Thousand-Mile War: World War II in Alaska and the Aleutiansby Brian Garfield
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The Thousand-Mile War, a powerful story of the battles of the United States and Japan on the bitter rim of the North Pacific, has been acclaimed as one of the great accounts of World War II. Brian Garfield, a novelist and screenwriter whose works have sold some 20 million copies, was searching for a new subject when he came upon the story of this "forgotten war" in Alaska. He found the history of the brave men who had served in the Aleutians so compelling and so little known that he wrote the first full-length history of the Aleutian campaign, and the book remains a favorite among Alaskans.
The war in the Aleutians was fought in some of the worst climatic conditions on earth for men, ships, and airplanes. The sea was rough, the islands craggy and unwelcoming, and enemy number one was always the weather--the savage wind, fog, and rain of the Aleutian chain. The fog seemed to reach even into the minds of the military commanders on both sides, as they directed men into situations that so often had tragic results. Frustrating, befuddling, and still the subject of debate, the Aleutian campaign nevertheless marked an important turn of the war in favor of the United States.
Now, half a century after the war ended, more of the fog has been lifted. In the updated University of Alaska Press edition, Garfield supplements his original account, which was drawn from statistics, personal interviews, letters, and diaries, with more recently declassified photographs and many more illustrations.
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The Thousand-Mile War
World War II in Alaska and the Aleutians
By Brian Garfield
UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA PRESSCopyright © 1969 Brian Garfield
All rights reserved.
Japan Steams North
COLD FOG SWEPT ACROSS THE pitching flight deck of the Japanese aircraft carrier Ryujo; it stung men's exposed faces with brittle needles of wind-driven spray. The Aleutian fog brought midnight close against the ship—and with it, the grave risk of collision with the seven other Japanese ships nearby.
On the bridge of the flagship stood her skipper, Captain Tadao Kato, bundled in a heavy fur coat. Kato scanned the low black sky intently, keyed-up and grim: on the deck of the fifteen-year-old warship a gathering of bombers were warming up, and soon Captain Kato would have the honor of launching a bomb attack on the U.S. Army and Navy bases at Dutch Harbor, Alaska.
It was the night of June 2, 1942. Ryujo's bomber strike would set in motion a full-scale, fifteen-month war for the Aleutian Islands—the only military campaign of World War II fought on North American soil.
Sailing off Ryujo's quarter was the brand-new carrier Junyo. Together the two flattops carried an armada of eighty-two attack planes. Close by in the swirling North Pacific fog were the escorts—heavy cruisers Takao and Maya, three destroyers and an oiler. And supporting the task group not far to the west were the ships of Vice Admiral Boshiro Hosogaya's Northern Force: cruisers Nachi, Abukuma, Kiso, and Tama, nine destroyers, three transports carrying 2,500 Japanese Army invasion troops, and a screen of submarines.
A foggy cold-weather front was tracking eastward across the North Pacific at about 20 knots, and the Japanese carrier force stayed just within it, to avoid detection by American patrol planes. On flagship Ryujo, Captain Kato and Rear Admiral Kakuji Kakuta, the task force commander, had been alerted earlier in the day by sight of a patrol plane in the soup overhead. It could have been an American PBY Catalina flying boat; then again it might have been a Russian plane—the Soviets, who had pirated the PBY design from the Americans, patrolled regularly off the Siberian coast. There was no way to be certain; but to avoid discovery, Admiral Kakuta had turned his carriers and escorts into the leading edge of the storm, and had stayed with the front all afternoon and evening. Now, just before midnight, Kakuta stepped onto the open bridge, a thick bodied man with batwing ears and a small mustache. Captain Kato noticed him look at his watch: the success of the admiral's impending operation depended on its timing, for the assault on Dutch Harbor—scheduled to take place in a few hours, in the early morning of June 3—was meant to divert massive American naval forces north toward Alaska. On the following day, June 4, the main body of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto's Combined Imperial Fleet would make its massed attack in the vicinity of Midway Island, 2,000 miles to the south of Kakuta.
