|Battle of Attu
|Part of the American Theater of World War II
U.S. soldiers fire mortar shells over a ridge onto a Japanese position on 4 June 1943
|Commanders and leaders
|Yasuyo Yamasaki †
|Casualties and losses
1,814 frostbitten and sick
2,351 killed or committed suicide
~200 missing or holding out
The Battle of Attu (codenamed Operation Landcrab), which took place on 11–30 May 1943, was fought between forces of the United States, aided by Canadian reconnaissance and fighter-bomber support, and Japan on Attu Island off the coast of the Territory of Alaska as part of the Aleutian Islands campaign during the American Theater and the Pacific Theater. Attu is the only land battle in which Japanese and American forces fought in snowy conditions, in contrast with the tropical climate in the rest of the Pacific. The more than two-week battle ended when most of the Japanese defenders were killed in brutal hand-to-hand combat after a final banzai charge broke through American lines.
The strategic position of the islands of Attu and Kiska off Alaska's coast meant their locations could control the sea lanes across the northern Pacific Ocean. Japanese planners believed control of the Aleutians would therefore prevent any possible U.S. attacks from Alaska. This assessment had already been inferred by U.S. General Billy Mitchell who told the U.S. Congress in 1935, "I believe that in the future, whoever holds Alaska will hold the world. I think it is the most important strategic place in the world."
On 7 June 1942, six months after the United States entered World War II, the 301st Independent Infantry Battalion from the Japanese Northern Army landed unopposed on Attu. The landings occurred one day after the invasion of nearby Kiska. The U.S. military feared both islands could be turned into strategic Japanese airbases from which aerial attacks could be launched against mainland Alaska and the rest of the U.S. West Coast.
In Walt Disney's 1943 film Victory Through Air Power, the use of the Aleutian Islands for American long-range bombers to bomb Japan was postulated.
On 11 May 1943, units from 17th Infantry, of Major General Albert E. Brown's 7th U.S. Infantry Division made amphibious landings on Attu to retake the island from Japanese Imperial Army forces led by Colonel Yasuyo Yamasaki. Despite heavy naval bombardments of Japanese positions, the American troops encountered strong entrenched defenses that made combat conditions tough. Arctic weather and exposure-related injuries also caused numerous casualties among U.S. forces. After two weeks of relentless fighting, however, American units managed to push the Japanese defenders back to a pocket around Chichagof Harbor.
On 21–22 May a powerful Japanese fleet assembled in Tokyo Bay in preparation for a sortie to repel the American attempt to recapture Attu. The fleet included the carriers Zuikaku, Shōkaku, Jun'yō, Hiyō, the battleships Musashi, Kongō, Haruna, and the cruisers Mogami, Kumano, Suzuya, Tone, Chikuma, Agano, Ōyodo, and eleven destroyers. The Americans, however, recaptured Attu before the fleet could depart.
On 29 May, without hope of rescue, Yamasaki led his remaining troops in a banzai charge. The surprise attack broke through the American front line positions. Shocked American rear-echelon troops were soon fighting in hand-to-hand combat with Japanese soldiers. The battle continued until almost all of the Japanese were killed. The charge effectively ended the battle for the island, although U.S. Navy reports indicate that small groups of Japanese continued to fight until early July 1943, and isolated Japanese survivors held out until as late as 8 September 1943. In 19 days of battle, 549 soldiers of the 7th Infantry Division were killed and more than 1,200 injured. The Japanese lost over 2,351 men, including Yamasaki; 28 prisoners were taken.
Attu was the last action of the Aleutian Islands campaign. The Japanese Northern Army secretly evacuated its remaining garrison from nearby Kiska, ending the Japanese occupation in the Aleutian Islands on 28 July 1943.
The loss of Attu and the evacuation of Kiska came shortly after the death of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who was killed by American aircraft in Operation Vengeance. These defeats compounded the demoralizing effect of losing Yamamoto on the Japanese High Command. Despite the losses, Japanese propaganda attempted to present the Aleutian Island campaign as an inspirational epic.
IJA 2nd District, North Seas Garrison (Hokkai Shubitai) – Colonel Yasuyo Yamasaki
US Landing Force Attu (US 7th Infantry Division) – Major General Albert Brown, Brigadier General Eugene M. Landrum from 16 May
Originally Published in Esprit de Corp Magazine, Volume 9 Issue 4 and Volume 9 Issue 5