Chapter 1: The Attack on Dutch Harbor
While the eventual goal of the Japanese activities in the Aleutians remains somewhat obscure, it is clear that the initial attack in June 1942 was subsidiary to the powerful thrust at Midway. The Central Pacific offensive was conducted by approximately 80 ships, including 4 or 5 carriers, at least 3 battleships, and a large number of cruisers, destroyers, auxiliaries, and transports. The simultaneous assault on the Aleutians employed a much smaller force, probably containing two small carriers, two seaplane tenders, several heavy and light cruisers, destroyers, and submarines belonging to the Fifth Fleet, and from four to six transports and cargo vessels. Obviously Midway was the primary objective.
The Midway attack was thrown back with great loss in what may prove to have been one of the decisive battle of the war.2 In the Aleutians area, however, the weakness of our forces, plus the ever-present handicaps of climate and geography, precluded our maintaining an airtight defense. in spite of heroic efforts, especially those of Army and Navy pilots, it is doubtful whether we prevented the enemy from attaining any of his immediate objectives, modified as they undoubtedly were by the Battle of Midway.
CINCPAC on 21 May 1942 established Task Force Tare3 under the command of Rear Admiral Robert A. Theobald. Admiral Theobald was
given control of all Army, Navy, and Canadian forces in the Alaskan-Aleutian theater and was ordered to prepare to defend the area against Japanese attack. The inadequacy of the strength available for this task is well demonstrated by a comparison with the naval and air forces present in the Philippines in December 1941, since the results of our weakness in that theater are well know. In the Philippines were stationed 73 naval vessels, including 3 cruisers, 13 destroyers, and 29 submarines, as well as 280 aircraft of all types. Task Force Tare, on the other hand, contained only 52 vessels and 169 planes. Its sole advantage was in cruisers, of which there were 5--2 heavies and 3 lights. The rest of the naval force was composed of 11 destroyers, 6 submarines, 2 destroyer seaplane tenders, 1 gunboat, 1 minesweeper, 2 oilers, 10 Coast Guard vessels, and 14 district patrol craft. Planes, mostly Army types, consisted of 94 fighters, 7 four-motored bombers, 42 two-motored bombers, 23 patrol bombers (PBYs of PatWing Four), and 3 scouts.
Admiral Theobald's force not only was pitifully small but it had to be spread dangerously thin. Nevertheless, our situation at that time was such that no significant reinforcements could be assigned, although the area to be protected constituted one of the most important approaches to the United States.
The main surface vessels of Task Force Tare proceeded from Pearl Harbor to Kokiak. There, on 27 May 1942, Admiral Theobald issued an operation plan for the several groups under his command, since intelligence had by this time made it clear that a Japanese attack could be expected during the first few days of June, probably on the Umnak-Dutch Harbor-Cold Bay area.
Since Task Force Tare contained non carrier, Admiral Theobald was dependent on land or harbor-based planes for searches. His 23 PBYs were located principally at Dutch Harbor and Kokiak and were capable of reconnaissance over a radius of 400 miles. The Army possessed one base farther west, at Fort Glenn on Umnak Island, which had been constructed in such deep secrecy that it was believed to be unknown to the enemy. Twelve P-40s were stationed there. These planes were of slight value for search but were to prove helpful in attacking Japanese surface forces.
By 1 June the entire coast from Nome to Seattle was in a condition of 24-hour alert, with aircraft searching tot he limit of their fuel endurance
and other planes being hastily ferried in from the south.4 Great reliance was of necessity placed on radar installations in patrol planes, not only to prevent collisions with fog-shrouded mountains, but to make the searches themselves in any was effective, since the scarcity of aircraft and the poor visibility did not permit close visual search. Later events proved that this reliance was fully justified. Until the enemy occupation force was discovered at Kiska, every contact was made first by radar and later developed visually.5
Dutch Harbor Bombed, 3 and 4 June
On 2 June two enemy carriers were reported less than 400 miles south of Kiska. All available 11th Air Force planes were immediately ordered to the advanced airfields at Cold Bay and Fort Glenn.