Kakuta's tough Ryujo force was not as large as the fleet that had attacked Pearl Harbor six months before, but all signs pointed toward an equally devastating success. The only possible trouble was the afternoon's reconnaissance by the nebulous patrol plane, if in fact it had really been an American plane, and if it had detected the fleet sliding through the fog below. Captain Kato mentioned the plane once again, and the admiral gave him a reassuring smile; in any event there was nothing they could do about it now. All they could do was keep close track of the time. Kakuta looked at his watch again.
The Ryujo fleet was now on the last leg of a fast four-day dash from Ominato in North Honshu, where it had waited a week before outfitting at Hashira anchorage near Hiroshima. There, in mid-May, the Northern Force had loaded heavy Arctic gear in the midst of a harbor filled with virtually the entire Imperial Navy: sixty-eight capital warships and almost uncounted escort vessels and transports, massed for the largest naval operation in Japanese history. Admiral Yamamoto was deploying more than 190 warships and 700 airplanes against the United States Pacific Fleet.
For Japan, which had not lost a naval battle in more than a century, the operation would prove to be one of history's most disastrous strategic mistakes.
Japan's Premier, the stolid and determined General Hideki Tojo, had come to office on a path paved with assassinations, terror politics, and the back-room power of the tough Army establishment. His military shogunate had led the nation into a world war, much against the practical misgivings of officers like Admiral Yamamoto; now Tojo aimed his biggest guns toward Midway—and toward the Aleutian Islands. In so doing, Japan embarked on a new program of expansion and conquest while she had not yet secured her immense victories of the first six months of the war.
The record of conquest was phenomenal. Within days after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Japan had swallowed up Guam, Indochina, Thailand; she had sunk the only major Allied warships west of Midway—the British leviathans Prince of Wales and Repulse. By Christmas she had taken Wake and Hong Kong. Within two months she had occupied Manila, Singapore, Malaya; in February at Java Sea she sank ten Allied ships; in March the Allies lost Java and Burma, and Japanese armies were in the Owen Stanley Mountains of New Guinea with the coast of Australia almost within sight. Japan had driven the British fleet from the Indian Ocean and the Pacific; she had sunk nearly every American battleship in the Pacific Fleet; and at the end of April Japan still had lost nothing bigger than a destroyer.
In May 1942, Corregidor surrendered and the Philippines fell; Japan invaded the Solomons. She had swallowed Southeast Asia and the islands of the South Pacific; she had crushed all Allied strength in the western ocean.
By the end of May, the Allies were at the low point of the global war. In Africa, Rommel had retaken Benghazi; in the Atlantic, German Uboats had sunk almost five hundred ships off the North American coast, many of them within sight of the U.S. shore. Japanese submarines and planes had bombed and shelled forests, refineries and installations on the U.S. Pacific Coast. American sea power, what was left of it, had been driven back to Hawaii and the West Coast, and the Japanese knew that U.S. strategy had to be restricted to a policy of holding fast on a fragile line of defense that began in New Guinea, extended through Samoa and Midway, and was anchored at its northern end at Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians.
There had not been a single setback to muffle Japanese enthusiasm. Heady with conquest, the Imperial General Staff brushed off warnings from junior officers just home from the field, who felt that the newly acquired territories must be secured, even at the expense of further expansion. Even the forceful Yamamoto, Japan's star naval strategist who had masterminded the attack on Pearl Harbor, was convinced that Japan could not hope to win a long war. Yamamoto had spent too much time in the United States to underestimate the massive industrial strength of America. He saw clearly that there was only one hope for Japanese victory, and that was to draw out and destroy the remnants of the U.S. fleet at a time when the Japanese fleet was far superior to it in total strength. The American Navy could be reinforced quickly by new construction; it had to be smashed irrevocably in 1942—or not at all. If Yamamoto could destroy American naval power, and particularly the four American carriers then in the Pacific, he felt Japan could persuade the United States to sign a peace that would insure the security of the expanded Japanese Empire.
