The only battle fought between US troops and invaders on North American soil since the early 19th century began on May 11, 1943. Considering the size of the US troops - around 150,000 men - it was an impressive operation. Nevertheless, the goal has long provoked ridicule. After all, it was about recapturing a hardly inhabited rocky island in the subarctic, the westernmost Aleutian island Attu.
As far as the strategic importance of this island is concerned, there was probably hardly a more trivial enterprise during the Second World War. Both for the Americans and for the Japanese. The commanders of the Imperial Fleet had really had something in mind when, in June 1942, they appeared with a landing fleet off Attu and the island of Kiska, 300 kilometers to the east.
The task was to distract the Americans from the Japanese offensive against Midway in the central Pacific. To this end, two aircraft carriers and strong security units were sent to the inhospitable north. The result was what had not happened since the Anglo-American War of 1812-1815: the occupation of North American territory by a foreign power.
The venture turned out to be a complete failure for Japan. Since the Americans could read the Japanese naval code, they knew of the diversionary strategy and concentrated their aircraft carriers at Midway. There they managed to sink four Japanese carriers within a few minutes. Historians have raised the counterfactual question of what would have happened if the two bearers of the Aleutian Enterprise had stood before Midway? The Pacific War might have undergone a dramatic change.
After the conquest of the Solomon Island of Guadalcanal, which was completed in February 1943, little happened in the Pacific theater of war for months. The Japanese reinforced their positions as best they could, while the US, on a "Europe first" basis, sought to gather sufficient resources and strategy for further landings. The two Aleutian islands suddenly came into the focus of US planners.
They assumed that the Japanese had the goal they were pursuing themselves: to occupy strong bases for strategic air warfare through so-called island jumping, in order to finally be able to attack the Japanese motherland. However, Japan did not have any long-range bombers. It was difficult enough to adequately support the few thousand men on Atta and Kiska. After an American task force had intercepted a supply convoy, food and ammunition had to be brought in by submarine.
But for the US, it was also about prestige. The Japanese had occupied numerous foreign possessions and bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii at the beginning of the war. But the Aleutians were not Asia, they were the New World. To rid them of the enemy, US Navy commander Chester W. Nimitz assembled an armada. Three battleships, a light carrier and numerous destroyers were to support the landing of initially 10,000 men. In addition, hundreds of aircraft, including many long-distance bombers, were ready.
The Japanese garrison on Attu consisted of just 2,500 men. But they withdrew into the hinterland and let the enemy come. That was difficult enough for him, since the Americans did not yet master the infrastructure for large-scale amphibious landings. More GIs fell victim to weather conditions, disease, or even their own fire than to the weapons of the Japanese. 1200 men alone suffered cold injuries.
In the end, US casualties totaled nearly 4,000 troops, with nearly 1,500 dead. "Then the Japanese themselves solved the problem by launching a suicidal attack in which they were wiped out," writes British historian Basil Liddell Hart. Only 26 were taken prisoner.
In July, the Americans turned on Kiska. The island was bombed for two weeks, then 34,000 men stormed the island without encountering any resistance. The Japanese leadership had evacuated their 5,000-man crew in good time, and the permanent fog in the region rendered them useful.
With all his authority as a leading military theorist, Liddell Hart has criticized the recapture of the Aleutians as a useless action: it is a "blatant example of bad economy of forces and a good example of the wasted forces that an opponent with little effort can cause by diversionary maneuvers". Many authors have agreed.
The American historian Paul Kennedy has just formulated the opposite thesis: "The benefit of this exercise (the recapture of Attu and Kiska; ed.) was the opportunity for 100,000 inexperienced US soldiers to land on foreign shores and the massive support of Sea, including fire from three battleships, was an early chance to see how difficult it was to inflict significant damage on enemy troops entrenched on distant hills.”
That has a lot to offer. Because the strategy that the US leadership followed from now on led to strategic points that had been fortified by the Japanese on a completely different scale and were to be defended. In fact, the Americans drew lessons from the "exercise" in the Aleutians which enabled them to launch subsequent offensives.
Incidentally, how this happened was the subject of the documentary "Report from the Aleutians", which Hollywood director John Houston shot in 1943. He got an Oscar nomination for it.
This article was first published in 2013.