Aided by the first clear weather in three days, the Japanese attacked Dutch Harbor and nearby Fort Mears on the morning of 3 June almost simultaneously with their attack on Midway. In the harbor were the two old destroyers King and Talbot, the destroyer-seaplane tender Gillis, the submarine S-27, the Coast Guard cutter Onondaga, and the U.S. Army transports President Fillmore and Morlen. When unidentified planes were detected at 0540 by the radar of the Gillis (Lt. Comdr. Norman F. Garton), she and the other ships weighed anchor and stood out with all hands at battle stations.
Ashore, the Naval Air Station had gone to General Quarters at 0430 in accordance with daily routine. At 0545, while battle stations were still fully manned, a flight of about 15 carrier-type fighter planes appeared. Any doubt as to their enemy character disappeared when they began to strafe our installations, and our batteries opened an intense antiaircraft fire. After a single flight over the station, during which they did very little damage, the planes moved off to the northward.
At about 0550 four bombers approached on a course of 030º T. Five minutes later they released 16 bombs. Two dropped into the water, but 14 fell in the congested area of Fort Mears, the white frame buildings of which made a conspicuous target. Two barracks and three Quonset huts were destroyed and several buildings were damaged by the hits and resulting fire. Approximately 25 men were killed and about the same number wounded. A second flight of three bombers overshot Fort Mears and did
no material damage, but a third flight of three planes damaged the radio station and demolished a Quonset hut.
The last flight of planes apparently had as its target the wooden oil tanks, which had been there for years, so that the enemy could easily have known their location. The bombs overshot the tanks, but killed a man in a Navy fire watcher's pillbox and the driver of an Army truck. All told, about 15 fighters and 13 horizontal bombers participated in the raid. All the bombers were tracked in at about 9,000 feet. No fighters from Fort Glenn, 65 miles away, managed to intercept.
The ships (except the Morlen and S-27) had joined the shore batteries in firing at the planes. The Commander of the Naval Air Station remarked that "the President Fillmore's fire was notable. In addition to her own armament, she had mounted on deck a battery of 37-mm. guns consigned to Cold Bay, which gave her 22 antiaircraft guns. These were served with such rapidity that the Fillmore appeared to be (and was reported) on fire." The Gillis claimed two planes shot down. No ship was damaged.
The morning of 4 June was rainy and overcast. In spite of the reduced visibility, our Catalinas kept contact with the enemy force most of the morning, until a tracking plane was damaged by antiaircraft fire. During the day the weather improved, and by evening it was clear, with scattered clouds at 3,000 feet.
At 1740 Fisherman's Point Army Observation Post reported three flights of bombers headed for Dutch Harbor. Shortly before 1800 they were reported near Mt. Ballyhoo. At 1800 fire was opened as ten fighters attacked the Naval Air Station in a low strafing attack. Then 11 bombers delivered a dive-bombing attack through openings in the overcast. Each carried one large bomb, which was released after a shallow dive to 1,000 or 1,500 feet. The chief damage was to our four new 6,666-barrel fuel oil tanks, which had been filled for the firs time on 1 June by the Brazos. These, with their contents of 22,000 barrels of fuel, were totally destroyed. The adjacent Diesel oil tank was punctured and burned out, but bunkers fortunately prevented burning oil from reaching the remainder of the tank farm. An old station ship, the Northwestern, which had been beached for use as a barracks for contractors' personnel, was set afire and partly destroyed. The Japanese also scored hits on a warehouse and an empty aircraft hangar.
At 1821 three horizontal bombers approached from the northeast. Their five bombs fell harmlessly into the harbor. The final attack of the day came at 1825, when five planes, approaching at high altitude from the northwest, dropped bombs near the magazine area near the south slope of Mt. Ballyhoo. Nine bombs were ineffective, but the tenth killed an officer and three men in a Navy 20-mm. gun emplacement. Personnel casualties during all the attacks were 33 Army, 8 Navy, 1 Marine Corps, and 1 civilian killed, plus about 50 wounded.
