The Battle of Attu remains the only land battle on American soil during the Second World War, as well as the second bloodiest battle behind Iwo Jima. Yet, most Americans have never heard of it. Overshadowed by the Battle of Midway and the Guadalcanal campaign, the entire Aleutian Campaign has fallen through the cracks of American history.
According to popular belief in the 1930s, whoever controlled Alaska controlled the world. This prompted a grueling invasion and the first recorded banzai attack used in the Pacific. But Imperial Japan wasn’t the American’s only enemy. Mother nature seemed to always have the upper hand in this brutal battle.
This is the forgotten story of the Battle of Attu.
The island of Attu is the westernmost island in the Aleutian Chain (which consists of 14 large islands and 55 smaller islands). Despite the island’s bloody history, its landscape is absolutely breathtaking. The 344 square mile island has a rugged coastline that surrounds snowcapped mountains and luscious green pastures.
While the island remains uninhabited since 2010, it was once home to the indigenous Aleut. After the American purchase of Alaska in 1867, schools, churches, and a hospital were built on the surrounding islands. Most of the villagers had converted to Christianity after coming in contact with Russian fur traders in the 18th century. For the most part, the island and its people were largely left alone. Well, that is until the early 1930s.
In the years following the First World War, countries began to understand the importance of controlling transportation routes. The Aleutian Chain held strategic value because whoever controlled the islands could control Pacific routes. This is why in 1935, General Billy Mitchell told Congress that he believed “that in the future, whoever holds Alaska will hold the world.”
“I think it is the most important strategic place in the world,” he continued. The Japanese believed that controlling the chain of islands would prevent a possible US attack on the Pacific, while the Americans feared the islands could serve as airbases for a full-scale Japanese aerial attack on West Coast cities like Seattle, San Francisco, or Los Angeles.
Just as the US Navy sent out sailors to chart the numerous Aleutian Islands, the Japanese also paid the islands a visit. Japanese fishermen would gather intelligence and then report back to Imperial intelligence officers. By the time the Japanese entered WWII, they had already gathered years of field intelligence on the islands.
Their presence was felt by the Attu villagers, who referred to the Japanese field intelligence officers as “boogie men.” After much debate, the Japanese decided to go ahead with their planned attack on the Aleutian Chain in June 1942, almost six months to the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Lucky for them, their crews were already accustomed to the islands’ harsh conditions.
Since the US Naval Intelligence had broken the Japanese Naval codes, the Navy learned of Japan’s plans to invade the Aleutian Chain, as well as the strength of their fleet by May 21st. The US also knew that the attack would begin sometime after June 1st. While the US had a military presence in Alaska, their 45,000 soldiers were spread thin throughout the mainland and islands.
The Navy had two Aleutian bases: Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island and the Fort Glenn Army Airfield on Umnak Island. There was also Fort Randall Army Airfield located in Cold Bay, Alaska. While the Japanese were aware of the base in Dutch Harbor, they were unaware of the two airfields, which had been built in secret after the US entered the war.
On June 3rd, the Japanese began their attack on the Aleutian Chain. Commanded by Vice-Admiral Boshiro Hosogaya, the Japanese Northern Area Fleet was a force of two non-fleet aircraft carriers, five cruisers, twelve destroyers, six submarines, and four troop transports, along with supporting auxiliary ships.
With this force, Hosogaya began an aerial bombardment on Dutch Harbor on Amaknak Island. Making use of the bad weather, the Japanese bombed the harbor. However, only half of Japan’s striking force actually reached their targets. Most of the planes either became lost in the fog and crashed into the sea or returned to their carriers. In total, seventeen planes found the naval base at around 05:45 a.m., but they were met with force.
As the Japanese bombers looked for targets, they suddenly found themselves under heavy anti-aircraft fire coming from the Eleventh Air Force P-40s who had been sent from the Fort Glenn Army Airfield on the neighboring island of Umnak. The Japanese were startled by the American response and scrambled back to their carriers.
As a result, they did little damage to the base. The Japanese bombers returned to the base the next day, and, this time, they were better prepared. By the end of the day, Dutch harbor oil tanks were burning, a barrack ship was damaged, and the hospital was partly damaged. Although US pilots eventually located the Japanese carriers, the bad weather and fog made it impossible to sink the ships.
Hidden under the blanket of fog, Hosogaya and his men moved onto their next target: Kiska. They first captured ten US Navy weathermen (who all survived as prisoners of war). After realizing that the island was inhabited, the Japanese began bringing in anti-aircraft guns and submarines, turning the island into a major stronghold in the North Pacific.
