Flying through thick fog in the middle of the day, the pilot not able to see the front of his plane — the enemy lurking nearby. Boats ply the water, their occupants not able to peer through the fog. Japan attacks American territory, and to make matters worse, the mountains — covered with magnetic lodestones, make a compass useless.
That was a time when men had to be at their best, groping their way to fight an enemy that was nearly impossible to find. The “Thousand Mile War” would not soon be forgotten by either side.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, the Japanese did not want the Americans to take the upper hand on an invasion of Japan by way of the Aleutian Islands. Spanning 1,200 miles with more than 70 islands, Alaska's Aleutian chain was the shortest route from the United States to Japan.
The Aleutian Islands have some of the worst weather in the world, caused by the warm Japan Current coming from the southwest into the freezing waters of the Bering Sea. Horrific winds bring horizontal rain or snow.
Ships were frequently lost at sea from huge waves, soldiers buried themselves in the soil to stay out of the weather, and the islands were swallowed up by thick, wet fog that was dangerous for pilots during most of the year. The Japanese, having fished the Aleutian waters for many centuries, knew the weather's worst and were not afraid of it.
The “Prophet of Air Power,” Billy Mitchell, predicted that any invasion of the United States would occur along the Aleutian Islands. The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff were concerned that if there was an attack, there would not be enough men in Alaska to defend the United States. Even if Japan advanced no farther than the Aleutians, it would be a great strategic loss. At the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan and one of America's allies, the Soviet Union, were not at war. If this were to change, Japan could attack an important Soviet North-South supply line from the Aleutians.
United States enters World War II
On June 3, 1942, the aircraft carrier Ryujo was in Aleutian waters about 180 miles south of Unalaska Island. Around it was the Second Carrier Striking Force of the Japanese Northern Area Force. Their mission was to bomb Dutch Harbor, the U.S. naval base on Unalaska, which was 100 miles off the tip of the Alaskan mainland and a difficult place for the U.S. to bring up reinforcements. If all went well for the Japanese, they would move ground troops to take Attu, Kiska, and Adak islands. The aircraft on the Junyo carrier warmed their engines for 30 minutes, waiting for the fog to clear. They eventually took off, formed a single line, and navigated by dead reckoning.
A top-secret code-breaking group from Pearl Harbor, after endless hours of work, deciphered Japanese radio signals that revealed an enormous battle plan featuring Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto and a huge fleet of ships on their way to Midway Island to destroy the carriers of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz' fleet. The attack was to be masked by a sideswipe at the Aleutians.
After the news of the coming attack, Admiral Robert A. Theobald managed to scrape together a modest force of 10,000 men in Umnak and Unalaska. A new runway was built on volcanic ash that was so unstable that a plane landing incorrectly would bounce 30 feet into the air. No one knew where the Japanese would attack and the weather was so bad that no one could find them either.
At 5:45 a.m., planes arrived undetected at Dutch Harbor, but when the aircraft came down out of the fog for a bombing run, antiaircraft guns opened fire. The transport ship President Fillmore fired 37mm rounds from its decks and after five minutes, four bombers dropped 16 bombs onto the base, 14 of which hit a barracks. The antiaircraft gunners managed to shoot down only one Zero, which was later used to make new and better U.S. planes for the war effort.
After the raid, PBY Catalina seaplane pilots of Patrol Wing Four received a new order: “Carry out your scouting plan to the limits of your fuel!” Those searches were 14 hours long, and pilots only came in to fuel up their planes. The planes also were loaded with 2,000-pound torpedoes mounted under the wing. If they spotted a Japanese warship, they were ordered to attack it. Catalina pilot Lieutenant Lucius D. Campbell came out of the fog upon a fleet of Japanese ships about 80 miles south of Umnak Island. Campbell managed to track them for about two hours but his plane was shot in the rudder and gas tank. He managed to make a no-rudder, no-power landing at sea where the Coast Guard picked the crew up three hours later. Two other Catalinas were ordered to take over Campbell's pursuit, but they never returned from their mission.
