Chapter 2: Enemy Occupation of Attu and Kiska
On 10 June the situation began to clarify, at least temporarily. A study of the reports strongly indicated that a powerful Japanese force, including one or two carriers, had operated south of Umnak and Unalaska on 3 and 4 June, and that U.S. Army bombers had damaged two probable cruisers during that time. A diminishing number of contacts thereafter suggested the enemy's withdrawal to the west. Apparent confirmation of this movement came on the 10th, when a search plane reported sighting several unidentified ships in Kiska Harbor. No weather reports from Attu and
Kiska, where small meteorological outposts were maintained, had been received since the 7th.
On the 11th it became evident that the enemy had landed substantial forces on these two islands.8 A search plane reported one heavy cruiser, two light cruisers, one destroyer, and six transports in Kiska Harbor. (Actually the force consisted of 20 vessels, including the light cruiers Kiso and Tama of the Fifth Fleet, three destroyers, three corvettes, three minesweepers, and four cargo vessels.) A Navy plane sighted and bombed a light cruiser and a destroyer west of Kiska and observed an enemy landing force on Attu. Our submarines were immediately ordered to take maximum offensive action against the Japanese in the western Aleutians.
On 11 June the Catalinas of PatWing Four began a continuous 48-hour shuttle bombing of Kiska. The tender Gillis had arrived at Atka the previous day, and early in the morning she commenced refueling and rearming the PBYs as they arrived from the main base at Dutch Harbor. Soon a steady procession of patrol planes was flying between Atka and Kiska. At the end of the run they dived on enemy ships and beach parties at 250 knots, "dropping bombs by the seaman's eye method."9 After returning to Atka, the aircraft refueled and rearmed at once and took off as soon as possible. The strain upon pilots and crews was terrific, one pilot flying 19 1/2 hours during a single 24-hour period.
This method of operation continued until the Gillis ran out of bombs and fuel. By the second night the flight crews were so exhausted that the tender's hands gave up their bunks so that the aviation personnel could get some rest.
Before retiring from Atka, the Gillis carried out a "scorched earth" policy, setting fire to all buildings. Little of value was left for the enemy if he
should attempt to move eastward from Kiska. The aerological station on Kanaga Island also was evacuated.
By 12 June the Japanese had firmly established themselves on Kiska and Attu. On that date Army heavy bombers of the 11th Air Force made their first run over Kiska, claiming hits on two cruisers and one destroyer. One Liberator was lost to the intense antiaircraft fire which was sent up chiefly by the ships in the harbor. As a result of the flak and the continually bad visibility in the area, it was difficult to determine the results of our bombing. In this initial phase, Kiska was too far away for our Army heavies to subject it to sustained bombardment. Consequently almost the entire task devolved upon the PBYs, many of which had just arrived from California stations, so that the crews were wholly unfamiliar with the terrain. In view of later experience, it is unlikely that raids by these aircraft, although conducted with the utmost skill and bravery, possessed much more than nuisance value. Certainly none of the enemy's operations was impeded to a significant extent.
Despite frequent reconnaissance and bombing flights as far west as Attu, the situation had again become obscure and distinctly disturbing. on 14 June the Japanese bombed Nazan Bay, Atka. On 19 June it was reported that the hostile forces operating in the Aleutians consisted of three carriers, two battleships, five heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, twenty-two destroyers, and either seven or eleven submarines. It later appeared that these totals were considerably exaggerated; but there was no means of knowing this at the time, and we were far from being able to match the reputed enemy fleet. The report of Japanese strength provoked the comment by high authority that "the presence of this formidable force in Alaskan waters is a matter of grave concern and indicates definitely that the whole chain of the Aleutians is in danger of Japanese occupation." It was hardly encouraging to learn that the enemy was reconnoitering Adak, or that on 22 June hostile submarines had shelled Esteban, B.C., and an American destroyer lying in the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon.
By the 30th of the month, however, it became apparent that if the Japanese had been operating a major striking force in the western Aleutians, it had returned to bases in the Empire. Patrol planes reported that while the enemy continued to consolidate his positions on Kiska and Attu, burning brush and preparing the ground for airfields, he was being supported
only by a small force of light vessels. No heavy ships were located anywhere in the area.
It was later learned that on 6 June the Japanese No. 3 Special Landing Party and 500 Marines went ashore at Kiska, while the 301st Independent Infantry Battalion occupied Attu. One member of the U.S. 10-man Naval Weather Detachment on Kiska escaped. The enemy believed that he had starved or frozen and soon forgot about him. Fifty days later he surrendered, making the following statement to his captors: "Is it 50-odd days? I kept track of the days at first but in the end I forgot. I wandered here and there around the shore of the island, and at times I slept at the foot of the mountain, covering myself with dry weeds, and at times slept in the caves near the shore. During the nights, the wind and the snow blew away the dry grass which I used to cover myself and I thought that I would die of cold . . . though I existed by eating grass which grew along the shore. I couldn't bear it any longer, so I surrendered. Please look at these skinny legs." His thigh was no larger than a child's arm.
PatWing Four, War Diary for June 1942.
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