Coincident with the second Dutch Harbor raid, Japanese fighters strafed shore installations at Fort Glenn on Umnak. Army pursuit planes took to the air and shot down two enemy aircraft. The remaining seven withdrew without inflicting damage. Because of the fog and the retirement of the hostile carriers, many enemy planes probably ended in the sea. As their gas ran low, frantic radio calls were heard.
The three Japanese attacks on 3 and 4 June constituted the enemy's sole offensive action in the central and eastern Aleutians in the entire period of the campaign. As has been suggested, the outcome of the Battle of Midway may have caused a change in the plans of the Japanese High Command. The discovery by the enemy of the air base on Umnak, 600 miles west of Kodiak and 100 miles west of Dutch Harbor, may also have exercised a restraining influence.
Meanwhile Admiral Theobald's main surface force, consisting of two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, and four destroyers,6 was operating in the Gulf of Alaska about 400 miles southeast of Kodiak Island. This position was maintained in order to be able to intercept any hostile attempts to land troops on the mainland or otherwise challenge our shore defenses. Such sightings of enemy ships as occurred during this period were too far west for an attack by Task Force Tare, even if Admiral Theobald had chosen to meet the Japanese without the support of carrier aircraft. On both 3 and 4 June, our search planes, operating for the most part in extremely bad weather, reported sighting individual Japanese carriers or carrier groups about 200 miles southwest of Umnak. Brig. Gen. William O. Butler, Commander of the Air Striking Group7 of Task Force Tare, ordered his planes to attack these ships, but because of inaccurate contact
Japanese bombing of Dutch Harbor, 4 June 1942
Burning buildings at Ft. Mears after first enemy attack on Dutch Harbor, 3 June
Damage to Ft. Mears caused by Japanese raid of 3 June
Japanese transport burning after U.S. air attack on Kiska Harbor, 18 June 1942
The St. Louis fires a salvo at Kiska during the bombardment of 7 August 1942
Army makes unopposed landing on Adak, 30 August 1942
The Casco beached on Atka during Adak landing, 30 August 1942
Sweepers Cove, Adak, 18 months after the landing
reports and persistently unfavorable weather our bombers failed to inflict significant damage. Concerned by the course of events, Admiral Theobald decided to confer personally with his task group commanders at Kodiak, since enforced radio silence prevented contact with subordinates while at sea. He therefore departed from the main surface force in the Nashville, leaving Capt. Edward W. Hanson of the flagship Indianapolis in command. He started back from Kodiak the next afternoon (the 5th), after emphasizing the absolute necessity of maintaining the maximum number of planes in the areas where the enemy appeared to be operating.
Despite reports of occasional successes by Army bombers, operational and combat losses incurred in keeping contact had become increasingly serious. On 4 June Admiral Theobald intercepted a dispatch stating that only 14 PBYs remained operative. Pilots and crews were said to be at the limit of endurance after 48 hours of continuous operations in bad weather, while there had been numerous costly encounters between patrol planes and Zeros.
Although it is possible, in view of the low visibility, that the Army B-26s inflicted more damage than was apparent at the time, and that their counterattacks from Umnak surprised the enemy and were a factor in the retirement of his carriers, the situation had deteriorated to such an extent by 7 June that CINCPAC was requested to dispatch a carrier and additional cruisers to reinforce Task Force Tare. COMINCH suggested using the Saratoga. Stripping the West Coast of all patrol squadrons was authorized. The Army sent eight A-29s and four B-17s from Edmonton to Alaska, and six B-24s were ordered north from California. Later developments, however, rendered the naval reinforcements unnecessary.
See Combat Narrative, "The Battle of Midway."
Official force designations have been omitted from Combat Narratives in the interest of security. Instead the flag names for the first letters of the surnames of commanding officers are used.
The major air reinforcement received was 12 F4F-4s.
War Diary, PatWing Four, June 1942.
For names of ships and commanding officers, see
See p. 21 for approximate composition.
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