Battle of Attu

By Michael A. Mira, Army Heritage MuseumMay 7, 2009

Kiska and Attu, two of the United States most westerly islands in the Aleutian chain were occupied by Japanese forces in June 1942. The battle to take Attu back from the Japanese would prove to be a valuable learning experience for the United States Army. The landings on Attu were among the first large scale amphibious landings of World War II.

The American's lack of experience was obvious in the many mistakes that were made during the planning phase of the assault on Attu. These mistakes included the choosing of an uncharted bay, the decision to forgo a preliminary bombardment, and not giving sufficient time to acclimate the division chosen to be the main effort in the assault to the harsh weather conditions encountered in Alaska.

The Seventh Infantry Division was chosen to spearhead the assault of Attu; however they had been training in Monterey, California and lacked appropriate cold weather gear. Large ships were unable to operate in the bay chosen for the landing site, leaving the troops in the cold and wet for a longer period of time than was necessary and adding to the number of cold weather casualties suffered by American troops.

The landing was scheduled for May 7, 1943, however, bad weather held the landings up for four days. This proved fortuitous as the Japanese were expecting an assault on the 7th. Thinking the threat had passed the Japanese troops were not as alert on the 11th when the landing began.

From May 11 through the May 28 the Americans fought the Japanese, as well as the weather, to take back the island. After seventeen days of hard fighting Colonel Yasuyo Yamasaki, the Japanese commander, desperate to drive the Americans from the island ordered a Banzai charge. In preparation for the charge he burnt all his papers and ordered all the wounded Japanese soldiers unable to take part in the assault killed. The Banzai charge caught the American soldiers by surprise and almost succeeded. A mixed group of engineers, medical personnel, and Headquarters troops turned the tide against the Japanese when this determined group of soldiers made a stand on the crest of a hill. This was the first time American soldiers had encountered the fanatically reckless fighting spirit of the Japanese. This attack was the last organized resistance met on Attu.

The battle for Attu and proved to be a learning experience. Intelligence garnered from letters and diaries of Japanese soldiers, as well as information from American ground commanders detailed what tactics the Japanese used, and how they could be countered. These lessons learned were applied to the later island hopping campaigns in the Pacific theaters. The medical corps learned a great deal by studying the cases of exposure and trench foot occurred during the battle. These studies led to improvements in the personal equipment that was issued to soldiers.

ABOUT THIS STORY: Many of the sources presented in this article are among 400,000 books, 1.7 million photos and 12.5 million manuscripts available for study through the U.S. Army Military History Institute (MHI). The artifacts shown are among nearly 50,000 items of the Army Heritage Museum (AHM) collections. MHI and AHM are part of the: Army Heritage and Education Center (AHEC), 950 Soldiers Drive, Carlisle, PA, 17013-5021.

Related Links:

A Working Bibliography of MHI Sources: Alaska--WW2

A Working Bibliography of MHI Sources: Alaska-- Aleutian Islands WW2