Like many WWII soldiers, some Minnesotans trained in the California desert and boarded planes to the Pacific. During the flight they would learn for the first time that they were going to the North Pacific, the territory of Alaska.
“There’s a woman behind every tree,” they were told. They arrived to serve in the 1,000-mile chain of the Aleutian Islands, the “birthplace of the winds,” where no trees could stay rooted. The lack of trees and women were among the many surprises Minnesota troops faced during the 15-month Aleutian campaign from June 4, 1942 – Aug. 24, 1943.
Back in Minnesota, the families knew nothing of where their loved ones were during this time. Alaska was a remote, unknown U.S. territory. Military news from Alaska was actively blacked out for over a year based on concerns that people in the lower 48 would panic if they knew that the Japanese were occupying American soil. The Battle of Guadalcanal, Aug. 7, 1942-Feb. 9, 1943, dominated the news. Japan had battle plans for another Pacific Island: Midway. They believed attacking Alaska would divert U.S. military attention.
Japanese military attention on Alaska was first spurred by the air strike on Tokyo, on April 18, 1942, led by Jimmy Doolittle. The Japanese incorrectly suspected that the bombing run had been made from Alaska. The U.S. government encouraged this idea by making sure the Japanese heard that Doolittle had spent his youth in Nome, Alaska. The Japanese wanted to protect their back door. Control of the Aleutian Islands would, also, seal Japanese control of transportation in the North Pacific making it difficult for the U.S. to send promised supplies and planes to Allied and other countries in exchange for using airbases and naval bases in those countries (the Lend-Lease program).
The Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor, Alaska, on June 3-4, 1942. They did not know that their code had already been broken. The U.S. knew about the planned attack on Midway. The Japanese were surprised by U.S. bombers from a hidden air base. The counterattack and the always challenging Aleutian weather forced the Japanese to refocus their attention a thousand miles away at the end of the Aleutian chain. Japanese troops occupied the islands of Attu and Kiska, locations close enough to be supported from Japan. And so began the Aleutian Campaign/ Thousand-Mile War/ Forgotten War.
In response, the U.S. committed to the defense of Alaska to:
• Keep the Japanese away from the Boeing aircraft manufacturing plants in Seattle, Washington
• To assure the unhindered transport of Lend-Lease items
• To block Japanese access into the Lower 48 states
Minnesota troops were already in place when the Japanese arrived in Alaska. In 1940, the Army sought to repair imbalances in its forces by transforming many infantry regiments into anti-aircraft artillery outfits. Minnesota National Guard’s 205th and 206th Infantry Regiments were converted into the 215th, 216th, and 217th Coast Artillery (Anti-Aircraft) Regiments, which together comprised the 101st Coast Artillery (AA) Brigade. The regiments were mobilized in the winter of 1941. They trained at Camp Haan in California. After Pearl Harbor, the 216th and 217th were assigned to gun emplacements along the California coast.
The 135 National Guardsmen from Rock County, Minnesota, that made up Battery E 215th Coast Artillery Regiment were sent to Kodiak, Alaska, to guard the naval base.
Back in Minnesota, young Jim Sherman stated,“ I thought it was ‘Kodak’ and I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out why all these guys from Luverne were going to wherever they made cameras.” The 215th was sent to the newly established air base at Adak, Alaska, to support the drive to remove Japanese troops from the Western Aleutians.
The support functions of creating detailed maps, installing airstrips on tundra, building the Alaska Highway, and removing Japanese bombs and ordnance were key to U.S. troops being able to remove the Japanese and re-occupy American soil. Minnesotans were among the many non-combat (training accidents, disease, weather, plane crashes) casualties. Private Rodney Tester, a radio technician, from Brookston, Minn., was killed when his crew crashed while on an aerial reconnaissance mission off of Kodiak, months before the Japanese bombing of Dutch Harbor. Seaman First Class Harry Ambroz, of Heidelberg, Minn., died in an accident in Dutch Harbor. Technician Fifth Grade Edward Stoering, of Richville, died when his C-47 transport plane crashed in a ridge of Mt. McKinley. Private Edward Dahl, from Farwell, Minn., was an engineer on a transport plane that crashed near Elmendorf Air Base.