The same night, Major Matsutoshi Hozumi landed on Attu Island, which sits 190 miles west of Kiska. It took the Japanese all night to hike over the snow-covered terrain. The next morning, a Sunday, the Japanese reached Chichagof Harbor as the villagers walked home from church. Suddenly, hundreds of Imperial soldiers came running down the hill above the village school, screaming and firing their weapons.
“The mud was flying up from the bullets,” Nick Golodoff told The Daily News in 2012. Golodoff, who was six at the time, recalled running to an old sod building for shelter as the Japanese troops stormed the town. None of the villagers owned heavy hunting rifles, and why would they have? There was no big game on the island.
The foxes used for fur trading, were trapped, not shot. A few villagers may have had shotguns or a .22, but bows and arrows were their weapons of choice. The villagers were sitting ducks. The only man who owned a hunting rifle was an amateur radio operator named Charles Foster Jones.
Out of 47 inhabitants, Charles and his wife Etta were the only two Americans living on the island at the time. Charles’ role in the Japanese invasion is often mentioned in passing, but few people know what happened to him. Born to a strict, small-town family in Ohio, Charles had a sense of wanderlust.
He wanted to leave Ohio and looked for any opportunity to do so. After the Klondike Gold Rush erupted in 1898, Charles took off to Alaska and never looked back. As a veteran of the Chilkoot Trail, Charles was a good mechanic and fixer, which were essential skills in a place where the mail might not arrive for months. He could read currents, navigate his boat, construct a house, and make a generator run on fumes.
Charles also built his own radio and eventually earned a license to operate it. While he was living in Tanana, Alaska, he met Etta, a teacher and a nurse from New Jersey. She had moved to Alaska on the spur of the moment decision and found a job at the local post office.
When Charles first laid eyes on Etta, he knew that she was the woman he wanted to marry. On April 1, 1923, he did just that. The couple tied the knot and then mushed to a trapper’s cabin for their honeymoon. They were both 42-years-old. In a biography published by Etta’s great-niece, Mary Breu notes that Etta called Charles a “perfect companion.”
Charles was “Never sick, never worried, never irritated,” she wrote. “He was not a type-A personality at all, but non-confrontational, calm, a born mediator.” In the years after their wedding, Charles and Etta were sent to one or two-teacher schools in remote communities around Alaska. In 1941, the couple was sent to Attu.
Little did they know that this move was going to change their lives forever. Etta worked as the village’s only teacher, while Charles sent daily weather reports, repaired the school, and directed entertainment programs. The island was a lovely place to live, despite the extreme weather and the fact that mail took months to arrive. One visitor to the island described the village as a “little Eden.”
There was no alcohol and virtually no crime. There was abundant amounts of fish, wildfowl, and wild berries. Money that was made from the fox fur trade was divided equally among the villagers, no matter their age or occupation. The money was enough to buy houses, fishing boats, and white church clothes that the kids wore to Sunday services.
When Charles and Etta made the long and stormy journey to Attu from a neighboring island in 1941, their boat passed by Dutch Harbor. Etta noticed the military buildup on the island and wrote to her family, “The whole place bristles with guns.” Despite the growing military presence, the Joneses felt safe on Attu, even after the US entered the war. Attu was too secluded and held no strategic value, or so they thought.
63-year-old Charles Foster Jones had just finished sending a weather report to the naval base on Dutch Harbor when he heard the gunfire. He notified US authorities of the attack before destroying the radio. Those were the last words that authorities heard from the citizens of Attu until Japan surrendered three years later.
The villagers were rounded up while their homes were searched and robbed. Seeing as Etta and Charles were the only non-Aleut people living on the island, they received a special interrogation. “Etta wrote that they thought they were spies for Russia,” Breu told reporters in 2016. Attu Island was much closer to eastern Russia and Asia than the United States mainland. In fact, the couple heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor from Japanese broadcasts.
Breu also said that her great-aunt and uncle were repeatedly questioned about Amchitka Island, which sits 272 miles east of Attu. But the Joneses didn’t know anything about the island, and why would they? Then, the Japanese separated the couple, and Charles was further interrogated and most likely tortured.
The Imperial soldiers eventually told Charles to fix his broken radio. When he refused to, they killed him. When the soldiers returned, they told Etta that Charles had committed suicide. They took her to see his body and then mutilated it as she looked on. The Japanese then ordered Attu men to bury his body, which they did (and carefully noted the position of the grave). To say Etta was distraught is an understatement.
