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Posts Tagged ‘Aleutian Islands’

As the end of May loomed in 1942, the vaunted Imperial Japanese Navy was bending all of its thought, and much of its military power, toward the small central Pacific atoll of Midway.  Island AF (as they called it) was important to the Japanese, not so much because of what it offered (an airfield, some decent fishing, and not much else), but because of what else it offered.

A chance to wipe out the remnants of the United States Navy.

Admiral Yamamota knew without a doubt that the only way to defeat the Americans was to convince them to cease hostilities before their superior war machine could become fully engaged.  So that meant sneak attacks and ruses.

The sneak attack had been pretty successful at Pearl Harbor the previous December.  The ruse?  Well, that was still to play out.  A Japanese attack force had left for the Aleutian Islands off Alaska’s coast.  The hope was that the remaining US Fleet would make for Alaska.  En route, they would be intercepted by a much larger, much more powerful Japanese fleet…and destroyed.

Pearl Harbor would be largely unguarded, all of Hawaii threatened, and the United States’ presence in the Pacific would be over.  That was the plan.

The problem was that the US Navy knew way too much about the Japanese plans.  Enough of the Japanese Navy’s coding system had been broken to see the light on the Japanese operations, so as May ended and the Japanese were focused on Midway, the US was focused there as well.

Of course, the Japanese had no clue that the US knew their secrets, so they continued to play their games, attempting to confuse their enemy.

As night fell on May 30, 1942, the Japanese launched a diversionary attack at, of all places, Diego Suarez…on the northern tip of Madagascar.

Yep…Madagascar, that big island off the southeast coast of Africa.  I bet some of you had no idea that Madagascar was involved in the Second World War.  Well, you’re not alone.  For most of my life, I didn’t know it, either.

But we come by our ignorance honestly, because relatively speaking, it wasn’t much of an attack.  A couple of midget submarines (like the ones used so unsuccessfully at Pearl Harbor) were launched and entered the harbor, where they managed to sink the tanker HMS British Loyalty and seriously damage the HMS Ramillies (shown above), a WWI-era battleship.

The Japanese hoped that this minor operation (along with another like it at Sydney, Australia), coupled with the larger forces steaming toward not-yet-a-state Alaska, would give the US Navy further pause and maybe divide their forces a little more.

The US Navy wasn’t buying it.

Recommended Reading: Miracle at Midway

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We’ll keep it brief this evening, as it’s the first night of baseball’s amateur draft, and I enjoy tracking that.

Out of the disaster that was the Midway campaign, the Japanese did manage some success up north in the Aleutians.  The Battle of Dutch Harbor (which we’ve talked about a couple of times) didn’t really accomplish a whole lot in terms of the actual engagements, but it tied down the U.S. forces stationed there so that an invasion force could approach the far western edge of the Aleutians.

Subsequent attacks on the island of Adak (between Dutch and the Japanese targets of Attu and Kiska) suppressed U.S. forces there such that Japan’s invasion force could make their landings.

Attu and Kiska are small islands sitting way out west in the Aleutians.  They are rugged, barren, and largely inhospitable.  But for the invaders, they provided a place to set up bases from which to patrol the northern Pacific.  A victory at Midway would have made the islands very important as protectors of Japan’s northern flanks.

But of course, Japan was shockingly defeated at Midway, which really made the Aleutians untenable.  Still, Admiral Yamamoto ordered their occupation, with two-fold reasoning in mind.  First, the bases could still provide value should the Americans decide to launch attacks against Japan from the north.  Second (and maybe more important), it would give the whole Midway campaign some marginal victory on which the Admiral’s hat could be hung.

And so, on June 7, 1942, Japanese forces landed on Attu (a day after they landed on Kiska).  And for a year, they would sit with little to do but dig trenches and emplacements in the unforgiving climate.  Back in Japan, the entire campaign was heralded as a huge victory for the Japanese.  In fact, the Japanese citizens would not learn the truth of Midway until after the war ended in 1945.

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The Battle of Dutch Harbor has generally occupied little more than a postscript in the affairs of the Second World War.  It’s pretty much an “oh-by-the-way” engagement when weighed against what was building around Midway.  And truth be told, it is a relatively minor encounter as they go.

Begun in the early morning of June 3, 1942, it involved a small Imperial Japanese fleet with a couple of light carriers (Ryujo and Junyo) and a handful of cruisers and destroyers…a pittance compared to the massive Midway armada.  Their job was to shoot stuff and blow stuff up and create enough havoc to cover for the invasion force that was making for Attu and Kiska, a pair islands farther down the Aleutian chain.

Facing the Japanese was an amalgamation of forces, including an Army regiment, some anti-aircraft batteries, and a handful of aircraft.  Of course, U.S. intelligence was aware that an attack might be coming, but no one was sure of exactly when or where it would fall.  So while the men had been on alert, the sounds of bombs falling and explosions at 4:30 in the morning was still a bit of a surprise.