By April 1942, Yamamoto's naval strategy had crystallized into an obsession to scuttle the U.S. Navy in one massive stroke. Army commanders disagreed with him; they wanted to press forward in the South Pacific and invade Australia. The staff was at loggerheads, until April 18—the day of the Doolittle raid. That day bombs fell on Tokyo, and the Imperial Staff forgot its infighting in a rush to the wall charts. Officers crowded around the maps, trying to guess where the Doolittle bombers had come from.
Some officers argued that Doolittle's twin-engine Army bombers might have been launched from aircraft carriers. Others pointed to the north: Alaska was the only area from which American land-based planes could reach Japan. The Aleutian Islands, off Alaska, lay only 650 miles from Paramushiro in the Japanese Kuriles. The Doolittle raiders could have taken off from the western Aleutians. One staff colonel recalled that Doolittle himself, identified by intelligence, had grown up in Nome, the son of an Alaskan gold rush miner.
The mystery was never solved; it was not until after the war that the Japanese learned that Doolittle's raid had been launched from "Bull" Halsey's carriers in the Central Pacific. Meanwhile, during the closing days of April, the Imperial Staff agreed with Yamamoto that American sea power must be destroyed. But, they added, it was also necessary to protect their Aleutian flank against further raids like Doolittle's.
Yamamoto moved fast. His first attempt to ambush the U.S. fleet took place in early May with the Battle of the Coral Sea, where he sank the carrier Lexington and inflicted crippling damage on the carrier Yorktown. Yamamoto was elated; of the four American carriers in the ocean, he had put two out of the war. Two more, and the job would be done. (It was not until later, after Midway, that the Naval Staff stopped to reconsider Coral Sea, and realized that the battle had been a standoff. Despite the victory, Japan had been checked at Coral Sea; the battle had halted her naval expansion so that Japanese troops could never reach Australia.)
Meanwhile Yamamoto's brilliant Senior Operations Officer, Captain Kameto Kuroshima, drew up a far-reaching plan for the "MI Operation"—Midway and the Aleutians. It called for a deployment of the entire Combined Fleet in a wide sweep of the Central and North Pacific, to capture the Aleutians and trap the rest of the U.S. fleet. Twenty admirals and more than 100,000 men would take part. Flagship would be the awesome super-battleship Yamato, 64,000 tons of big guns and armor plate.
In the Aleutians, multiple task forces under stolid Vice Admiral Boshiro Hosogaya would strike a paralyzing blow at Dutch Harbor while an occupation group landed troops on the islands of Adak, Kiska, and Attu. The operation would draw the American fleet out of hiding from Pearl Harbor; it would steam north toward Alaska, and Yamamoto would wait for it at Midway. Hosogaya's attack on the Aleutians would give Yamamoto time to conquer Midway, so that when the American fleet arrived he would have the island base secured for use by his own attack planes. Meanwhile the Northern Second Mobile Force—Admiral Kakuta with his carriers—would complete its diversion at Dutch Harbor and swing west to support the occupation of the western Aleutians. Thus Japan would gain both the protection of her northern flank and the eagerly desired annihilation of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
On May 5, Imperial General Headquarters issued Navy Order Eighteen, formally authorizing the operation by calling in part for "the invasion and occupation of the western Aleutians ... in order to prevent enemy forces from attacking the homeland."
Less than a month later, the intricate plan went into operation.
On the night of June 2, as his carrier force made its final high-speed dash toward Dutch Harbor under cover of the eastward-tracking storm, Admiral Kakuta studied his latest intelligence about the island he was about to attack.
Japanese Intelligence was not so good as it might have been, because no Japanese spies in Alaska had communicated with Tokyo for months. The eight or ten spies had been interned in the States, along with hundreds of innocent Nisei. But Kakuta still had several sources of information. He had himself launched eight planes during the day, to scout ahead 250 miles; but they had stayed away from Dutch Harbor to avoid alerting the Americans.
