H-016-2: The Aleutians Campaign, 1942–43
H-Gram 016, Attachment 2
Samuel J. Cox, Director NHHC
The Japanese carrier-based air attacks on Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands chain of the U.S. Alaska Territory on 3 and 4 June 1942 (Operation AL) are frequently described as a diversion for the main Japanese navy operation at Midway (Operation MI). Operation AL was not a diversion. It was a complementary operation for the purpose of setting the conditions for a Japanese occupation of the Aleutian Islands in order to prevent the United States from using them as a base to attack Japan from the north. Japanese intelligence had some indication that the Americans were working on a very-long-range strategic bomber (what would become known later as the B-29 Superfortress). In addition, the Japanese were still not completely certain where the Doolittle Raid of April 1942 had originated. So, as to take no chances of another loss of face from another bombing raid, the Japanese navy general staff pushed for an operation to seize the Aleutians—over the objection of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who viewed the operation as a diversion from what he expected to be the decisive battle of the war, at Midway (from Yamamoto’s perspective, it was a diversion, but of his own resources). Yamamoto’s intent was to draw as many U.S. ships, especially aircraft carriers, to the vicinity of Midway so that he could destroy them. Having U.S. ships chase after a diversion in the Aleutians was not his desire. Nevertheless, the navy general staff insisted on including an Aleutian operation as a condition for approving Yamamoto’s Midway plan, and Yamamoto reluctantly acquiesced. As it turned out, Yamamoto could have sorely used the planes from the medium carriers Junyo and Ryujo committed to the Aleutian operation. Given how few U.S. planes were still operational after the first day of the Battle of Midway, those 60 to 80 planes might have changed the outcome.
The Aleutians campaign traditionally gets short shrift compared to Guadalcanal and I am afraid I will be guilty of the same. It did not take long for both sides to realize just how badly they had underestimated the adverse effects of climate and weather on operations in the Aleutians and that due to the terrible conditions and logistics challenges neither side was going to be able to use the Aleutians as a springboard to invade the other. Both sides quickly realized that the Aleutians were more a liability than an advantage, and that any forces sent there were at the cost of forces sorely needed elsewhere. As a result, both sides tried to minimize the number of forces committed. In the end, the Aleutians amounted to a side show that had negligible effect on the outcome of the war. This, of course, is no consolation to the almost 1,500 American servicemen who lost their lives in the campaign. There are also numerous instances of valor that deserve to be remembered.
The following is not meant to be a comprehensive treatment of the Aleutian Islands campaign, but is rather just the highlights of the campaign focused on U.S. and Japanese naval actions.
At 0258 (just before dawn) on 3 June 1942, the two carriers of Japanese Carrier Division Four, under the command of Rear Admiral Kakuji Kakuta, launched an air strike against the U.S. base at Dutch Harbor on the island of Unalaska in the eastern Aleutians, the only U.S. base of consequence in the area. Neither the Junyo nor the Ryujo were first-line carriers. Both were conversions from other ships, with significant liabilities. For example, Junyo was too slow to launch Kate torpedo bombers, and Ryujo’s elevators were too small to operate Val dive bombers. However, working together, as Japanese carrier divisions trained to do, the two ships could put up a credible integrated strike package. In this case, the first launch was 34 aircraft (12 A6M Zero fighters, 10 B5N Kates—configured as high-level bombers—and 12 D3A Val dive bombers). Due to foul weather, half the planes did not find the target. Junyo’s planes turned back and only nine Kates and three Zeros from Ryujo attacked Dutch Harbor, which put up spirited anti-aircraft resistance and downed one aircraft.
