Battlefield Chronicles: The Battle of Dutch Harbor Transformed Alaska
The Aleutian Islands are known for their rugged, treeless tundra and almost perpetually foul weather, but during the early days of World War II, they were considered a valuable piece of real estate. Fresh off their success at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese were looking to consolidate their gains in the Pacific while also stymying any potential U.S. attacks against their home islands. The Aleutians – situated at the center of the shortest route between the United States and Japan – were viewed as a key part of their defensive shield. The Japanese high command scheduled an advance on the islands for June 1942. While the bulk of their navy looked to demolish the American Pacific fleet at the Battle of Midway, a smaller force consisting of two aircraft carriers and a handful of destroyers, cruisers and submarines sailed for the frozen north.
The island of Unalaska, in the heart of the Aleutian Chain, is approximately 80 square miles in size with an elevation as high as 6,680 feet at the top of Makushin Volcano. The Port of Dutch Harbor, which is part of the City of Unalaska, is located on Amaknak Island and is connected to Unalaska by bridge. The current day population of the City of Unalaska is about 4,300. The population triples between August and May due to the arrival of commercial fisherman. Unalaska is approximately 792 miles by air south and west of Anchorage.
December 7th, 1941 was proclaimed to be a day that would live in infamy by then President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, as a result of the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Hawaii, of course, isn’t connected to nor is it physically part of the contiguous 48 States. The attack on Pearl Harbor thus presented itself to Americans living on the “mainland” as an event that took place in a somewhat detached and remote location, given that Hawaii is located some 2,400 miles to the west of San Francisco by air.
On the 3rd and 4th of June, 1942, six months after the attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor, they attacked and bombed the port of Dutch Harbor. Now, Dutch Harbor, being around 792 miles from Anchorage, is a little closer to home. One would think that the mainland Americans would be outraged, concerned to the maximum extent, but given that American soil was attacked directly by the Japanese, and that this was seen as a demoralizing factor, the military clamped down on any news reporting of this event. Little was known at the time in the lower 48 about this attack on Dutch Harbor.
U.S. forces at Fort Mears met the first attack on June 3rd, with anti-aircraft and small arms fire, but on June 4, the Aleutian Tigers (eight P-40s), engaged the Japanese planes in aerial dogfights. The U.S. planes were launched from Cape Field at Fort Glenn, a secret airbase on neighboring Umnak Island. The Japanese had thought the nearest airfield was on Kodiak, and Cape Field, disguised as a cannery complex, had remained undetected. The surprise aerial counter-attack destroyed four Val dive bombers and one Zero.
In the following days, U.S. amphibious and bomber aircraft searched the Pacific Ocean for the Japanese carriers and their escort ships. Low visibility weather exacted a heavy toll on the search planes. Of six Catalinas that came within sight of the Japanese fleet, four were downed by Japanese fighters, another was lost in the fog.
Notwithstanding the tragic loss of American lives, the first forty-eight hours of the Aleutian Campaign exacted little substantive damage on U.S. or Japanese forces. No Japanese vessels were damaged and Fort Schwatka at Dutch Harbor was quickly repaired. What had quickly become apparent to both sides, however, was the role the capricious Aleutian weather would play in the campaign; at times an unpredictable ally, at times an uncertain foe. Weather claimed more than its share of lives. Soldiers shot their own in the fog; unable to penetrate fog and clouds, ships were thrown against rocks and sunk in heavy seas; pilots met the sides of mountains in low overcast skies or flew off course never to be seen again.
The casualties and damage on a remote Aleutian islet amounted to little more than a blip in the cataclysm of World War II. To this day, educated Americans are unaware that it happened at all.
But the battle permanently changed Alaska in ways that few at the time realized.
In an essay in the collection “Alaska at War,” historian Stephen Haycox describes Anchorage in 1940 as “a sleepy little village” with a population of about 3,500.
The summer of 1940 saw the beginning of construction of a military base on what had hitherto been hay fields and birch forests north of Government Hill.
Uncle Sam had been content to leave Alaska as an undefended frontier. A military buildup was reluctantly initiated only when the global war began to seem inevitable. Progress was slow and patchy. But after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, officials aware of the territory’s vulnerability flew into high gear.
Haycox says the next seven months were “characterized by a great deal of panic. There was not enough of anything, and there was a sense that everything had to be done at once.”