On June 4, a PBY piloted by Lieutenant Charles Perkins found the warships much farther south of Umnak Island and radioed for help. While waiting for assistance, he attempted a torpedo run and was hit by flak in one engine, which forced him to limp home. When Perkins left, two B-26 Marauders arrived, piloted by Captains George W. Thornbrough and Henry S. Taylor. Upon arrival, they nearly crashed into the two Japanese carriers when they came out of the fog. Thornbrough dove at 350 mph, then released a torpedo onto the target. The torpedo hit the Japanese carrier perfectly, but rolled off the side of the ship. Thornbrough went back to base, rearmed his plane, and took off. He was never heard from again. Later, Captain Taylor flew his plane towards the enemy vessels and nearly hit a carrier's superstructure. After their near collision, he and his copilot, Second Lieutenant John Nealon, realized they had been hit. After surviving two more hits from a Zero, they managed to shoot it down. They held the plane together for the 100-mile flight back to Cold Bay.
At 6 p.m. on June 4, the Japanese made a second attack on Dutch Harbor, with 10 fighters and 11 dive bombers. Upon arrival, they attacked the naval air station. By 6:25, the total casualties were 43 men dead and 50 wounded. As the eight Japanese planes flew back to their ship, two of them were shot down by P-40s, along with two bombers, damaging a third, and two fighters crashed after the fight. Only two P-40s were hit; one landed safely.
Attu and Kiska
On June 5, the Japanese withdrew to the west. After the battles, garbled Japanese messages confused the Americans. Yamamoto had canceled the Adak landing, but gave the order to take Attu and Kiska. In the second week of June, 2,500 Japanese soldiers of the 301st Independent Infantry Battalion captured Attu. When the Japanese invaded and captured Attu and Kiska, they successfully completed the invasion of the Aleutians.
The news of Japanese troops capturing American territory caused great concern in the States. The public called for action. Major General Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., the U.S. Army's representative, said, “They might make it [to the mainland], but it would be their grandchildren who finally got there; and by then they would all be American citizens anyway.” Admiral Ernest J. King, commander in chief of the U.S. Fleet, was determined to evict the Japanese from American soil. He wanted Admiral Chester Nimitz to “explore and press all possible active measures” to get them out. Nimitz did, but gave priority to other matters.
On June 11, the Americans began a counterattack with a three-day bombing. Two Catalinas were sent in with 500-pound bombs. When they estimated that they were above the harbor, they dove at 200 mph through the fog to take a quick look for targets. They dropped their bombs and pulled on their controls to get the planes out of the dive. One was never seen again and the other was shot so badly that it sank upon hitting the water. The PBY crews thought that they had destroyed two Japanese seaplanes, but were not sure. The remaining PBYs were then excused from dive bombings. An intelligence report stated: “It is unlikely that raids by these aircraft possessed much more than nuisance value. Certainly none of the enemy's operations was impeded to a significant extent.”
On June 14, the Japanese found that if they added floats to their Zeros, they could safely land them in the harbor. It meant a reduction in Zero performance, but the Japanese had no equipment to construct a runway on the harbor's shore. Even with that enhancement the Triton submarine managed to send the Japanese destroyer Nenohi to the bottom on July 4. The next day, the Growler sub sank one destroyer and damaged two others in Kiska Harbor. In late July, the Americans took cruisers and destroyers to attack Kiska, but the attempt was not effective because of the fog. On their second attempt, the Americans collided with some minesweepers and sustained some damage.
On August 7, Smith conducted the third attack at 4:30 p.m. On board the Indianapolis, Lt. Commander John Tatom spotted the masts of other ships poking out above the fog. Lieutenant Robert A. O'Neill was ordered to fly ahead of the ship and let them know when the firing course was clear. Admiral Smith then ordered: “Take them in for 30 minutes, turn on the firing course, and commence shooting.” At 7:55, the ships opened fire on Kiska Harbor, using more than 400 tons of ammunition. At 8:21, Smith called a halt and sent in reconnaissance planes to check out the damage. With the lack of results in air and sea attacks, the commanding officers decided to work together to build an airstrip within fighter-plane range of Kiska, that would allow fighter-escorted bombing raids. The Joint Chiefs of Staff decided to build it at Adak, 210 miles east of Kiska.