U.S. forces in the Aleutians knew an attack was coming, based on the same intelligence code-breaking success that gave warning of the Midway operation. Unlike Midway, Dutch Harbor did not have precise intelligence on exactly when the attack was coming, nor was an extensive reconnaissance effort by PBY Catalina flying boats and U.S. Army Air Force bombers able to find the Japanese force in the fog and heavy cloud cover, so the first Japanese strike achieved tactical surprise. Radar on the seaplane tender USS Gillis (AVD-12) provided the first warning of the inbound raid. Fortunately, because of the intelligence warning, U.S. surface ships in the area were well clear of the threat, although Rear Admiral Robert “Fuzzy” Theobald, commander of Task Force 8 (two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, plus destroyers) came under criticism that his force was so far away (about 500 miles) that it was of no help either. However, given the unlikelihood of fighter support from land-based USAAF fighters, Theobold’s actions were prudent given the presence of Japanese aircraft carriers. Theobold was also described by Samuel Eliot Morison as “one of the best brains and worst dispositions in the Navy” and his relationship with U.S. Army commanders in Alaska was always rocky at best. His inability to get along would eventually result in his relief by CNO King for doing a “substandard job” (King’s words) and replacement with Rear Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid. On the other hand, the U.S. Army Air Force boldly claimed to have driven off the Japanese carriers and saved Alaska from a Japanese invasion when they hit nothing.
The initial Japanese strike on Dutch Harbor caused damage to shore installations, but was not very effective. A Japanese strike aircraft sighted some of the nine destroyers of Commander Wyatt Craig’s Destroyer Striking Group (TG 8.4) at Makushin Bay, and the Japanese launched a reconnaissance strike by four cruiser-launched float planes at 0900 to go after the destroyers, but were unable to find them. The Japanese strike was surprised by two USAAF P-40 fighters, which shot down two and damaged two aircraft. Japanese intelligence had failed to detect the construction of an airstrip and the movement of U.S. aircraft to Otter Point on the island Umnak. Expecting Dutch Harbor to have no fighter defense, the Japanese received a rude shock.
Weather continued to play havoc with both sides, but at 1600 on 4 June, the Japanese carriers launched another strike on Dutch Harbor of 32 aircraft (15 Zero fighters, 11 Val dive bombers, and 6 bomb-armed Kates). This attack pummeled Dutch Harbor pretty well, and six of the 20 PBYs were destroyed (23 Navy personnel killed). In the meantime, USAAF bombers found the Japanese carriers, but achieved no hits, losing a B-17 and a B-26. The returning Japanese strike stumbled on the Otter Point airstrip and was engaged by six P-40s; one Zero and two Kates were downed at a cost of four P-40s. Two Val dive bombers and one Zero fighter, damaged over Dutch Harbor, failed to return to their carrier. The Zero crash-landed on Akutan Island; the pilot was killed, but the mostly intact plane was recovered and eventually repaired to flying condition by the Americans enabling the United States to get a first-hand look the strengths and weaknesses of the Zero fighter. All told, the Japanese lost about eight aircraft and the United States about 14, a number on each side to operational causes and the weather. About 78 Americans and 10 Japanese were killed. (Of note, many accounts of losses on both sides conflict, so these numbers are my best guess.)
Late on 4 June, as his strike was already in the air en route Dutch Harbor, Rear Admiral Kakuta received word of the Japanese debacle at Midway and orders to break off the engagement in the Aleutians and head south, although it quickly became apparent that it was too late for Kakuta’s force to affect the outcome at Midway. However, as a result of the carriers leaving, the Japanese cancelled a planned landing on Adak. The Japanese did go ahead with planned landings on Kiska on 6 June and Attu on 7 June at the far western end of the Aleutian Islands chain. The only U.S. presence on Kiska was a ten-man Navy weather station; the 500-man Japanese special naval landing force killed two and captured seven U.S. Navy personnel. Chief Petty Officer William C. House successfully evaded the Japanese for 50 days before freezing conditions and starvation forced him to surrender. Twelve hundred Japanese special naval landing force pesonnel met no resistance at Attu from an American schoolteacher (Mrs. Etta Jones) and 43 (or so) native Aleuts (including about 15 children). Charles Foster Jones, the schoolteacher’s husband, was killed (possibly executed) and the Aleuts were shipped off to Japan as the Japanese occupied the island.
On the night of 16/17 June, the U.S. submarine S-27 (SS-132) ran hard aground in thick fog on Amchitka Island. Repeated attempts to get her off the rocks failed. Six distress calls were sent, but only one, with no positional data, was received. The crew used a rubber boat to rig lines to the shore, and men, provisions, medicine, and weapons were safely ferried to land and a makeshift camp was set up. Equipment was destroyed and classified material burned before the last men aboard, the commanding officer, executive officer, and radioman, came ashore at 1550 the next day. After 22 June, leaking chlorine gas prevented any further re-boarding of the sub. On 24 June, a PBY Catalina sighted the camp, made a water landing, and took off with 15 survivors; the remaining crew was recovered by three PBY flights the next day. The submarine was subsequently stripped of guns and only the hulk was left on the rocks.
