Fire and Death at the Komandorskis

By Johnson, Frank | Sea Classics, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Fire and Death at the Komandorskis


Johnson, Frank, Sea Classics


The American interception of a major Japanese fleet attempt to reinforce

their fog-shrouded Aleutian bases forced the badly stung enemy to turn tail and head for home

It is too bad, in a way, that the Japanese and the Americans could not have come to some sort of silent agreement about the inadvisability of doing battle in the Aleutian Islands. In the opinion of just about everyone except the natives, the area was generally unfit for human habitation. The natives knew no better.

The islands themselves were barren and windswept, the land consisting, for the most part, of frozen tundra, soggy marshland and solid rock. But the worst enemy for any force operating in the Aleutians was the incredibly foul weather.

The term "williwaw" was a less than ominous name given to the frequent 100-knot wind storms that arose - kicking up 75-ft seas. The dead calm of night could suddenly bring a black sleet storm or a blinding blizzard. And then there was the fog. Fog so thick that one could literally not see his hand in front of his face. The fog worked in concert with jagged reefs and huge submerged rocks lying off the generally uncharted islands. Such a combination would bring death to American and Japanese vessels alike.

Had only each side known of the other's real intention regarding the Aleutians, the fog-shrouded islands might never have been a battlefield.

Long before most Americans had ever heard of Pearl Harbor, Gen. Billy Mitchell was quoted as saying that if Japan ever seized Alaska, she could take New York. As preposterous as that idea now seems, it was just such a fear that inspired American commanders to establish an Army base, airfield and anchorage at Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island, about one-third of the way down the Aleutian chain.

The original Japanese naval thrust at the Aleutians in early June 1942, was intended primarily as a diversion that would cause the Americans to split their naval forces, leaving the gigantic Japanese task force steaming for Midway, an odds on favorite to obliterate the American surface forces in their area. Luckily, the American carrier group did not take the bait - largely because of outstanding intelligence work. The ensuing battle at Midway turned out to be a crushing defeat for the Japanese and serious consideration was given to aborting the Aleutian thrust as a result.

The Japanese plan was to set up Midway and Adak as links in a chain forming an outer perimeter defense line. From these bases, long-range aircraft could patrol the northern transpacific approaches to Japan itself. The Japanese garrisons in the Aleutians would neutralize Dutch Harbor and would provide an outpost against what the Japanese perhaps feared most in this area; the possibility that the Americans could mount a major thrust at the homeland using the Aleutians as a giant roadway. The likelihood of the Americans using the island chain for just such a purpose now seems rather far fetched. It would have been a logistical nightmare and very risky if for no other reason than the continual foul and dangerous weather. But at the time, it was a possibility that the Japanese did not want to overlook.

The Japanese established their bases on Attu and Kiska in June and were immediately subjected to air raids by Army bombers from Dutch Harbor, strikes on their shipping in the area from a half dozen US submarines and surface bombardment led by the five US cruisers assigned to this chilly theater.

It was the original Japanese intention to eventually occupy a third island farther east in the Aleutian chain - Adak. Kuluk Bay offered anchorage for a fleet and there was an area nearby suitable for an airfield. But the Americans beat the Japanese to the punch with landings on the island in August. The next American move, however, caught the Japanese by surprise. They had inspected the island of Amchitka, the next in line west from their base at Kiska, and decided it was not worth occupation.

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