Alaska Life

The war after Attu: Anchorage historian writes the first history of air battle launched from Alaska


What may be the least-visited World War II monument on the American mainland stands on the south side of Merrill Field: the Eleventh Air Force/Americans Home from Siberia Memorial.

It honors Americans who served in the Battle of the North Pacific, perhaps most forgotten of Alaska's "forgotten fronts," conducted across battle lines that ranged for thousands of miles from the Aleutians to the northern islands of Japan, the theater where America's involvement in the war began — and where it ended.

While the Battle of Attu, the only North American land battle in the war, remains little known, it has received increasing attention in recent years. But the fight that followed, in which American bombers raided Japanese strongholds in the Kuril chain for two years, remains largely unstudied and unrecognized, even by World War II buffs.

Now the first history of the operation, "Mission to the Kurils" by Anchorage historian John Haile Cloe, has been published (Todd Communications, $40).

In the foreword of his book, Cloe notes that the Japanese task force that attacked Pearl Harbor assembled in a bay on Etorofu Island in the Southern Kurils before steaming to Hawaii. Russian and Japanese soldiers engaged in combat in the islands three days after Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of his nation. The final surrender of the islands was signed aboard an Alaska-based warship.

Cloe's book begins with a quick overview of the invasion of Alaska, beginning June 3, 1942. Aircraft carrier-based planes bombed Dutch Harbor and, soon after, the Japanese army occupied Attu and Kiska at the far western end of the Aleutian chain.

The U.S. retook Attu in May of 1943 after a nearly monthlong struggle that led to the death of nearly all of the 2,000 Japanese defenders. A joint U.S.-Canadian force landed on Kiska a few weeks later to find that the entire Japanese garrison had been evacuated.

American strategists then attacked facilities in the Northern Kurils with planes based on them. The Japanese retaliated with a final bombing raid on Attu on Oct. 13, 1943, the last attack on American soil in the campaign. The Battle of the Aleutians thus elided into the Battle of the Kurils.

The war after Attu

With the enemy removed from the Aleutians, Alaska could catch its breath. Lights-out curfews were lifted in Anchorage and other towns. Ground troops were reduced. Boredom became a bigger problem than gunfire. Cloe dedicates a chapter to the recreational opportunities in Alaska's World War II bases, the dogs adopted by the lonely men, the USO stars who put Alaska on their itineraries, including Bob Hope and Ingrid Bergman.

But at the far end of the territory, the war continued as seriously as ever. The U.S. Army Air Corps' 11th Air Force and the Navy's Fleet Air Wing Four were charged with keeping pressure on Japan's northern defenses.

The Kuril front, like the Battle of Britain, was by and large an aerial showdown. Ships did bombard in the Kurils, but American soldiers didn't land on enemy soil. War planes, primarily, took the fight to the foe.

The round trip from bases on Attu and Shemya to the nearest of the Kurils was approximately 1,700 miles, sometimes hundreds of miles farther when routes had to be changed because of weather. The limited fuel capacity of the bombers meant they could not tarry looking for targets or spend too much time trying to outmaneuver fighter planes that challenged them — not if they wanted to get home with any gas left in the tanks.

The rapidly changing North Pacific weather was as awful then as it is now, with freezing rain, high winds, storms and dense cloud cover regularly in the forecast. The bombers that succeeded in reaching a target were relatively easy pickings for the faster, more agile Japanese fighter planes. The raids took a heavy toll on the men stationed in Alaska as their planes were shot down or dropped into the ocean without ever returning to base.

Captives of the Soviets

But if the average armchair historian knows one thing about the Kuril Campaign, that one thing is most likely to be the saga of the so-called "Siberians." The Kamchatka Peninsula stretched between the Aleutians and the Kurils, and that was territory owned by the Soviet Union. Russia was America's ally against Germany, but had a nonaggression pact with Japan. Japan had solidly whipped Russia at the turn of the century and the Soviet leader Stalin, facing a life-or-death struggle against the Nazis on his western border, was not interested in taking on a second front in the war.