The base at Adak was operational by September 14, just two weeks after their engineers arrived. Then the Americans redoubled their efforts to find the Japanese ships. Even in the wild winds of winter, aircraft managed to sink half a dozen ships at anchor in Kiska Harbor, damage many others, while also shooting down many float-equipped Zeros. However, air raids alone could not win Kiska and Attu. Ground troops prepared for an invasion at a staging area close to their two goals. Admiral Theobald now wanted to take over Amichitka Island, which was only 90 miles from Kiska. The Army disagreed, but the Joint Chiefs agreed in favor of Theobald. Theobald was later replaced by Rear Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid in the interest of inter-service harmony.
On January 12, 1943, four transports took 2,000 men to Constantine Harbor on Amchitka. The weather was so bad that the ships could not go directly onto the beach, and the cargo had to be dropped off the side to let the surf bring it to shore. After the storm had passed, the troops built camp on the squishy tundra. A few days later, float Zeros discovered Amchitka and commenced a few bombing runs. For the most part, they bombed a beach transport ship; numerous bombs missed and fell harmlessly into the tundra.
On February 5, the Japanese received orders from the Imperial General Headquarters “to hold the western Aleutians at all costs and to carry out preparations for war.” Both sides received more supplies and men in preparation of the inevitable. On March 26, a United States task group came into a collision course with a Japanese convoy just off the waters of Siberia's Komandorski Island, 180 miles west of Attu. An hour before dawn, radarmen on two United States warships simultaneously reported contact with five enemy ships only 10 miles to the north. Rear Admiral Charles H. McMorris ordered them to close in on the targets. At 8 a.m., McMorris entered into firing range; lookouts spotted the heavy cruisers Nachi and Maya, and the light cruisers Tama and Abukuma. Outnumbered two to one by the Japanese, McMorris nevertheless took a gamble, and commenced with his plan of attack.
At 8:40, Japan fired the first shot. Concentrating their efforts on the Richmond first, the Japanese then turned on the Salt Lake City. The Salt Lake City made the first hit on the Nachi, hitting twice and causing small fires. At 8:50, the Nachi took another two hits. The second of the two penetrated a torpedo compartment and exploded. Throughout the battle, the Richmond and Salt Lake City used “chasing the salvos” to good effect. That was a maneuver that assumed that an enemy who sees his shells miss will correct his range of fire angle for the next salvo. A captain would turn his ship toward the splashes and if all went well, the next salvo would scream by harmlessly. Just before the Japanese won the engagement, Hosogaya ordered a withdrawal of his ships. At 12:03, he fired a farewell salvo and headed west. Hosogaya's vessels were low on ammunition and fuel. They did not realize that the Salt Lake City was dead in the water, and expected United States bombers to arrive at any moment from Amchitka or Adak.
By the spring of 1943, the United States used their experience with water landings in North Africa and Guadalcanal to guide them in a landing on Attu. The plan called for two main landings: one on the northern coast and another on the southern coast. The Americans would fight toward each other and meet up in the middle to complete the main attack. The Fourth Infantry Regiment stayed in reserve on Adak, in case they were needed. On April 24, the invasion force sailed from San Francisco and arrived off Attu on the 30th. D-day was set for May 7, but thick fog delayed the attack. The Japanese had been warned of the United States ship movement, and guarded their beaches day in and out. The United States began their invasion on May 11.
At 4:15 p.m., the Northern Force started in on the coast west of Holtz Bay. By 6 p.m., 1,100 men worked their way through the tundra only 75 yards from the beach. The GIs had a difficult time pulling handcarts with gear, and gun crews had trouble moving the artillery into position. While the Northern Force was unloading, the Southern Force did not progress so easily either. A thick fog had come in and even though H-hour was set for 7:40 a.m., the attack was repeatedly postponed. By 3:30 p.m., a destroyer began to navigate by radar and had the smaller boats follow it. The men in the smaller ships could not see anything, even 10 feet away, but could follow a whistle and a searchlight shining backward from the destroyer ahead. When they arrived on the beach, they were glad to see that no one was there, and began to unload their equipment. The next day, the Northern Force came upon the Japanese. As the GIs started up the slope into the fog, Japanese snipers fired shots at them from holes and trenches.
