In 1942, the Japanese invaded two Aleutian Islands—Kiska and Attu—only six months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. What is now known as “The Forgotten Battle” began during the early morning hours of June 6, when 500 Japanese soldiers landed on Kiska, taking the 10-man US Navy Weather Detachment (the island’s only inhabitants) by complete surprise. Attu Island had been invaded two days before, and 42 native Aleuts were taken prisoner. Though this was the only US soil Japan would claim during the war in the Pacific, the Japanese occupation was a huge blow to American morale.
Plans were immediately drawn up to retake the islands, known as the Aleutian Campaign. The Army Air Force and Navy Patrol Wing dropped seven million pounds of bombs on Kiska, but the anti-aircraft response from the Japanese was formidable. Extreme isolation, combined with volatile weather and difficult terrain, strung the conflict out for almost a year and claimed the lives of scores of American airmen.
On May 11, 1943, US forces landed on Attu and began an uphill battle to retake the island. After 19 days of fighting, the beleaguered Japanese soldiers launched a final banzai charge in an attempt to break through the American line. When the battle ended, only 29 remained of the Japanese force that had numbered roughly 2,600, while the Americans lost some 1,000 men. This would be the only World War II battle fought in North America. Three months later the drama at Attu was matched by an equally dramatic anticlimax—foul weather had delayed Allied attempts to retake Kiska. When US and Canadian forces finally landed on August 15, they were stunned to find that the entire force of 5,000 Japanese soldiers were gone, having evacuated under cover of fog two weeks before.
Today, the site where the Japanese occupied Kiska and the battlefields and bases of Attu are now National Historic Landmarks, the maximum level of recognition given to historic locations in the US. On both islands, you’ll still find a considerable amount of relics scattered among the hills and harbors—equipment dumps, gun emplacements, tunnels, and even small, experimental submarines.
Learn more about the battles fought on American soil during World War II on our upcoming Wild Alaska expedition, July 6 – 20, 2017.