Chapter 3: "Strong Attrition"--Kiska Bombarded
With the exception of the Battle of the Komandorskis, 26 March 1943, and the assault on Attu in May 1943, operations during the Aleutians Campaign consisted in the main of seizure of unoccupied islands by both sides, and bombardment and bombing of enemy-held islands by our forces. By commencing the first-mentioned process with the occupation of Kiska and Attu, the Japanese has stolen a march on us. It was some time before we were abler to answer with counter-occupation of other bases. Meanwhile, in the words of Admiral Theobald, the duty of Task Force Tare was to take advantage of every favorable opportunity to inflict "strong attrition" on the enemy. This involved continuous, if light, bombing of Japanese positions and, eventually, the first of the long series of naval bombardments to which Kiska and Attu were subjected while in Japanese hands. It also placed upon our small force of submarines a great responsibility which they soon proved themselves fully capable of bearing. On 4 July the Growler (Lt. Comdr. Howard W. Gilmore) sank two Japanese destroyers and possibly a third off Kiska. On the same day the Triton (Lt. Comdr. Charles C. Kirkpatrick), while on patrol near the island of Agattu, sent another destroyer to the bottom.
It was of the utmost importance to prevent the development of either Kiska or Attu as a major enemy base for further advances eastward. As Admiral Theobald well knew, a critical period would arrive when the Japanese realized that our main naval strength was being shifted from Pearl Harbor to the South Pacific for the coming Solomons Campaign. If the enemy should then decide to thrust toward the mainland from Kiska, forces available at Pearl Harbor would be insufficient to cut in on his flank. Land-based air power in the Alaskan-Aleutian theater was too weak to hold or indeed delay such an advance, and even if large naval forces had been available in the area, there were no facilities for their upkeep.
Results of the bombing of Kiska by Army and Navy planes proved so inconclusive that it was early decided to try the effect of gunfire by surface forces--the cruisers and destroyers of Task Force Tare.
The original date of the bombardment was 22 July. Bad weather forced
successive postponements, first to 27 July, and finally to 7 August, when meteorological conditions were at last reported favorable. In the interim the bombardment force retired and refueled.
As of 1 August, the complete organization of Task Force Tare was as follows:
Task Force Tare, Rear Admiral Robert A. Theobald.
(a) Air Group, Brig. Gen. William O. Butler, USA.
(1) Air Striking Unit:
(b)Escort and Patrol Group, Rear Admiral John W. Reeves, Jr.
Bombardment: 28th Composite Group, 30th Bombardment Group
(2) Air Search Unit, Capt. Leslie E. Gehres:
(11 heavy bombers, 23 medium bombers).
Reconnaissance: 406th Bombardment Squadron; 8th Bomber Reconnaissance Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force
(21 medium bombers).
Fighters: 11th, 18th, 42nd, 54th, 57th Fighter Squadrons; 111th Fighter Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force
Patrol Squadrons 41, 43, 51, 62
(11 PBY flying boats, 20 PBY-5A amphibious flying boats).
Avocet, Lt. Comdr. William C. Jonson, Jr.
Casco, Comdr. Thomas S. Combs.
Gillis, Lt. Comdr. Norman F. Garton.
Hulbert, Lt. Comdr. James M. Lane.
Teal, Lt. Comdr. Albert S. Major, Jr.
Kane, Lt. Comdr. John J. Greytak.
(c) Submarine Group, Comdr. Oswald S. Colclough.
Charleston, Comdr. Gordon B. Sherwood.
Oriole, Mellish M. Lindsay, Jr.
5 over-age destroyers:
Dent, Lt. Comdr. Paul H. Tobelman.
Coast Guard vessels.
Gilmer, Lt. Comdr. Herman O. Parish.
Humphreys, Lt. Comdr. John K. Wells.
Sands, Lt. Comdr. John T. Bowers, Jr.
Talbot, Lt. Comdr. Edward A. McFall
Finback, Comdr. Jesse L. Hull.
(e) Tanker Group.
(d) Main Body, Rear Admiral William W. Smith.
Grunion, Lt. Comdr. Mannert L. Abele.
Trigger, Lt. Comdr. Jack H. Lewis.
Triton, Lt. Comdr. Charles C. Kirkpatrick.