On 18 June, U.S. Army Air Force B-17 and B-24 long-range bombers attacked Kiska Harbor and sank the Japanese oiler Nissan Maru. Periodic bombing raids on Japanese-held Kiska would continue over the next months.
On 4 July, USS Triton (SS-201,) C. C. Kirkpatrick commanding, on her fourth war patrol, hit and sank the Japanese destroyer Nenohi with one of two torpedoes fired after a ten-hour chase southeast of Attu Island. Nenohi capsized two minutes after being hit, and went down with 188 men including her captain. The destroyer Inazuma rescued 38 of Nenohi’s crew. On 9 August, Triton narrowly missed being hit by torpedoes from a Japanese submarine. On 15 March 1943, Triton was sunk with all hands on her sixth war patrol by three Japanese destroyers off the Admiralty Islands near the eastern end of New Guinea.
On 5 Jul 42, USS Growler (SS-215,) Lieutenant Commander Howard W. “Take her down!” Gilmore commanding, on her first war patrol, hit the Japanese destroyer Arare amidships with a torpedo just outside Kiska harbor. Arare exploded and sank with 104 of her crew. The destroyer Shiranuhi rescued 42 of Arare’s crew, including the commanding officer, despite having been hit by a torpedo from Growler that blew off her bow, killing three of her own crew. Shiranuhi counter-fired with two torpedoes that passed down each side of Growler. The destroyer Kasumi also had her bow blown off by a torpedo from Growler, killing ten crewmen. The only good thing for the Japanese that day was that when the Growler dove deep after the torpedo attack she did not see the seaplane tender Chiyoda (later converted to a light aircraft carrier), which the three destroyers were responsible for defending.
On 5 October, USS Grunion (SS-216,) Lieutenant Commander Mannert L. Abele commanding, on her first war patrol, was reported overdue and assumed lost with all hands, nothing having been heard from her since 30 July, when she reported heavy ASW activity in the vicinity of Kiska. Her fate remained unknown until her wreck was found in 2007 and correlated with Japanese sources. Grunion fired as many as six torpedoes at the armed Japanese cargo ship Kano Maru. Of the first two, one missed astern as Kano Maru maneuvered to avoid the sub, but the other hit the Japanese ship in the machinery room, causing her to lose propulsion, but failing to sink her. Grunion fired another torpedo that passed under Kano Maru and the magnetic exploder failed to function. The submarine fired possibly three more torpedoes; two definitely hit the ship, but failed to detonate. The first torpedo that missed may have circled back and hit Grunion on the periscope supports, but failed to explode. Grunion surfaced to attempt to sink the Kano Maru with her deck guns, but the Japanese gunners already had the range with their 3-inch guns. Japanese gunfire hit just aft of the conning tower and possibly elsewhere. Whatever the damage, it was sufficient for Grunion to lose depth control and sink. There were no survivors among her 60-man crew. Grunion sank two Japanese patrol boats in the days before she was lost. (There are multiple accounts of the engagement between Grunion and Kano Maru, and they don’t match, so this is my attempt at a reconstruction.)