The Imperial soldiers then gave Etta and the 42 surviving Aleut villagers one hour to pack their belongings before being shipped off to Japan. The Aleut were held as prisoners of war in northern Japan under extremely harsh conditions, and many died of malnutrition and illness.
As for Etta, she was sent to a different camp in Japan. For months, the 63-year-old lived in total isolation, grieving her husband, until a group of 18 Australian nurses arrived at the camp. The nurses had been captured in Papua New Guinea and found Etta hiding being a potted plant. She was weeping but happy to hear English for the first time since leaving the island of Attu.
In the years following her release from the Japanese camp, Etta rarely spoke about her time as a prisoner of war. To document her time in Japan, her great-niece had to rely on the memories of the Australian nurses. The survival skills Etta learned during her time living in Alaska came to good use, and the younger nurses looked up to her.
The 19 women became a close-knit group, with Etta acting as their pseudo-mother. One time, the Japanese guards gave out sanitary napkins to the prisoners; however, they did not give Etta one because of her age. Etta argued that it was only fair that she gets one as well. But little did the guards know that Etta had a plan up her sleeve.
One of the nurses was in bad condition. She was weak from the lack of food and suffered from exposure to the cold. The Japanese did not provide their POWs with warm clothing, so instead, Etta knitted the nurse a sweater from the sanitary napkin fibers.
She pulled cotton strands from the napkins then rolled them with silk threads to make “yarn.” In July 1945, the Red Cross learned about the female prisoners and paid them a visit. Before then, the women had received no letters or supplies to help them survive the POW camp. In fact, no one in the world knew where they were being held, except for their Japanese captors.
When General Douglas MacArthur’s convoy drove near the camp on their way to Tokyo, the female POWs knew the war was over. They were rescued the same day by one of the general’s officers, Major William Meanley, who noticed the women standing on the side of the road.
Etta Jones returned to the US after the war, but she never returned to Alaska, nor did she speak of her three years in Japan. In 1965, Etta passed away at her home in Florida at the age of 86. Before her death, she wrote a short autobiography and presented her family with letters she had saved from over the years. So what happened after the Japanese invasion? Let’s rewind to 1942.
The Japanese now had control over the two most western islands in the Aleutian Chain: Kiska and Attu. The exact reason for their invasion is still debated amongst historians. Some say that the invasion was used to distract from their attack on Midway Island, especially since the two occurred simultaneously and were ordered by the same officer.
However, other historians say that the invasion was only used to prevent an American attack on the Japanese mainland. Regardless of the exact reasons, conquering a piece of American soil was a huge blow to morale. This was the first time that the continental United States was attacked and occupied by a foreign government since the War of 1812.
American planes first discovered Imperial forces on Kiska on June 8th, but the US was in no position to launch a major offensive. With naval forces tied up in other battles around the world, the military’s plan to invade North Africa, and a strong focus on European targets, the US lacked machinery and manpower to reconquer the islands.
Retaking the Aleutian Islands was low on their list of priorities. However, they did fear that the Japanese would use the islands as a base while they struck the West Coast. “The fear of that scenario was real at the time because the Japanese were nearly invincible and ruthless in Asia and the Pacific,” General Simon B. Buckner Jr. later said.
There was also a fear of a North American invasion. “The impression we were given — and this was voiced oral stuff — was that we had nothing to stop the Japanese,” Lieutenant Bob Brocklehurst of the 18th Fighter Squadron later recalled. “[Our commanding officers] figured that the Japanese, if they wanted to, could have come up the Aleutians, taken Anchorage, and come down past down Vancouver to Seattle, Washington.”
Using Adak Island as their base, the US Air Force began bombarding Kiska, while US Navy submarines began patrolling the area. Under the command of Lieutenant Commander Howard Gilmore, the submarine Growler attacked three Japanese destroyers off the coast of Kiska. One sank, and the other two were heavily damaged, wounding or killing 200 Japanese sailors.
Then came the Battle of the Komandorski Islands. While the bombardment wore out the Imperial Army, it didn’t inflict as much damage as they wanted. The US military needed a different strategy. So they decided to eliminate Japanese supply convoys. After two of their cruisers were damaged, Japan decided to make the switch from surface vessels to submarines to resupply their Aleutian strongholds.
