Ask Americans to name World War II battles in the Pacific and you will likely to hear places such as Pearl Harbor, Midway, Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. You aren’t likely to hear anyone mention Attu. But it was the only land battle fought on U.S. soil during World War II. And in proportional terms, it also was one of the bloodiest battles of the entire Pacific theater.
You’ve never heard of Attu? It’s the westernmost island in the Aleutian Islands chain. It lies closer to Russia than to the U.S. mainland. It is 1,100 miles off the Alaskan coast and nearly 5,000 miles from Washington, DC. It’s about 20 miles by 35 miles in size, making it the twenty-third largest American island.
Japanese troops captured Attu on June 7, 1942, exactly six months to the day after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The U.S. military wasn’t defending the island, so it was there for the taking. Japanese military leaders didn’t order the attack because of Attu’s strategic value. It didn’t have any. They instead hoped to entice the U.S. Navy into diverting its forces away from the southern Pacific to Alaska, thereby weakening the American ability to win the war in the South Pacific.
Washington didn’t bite. Almost a year elapsed before it decided to retake Attu. On May 11, 1943, the first of 15,000 U.S. soldiers landed on the island. They squared off against roughly 2,500 Japanese. Although the Japanese were badly outnumbered, they fought tenaciously in grim, arctic weather conditions.
The American troops slowly gained ground. On May 29, the Japanese commander recognized that the end was near. He ordered that all Japanese soldiers too wounded to continue fighting be killed. He then led a banzai charge, one of the largest of the entire war. Some 1,000 surviving Japanese troops attacked the surprised U.S. forces and nearly overran their positions. The headline that the Saturday Evening Post gave its story on the battle highlighted the viciousness of the fighting: “Mad-Dog Hunt on Attu.”
Fewer than thirty Japanese soldiers survived the Battle of Attu. On the American side, 549 soldiers died, 1,148 were wounded, and more than 2,000 suffered exposure-related injuries. When the overall number of soldiers who fought in the battle is taken into account, only Iwo Jima surpasses Attu in terms of U.S. casualties.
A soldier who fought at Attu summed up the experience of trying to retake 346 square miles of frozen terrain:
It maybe wasn’t such a big battle as battles go nowadays, but, brother, everything about it was done in a big way, including the way them Japs knocked themselves off. Believe me, that was the biggest, awfulest damned mess I ever saw in my life, so help me.
Today Attu is known as a birder’s paradise. If you ever visit Attu, and few people do, you might see a whiskered auklet, a red-legged Kittiwake, a solitary snipe, a red-flanked bluetail, or even a hawfinch. But if your eyes turn from the heavens to the earth, you’ll also see a collapsed church and few trees. They are pretty much all that remains of the presence of the Americans who fought on a distant island seven decades ago.