In May 1942 the Japanese had occupied the Aleutian Islands, the long chain of remote islands running west across the north of the Pacific from Alaska. Their landings had been unopposed, the island of Attu being occupied by Aleut Indians and two U.S. teachers. The islands had little strategic value, being about as isolated as anywhere could be. But they are U.S. territory.
In a short campaign in May 1943 the US Army sought to retake the island of Attu. The campaign would have much in common with other campaigns in the Pacific. The terrain was unfamiliar – there were no inland maps available. The climate was inhospitable – in this case bitterly cold and wet, for which the troops were ill prepared. And the Japanese were prepared to fight to death to defend scraps of land which had no appreciable value.
Major William. S. Jones was among the first wave ashore:
It was early in the morning of May 11, 1943 that I, along with my fellow soldiers of the U.S. Army’s Seventh Infantry Division, offloaded from our troop ships to head toward our destination: Massacre Bay Beach on the island of Attu. We were to hit the beach at 8:40 AM, but were delayed by a dense fog that blanketed the area.
Radar was then in its infancy, and few ships had it, making locating the beach next to impossible. After circling the area in our Higgins boats for hours, the Navy Control officer finally located a small frigate that had basic radar, which was able to identify the direction of the beach. The directions were duly pointed out to the control officer who signaled to the landing force the way to the beach, and off we went.
A Higgins landing craft is approximately 30-feet long, which the coxswain pilots from the stern of the boat. Once the control officer gives the signal to proceed to the beach, the coxswain pushes the throttle forward and the beach is approached at high speed.
Approximately at the center of Massacre Bay of Attu Island, Alaska, is a large rock formation that is about the size of two conventional automobiles protruding above the water about five or six feet. The fog was extremely dense that day. About eight feet to the left of our craft was another landing craft, which smashed into the rock as we sped on past. In the fog the coxswain released the front ramp of his craft after hitting the rock, while at the same time the boat floated backward; the inertia had forced several of the standing soldiers forward out of the craft—our first casualties of the Battle of Attu.
Read Major William. S. Jones whole account at American Veterans Center
A 43 minute colour film documentary of the Aleutians Campaign, directed by John Huston, used to be available on YouTube.