The Battle of Attu
By Major William S. Jones, USA-Ret
On June 7and 8, 1942, Japanese forces invaded the Aleutian islands of Kiska and Attu. For the first time since the War of 1812, American territory had been seized by a foreign army. Despite the remoteness of the islands, it was feared that their control by the Japanese would threaten American operations in the Northern Pacific and that Japan would use the islands as air bases from which to launch attacks on the mainland U.S. Most importantly, though, the idea of American territory in the hands of the enemy was wholly unacceptable. In May 1943, the Allied assault to reclaim Attu was launched. The result was one of the bloodiest battles of World War IIâ€¦
It was early in the morning of May 11, 1943 that I, along with my fellow soldiers of the U.S. Armyâ€™s Seventh Infantry Division, offloaded from our troop ships to head toward our destination: Massacre Bay Beach on the island of Attu. We were to hit the beach at 8:40 AM, but were delayed by a dense fog that blanketed the area. Radar was then in its infancy, and few ships had it, making locating the beach next to impossible. After circling the area in our Higgins boats for hours, the Navy Control officer finally located a small frigate that had basic radar, which was able to identify the direction of the beach. The directions were duly pointed out to the control officer who signaled to the landing force the way to the beach, and off we went.
A Higgins landing craft is approximately 30-feet long, which the coxswain pilots from the stern of the boat. Once the control officer gives the signal to proceed to the beach, the coxswain pushes the throttle forward and the beach is approached at high speed.
Approximately at the center of Massacre Bay of Attu Island, Alaska, is a large rock formation that is about the size of two conventional automobiles protruding above the water about five or six feet. The fog was extremely dense that day. About eight feet to the left of our craft was another landing craft, which smashed into the rock as we sped on past. In the fog the coxswain released the front ramp of his craft after hitting the rock, while at the same time the boat floated backward; the inertia had forced several of the standing soldiers forward out of the craftâ€”our first casualties of the Battle of Attu.
On December 7, 1941, I was lying on the floor reading the Sunday comics when President Roosevelt came on the radio and announced the bombing of Pearl Harbor. I made up my mind to enlist the next day. Monday, December 8, 1941, I drove to Philadelphia from my home in Salem County, New Jersey, to try to enlist in the Air Corps, Navy, Marines, and Armyâ€”in that order. The first three services did not want me because I was colorblind, but the Army would have me. For the first year and several months in the Army, I worked in several jobs, including with the coast artillery and as a truck driver. Still, on the first day of each month for almost a year, I went into the CP and put in for a transfer to the infantry. Finally, in March of 1943, the transfer went through, and I was sent to Ft. Ord in California to join the Seventh Infantry Division which had been on maneuvers in the Mojave Desert for nearly three months preparing for service in North Africa.
The only infantry training I received while at Ft. Ord was two 40-mile forced marches with a 68-pound field pack. We sailed from San Francisco on April 24, 1943â€”not to the deserts of North Africa, but north, toward the Aleutian Islands.