American officials pleaded for landing rights in Kamchatka, but the answer was "nyet." Shot-up bombers, planes with mechanical problems or running out of fuel, found themselves forced to land — or crash — on the Kamchatka Peninsula. There they were detained by Russian soldiers.

Though the Americans seem to have been well-treated, they were in an awkward situation, something between prisoners of war and friendly visitors. Technically they had crossed into neutral territory with weapons and were therefore belligerents. Yet at the same time that Russia interned them, a caravan of American-made warplanes was crossing the Bering Strait several hundred miles to the north en route to fight Japan's ally, Germany.

Some Americans were transported across Asia to a site near the Iranian border where they were allowed to "escape" across the border. Others remained in the custody of the Soviet Union until the end of the war.

In fact, Soviet leader Stalin was not ignoring the Japanese front. He had plans, but concealed them for the time being.

A superb deception

Meanwhile, the raids on Japan from the Aleutians were a continuing, if little-reported, corner of the war. One may ask why so much energy, equipment and personnel were expended to attack a sparsely-populated area almost as far from Tokyo as it was from Attu. Cloe gives several reasons.

The Kurils were home to a large part of the Japanese fishing fleet. As the war dragged on, hunger became a major problem for the Japanese. By distressing fishing boats, transport ships and even on-shore canneries, America put considerable pressure on the imperial government struggling to take care of its civilian population.

More importantly, it made the Japanese suspect that a land invasion might be launched from Alaska and forced them to take troops and planes from elsewhere in the Pacific to defend its northern islands.

As soon as the Aleutians were secure in 1943, the U.S. War Department ordered Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner to prepare a "deception plan." "The Top Secret Planning document, code named Wedlock, was designed to divert attention away from the planned amphibious offensive to seize the Marshall and Mariana Islands in the Central Pacific," Cloe writes.

It was a striking success. In June 1944, American forces overwhelmed Japanese defenders on Saipan, Guam and Tinian, destroying the Japanese carrier-based air force in the process. Operation Wedlock received high praise for keeping Japan focused on the North Pacific until it was too late to adjust.

The captured central Pacific islands gave America bases from which long-distance bombers could strike the population and industrial centers of southern Japan. On Aug. 6, 1945, one of those planes dropped an atom bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later a second was dropped on Nagasaki.

On Aug. 12, a naval task force deployed from Massacre Bay on Attu Island shelled Paramushiro Island in the Northern Kurils. One of those ships, an old cruiser, Concord, is officially recognized as firing the last naval warship shot of the war. Two days later, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan's surrender.

The battle after the war

As the Empire of the Rising Sun was collapsing, Stalin made his move. Russia abrogated its neutrality agreement and declared war on Japan in early August, 1945. The about-face was in accord with agreements made between allied leaders at Yalta earlier that year. Cloe describes President Franklin Roosevelt as "a sick man" at the conference, ready to concede to Stalin's demands in return for the Soviet Union joining the war against Japan. When Stalin insisted on claiming the southern half of the Sakhalin Island and the Kurils, Roosevelt agreed, perhaps in the mistaken belief that they had already been taken in war.

Three days after Japan announced it would surrender, Russian troops invaded the Kurils. Thinking hostilities had ended, the Japanese commander was unprepared. Fighting lasted for several days, until the Japanese forces in the Kurils surrendered. Many civilians on the islands made it to Hokkaido. Soldiers captured by the Russians were taken to labor camps, where many died. The last of the captives were not released until 1955.

The Americans tardily realized Stalin's ultimate plan was to take the large, heavily populated island of Hokkaido. Adm. Frank Fletcher was ordered to dispatch warships from the Aleutians to keep the Soviets out. He arrived in Japanese waters on Sept. 7 and accepted the surrender of Japanese forces in the Northern Area aboard his flagship, the Panamint, on Sept. 9, 1945, a week after the official surrender ceremonies on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

World War II was over. The groundwork for the next war — the Cold War — was laid.

The Kurils, where Americans had fought and died for two years, were now Russian territory, and remain so to this day, a monument to Stalin's opportunism. "Conquest of the Kurils gave Russia an easier access to the Pacific and a barrier against the West during the Cold War," Cloe writes.

