Attu, the only World War II battle fought in North America

A priori It might seem that a place as remote as the Aleutian archipelago lacked interest for the combatants of the Second World War.

However, the possession of that insular territory was revealed as a fundamental strategic objective both by its owners, the United States, and by its Japanese enemies and, in fact, some important battles were fought there, generically grouped under the name of Battle of the Aleutian Islands.

One of them took place in Attu and it constitutes the only example of fighting in North America during that conflict, since other places such as the Marshall Islands, Solomon Islands or Guam were considered “unincorporated territories” and their inhabitants were not granted citizenship until after the war. ; even Hawaii, where the attack on Pearl Harbor took place, was not a state until 1959.

By the middle of 1942 the high command of Japan was aware of its material inferiority to the USsomething that was aggravated with the extension of the North American domains in the Pacific, which allowed it to have natural bases for its aviation and its navy.

The Aleutian archipelago, between Alaska and the Russian peninsula of Kamchatka. Attu is the last island on the bottom left/Image: Alexrk2 on Wikimedia Commons

One of those sites was Midway Islands, an atoll located in the middle of the ocean, not far from Hawaii. Although it had been discovered in 1799 by the Spanish navigator Miguel Zapiain (who baptized it with the name of Patrocinio), in 1867 the sailor William Reynolds annexed to the USA aware of its strategic utility for navigation, although surely he never imagined the degree that he would reach in that sense.

Because, indeed, in the spring of 1942 the Admiral Yamamoto made the decision to try to take the Midways and thus have a priceless natural aircraft carrier from which to operate with more possibilities and incite the enemy to a decisive confrontation that would shorten the war, since the Japanese, who had lived in the US, knew that, in the long run, it would impose its inexhaustible industrial capacity. And for said duel it was necessary to have a good supply point In the middle of nowhere.

The Pacific in 1939; the midway islands are in the center/Image: Rowanwindwhistler on Wikimedia Commons

Of course, Yamamoto also knew that the Americans weren’t going to sit idly by and let the Midways be snatched away, so he devised a fun plan to drag his fleet away from there; the place chosen was the Aleutian Archipelago, a group of more than three hundred volcanic islands They are located in the extreme northwest of North America, forming a kind of arc between Alaska and the Russian peninsula of Kamchatka and separating the Bering Sea from the Pacific Ocean.

In total about 37,800 square kilometers inhabited mainly by Inuit and which, ironically, the Russians sold to the US the same year that Reynolds occupied Midway.

The squad destined for the Aleutians was made up of the aircraft carriers Ryujo Y Juneheavy cruisers Maya Y Takaothe battleships ise, Fuso Y Yamashirothe light cruiser Abukuma and other transport and supply ships with landing forces.

The first attack occurred on June 3, 1942 with a bombardment on the island of Unalaska; Two days later, Japanese troops conquered the island of Kiska and the next day they repeated success with Attumeeting hardly any resistance.

Suddenly, Japan took the war into enemy territory and not only did it deprive him of what was another appreciable base for potential attacks on the Japanese archipelago but, conversely, it was a cradle from which the mainland could be attacked. Then resounded the words that, in this sense, had been formulated in 1935 by General william mitchell before Congress, saying that Alaska was “the most important strategic place in the world”.

The US had to grit its teeth and control its nerves as it prepared to recapture the Aleutians. In August, the island of Adak became the point from which the invaders began to be bombarded and in March 1943 a squadron under the command of Rear Admiral Charles McMorris cut off their supply routes by defeating the vice admiral’s ships Boshirō Hosogaya in the Battle of the Komandorski Islands.

The 301st Independent Infantry Battalion of the Northern Army of Colonel yasuyo yamasaki was isolated and with serious supply difficulties. Everything was ready for the reconquest operation by US and Canadian forces.

Thus, on May 11, 1943, after an intense naval cannonade, the 7th and 17th Infantry Divisions under the command of General Albert Brown they launched into the assault in the so-called Operation Crab.

They did it from two points, north and south, but it must not have been exactly pleasant for the attackers: as there were not enough landing craft it was necessary to wait for them to return from the beaches before going out again, desperately slowing down the operation and causing many soldiers, drenched, to stay numb with cold waiting for the others in those adverse weather conditions -it is the Arctic, after all-.

Allied landing at Attu/Photo: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

This favored the Japanese, who were able to organize and received them harshly, causing it to take two weeks to secure a position and start advancing. A slow march, in any case, since the vehicles they got stuck in the tundra and snipers were shooting from the hills.

Little by little, however, Yamasaki became bagged in Chichagof Harboralthough he was confident because he had the information that Tokyo was preparing a blunt squad that he would go to his aid imminently.

Had it done so, perhaps things would have changed, since it really was powerful: the cruisers Mogami, Kumano, Suzuya, Tono, Chikuma, Agano Y Ōiodothe battleships Musashi, Kongo Y Harunaeleven destroyers, several troop transports…

But his departure it was delayed and on May 29, Yamasaki, assuming that help would not arrive in time, launched his troops into a massive Attack to the desperate His idea was to take Engineer Hill, where the Allies had concentrated their artillery, to turn the guns against them.

Nearly two and a half thousand soldiers, to the classic cry of “Banzay!”they fell on the Americans by surprise, causing many casualties and reaching a savage hand-to-hand fight in which there was no quarter; the Asians even skewered the wounded in the field hospital with their bayonets (later it was learned that hundreds of Japanese only had that weapon, having exhausted their ammunition).

But it was still a suicide in practice and most ended up dead, only 28 being captured; among them was a single officer, Yamasaki himself. The battlefield is today called Massacre Valley.

they were still small isolated groups They continued to defend themselves tenaciously until they were definitively crushed in mid-summer. Having seen the result in Attu and taking into account that the Imperial Navy had not only been unable to prevail in Midway (it had been defeated a year earlier, shortly after the Aleutians were occupied) but that the same Yamamoto just died When the plane in which it was flying over the Solomon Islands was shot down, the Japanese command decided not to resist in the other occupied island territory, Kiska.

The 28th of July stealthily evacuated his minuscule garrison (nine men) taking advantage of a dense fog. Still, as we counted in the post dedicated to Operation Cottage, the mines, the cold and the friendly fire (a constant throughout the campaign) caused 313 casualties to the Americans when they disembarked, partly when a mine exploded in the path of a destroyer; their planes had spent a week bombing an empty island.

Speaking of low, the allies exceeded half a thousand dead and a little more than a thousand wounded in combat, plus another thousand or so sick from the cold. The Japanese suffered 2,351 deaths and the 28 prisoners cited.


Thousand Mile War. World War II in Alaska and the Aleutians (Brian Garfield)/Aleutian Campaign In World War II. A Strategic Perspective (Major John A. Polhamus)/A Battle History of the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1941-1945 (Paul S. Dull)/Alaska at War, 1941-1945. The Forgotten War Remembered (Fern Chandonnet)/Wikipedia / The Capture of Attu: A World War II Battle as Told by the Men Who Fought There (Robert J. Mitchell).