Tuna, Lt. Comdr. John L. DeTar.
2 heavy cruisers:
1 fast minesweeper:
Indianapolis (F), Capt. Morton L. Deyo.
3 light cruisers:
Louisville, Capt. Elliott B. Nixon.
Honolulu, Capt. Harold Dodd (Relieved 3 August 1942 by Capt. Robert W. Hayler).
Nashville, Capt. Francis S. Craven.
St. Louis, Capt. George A. Rood.
Case (F, Comdr. Wyatt Craig, ComDesDiv 6), Comdr. Robert W. Bedilion.
Gridley (F, Comdr. Frederick Moosbrugger, ComDesDiv 11), Lt. Comdr. Fred R. Stickney.
McCall, Lt. Comdr. William S. Veeder.
Reid, Comdr. Harold F. Pullen.
Elliot, Lt. Comdr. Daniel J. Wagner.
Ramapo, Comdr. Harold A. Carlisle.
2 over-age destroyers:
Brooks, Lt. Comdr. Charles T. Singleton, Jr.
King, Lt. Comdr. Kenneth M. Gentry.
Potential enemy strength in the Aleutians which might be faced by Task Force Tare in its attack on Kiska was estimated on 1 August to consist of one or two heavy cruisers (Nachi class), one light cruiser, eight destroyers (Shigure class), eight submarines, one seaplane tender, two cargo vessels, six submarine chasers (plus numerous other patrol vessels), four patrol planes, six single-float observation planes, and eight single-float fighter planes. It was considered possible that one or more auxiliary carriers also might be in Attu-Kiska waters. Other hazards to be faced included mines and coast defense guns of calibers probably not exceeding six inches.
The plan of action called for three coordinated bombardments of the shipping in Kiska Harbor and adjacent shore establishments. The four destroyers (Case, Gridley, McCall, Reid) were to approach to ranges of 14,800 to 14,500 yards. The light cruisers (Honolulu, St. Louis, Nashville) were to engage at a range of approximately 16,800 yards, while the heavy cruisers (Indianapolis, Louisville) were to commence firing at 19,500 to 18,900 yards.
The task group, with Admiral Smith as OTC, sortied from Kodiak during the afternoon and evening of 3 August and proceeded to the approach area, which it reached at 0800 on the 7th, weather conditions having moderated to an extent which enabled Admiral Smith to commit himself to immediate execution of the plan. H-hour was set for 1800 (Zone plus 10).
The Air Striking Unit had been directed to attack shipping and installations in the Kiska area, continuing the assault as late as possible in order to engage enemy forces to the maximum up to the time of the arrival of the bombardment group. Thereafter it was to cover the retirement of our surface forces, following up with renewed attacks on Kiska Harbor and vicinity.
Air search units were to operate from an advanced base established on Atka and provide full weather information on the target area. During retirement they were to maintain protective scouting 200 miles to the rear and 100 miles on the flanks of the bombardment group. On D plus 1 day they were to execute protective sweeps ahead of the surface forces. Meanwhile our submarines also were to make weather reports and maintain a close watch for enemy surface vessels.
Weather conditions at noon on 7 August were as follows: wind from the northwest, force one to three; sea smooth; surface visibility 8 to 10 miles; sky completely overcast, ceiling about 500 feet. The overcast had persisted during the preceding two days, so that all positions were plotted by dead reckoning.
At 1630 Admiral Smith's group reached latitude 51º10' N., longitude 177º19' E. and proceeded north at a speed of 20 knots, as visibility steadily
deteriorated. At 1750, 10 spotting planes were launched. No landfall was made. However, radar ranges and bearings were taken on what was believed to be Kiska Mountain and Segula Peak.
After a few minutes Admiral Smith turned south, since visibility was zero and it was inadvisable to continue at great navigational risk and bombard from a dead reckoning position. Surface visibility around Kiska had been reported by a patrol plane to be only one mile. Accompanying patrol planes were then forced by low fuel to return to base.
At 1825 Lieut. Robert A. O'Neill, leader of the Indianapolis spotting flight, reported that Kiska Harbor was visible through breaks in the overcast. Ten transports or cargo vessels, four submarines, and a large destroyer or light cruiser were seen in the harbor, with one destroyer and one smaller ship patrolling off the entrance. This was the first report in four days on the character and number of enemy ships present. Lieut. O'Neill also stated that there were no signs of bombing by the Air Striking Unit.