The American military began the long withdrawal from most of its bases in the Aleutians. Hundreds of planes were demolished and sold for scrap. The 11th Air Force itself was re-designated as the Alaskan Air Command. It would retain that name through the hottest days of the Cold War, though the designation of the 11th Air Force was restored in 1990. Today it remains headquartered at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, from which it continues to provide the primary air defense for Alaska and North America.

Remembering the veterans

Cloe came across the Kuril front while working on Elmendorf as the Alaska Air Command historian. The soft-spoken Virginian had served two tours in Vietnam as an infantry officer and was stationed at the Infantry School before Fort Benning, near Columbus, Georgia, when the air conditioning in his post housing broke down.

"I put in for a cooler assignment," he said, and the Army steered him to Alaska. He and his late wife drove up the Alaska Highway in 1970, "and I've been here ever since."

He became interested in history while a student at Virginia Military Institute. "I'm not good at math and I can't spell, so that left history," he said. The institute "threw a lot of history at us and I read a lot of military biographies."

His office at Elmendorf was filled with documents and photographs relating to the 11th Air Force in World War II. "I soon realized, other than Brian Garfield's 'The Thousand Mile War' and Stan Cohen's 'Forgotten War' series, the war in the North Pacific and Alaska has not been well-covered or understood by most historians."

He started work on the book 29 years ago, "partly as a retirement project. I never learned to play golf, so that was not an option. Plus I was tired of writing classified histories and studies on the Cold War that ended up in the safe, where they still remain, and wanted something out in the public for a change."

Work on "Mission to the Kurils" remained intermittent until 2011, when Cloe made it a priority. He traveled to military archives throughout the country to check out stories and locate detailed operation records. "The units wrote good histories," he said. "The Kuril front was well-documented."

Cloe said his primary incentive "was to make certain that those who served in the North Pacific were not forgotten. I got to know a lot of veterans of the Aleutian campaign. I interviewed a significant number. Most are gone now."

The vast appendices of the book list the missions and individual bombers of both the Aleutian and Kuril campaigns. Most importantly, it lists the names of those killed, captured or detained by the Russians. The same 1,067 names one sees on the wall at Merrill Field.

A few flags are wedged into divisions in the concrete wall. But no flags hung from the poles in front of the names on a visit last month. Nor were there any other visitors aside from this reporter. No ceremonies are planned at the site this coming Veteran's Day, Nov. 11. Cloe said the Edward D. Monaghan Chapter, Air Force Association, working with the Air Force and the UAA Air Force ROTC detachment, plans to do clean-up and rehabilitation work on the site next spring.

There is some paradox in the fact that the site — between one of Anchorage's most-traveled streets, 15th Avenue, and one of the busiest small plane airports in the world — feels poignantly lonely. Its solitude in the midst of commotion is oddly analogous to the forgotten Kuril front itself. Cloe hopes his book will help reverse that neglect.

"While a number of authors have written about various aspects of the Kuril Operations, none have covered it in its entirety," he said. "This is a first. You could fill a large bookcase with just the books on Normandy or Iwo Jima. But this is the only one dedicated to the Kurils."

THE ELEVENTH AIR FORCE/AMERICANS HOME FROM SIBERIA MEMORIAL is located at Remembrance Circle on the south side of Merrill Field, uphill from the intersection of 15th Avenue and Lake Otis Parkway.

JOHN CLOE will take part in a writers symposium on military topics at the Living Room Writers Group meeting sponsored by the Alaska Humanities Forum at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 9, at Jitters Coffee Shop in Eagle River. He presents a talk at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 10, at the Anchorage Museum, 625 C St. (enter by the door on Seventh Avenue) and 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Friday, Veteran's Day, at the Alaska Veterans Museum. The Veterans Museum also will have free admission 10 a.m.-5 p.m. that day. It is located at 333 W. Fourth Ave. behind the bronze statue of a soldier of the Alaska Territorial Guard. Cloe will also have a presentation at the UAA Campus Bookstore at 5 p.m. Monday, Nov. 21.