Then, in May 1943, the US commenced “Operation Landcrab” to recapture Attu Island. Many historians call this operation “the weirdest war ever waged.” The invasion force included recruited scouts from Alaska that went by the nickname Castner’s Cutthroats. The US had a shortage of landing crafts and equipment that failed to operate in extreme weather.
A low-pressure storm permanently looms over the island, channeling thick fog, torrential rain, and winds that reach 100 miles per hour. The rocky coastline made an amphibious attack nearly impossible, and American soldiers were gravely unprepared. Food took days to arrive, and soldiers often vomited green bile as a result. But hunger was the least of their worries.
It was the cold that nearly defeated them. The 32nd Infantry Regiment had trained for desert warfare, not Attu’s Arctic conditions. The soldiers trekked through waist-deep snow in leather boots, and the sweat on their feet crystallized, causing life-threatening frostbite. The US infantrymen were so cold that when they encountered dead Japanese troops, they took their coats and boots to keep warm.
So, now US troops were wearing Japanese uniforms, which often resulted in friendly fire. US soldiers famously crawled on their stomachs not only to stay warm from the movement but to avoid getting shot by snipers. The infantry soldiers weren’t the only ones having problems.
US Air Force planes crashed into uncharted mountains hidden by fog, while other bombers spent eight hours flying over Attu without ever seeing a single piece of ground. As a result, the planes were often grounded, leaving soldiers on the battlefield unprotected. No matter how hard the US tried, the forces of nature always seemed to have the upper hand. “No general or admiral was as powerful as the weather,” historian Brian Garfield wrote in 1969.
Essential cold-weather supplies couldn’t be sent, and soldiers couldn’t be relocated to other parts of the island because vehicles had a hard time operating in the tundra. Instead of attacking American soldiers when they landed, the Japanese remained hidden, shooting from higher ground.
The blanket of fog occasionally lifted during the 19-day battle, and the two armies were finally able to see one another. But, for the most part, the US and Japanese armies spent their time searching for each other. The American forces suffered losses, but they did have the advantage of being able to send in reinforcements. The US blockade meant that the Japanese couldn’t evacuate their wounded or send in additional ammunition or soldiers.
Although the Americans had trouble navigating Attu’s harsh conditions, they were slowly gaining the upper hand. By May 29th, the Japanese commander on Attu counted 800 able, fighting soldiers left. Knowing that the US was closing in, he ordered a last-ditch counterattack: a banzai charge on Engineer Hill with the goal of capturing additional artillery and essential supplies.
Any Imperial soldier that could still walk was ordered to make the final attack. The rest of the soldiers were killed by morphine injections. “The last assault is to be carried out. All patients were made to commit suicide,” medical officer Nebu Tatsuguri wrote the day he was killed. “Only thirty-three are living, and I am to die: I have no regrets.”
Without warning, Japanese soldiers attacked US forces in one of the first and largest banzai attacks recorded in the Pacific. Led by Colonel Yasuyo Yamasaki, Imperial soldiers charged towards American forces in the middle of the night. Some soldiers wielded bayonets tied to sticks, while others carried samurai swords.
At first, the attack was silent as they killed troops asleep in their sleeping bags. But when the shooting and grenade explosions began, the confused troops fled with US soldiers running barefoot through the icy grounds. Yamasaki’s troops penetrated so deep into the American lines that they reached rear-echelon units. The battle was brutal, to say the least. Japanese soldiers slashed medics and scarfed down the little food that the Americans had left.
The Imperial troops eventually reached Clevesy Pass. Fortunately, the US troops stationed there had already prepared a defense line. Army cooks and bulldozer drivers armed themselves with weapons and fought to the death. But then the battle took a strange turn.
The Imperial soldiers gave up trying to fight the American soldiers and turned to take their own lives instead, as it was seen as a dishonor to be captured by the enemy. The mass suicide left the US troops numb with shock. “I wake up in the middle of the night and I can’t go back to sleep,” communications soldier Allen Seroll told reporters. “That’s what this has done to me. That’s how much it affected me and still does.”
The charge ended the battle on Attu island. In total, the Japanese lost at least 2,351 soldiers, with only 28 taken as prisoners. The 7th Division lost 549 men, and more than 1,200 were injured. After the Battle of Attu, the Japanese Army secretly evacuated their remaining personnel from Kiska Island. The Japanese occupation officially came to an end on July 28, 1943.
As for the American troops, they solemnly celebrated their victory. “This is only the beginning,” Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr. announced a few months after the Aleutian Campaign. “We have opened the road to Tokyo, the shortest, most direct and most devastating to our enemies. May we soon travel that road to victory.”