Construction of a naval base on Amaknak Island, across the channel from Unalaska, had started in September 1940. Dutch Harbor had an excellent port, but no place for a runway. That would be on Umnak Island, 70 miles away.
News from the Atlantic was grim; 231 ships had been sunk close to U.S. shores by German U-boats in the month of May alone. The Pacific Front was even worse. The Japanese added victory to victory with ease, wiping out a combined Allied fleet in the Battle of the Java Sea, taking Singapore from the British in a single maneuver and forcing the surrender of American and Filipino soldiers in the grueling siege of Corregidor.
One bright spot was the bombing raid on Japan led by Jimmy Doolittle on April 18, 1942, a special source of pride for Alaskans since Doolittle had grown up in Nome.
And yet there was an odd sense of normalcy in Anchorage that spring. Temperatures were warm; people flocked to Spenard Lake – the “Waikiki of Anchorage” – in mid-May. Rationing had not hit a population that was largely self-sufficient in terms of food. Cesar Romero starred in “Dance Hall” playing at a local theater. Celebrity news included child star Shirley Temple’s first on-screen kiss and photos of the New Orleans Jax Brewers women’s professional softball team. Crooner Al Jolson was due to make an appearance for the troops and the civilians were welcome to attend. A house rented for $15 a month. William Hesse, the Territorial Highway Engineer, publicly derided the idea of a highway to the Lower 48, calling it a “rat hole” with “no necessity, military or otherwise.”
The first nighttime blackout wasn’t ordered until June 2nd, and there’s some evidence that few people took it seriously.
They might have felt differently had they known that Japan’s 2nd Carrier Division was steaming through the fog toward the Alaska Peninsula.
Starting at 3:25 a.m. on June 3, warplanes took off from the carriers Ryujo and Junyo; Val dive bombers, Kate torpedo bombers, Zero fighters. The weather turned many back, but those that continued found clear skies between them and the 6,282 Soldiers below.
On the ground, sirens screamed. Men raced to anti-aircraft guns. Ships rushed to clear out of the harbor.
Army Fort Mears, with neat rows of closely-packed wooden barracks, presented a choice target. The bomber aimed for it and the communications facility on what became known as Suicide Hill. Zeros strafed the defenders in the trenches, then zipped back to their carriers.
“By 7:45 a.m. all the pilots and their crews had arrived safely home,” wrote historian John Cloe in his book “The Aleutian Warriors.”
Numbers reported by Cloe indicate more than 40 American dead at the end of the first day of the battle.
Dutch Harbor’s defenders were handicapped by radio and radar problems. The closest air support, on Umnak Island, remained unaware of the attack until it was over. Planes based at Cold Bay heard the news but were too far away to get there on time.
Nine newly arrived destroyers sat anchored in Makushin Bay, awaiting orders. But Rear Adm. Robert Theobald, in charge of Alaska Navy operations, was in the Gulf of Alaska with his flagship and observing radio silence. Six ‘vintage’ submarines patrolled the North Pacific without encountering the invasion fleet.
The Navy force left to defend the Aleutians consisted of the gunship USS Charleston, five Coast Guard cutters and what Cloe calls “a motley collection” of patrol boats and requisitioned fishing craft. Only the Charleston had sonar or large guns. There were no guarantees that any of the weapons would work. Gov. Ernest Gruening heard from one officer that his ship had plenty of anti-aircraft ammunition but no anti-aircraft guns, and lots of depth charges but no way to safely deploy them.
Air power was similarly iffy. Planes deemed obsolete elsewhere were sent north, including B-18s, essentially a DC-3 prototype fitted to drop bombs. Cloe notes the military didn’t want the clunkers but Congress bought them anyway. There were a number of seaplanes, good for scouting oceans but flying coffins in combat. The famed PBYs could carry bombs and guns, but with a cruising speed of 125 miles an hour, they seemed to be sitting still when challenged by a Zero coming in at 300 miles an hour. Three PBYs were shot down on the first day and another destroyed as it tried to take off.
But it could have been much worse.
The Japanese thought they would catch the Dutch Harbor defenders by surprise. In fact, the Americans were on high alert. Their anti-aircraft fire surprised the attackers. Most of the PBYs had been dispersed to scattered bays and coves as a precaution. It was no accident that authorities ordered Anchorage’s first blackout the night before.
America had broken the enemy’s code. Top commanders knew the Dutch Harbor attack was coming. They also knew that the main Japanese force would not target Alaska, but west of Hawaii.
