At the beginning of June 1942, the United States was still reeling from the destruction of much of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and the loss of the Philippine Islands. The Japanese, emboldened by those and other successes including Burma, Malaya, and the Dutch East Indies, were planning assaults on the Hawaiian Islands and North America.
The Japanese Take a Piece of America
In coordination with a major naval move toward the aptly named American-held Midway Islands, approximately halfway between Pearl Harbor and Tokyo, Japanese forces landed virtually unopposed on two of the Aleutian Islands, a chain stretching more than 500 miles from the coast of Alaska. More concerned with the developing naval situation to the south, U.S. commanders deployed naval and air elements to harass and isolate the Japanese occupiers, but took no action to counterattack with land forces. The remote American islands, Attu and Kiska, would be held by the enemy for more than a year.
Meanwhile, the Battle of Midway raged for three days, June 4-6, primarily between carrier-based planes. It ended with a clear American victory and has since been considered the decisive battle or turning point of the Pacific War. However, few associate this epic engagement with a simultaneous invasion of a part of the United States.
American Territory Recovered
The state of the war was radically different by April 1943. the erstwhile aggressors were on the defensive as superior U.S. naval forces supported an island-hopping campaign led by General Douglas MacArthur as well as marine expeditions that pushed inexorably closer to the Japanese home islands and brought them within range of massive bombing raids.
On April 24, a naval bombardment of Attu, one of the Japanese-occupied Aleutian Islands, began. Successful landings began on May 11 and, despite the calendar date, much of the initial fighting took place in snow up to 20 feet deep. With the last remnants of the enemy subdued on Attu, U.S. and Canadian forces landed on the second island, Kiska, on August 15, only to find it completely deserted. Apparently, the Japanese, having lost Attu, considered Kiska indefensible and evacuated their troops by submarine under cover of the island’s nearly perpetual mists.
The commander of the reconquest of Attu and Kiska, General Simon Bolivar Buckner, went on to lead the bloody Battle of Okinawa, losing his own life on the eve of victory there. After the Aleutian expedition, the Japanese never again posed a threat to the continental United States or any part of North America.