The Japanese attacks were kind of on-again, off-again affairs throughout the day, but usually involved strafing runs at very low altitude, low enough that some soldiers claimed they could see the faces of the pilots at whom they were shooting.  Japanese fighters succeded in not doing much damage, though they did manage to bomb the barracks at Fort Mears, killing 25 servicemen.  As defenders, U.S. forces managed to keep the Japanese dodging enough that it prevented any serious damage, other than the attack at Fort Mears, and U.S. planes dispatched a couple of reconnaissance planes that got a little too close to the action.

So the first day of the battle saw a flurry of activity and a whole bunch of ammunition expended for not a ton of results.  But the Japanese were doing their job…keeping the American forces occupied as an invasion force made its way north.

Like I said, the Battle of Dutch Harbor sounds kind of ho-hum.  But it was very important for what happened on June 4th.  That action would provide the most memorable results and a huge windfall to American Navy pilots.

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For a good number of you, the Battle of Midway needs no special mention.  And that’s especially true of regular visitors of this site.  While not discussing the battle in minute detail, we’ve looked at numerous events surrounding this pivotal engagement.  But while it may not require an introduction, the introduction of the battle is our subject for today.

On May 28, 1942, the invasion force left Ominato, Japan.  And that’s it…almost.  The force that left on this day was not Nagumo’s Striking Force – the one with all the carriers destined for catastrophe the following week.  It had departed the day before.  Nor was it Admiral Kurita’s supporting group of heavy cruisers (though it also left on the 28th).  It wasn’t Admiral Kondo’s force of battleships, cruisers, and a light carrier, tasked with reinforcing the invasion of Midway.  Neither was it Yamamoto’s Main Force itself, comprised of seven battleships (including the mighty Yamato), yet another carrier, and its screen of support ships…it left on the 29th.

Do you get the idea that the Japanese were really serious about taking Midway?

Anyways, the force in question was yet another invasion force, and it was bound for the Aleutian Islands.  The Japanese plans for Midway also involved Alaska.  It has long been believed that this particular force was merely diversionary, an attempt to draw off forces from the main battle.  When I was in the 7th grade, I gave a speech about Midway in my English class, and that’s what I said about it, too.  And while I got an A for the speech, the fact is that the Japanese were serious in having a presence in the northern Pacific region.  The empire Japan was building in the Pacific would need its northern flanks guarded, and it was thought that bases at Attu and Kiska (islands in the Aleutians) would provide that.

And so at 5:00pm, a dozen transports and their supporting vessels left their berths and glided from the harbor.  Destination:  Alaska.

Recommended Reading: Incredible Victory – The Battle of Midway

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It was only a couple of weeks ago that a massive earthquake struck just off the coast of Chile.  The early morning quake lasted an astounding 4 minutes and weighed in at an astonishing 8.8 on the Richter Scale.  Within a very short time, tsunami warnings were being posted all over the  Pacific Ocean.  Around noon the focus (at least for the U.S.) narrowed to the Hawaiian Islands, where the waves, which travel at high subsonic speeds, were scheduled to strike.  Estimates suggested waves of 8′, which would probably have done some significant damage.

My folks had come to visit for the weekend, and we turned on the TV to see what happened.  When nothing much came of it, the news reporters started fumbling around a bit, and for us it turned into a bit of comical farce.  Of course, some places along the Chilean coast were heavily damaged by tsunamis, but most of the Pacific (including Hawaii) was spared.

But that was not the case on March 9, 1957.  On that date, a huge earthquake struck the Andreanof Islands (on the southwest part of the Aleutian Islands) near Alaska.  Tsunami waves in the immediate area approached 70 feet, but as expected, those waves spread out through the Pacific Ocean and struck Hawaii.  And they were not the small “2010-style” waves.

Maximum wave heights were nearly 50′ on Kauai, more than 20′ on Oahu (from where the picture above was taken), 15′ on Molokai, and more than 10′ on Hawaii itself.  Damage was immense as hundreds of homes were destroyed, bridges and highways were washed out, and floodwaters washed through businesses and homes.

But miraculously, not a single Hawaiian (or visitor to the islands) was killed, though the damage was extensive, topping $5 million.

We’re familiar with flooding from dam breaks (and we talked about a couple of those, here and here, and the schedule calls for another in a couple days).  And even I know the terrible power of river- and stream-flooding first-hand (and it’s threatening us again as I write this).  But tsunamis are in a class all their own.  The volumes of water, the speed with which they strike, the total destruction and widespread death and calamity they can bring are on a scale most of us can’t grasp.

Well, in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami which many of us have seen on video, maybe we can to a degree…and it’s very sobering.

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