Between 18 and 27 July, a U.S. Navy task force under the command of Rear Admiral Theobold attempted several times to bombard Kiska Harbor, but was thwarted by thick fog and the collision of two destroyer-minesweepers with each other, while a third (of four) was rammed by the destroyer Monaghan (DD-354), which precluded a preliminary sweep for mines, aborting the bombardment. This was unfortunate because at the time the harbor contained numerous Japanese ships. The same task group, consisting of the heavy cruisers Indianapolis (CA-35, flagship) and Louisville (CA-28), and the light cruisers Honolulu (CL-48), Nashville (CL-43), and St. Louis (CL-49), four destroyers, and one destroyer-minesweeper under the command of Rear Admiral W. W. “Poco” Smith, tried again with somewhat better luck. Mindful of the adage that “a ship’s a fool that fights a fort,” Rear Admiral Smith was probably overly cautious, choosing to bombard the harbor via indirect fire over hills. Unfortunately, Japanese fighters successfully drove off the cruisers’ SOC float scout planes, so there was no way to spot the fall of shot. Three of the SOCs recovered had over 100 bullet holes (one with 167.) One SOC from Indianapolis was lost, and two from St. Louis were damaged and had to recover at Umnak Island. A Japanese shore battery and Japanese aircraft also made some unsuccessful attacks against the U.S. ships. The results of the U.S. shelling included one Japanese Mavis long-range seaplane destroyed and two others damaged beyond repair, all at their moorings. The damaged cargo ship Kano Maru (survivor of the encounter with submarine Grunion) was set on fire and subsequently sunk by an attack by U.S. PBY Catalinas. Two Japanese destroyers, three sub chasers, and several midget submarines escaped damage.
On 30 August, about 4,500 U.S. Army troops were landed on unoccupied Adak Island in the central Aleutians, with the mission to establish an operational airfield. On the same day, the Japanese submarine RO-61, under cover of a gale, hit the seaplane tender USS Casco (AVP-12) while at anchor in Nazan Bay, Atka Island, killing five and wounding 20. Superb damage control by Casco’s crew was able to stem the flooding long enough for her skipper to get her underway and beach her, where she was later refloated and subsequently repaired and returned to service. The next day two PBYs (tended by Casco) caught the RO-61 on the surface, probably recharging batteries, and damaged her with a depth bomb. The destroyer USS Reid (DD-369) followed the trail of oil, and conducted two depth-charge attacks that forced RO-61 to the surface due to the sub starting to fill with chlorine gas. The RO-61’s crew attempted to man the deck gun, and some fired carbines at the Reid, but 20-mm fire cut down almost all those on deck. Reid finished her off with 5-inch guns, and RO-61 sank with 59 of her crew, including the commanding officer. Reid radioed to Casco, “Got the sub that got you. Have five survivors for proof.”
On 16 October, U.S. Army Air Force B-26 bombers attacked a Japanese resupply convoy near Kiska Island. A direct hit on the destroyer Oboro caused munitions that were being transported to explode and sink the ship. Only 17 of her crew, including the commanding officer, survived and were rescued by the destroyer Hatsuharu, which was also badly damaged in the attack.
On 26 October, the submarine USS S-31 (SS-136), on her fifth war patrol, penetrated Otomae Wan (anchorage) off Paramushiro in the Kuril Islands and torpedoed and sank the cargo ship Keizan Maru. S-31 grounded several times, but was able to escape. On S-31’s previous patrol, in the Aleutian Islands, she had been attacked twice by U.S. aircraft, suffered a chlorine gas leak when water from heavy seas entered the forward battery compartment, and her skipper, Lieutenant Commander Thomas F. Williamson, was killed when a Type X emergency identification flare exploded accidentally. S-31 survived all eight of her war patrols.
On 27 December, heavy storm seas ripped two depth charges from their racks on the destroyer-minesweeper USS Wasmuth (DMS-15), which then exploded under her fantail, breaking her keel and severing her stern. The oiler USS Ramapo (AO-12) tried to tow Wasmuth, but was unable to due to the heavy seas. Nevertheless, Ramapo then came alongside despite sea state, and over the course of three hours successfully rescued all of Wasmuth’s crew. The abandoned Wasmuth finally sank on 29 December.
On 4 January 1943, Rear Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, who had been jerked out of command of a cruiser-destroyer group by CNO King just before the disastrous Battle of Tassafaronga, relieved Rear Admiral Theobold in command of U.S. naval forces in the Aleutian Islands. Kinkaid apparently could get along better with the Army than Theobold. Rear Admiral Charles H. “Soc” McMorris arrived about the same time to assume command of TF-16. McMorris had been in command of the heavy cruiser San Francisco (CA-38) at the Battle of Cape Esperance when she nearly fired on the heavy cruiser Salt Lake City (CA-25) by mistake (but McMorris had prudently held fire). McMorris had been relieved in command of San Francisco by Captain Cassin Young, who was killed aboard the ship in the Friday the 13th (November 1942) battle off Guadalcanal.