On the same day the Ryujo’s bombers hit Dutch Harbor, B-17s made the first contact with the Japanese fleet approaching Midway Atoll. There, over the next four days, a monumental battle took place that has gone down as the most important naval engagement since Trafalgar – maybe ever. By June 7th, America had won a decisive victory and Japan’s slow, hard-fought retreat had begun.
All of that lay in the uncertain future as the Aleutian defenders braced themselves for the next attack. It came on the afternoon of June 4th and began with Americans getting their first kill.
The Americans were better prepared on this second day of fighting and, with photographs taken during the first raid, so were the Japanese. They knocked out a tank farm, set ablaze the Northwestern, a former passenger ship pressed into service as barracks, a vacant Bureau of Indian Affairs hospital, warehouse and hangar facilities.
The Raiders regrouped at a predetermined point off Umnak Island where they were confronted by Col. John Chennault’s P-40s. The Japanese had not known that an American field was in the area. The Americans, still struggling with spotty radio connections, had no news from Dutch Harbor; they had taken to the air as a precaution since the island had no ground defenses.
The ensuing dogfight took a toll on both sides. But the bulk of the Japanese force made it back to the carriers. The planes were stowed below and the fleet steered back into the fog.
They left behind one important trophy. A disabled Zero crashed on Akutan Island, killing the pilot but leaving the plane mostly intact. Americans retrieved and rebuilt the machine, testing it against their best fighters and discovering the feared warplane’s Achilles’ heel – its formidable speed was the result of minimum armor.
People in Anchorage had bare-bones information. The Anchorage Times ran a hastily prepared extra edition with the giant-print headline, “Raid Dutch Harbor!” But the accompanying ‘story’ was merely a press brief.
Gruening issued a short message, “To the people of Alaska: The anticipated air raid on Alaska began this morning with an air attack by Jap planes on Dutch Harbor.” No other details were added.
Information about the fighting was frustratingly scattershot. Reports came in that Japanese ships had been sunk, that air raids on Anchorage loomed, that enemy soldiers had invaded Attu and been fought off by the brave villagers.
None of this was true, but it satisfied the curious more than the official declaration on June 8 that, due to bad weather the situation is still obscure. Adm. Ernest King, Fleet Commander, went on the record saying, “We have none too clear a picture of what is going on (in the Aleutians), but it is going on.”
Meanwhile, residents were told that the blackout would be strictly enforced.
It would be days or weeks before the scope of the incursion was reported, including the sobering information that Japanese troops had indeed landed on two Alaska islands, capturing the weather crew on Kiska and sending the Attu villagers to internment camps in Japan.
For the next 18 months, the recapture of the Alaska islands was a primary focus for the military. Tens of thousands of troops, up-to-date warships, and state-of-the-art planes poured into the territory. Radios and radar worked. A road from the states was pushed through in record time.
This second phase ended with a U.S. Navy victory in the Battle of the Komandorski Islands, the bloody Battle of Attu and a remarkable bloodless evacuation of the occupation force from Kiska. By the end of the war, American bombers were striking Japan from the air base on Shemya Island. The overland route sending American planes to the Soviet Union via Fairbanks and Nome is credited with turning the tide on the Russian Front.
Despite that, Alaska’s role in World War II is largely unrecognized. The proposition that the government covered up Alaska battles to protect civilian morale is a myth, said Cloe.
“There was a lot of coverage at the time,” he said. “There were big spreads on the Aleutians and Dutch Harbor in Life magazine. There was no cover-up.”
Instead, Cloe suggests, the bombing was overshadowed by bigger events that followed it – D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, Okinawa, Iwo Jima, Hiroshima. The Dutch Harbor casualty list of less than 100 American and Japanese dead pales next to the 3,300 or more who died in the simultaneous Battle of Midway.
The real legacy of the battle has less to do with war than with peace. When those bombs fell, 75 years ago, they brought not just destruction but the seeds of coming prosperity. The war in Alaska turned serious and the haphazard backwater afterthought, a dumping ground for old equipment and token commands, was suddenly transformed into a fortress and major depot as big and modern and efficient as military planners could make it. That status grew as the threat from Japan ended and the threat from the Soviet Union emerged.
Military spending replaced the gold, coal, and fur that had sustained Alaska before the war, ushering in two booming decades that would see the territory to statehood and keep it growing until oil became the state’s major economic engine.
In the process, the sleepy village of Anchorage became a large, permanent city.