Kakuta's principal reconnaissance eyes belonged to a handful of Japan's I-class submarines. Bigger than their counterpart American fleet boats, these super-submarines were designed to make the round trip from Tokyo to Los Angeles without refueling—and several of them had already done so. Although their living conditions were cramped and demoralizing, they displaced about 5,000 tons and their deck hangar space was big enough to carry as many as three folding-wing seaplane bombers. The unique I-boats were effective weapons of war. Their usefulness was limited only by the nature of the missions assigned to them; for the most part Japan never used her I-boat fleet to best advantage. But the big undersea craft had recorded a few encouraging successes. In early January one of them had torpedoed the American freighter Absaroka just outside the harbor of Los Angeles. On February 23 an I-boat fired twenty-five high-explosive shells into a refinery near Santa Barbara, California, destroying an oil well and pump. Planes launched from I-boats periodically reconnoitered Seattle and Canadian West Coast ports; and once an I-boat's plane bombed a National Forest in Oregon, on orders from Admiral Yamamoto, who had been talked into the notion that a few incendiary bombs set off in the great forests would cause a holocaust of flame and destruction that would sweep down the Pacific Coast and wipe out the major cities.
Admiral Kakuta had three I-boats scouting for him, as well as several smaller RO-class submarines. One of the I-boats had launched its scout plane over Dutch Harbor on May 29; the seas were so rough that the plane had cracked up when it tried to land by the I-boat. Now on June 2, the submarine itself ran silently past Dutch Harbor at periscope depth, and that night Kakuta had its radio code report in front of him. Meanwhile two other submarines were patrolling to the east, near Cold Bay, after reconnoitering Kodiak (by periscope) and Kiska (by plane).
Kakuta now learned that some of the intelligence estimates he had been given in Japan were incorrect. He had believed an entire combat division of American troops was stationed at Dutch Harbor; now he learned there were no more than 5,000 troops, most of them service and support personnel. He sent a last-minute signal to Admiral Yamamoto, requesting permission to divert the invasion force from the western Aleutians and instead invade and capture Dutch Harbor, which was the principal American military base in the Aleutians—indeed, as far as he knew, it was the only one. But Yamamoto vetoed the suggestion; Dutch Harbor was too far from Japan, too difficult to supply.
And with the vast commitment at Midway and to the south, there weren't enough ships available to guarantee the security of Dutch Harbor once it had been taken. No; the plan would proceed as originally ordered.
Kakuta put the radiograms away and sent for the captain, Tadao Kato. The two men met on Ryujo's bridge; and Kakuta gave Kato the order to proceed with the execution of Plan A O.
Less than 170 miles from Dutch Harbor, Ryujo and Junyo increased speed to 25 knots to break through the forward edge of the storm into the clear, where they could launch their planes. Shortly after 2:00 A.M. the warmed-up engines of the torpedo-bombers were switched off so that the gas tanks could be topped up with fuel. On Ryujo's flight deck, Lieutenant Masayuki Yamaguchi, the flight leader, climbed into his cockpit, and flight crews stood by to spin propellers on the contact signal to start engines. Pilots checked their gauges and their radios; there was no banter. Behind them had been cold nights with nothing to do but play cards and sip tea. Ahead was action—what they had come for. Deck crews stood about, envious because they must stay behind.
Excerpted from The Thousand-Mile War by Brian Garfield. Copyright © 1969 Brian Garfield. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA PRESS.
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I was born in 1943. My father was in the Navy and stationed in the Aleutians. A friend recommended I read The Thousand-Mile War. I did not know about the war in Alaska and the Aleutians including Japan's occupation. For me it was the forgotten war and even my mom and dad had not told me much about what happened. This book has opened new discussions with my parents who are both still living. The book has helped me to appreciate the "Greatest Generation" even more than before. The research done to write this book is impressive and yet it reads like a movie script.
The Thousand Mile War is a very interesting account of an obscure theater of WWII. For over a year in 1942-43 the US and Japan struggled to control the Aleutian Islands, a possible jump-off point for an invasion of either Alaska or Northern Japan. Although neither side ever launched such an operation, the fighting there was desperate. The elements were more deadly than enemy shells and bullets. Brian Garfield, the author of Death Wish, the inspiration for the Charles Bronson movies, wrote the original book in 1969 and put out this updated edition in 1995. He focuses on both the commanders and the men who fought in the Arctic environment. Because most of the Japanese perished and almost all Japan's military records were destroyed, the focus is on the Americans. Both those interested in military and Alaskan history should find much of interest.