On 12 January, U.S. Army troops were landed on unoccupied Amchitka Island in the central Aleutians, also to establish an airfield. While covering the landing, the destroyer USS Worden (DD-352), veteran of Pearl Harbor, Midway, and the Eastern Solomons, met her match with an uncharted pinnacle in Constantine Harbor, Amchitka. The pinnacle tore a hole in her engine room that resulted in her losing all power. USS Dewey (DD-349) tried to tow her, but the cable parted and the strong current swept Worden onto the rocks and she began to break up in the pounding surf. While directing the abandon-ship effort, her commanding officer, Commander William G. Pogue, was swept overboard by a large wave, along with a number of his crew. Pogue was pulled unconscious from the freezing water and survived, but 14 crewmen perished. Under the circumstances, it was a credit to Pogue that more of his 186-man crew were not lost.
On 18 February, a U.S. task force under the command of Rear Admiral McMorris, embarked on the light cruiser Richmond (CL-9), consisting of the heavy cruiser Indianapolis (CA-35) and four destroyers, bombarded Chichagof Harbor on Attu Island in the far western Aleutians. Unfortunately, no Japanese ships were present and damage was minimal. During the night following the bombardment, Indianapolis and the destroyers Coghlan (DD-606) and Gillespie (DD-609) intercepted the Japanese transport Akagane Maru attempting to bring troops, supplies, and munitions to Attu Island. Indianapolis hit the Akagane Maru with her third 8-inch salvo, setting her on fire from stem to stern, followed by a large explosion. Coghlan and Gillespie were directed to finish her off with torpedoes. Coghlan fired three torpedoes; one passed directly under Akagane without exploding, one ran true but detonated prematurely, and the third missed astern. Gillespie then fired a torpedo that failed to explode. Her second torpedo porpoised on the surface and missed. Coghlan then fired numerous gun rounds, but the flaming ship would not go down. Coghlan fired one more torpedo that also detonated prematurely. As Samuel Eliot Morison wrote, “Now the destroyer sailors knew how the submariners felt about defective weapons.” Akagane Maru eventually was sunk by more destroyer gunfire. All 140 aboard the the Japanese vessel perished. Two other Japanese supply ships saw the pyrotechnics from over the horizon and turned away, although one later returned and delivered supplies to Attu.
Following the loss of Akagane Maru (and others that had been hit by U.S. Army Air Force air attacks on Attu and Kiska), the commander of the Japanese Northern Force (Fifth Fleet) based in the Kuril Islands, Vice Admiral Boshiro Hosogaya, decided not to risk any more ships, and would deliver further supplies via submarine. The Japanese army immediately appealed this decision, as the supply situation on both islands was becoming increasingly desperate and submarines could not possibly deliver enough. Hosogaya agreed to try again, but changed tactics. Instead of cargo ships trying to slip through to the islands singly, Hosogaya formed a convoy with a heavy screen of escorts, deemed Operation A-GO. The convoy successfully delivered supplies to Attu on 9 March and all ships returned safely to their base at Paramushiro in the Kurils. Yet even this was not enough, and the Japanese army petitioned for another convoy, setting the stage for what would become the Battle of Komandorski Islands.
On 15 March, TF16.6 departed Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Under the command of Rear Admiral McMorris, embarked on the elderly light cruiser Richmond, the force consisted of the heavy cruiser Salt Lake City (which had relieved Indianapolis as the duty heavy cruiser) and four destroyers. Salt Lake City had finally completed repairs from damage received during the Battle of Cape Esperance, where she had valiantly interposed herself between the Japanese cruisers and the severely damaged and burning USS Boise (CL-47). Among the upgrades to Salt Lake City was the creation of a space termed the “Combat Information Center,” one of the first CICs (and the first that I can find) Unfortunately, the CIC would not be particularly effective during the Battle of the Komandorski Islands because the shock of the frequent firing of Salt Lake City’s main battery damaged the radar and communications equipment. The repeated shock also played havoc with the fire-control radars that had been installed on the cruiser, so they didn’t work either. The Battle of the Komandorski Islands would be fought the old-fashioned way, with visual spotting of shell. Although all the U.S. ships in the battle had radar, and most, including Salt Lake City, had the newer (and much better) SG radar, Japanese lookouts still spotted the U.S. ships at the same time U.S. radar detected the Japanese. Nevertheless, the accuracy of Japanese fire convinced U.S. officers that the Japanese had radar when, in fact, none of the Japanese ships did. On 22 March, the Japanese “D Convoy” departed Paramushiro destined for Attu, with the entire Japanese Fifth Fleet as escort.
