By Laurel Downing Bill
Senior Voice Correspondent 

WWII Japanese ousted from Aleutians, May 1943

Aunt Phil's Trunk


May 1, 2023 | View PDF

Courtesy University of Alaska Fairbanks

In May 1943, American and Canadian troops landed on Attu in the Aleutians and began to take back the island from Japanese invaders.

This coming Memorial Day, it seems fitting to honor the sacrifice that America's brave military made in the Aleutians 80 years ago this month.

Under the mistaken belief the Doolittle Raiders had taken off from an air base in the Aleutian chain to bomb Tokyo during spring 1942, Japanese forces bombed Dutch Harbor two months later. They then proceeded to occupy the islands of Kiska and Attu, although most Americans had no idea the enemy was entrenched on our soil – no enemy had occupied American soil since the War of 1812.

That battle for the Aleutians became – in proportion to the number of opposing troops – the second most costly war in the Pacific, second only to Iwo Jima. It later was described as the most difficult and dangerous in all modern warfare.

Our U.S. infantry made the first amphibious island landing in its history with about 15,000 troops arriving at Attu the beginning of May. Regiments hit three locations on the 40-mile island: Red Beach, Holtz Bay and Massacre Bay.

Massacre Bay got its name when Russians killed 15 Aleuts there around 200 years before. American boys soon had their own variations on that theme, such as "Assassination Alley" and "Carnage Corner" as the battle raged on.

The island's terrain was almost as hard to conquer as the enemy. The fog and mist and continuous raw chill took their toll as well as the enemy bullets. A campaign that was expected to last a few days, stretched into weeks, and it wasn't until May 29 that American pincers finally closed.

On the night of May 30, a banzai charge of wildly yelling Japanese made a final effort. When their attack failed, 500 men committed mass suicide by pulling the pins of their grenades and holding them against their chests.

The campaign ended with 549 American and 2,351 Japanese dead.

When 32,000 U.S. and Canadian forces arrived at Kiska in August, they found no Japanese troops left on the island. Under cover of fog, the Japanese fleet had secretly removed its 5,000 soldiers from Kiska by submarines.

Allied casualties during the invasion still numbered close to 200, however, as the enemy had set booby traps prior to leaving Kiska – and a mine in the harbor sunk a destroyer. Trench foot infected about 130 men.

Hundreds of American servicemen would have their feet amputated because of frostbite and trench foot, an infection of the feet caused by cold, wet and unsanitary conditions during the campaign.

The original Fort Richardson became home to a mass grave for 235 Japanese, brought to the fort in 1953. Its headstone read: "Here Lies Unidentified Japanese Soldiers." And a few feet away from the Japanese dead were the graves of Russians and Canadians, most of whom had lost their lives ferrying warplanes to our World War II allies. Across the road, a separate plot held our American dead.

This column features tidbits found while researching Alaska's colorful past for Aunt Phil's Trunk, a five-book Alaska history series written by Laurel Downing Bill and her late aunt, Phyllis Downing Carlson. The books are available at bookstores and gift shops throughout Alaska, as well as online at


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