In 1941, Patrick Joseph Hogan, of Gilbert, Minn., was the first man from Minnesota to be drafted into military service. He spent the next four years in combat, first in the invasion of the Japanese of the Aleutian Islands. The first and only battle of the Aleutian Campaign was the Battle of Attu, May 11-30, 1943. It was also the only WWII battle fought on American soil. Of the 2,300 Japanese troops there were 2,250 dead and 23 prisoners (most of the dead from a banzai charge on the final day). Of the 11,000 U.S. troops that landed there were 549 dead, 1,148 wounded, and 2,100 suffered from sickness and nonbattle injuries.
The Battle of Attu was the second costliest battle of the war, next to Iwo Jima (ratio of troops employed to casualties). It demonstrated that the biggest challenge to survival in the Aleutian Campaign was not battling the Japanese, it was the terrain and the weather.
The Aleutians rise from narrow beaches to rugged mountains 3,000-4,000 feet high. The ground is covered in muskeg, a thick bog of hidden water and partly dead vegetation covered by moss and interspersed with high mounds of decaying grasses. On Attu the muskeg was up to 8 feet thick and moved like bow waves in front of the tractors. Instead of taking back control of the island in three days, U.S. troops were reassigned to relay food and supplies from the stuck tractors to the front line troops, who had been without food for two to three days. Most of the work was done while wearing their California-issued leather footwear.
“No general or admiral was as powerful as the weather,” wrote Brian Garfield, author of The Thousand-Mile War. The weather proved to be the friend of the Japanese in the U.S. intention to reclaim the island of Kiska three months later.
At the Aleutians, the warm Japanese current meets the arctic waters of the Bering Sea creating dense fog and tremendous winds at the same time. Winds over 100 mph are common. No trees can stay rooted. Pilots could not fly above the fog. For every 1,000 feet they climbed in altitude it was like being 500 miles closer to the North Pole. Wing shapes changed due to ice build-up, so planes did not have the same lift. Most bombing raids were flown at 500 feet.
Radio communication was so full of static from bouncing off the mountainous terrain and low clouds that one pilot referred to the maddening noise of “bacon sizzling in your headset constantly.” As weather typically moves west to east, the Japanese knew one to two days in advance what the weather would be in the Aleutians. Before the war, there were only four U.S. weather stations on the entire 1,000-mile chain.
On Aug. 15, 1943, the U.S. and Canada landed 35,000 troops on Kiska. They found no Japanese. In dense fog, two weeks before, 5,000 Japanese troops evacuated the island. It was a major U.S. military embarrassment.
The question was asked if the U.S. should invade Japan from nearby Attu. The answer: The wind and fog would continue to be the greatest limiting factor in supplying and flying in or from the Aleutians. Nothing had changed about the most challenging enemy in the Aleutians.
The Aleutian Campaign officially ended on Aug. 24, 1943. It involved 500,000 U.S., Canadian, Russian and Japanese troops. The U.S. and Japanese death toll was 5,831. Of the Alaska natives that had been removed from their villages in the Aleutians and sent to U.S. internment camps 300 died.
Among the forgotten contributions from the Aleutian campaign:
• Japanese attention and resources were diverted from the rest of the Pacific for the remainder of the war
• Low-flight bombing techniques were developed
• Marston matting was used to build, and still is today, runways on unstable surfaces
• The Alaska Highway was built
• The Battle of Attu was the first major U.S. victory in the Pacific
Today, Minnesota families are still seeking answers to what happened to their loved ones during the “Forgotten Battle.” The National Park Service has an extensive website, www.nps.gov/articles/battle-of-attu.htm. The Attu battlefield was made a National Historic Landmark in 1985. Attu and Kiska became part of the World War II Valor in the Pacific Monuments in 2008. The “Forgotten War” and the contributions of the Minnesota soldiers are forgotten no more.
Minnesota-specific resources include:
• The War: An Intimate History 1941-1945 by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns
• War Stories Volume II: Further Accounts of Minnesotans Who Defended Their Nation by Al Zdon
• Minnesota Military Museum – Camp Ripley
• Little Minnesota in World War II: 142 Minnesotans from Tiny Towns Who Gave Their Lives by Deane L. Johnson and Jill A. JohnsonJohnson