On 26 March, the Japanese D Convoy and escorts and the U.S. TF16.6 engaged each other near the Komandorski Islands. Please see attachment H-016-1 for more on this engagement and the “outstandingly valiant” charge of the destroyer USS Bailey (DD-492).
On 11 May, the United States invaded Attu. Gunfire support was provided by the old battleships Pennsylvania (BB-38,) Idaho (BB-42), and Nevada (BB-36), and air support by the escort carrier Nassau (CVE-16) and U.S. Army Air Force aircraft. An additional three heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, 19 destroyers, four attack transports, and other oilers, minesweepers, and small craft supported the landing. This was complicated by fog and heavy weather during which the destroyer Macdonough (DD-351) and destroyer-minelayer Sicard (DM-21) collided. Both survived, but Sicard was supposed to be the control vessel for the landing. The submarines Narwhal (SS-167) and Nautilus (SS-168) each sent one hundred scouts ashore on the north side of Attu to make final determination on the landing beaches. The destroyer-transport Kane (APD-18) groped through the fog and put 400 troops ashore several hours later. By nightfall, about 1,500 troops were ashore, as landing craft were repeatedly impeded by fog. On the south side, fog also hampered the landings, and the first wave of troops spent almost the entire day in landing craft waiting for the fog to clear, in what were fortunately calm seas on that side of the island. Once the fog lifted, another 2,000 troops went ashore. During the next week, the U.S. battleships and destroyers provided fire support to U.S. Army troops. On 22 May, the Japanese counter-attacked with long-range flights by G4M Betty torpedo bombers from Paramushiro, attacking the destroyer Phelps (DD-360) and patrol gunboat Charleston (PG-51), which put up an effective anti-aircraft barrage and evaded about 17 torpedoes. The Bettys came back the next day and were intercepted by USAAF P-38 Lightning fighters, which shot down five Bettys at the cost of two P-38s; the surviving Bettys jettisoned their bombs and turned away. The Japanese navy also formed up a relief force consisting of four aircraft carriers, three battleships, seven cruisers, and 11 destroyers; however, the situation on Attu was deemed hopeless before the force could get underway and the mission was cancelled. On 29 May, with no hope of relief, the Japanese defenders mounted one of the largest banzai charges of the war, which penetrated deep into U.S. lines, resulting in hand-to-hand fighting in rear-echelon areas. When it was over, over 2,300 Japanese soldiers were dead, including the commander, Colonel Yamasaki, who had led the charge. Only 28 of the Japanese defenders were taken alive. U.S. casualties throughout the Kiska operation amounted to about 550 killed and 1,100 wounded (and another 1,800 casualties due to cold injuries and disease.)
On 21 May, Imperial Japanese Navy headquarters reached the decision to evacuate the garrison on Kiska, which eventually was known as Operation Ke-Go. Like Operation Ke, the evacuation of Guadalcanal, Ke-Go would be conducted with exceptionally effective operational security. As early as 30 May, the Japanese commenced the evacuation of Kiska by submarine. However, after losing three submarines and only getting about 800 soldiers off the island, the Japanese gave up on submarine evacuations and prepared for a surface operation, which commenced with a 16-ship force on 6 July, under the command of Rear Admiral Kimura. Also on 6 July, a U.S. Navy task force commanded by Rear Admiral Robert C. “Ike” Giffen embarked on heavy cruiser Wichita (CA-45), with two other heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and four destroyers, bombarded Kiska, without much result. On 10 July, USAAF bombers flying from recently captured Attu flew their first bombing mission over the Japanese base at Paramushiro, but the Japanese ships were gone. However, the Japanese force ran low on fuel while awaiting sufficient fog cover to conceal their run to Kiska and returned to Paramushiro on 15 July. On 22 July, a major U.S. task force including the old battleships Mississippi (BB-41) and New Mexico (BB-40) bombarded Kiska again and succeeded in destroying several barracks buildings, but killing none of the well-dug-in Japanese troops. On the same day, Kimura departed Paramushiro for a second evacuation attempt.