By this time our cruiser planes had been fired on by antiaircraft and attacked by float planes. Because the presence of SOC type aircraft must have warned the enemy of the proximity of surface forces, Admiral Smith decided to attempt a second approach. Just before he turned north, the fog cleared, producing visibility of about five miles to the north and east. Cruiser planes also reported visibility of 10-15 miles east of Vega Point. At 1934 the destroyers emerged from the fog, which had closed down again 14 minutes before, and obtained a fix on Kiska Island. They were now close to the firing position.
At 1942 the force executed a simultaneous turn to course east, the first leg of the firing plan. Five minutes later the heavy cruisers also ran clear of the fog.
At 1955 the destroyers opened fire, followed two minutes later by the three light cruisers, and at 2000 by the Indianapolis and Louisville. Although the ceiling over Kiska Harbor was low, and fog patches were present, numerous antiaircraft bursts were soon observed, indicating that the island's defenders believed that a high-level bombing attack was going on.
Spotting either from ships or cruiser planes proved most difficult because of visibility conditions. The experience of the Louisville, as reported by her
commanding officer, well illustrates the handicaps under which the bombardment was delivered, as well as the impossibility of accurately checking the results achieved:
Mental impressions formed through careful and repeated study of charts of Kiska Harbor and Island were of little value. As ship pierced fog bank just before opening fire, land was revealed all along the port hand. No member of the fire control party was able to recognize any topographical feature until some minutes later. Twin Rocks were reported by lookouts as "enemy cruisers standing out," and later as "enemy cruiser turned over." As the accuracy of fire will never be ascertained, proper analysis of performance cannot be determined.
The bombardment lasted for about half an hour, during which 631 rounds of 8-inch, 3,534 of 6-inch, and 2,620 of 5-inch were expended. By 2036 all cruiser planes had been recovered, except one Indianapolis aircraft. The force then began its retirement. Army Air Force planes, which had been prevented by fog from reaching their bombing objectives, returned to Kiska three days after the bombardment and obtained a series of photos, which, although obscured by clouds, were considered evidence of fairly extensive damage. To summarize:
1 destroyer hit, possibly sunk.
1 transport hit and probably destroyed (beached and deck awash).
1 transport possibly sunk.
Various batteries silenced.
Moderate damage to shore installations, with unknown damage to stores and equipment.
There was no way of knowing whether this damage resulted entirely from the bombardment itself or was partly caused by previous Army air attacks.
On 10 October the Army finally succeeded in taking a series of entirely satisfactory photos. As interpreted, these picture showed a total of approximately 1,600 shell holes, most of which were located in an area centered about 2,600 feet northeast of the edge of the Japanese camp area. Thus a large portion of the bombardment was over its objectives. No shell holes were noted in the vicinity of shore installations, but such evidence would not necessarily have been allowed to remain for so long a period in an area in constant use.
The results of the shelling were so inconclusive as to evoke from Admiral Smith comments of this nature:
(1) The bombardment of Kiska by a surface force of heavy ships would be of questionable value unless followed by the landing of troops. Results to be expected from indirect bombardment would not balance the risk to heavy ships under difficult conditions of approach in mineable waters, where enemy destroyers might be encountered in low visibility.
(2) Light cruisers were considered more adaptable to conditions in the area than heavy cruisers. With the prevalent low visibility, ships which could quickly produce a great volume of fire would have a decided advantage.
(3) The enemy could not be driven out of Kiska by surface bombardment alone. Visibility conditions permitting, more damage to shore installations could probably be inflicted by a squadron of bombers.
(4) Attacks from the north by motor torpedo boats supported by destroyers could make Kiska Harbor untenable for the enemy.
CINCPAC commented as follows: "Coming simultaneously with our movement into the Solomons, this action to the north, in addition to the damage caused, probably had some diversionary effect, as there appeared to be considerable delay in the movement of the majority of the Japanese carriers and other heavy units to the South Pacific."
The Alaska Defense Command reported that four hours after the shelling the Japanese on the island burst into "radio hysterics."
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