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NEWS | June 2, 2023

Operation LANDCRAB; the Seizing of Attu Island in the Aleutians

By Dr. Mike Krivdo

May 30, marked the 80th anniversary of the end of Operation LANDCRAB, the Allied seizure of Attu in the Aleutian Islands in 1943. That operation has the notoriety of having the second highest casualty rate of the war (per numbers of participants), right behind the Battle of Iwo Jima. As one of the Army’s first major amphibious operations there remains much to learn from that event.

In mid-1942, the Japanese invaded the Aleutians as part of their ruse to draw the U.S. Navy into a fight into the North Pacific. Instead, it led to the decisive Battle of Midway, where our Navy Defeated the Japanese Navy’s Northern Fleet. In that battle, U.S. forces sank four Japanese carriers, destroyed hundreds of enemy aircraft and killed over 3,000 Japanese sailors, severely damaging their warfighting capability. However, the enemy still landed on American territory and seized Attu and Kiska in the Aleutian Islands. There, they began constructing airfields for long-range bombers capable of attacking West Coast targets.

Army war planners issued orders to invade the islands and restore them to U.S. control. They selected the 7th Infantry Division for the task of taking Attu back. At that time, the division was in the midst of being trained in mechanized desert warfare in preparation for a deployment to North Africa. The Army suddenly canceled their training, ordered the 7th Division to turn in its vehicles, reorganize as a light infantry division, and proceed to San Diego for an abbreviated course in amphibious operations.

There, the troops received some training, but much of their course were simulated or notional problems rather than practical application. At completion, the men were issued hot climate attire and embarked on transport ships. Most believed they were on their way to the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. However, when they were out at sea, they were briefed that their real destination was Attu in the Aleutian Islands. Reliable intelligence on the enemy and environment was almost non-existent. Cold weather gear, which they had never been trained or familiarized with, was packed below decks; it was broken out and issued right before the assault. Little coordination was made beforehand between the Navy, Air Corps, and the Army, who had separate chains of command and developed their own plans for their role.

On May 11, 1943, two regiments went ashore, attacking across four landing beaches located on the North and South end of the island. In mostly small scale actions, the Americans pressed the attack on the Japanese defenders who used camouflage and concealment to their advantage. The Japanese would snipe at the advancing Soldiers and pin them down with small arms and fire support. Slowly, but surely they pressed the attack against the enemy, steadily pushing them into a pocket with their back to the sea. But the Japanese continued to fight.

In the end, the lack of preparation for the challenges of fighting in an arctic environment took its toll. Men suffered from the effects of the cold, frigid conditions. The planned three-day operation lasted three weeks. The enemy encountered was twice the size estimated, but were

fortunately weakened by American efforts to isolate them. However, a last-ditch Japanese mass assault on American positions penetrated the lines and caused many casualties before being defeated. When the fighting ended only 28 Japanese survived out of the force of 3,000.

The problems encountered at Attu made later Army landings better, but not in time for Operation COTTAGE, the invasion of Kiska in August. During that operation, 313 casualties were suffered despite the enemy having withdrawn completely from the island undetected two weeks before. This intelligence failure prompted Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger to overhaul his own Sixth Army intelligence organization, creating a new specialized unit to gain the necessary information to succeed in the New Guinea campaign.

The Army invested time and energy to learn from its early mistakes and improved with each engagement. Their analysis and study of these first amphibious operations made subsequent combat actions better planned, synchronized, and executed.