The Battle for Attu
A Photo Collection of Fighting for US Soil in World War II
by Cecil Sanders
On this day, 74 years ago, the U.S. military landed 11,000 troops on the island of Attu, in the Aleutian Islands, in an effort to retake the island from the occupying enemy forces of Japan, which they had seized the previous year.
PBY-5A Catalina patrol plane flying past Segula Island (just east of Kiska), Aleutians, Summer 1942.
A U.S. Navy reconnaissance photo of four Japanese Mitsubishi A6M-2N Rufe seaplane fighters at Holtz Bay, Attu on 7 November 1942.
Six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces attacked and occupied the remote volcanic island of Attu and built a garrison. Attu was significant for the Japanese strategy, because it would help give their military control of the northern Pacific. The fierce battle began on May 11, 1943 and lasted till the 30th, 19 days. Military strategists had estimated the battle to last only two days. American forces were not prepared to fight in the elements for the extended duration of time. Many casualties were due to the inhospitable climate, but the brave troops carried on and defeated the occupying Japanese force.
With death or surrender imminent, Japanese Colonel Yasuyo Yamasaki and the remaining survivors led a desperate banzai charge. Eventually succumbing to the overwhelming American firepower, many of the surviving Japanese combatants from the banzai attack committed suicide, most by discharging a grenade against their stomach. Of the nearly 2500 Japanese troops on the island when U.S. forces arrived, only 30 remained to be taken prisoner. Ninety-nine percent were dead. U.S. forces suffered a loss of 1,000 troops.
African-American soldiers of the labor battalion deployed by the US Army eating a meal in the field, Massacre Bay, Attu, Aleutian Islands, US Territory of Alaska, 20 May 1943 | Credit: Vincent Wallace
Aerial photo of Chichagof harbor on Attu island, Alaska (USA), during the Battle of Attu, 11 to 30 May 1943.
A group of approximately 40 dead Japanese soldiers at a ridge on Attu, Aleutian Islands, US Territory of Alaska, 29 May 1943
USS Louisville (CA-28) steams out of Kulak Bay, Adak, Aleutian Islands, bound for operations against Attu, 25 April 1943.
Japanese Special Naval Landing Force troops at Attu or Kiska, Aleutian Islands, US Territory of Alaska, circa mid-1942
American ships in Adak Harbor, Aleutian Islands, US Territory of Alaska, Aug 1943 | Credit: United States Nat’l Archives
If you enjoyed this piece of Alaska history, be sure to check out "The Trading Post - History of a Colony Project Building."
You can thank the Texas Board of Education for modifying modern textbooks (another topic all on its own). Did you know our government also incarcerated Japanese American families in camps during the war? Thousands lost their homes to “the rest of us”. None of them were compensated after the War. None of them had committed any crime. Anyway…
The campaign in the Aleutians at the time was kept under wraps from the public, in order to prevent panic among the American public.
I had an uncle that was stationed with the submarine fleet in Dutch Harbor shortly after that. The Navy had already been setting up a base at Dutchie in 1940 before the US had gotten dragged into the War after Pearl Harbor. Since the submarines had seen little action in that area against the Japanese, they sent them south to Mare Island in CA for refitting, then reassigned them to the South Pacific theater. My uncle left submarines and got reassigned to the USS Wadleigh, which was in dry dock after hitting a mine, for the remainder of the War.
This is interesting! I did not know this.
My husband is from Washington state, but commercial fishes for halibut near Attu island every year, and will go onto the island during bad weather. I, on the other hand, was born on Akak back in 71…my father was a 1st Lt. in the marines.
I was at a reunion last May and met the Japanese commanders grandson. They are still working to take their fallen home.
There’s a book called Costner’s Cutthroats that about the hand selected special force called the Alaska Sciuts that’s about the small team that went in prior to troops landing to scout out the enemy. My husbands father, Al Brattain was one of the Scouts. He’s in the book.
I had the same experience in school, even as late as college, with history teachers arguing with me that this did not occur. I had an uncle who was there and who bore the physical and mental scars for the rest of his life.
My uncle was there with the 7th/32nd. He was later KIA on Leyte.
Our dad….Ben Gregg Sr., U.S. Army, WWII ….was there in Attu, Shemeya and Dutch Harbor. He is Inupiaq from Kotzebue, Alaska. He rarely talked about that horrible war.
Our mother was prisoner of war, taken by the Japanese from Attu. Our grandfather and other relatives and Attuans died in Japan. Many people don’t know this piece of history.
Great book on it, Attu, the Forgotten Battle by my friend, the late John Cloe.
One of our cousins from Kinak, AK, a Yupik Eskimo, served in the U. S. Army when Japanese bombed Dutch Harper during WWII. While history, for the most part is silent on Japanese occupying American Soil, many of us have family members who defended this nation during WWII and beyond.
Nelson Angapak, Sr.
The father of a friend of mine was sent to Attu from North Africa during WWII, wearing only desert clothing. He fought the Japanese hand-to-hand. He said the Japanese troops charged them with wild-looking eyes, probably stimulated with drugs. My friend’s father became an alcoholic after the war. When I was based on Shemya in 1969, a rusted anti-aircraft gun pointed towards Attu was still on the beach.
I never knew that Japanese troops occupied this area either.
I always fought with the history teachers when they said, " We have never had foreign soldiers on US soil." My father was there and fought them, was very miserable for them as they didn’t have the right clothing. I finally found out the government didn’t want it known that there were foreign troops on US. soil.
There is a book on it. It’s called “The Thousand Mile War” by Brian Garfield.
I and two others S/Sgt Maples and Pfc Burns were sent from Adak to Attu to look for dead Japanese on 29 June 1948.The operation was called Operation Packrat Jr.At the time a Grave Recovery Unit,were digging up the Americans that had been killed there. We were the only Air Force men there.
My of friend Gordan Chappel was serving at Adak Ilsand at that time.
There was an effort in the early 2000’s by the Japanese to return their fallen men, but the logistics were such that getting the right equipment and man power on the island was too expensive. I don’t know if there is any more recent progress on this or not. The island is under the jurisdiction of the US Fish & Wildlife service with a now abandoned Loran station ran by the US Coast Guard. No easy access and no facilities there for a big crew.
My father was there, he was in Co B 17th Regiment 7th Division.
Don’t know of any, but I believe it would be an interesting research topic.
Hi Elizabeth, my grandfather served in the Merchant Marines right after the Korean War, inwhich he was a Marine and one of the “Chosin Few”. What exactly are you interested in knowing about the Merchant Marines? If you have photos or scans of the information, you can send it to my email and I love to see what you have. I will be seeing him in several days and he may be able to shine some light on it. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Do you know of any effort by the Japanese to return their fallen back to their home land?
Wonderful artical thank you for sharing it. My grandfather served as a Merchant Marine during the war. I have materials like wage information by class, orders marked confidential and a book he wrote in. I sure would like someone who could look these over and tell me what they think. Also if anyone is doing research on the Merchant Marines I would be email interested in learning more.
I remember us having air raid drills during the Korean War & we had an assigned bunker in the hills. The wooden boxes the next bay over from Bells Flats would be light with candles into thinking that was where the Naval Base was at night. I don’t think Kodiak was ever attacked, but it was ready.
I was there in 2009 to verify the location of the japanses mass graves, very historic place and very beautiful it’s in own way!