On 26 July, a battle occurred that the U.S. Navy would just as soon forget, which became known as the Battle of the Pips. It began on 23 July, when a PBY Catalina reported radar contact on seven ships 200 nautical miles southwest of Attu. U.S. ships began to move to intercept, and the two destroyers covering Kiska Harbor were detached in pursuit, which unintentionally cleared the way for Kimura’s evacuation force. In the meantime, the same force that had bombarded Kiska on 22 July pulled 80 miles away from the island to intercept the Japanese force. Just after midnight on 26 July, Mississippi reported radar contacts at 15 miles, and radar on Idaho, Wichita, and Portland (CA-33) also detected the contacts. However, neither San Francisco nor any of the destroyers picked up anything on radar. Nevertheless, at 0013, the battleships and cruisers opened fire on the radar contacts, expending 518 14-inch rounds from the two battleships and 487 8-inch rounds from the three heavy cruisers. In the confusion of night battle, lookouts reported seeing enemy star shells, torpedo wakes, lights, flares, concussions, and other battle phenomena. At 0044, Rear Admiral Giffen ordered a cease-fire since the radar contacts had disappeared. The next morning, a search revealed absolutely nothing, or as Samuel Eliot Morison lamented, “not even a dead whale.” Morison chalked it up to phantom radar echoes from mountains on the islands. Others have postulated that the contacts were rafts of migratory petrals that fly through the Aleutians in July every year. Although the Battle of the Pips quickly became the butt of many jokes, Giffen noted that it was the most realistic battle exercise he had ever experienced.
On 28 July, Rear Admiral Kimura’s evacuation convoy arrived at Kiska Harbor, which was covered by a blanket of heavy fog. In under an hour, Kimura evacuated the entire garrison of 5,183 men and then got them safely to Paramushiro, leaving Kiska abandoned. Over the next two weeks, U.S. battleships, heavy bombers, and other ships and aircraft pummeled Kiska. Pilots even reported being fired upon by ground-based air defenses, which didn’t exist. On 13 August, an invasion force of over 100 ships transporting 34,000 U.S. and Canadian troops arrived off Kiska. The Allies were shocked to encounter no opposition to the 15 August landings, although 17 Americans were killed in “friendly fire” incidents in the fog before realizing that there were no Japanese left on the island.
On the night of 17/18 August, the new Fletcher-class destroyer USS Abner Read (DD-526) had her entire stern blown off by what was later believed to be a drifting mine while supporting the landings on Kiska. Crewmembers asleep in aft compartments had little chance, and 71 were killed or missing, with another 47 wounded. Abner Read survived, and was repaired and earned four battle stars before she was sunk by a kamikaze off Leyte on 1 November 1944 with a loss of 22 of her crew.
The Aleutians never were developed as a base for B-29s to bomb Japan or as a corridor for invasion. The climate and logistics challenges were simply insurmountable. A relatively small force of USAAF bombers and land-based Navy bombers, primarily twin-engine PV-1 Venturas, flying from Attu, conducted periodic raids against Paramushiro and other Japanese facilities in range in the northern Kuril Islands. The Navy Venturas suffered one of the highest casualty rates of any Navy units in the war, many being lost to weather-related mishaps as well as Japanese fighters. These raids did tie down about 500 Japanese aircraft and 41,000 ground troops awaiting a northern Allied assault that never came. The cost of the Aleutian campaign to the United States for all services was about 1,500 killed, 600 missing, 3,400 wounded, 9 POWs, 225 aircraft lost, and the destroyer USS Worden and submarines USS Grunion (all hands) and S-27 lost. The Japanese lost over 4,300 killed.
(Sources: Samuel Eliot Morison, History of U.S. Naval Operations in World War II, Vol IV. Coral Sea, Midway and Submarine Operations, and Vol VII, Aleutians, Gilberts and Marshalls; NHHC Dictionary of American Fighting Ships for various ships; John Lorelli, The Battle of Komandorski Islands; and Parshall and Tully, Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway.)