanks and Anchorage. And the maps were useless – basic Rand McNally maps were the best of the bunch (and these were based on the Russian survey of 1854). The US was hopelessly unprepared for war in the area, with the Alaska Defence Commander, General Simon Bolivar Buckner, declaring “we’re not even a second team up here – we’re a sandlot club”. His ‘naval’ fleet comprised some rusty WW1 destroyers and a few ‘yippee’ boats, which their commander, ‘Squeaky’ Anderson claimed “would sink if rammed by a barnacle”.

Buckner had been blocked by the war department and navy in Washington, DC from building bases in the Aleutians, but, in a tricky move, he diverted budget to set up ‘fish canneries’ (i.e. bases) at Cold Bay and Unmak. The crappy available aircraft were not suited to the climate, so Buckner’s greenhorns learned the necessities of keeping planes in service from the local bush pilots, for example: drain the oil and store it indoors between flights, otherwise it turns to gel.

On the Japanese side, Admiral Yamamoto was the strategic genius. He had lived in the US, studied in Boston and was against Japan waging war on the US. When his pacifist advice went unheeded, he insisted that the Japan’s only chance of success was to launch a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and wipe out the US fleet, then run wild for 6-12 months, beyond which he had no confidence that victory was possible.

Unfortunately the US aircraft carriers were not at Pearl Harbor. However, the Japanese advance was phenomenal. Within days of Pearl Harbor (7/12/1942) they’d taken Guam, Indochina and Thailand, by Christmas they’d sunk the British battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse, taken Hong Kong and sent the British packing from the Pacific and Indian oceans, then moved on Manila, Singapore, Malaya, Java, Burma and into New Guinea. (Their submarines, with folding-wing aircraft aboard, were also operating off the coast of Canada and the US, shelling refineries in Santa Barbara and lobbing incendiary bombs into the Oregon forests in order to set the state alight. (Oregon was too wet, and declined to burn.))

All this success, with Japan now in effective control of the western Pacific and most of Asia (China had been neutralised by the Sino-Japanese war, begun in 1937) had been achieved in four months and with the loss of only one destroyer.

By April Yamamoto and the Army were at loggerheads. The army wanted to press on south to take Australia. Yamamoto was obsessed with destroying all US naval presence in the Pacific. Then came the (US) Jimmy Doolittle bombing raid on Tokyo in April ’42 which flummoxed the Japanese command. Where had the planes been launched from? The choice was between an aircraft carrier or a base in the Aleutians. In a strange leap of logic, the Japanese high command settled on Dutch Harbor as the culprit because Doolittle, the son of a gold prospector, had been born in Nome!

Yamamoto won the day, and quickly set about defining and implementing ‘M1’ – the grand plan to sweep the US out of the Pacific. In May, confidence was boosted by the sinking of the ‘Lexington’ and disabling ‘Yorktown’ in the battle of the Coral Sea. Of the four aircraft carriers in the Pacific, two were accounted for. The next tactic was to deploy a huge naval force (with 100,000 men and 20 admirals) to force the other two aircraft carriers north and lure the rest of the fleet out of Hawaii by invading the Aleutians. While the US rushed to defend their northern territories, Yamamoto would take Midway and have a base secured for air and sea mastery of the Pacific.

In Washington, someone had finally looked at the map and realised Seattle (with its powerhouse aviation manufacturing) was closer to the Aleutians than to Washington and they’d better do something to cover their bases.

In the Pacific, Admiral Nimitz had a tough choice to make, but he figured he needed to deploy his aircraft carriers at Midway, and sent a small destroyer force north from Hawaii to the Aleutians in a fast five day sail. Unbeknownst to the Japanese, the US had busted their code just a few days before, so were aware of the impending attacks at Midway and Dutch Harbor.

The Japanese fleet used the weather to disguise their progress across the Aleutians, staying inside the eastbound storm front (one lone US scout plane spotted them in a tiny break in the storm). They attacked Dutch Harbor on June 3 and believed they had wiped out the US’ base, not knowing that the damage was essentially limited to barracks. Four days later, they occupied the most westerly islands of Attu and Kiska, where they dug miles of tunnels, including the housing of underground hospitals.

The US staunched the Japanese progress across the Aleutian chain by taking the westerly island of Adak and setting up a base and runway in 10 days flat. Steel matting was used for the runway, which made things rather difficult for the pilots when taking off and landing, as the steel mats rippled under the tyres.

At the same time, the news of Japanese occupation of Attu and Kiska spurred the construction of the Alaska-Canada highway (aka ALCAN) supply route for the defence of Alaska – 1761 miles of construction was completed in eight months.

The Aleutian campaign was conducted in appalling weather and living conditions. Visibility was often measured in feet, supplies were intermittent and poorly managed (one shipment contained a cargo of white civilian shirts), barracks were always freezing. Reinforcements sent had been trained in tropical warfare. The Unmak base had one jeep, the men lived on bully beef and there were never enough cigarettes to go around. Primitive radar was the only means by which the Japanese fleet could be tracked in 1,000 miles of miasmic fogs and howling storms.

When, finally, the US invaded Attu in May 1943 (which the Japanese had actually abandoned for three weeks in October ’42), troops had to carry all their own supplies and munitions because of the impassable terrain, they had no waterproof clothes, inadequate food and many suffered trench foot. They cornered a troop of Japanese on a peninsula but the Japanese broke through the lines and almost made it to their own artillery before being stopped by a bunch of cooks and engineers, whereupon the Japanese suicided. In terms of scale, Attu was the US’ second most costly campaign of the war, after Iwo Jima, with the loss of 10,000 lives.

The liberation of Kiska was similarly troubled. The US ships blockading Kiska were pulled off when a series of radar pips indicated ships to the south. While the US ships went hunting, the Japanese stealthily moved in behind and evacuated 1,000 troops to safety. There are several theories about the Battle of the Pips – for example, ‘rafts’ of shearwaters preparing to migrate can emit ‘pips’. Or perhaps the Japanese were just very clever. Sadly, in the belief that there were still Japanese forces on Kiska, the US and Canadian forces moved in. Some were killed by booby traps, but many were killed by friendly fire – in the mists of Kiska the allies were fighting an enemy that had already left town.

For Yamamoto, the grand plan could so easily have been successful. Had he not sent such a huge naval force to the Aleutians, he may have won Midway. Instead, the Kurils and the Aleutians tied Japan to the northern Pacific for more than a year and Yamamoto’s prediction of ‘after twelve months I have no confidence’ turned out to be prophetic.

Reference: The Thousand-Mile War, Brian Garfield, University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks 1995.

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