Lt. Colonel Albert E. Hartl ordered one of his three companies to circle to the right of the crest. On the way up the hill, they moved into a gully — just as the fog lifted — allowing the Japanese to see them. From 9 a.m. onward, the Americans could not advance, retreat, or be relieved because of heavy enemy fire. The Americans were just out of range and were able to withdraw enough into the gully for Lightning fighters and Liberator bombers to pound the ridge above with explosives. At 5 p.m., just as the bombing raid ended, they launched a swift attack on the ridge. An hour and a half later they surmounted the ridge and forced the Japanese troops down the backside. At 7:30 the Japanese fought back with hand grenades and fixed bayonets. The fighting ended 22 minutes later with an American victory.
On D-day-plus-1, the Southern Force was to push forward three miles, and at the head of a valley they were to meet with the Northern Force. About a mile into what became known as Massacre Valley, both forces were hit with mortars and machine guns. The Japanese were just above the fog line, making it impossible for the Americans to counterattack. The Japanese fired blindly into the valley, hitting the Americans like fish in a barrel. The Americans tried to hide, but the cold made it extremely difficult. When the men were ordered forward, some could not get up due to broken ankles and had to be carried out later. When Colonel Edward Earle went to check on his troops, he was shot by a Japanese sniper. When the fog lifted, the Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Idaho pounded the Japanese, but their firing did little damage. Major General Albert E. Brown requested reinforcements on D-day-plus-2 (May 13), which helped with the fighting a little. Admiral Kinkaid replaced Brown with Major General Eugene Landrum from Adak due to his frustration over the position of Brown’s soldiers.
On May 16, Landrum ordered men to begin fighting up the valley slopes to a pass where the Japanese were waiting. While the Southern Force stalled, the Northern Force regrouped and slowly moved forward. When the Northern Force came within striking distance of the Japanese, the Southern Force attacked. Commander Colonel Yasuyo Yamazaki ordered a retreat from the pass on the morning of May 17. On May 18 through 21, the regiments fought for Clevesy Pass. When the two platoons of the 32nd finally fought their way to the top, they won by killing all 25 enemy soldiers. The Americans isolated the Japanese and began to sweep the area for any remaining enemy soldiers. Many found would not surrender and were in a daze. When the Americans tried to take them prisoner, they were killed in the attempt. Instead of risking their lives, the Americans threw grenades into the holes before the enemy had a chance to kill them.
By the night of May 28, Colonel Yamazaki used his remaining 1,000 men to counterattack. His desperate plan was to break out of Chichagof Harbor, killing as they went, to take over Clevesy Pass. At 3 a.m., Yamazaki led his forces up the valley and came upon Company B of the 32nd Regiment and Company L of the 17th Regiment. The Japanese bayoneted Americans in their sleep until shots were fired and everyone broke into a scramble. As the Japanese ran through the camp, something came over them. They began to scream and charge. Some Japanese soldiers simply sat down and started to eat American rations. Others got through Clevesy Pass and ended up running into the Division Engineers, who were alerted by the gunfire and had armed themselves with whatever they could find. The engineers fought hard and stopped the Japanese in the pass. The Japanese then started to kill themselves. Out of 2,351 men, only 29 were taken prisoner. The Americans lost 549 men and 1,148 were wounded. Yamazaki's counterattack was the first banzai charge of the war in the Pacific.
The lack of reconnaissance kept the Americans in the dark until 10 weeks later, at the final assault on Kiska. The attack consisted of 34,000 troops, three battleships, one heavy cruiser, one light cruiser, 19 destroyers, 15 transports, four cargo vessels, three minesweepers, two tugs, and one harbor tug. It also consisted of one surveying ship, 24 heavy bombers, 44 medium bombers, 28 dive bombers, 12 patrol bombers, and 60 fighters. When the attack began on August 15, the landing went perfectly, but they found nobody there. They discovered that the Japanese had left three weeks earlier — undetected.
The Thousand-mile War was a war of great loss, the loss of lives and equipment. From aircraft in thick fog to men in boggy trenches, it was a tough war to fight. The American forces were victorious even though their fighting men were at the end of their tether in some of the worst weather conditions on Earth, conquering an enemy that was nearly impossible to find.