The campaign in the Aleutian Islands included the only land battle on North American soil during World War II. Initially, the Aleutians, a remote chain of volcanic islands off the Alaskan peninsula, were of dubious strategic significance for American operations. However, the US considered the possibility that Japan might raid Alaska or even the US mainland.1 The American public was also concerned once the Japanese had invaded US soil, however remote their location was to the mainland. If the Japanese succeeded in the Aleutians and at Midway, its forces would create a defensive perimeter in the North and Central Pacific.2
On May 12, 1942, five Nisei graduates of the first language class at the Presidio arrived in Anchorage, Alaska, to work with the Alaska Defense Command. Led by Sergeant Yoshio Hotta, the team traveled to the Aleutians and then on to other bases in the state. Seven months later, another five would arrive, with a Caucasian language officer.
Of the 100,000 Army soldiers sent to the region by early 1943, only about ten of them could understand the Japanese language.3 The presence of the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) was therefore crucial. However, there was a limited number of graduates, so their deployment had to be planned carefully. It was not until much later, from December 1942 to January 1943, that fifteen more graduates with three Caucasian language officers were sent to the Alaska Defense Command.
On June 3, 1942, the day before the decisive naval Battle of Midway, the Japanese attacked Dutch Harbor, a small naval facility in the Aleutian Islands. Over a period of two days, 43 Americans were killed, including 33 soldiers, and another 64 wounded.4 The Japanese took over the Aleutians' westernmost island, Attu, and the island of Kiska, which was 180 miles away.
On May 11, 1943, the Americans landed on Attu Island. Meeting little resistance on the beach, the soldiers anticipated a relatively easy mission. However, they were badly mistaken. As they moved further inland, they met fierce resistance from the Japanese, who held the high ground. The frigid weather and the icy mud created harsh combat conditions.
After about two weeks of intense fighting, on May 29, the Americans finally recaptured Attu from the Japanese. But it was at great cost for both sides. More than 2,300 Japanese soldiers died in the battle. The Americans counted 549 dead, more than 1,100 wounded, and another 2,000 men suffering from disease and noncombat-related injuries, primarily trench foot.5
The MIS contributed to the Aleutian Islands campaign in several ways. About 16 Nisei linguists served on Attu during the battle there. They translated captured documents, monitored radio transmissions, and made leaflets to drop from airplanes. The work was intense and dangerous. Some soldiers crawled into caves where Japanese soldiers were hiding to persuade them to surrender. After Attu was retaken, MIS linguists interrogated the 28 captured Japanese POWs and translated documents on the spot.6
This group of 16 included Private Satsuki Fred Tanakatsubo, a Nisei from Sacramento, CA, who graduated from the Military Intelligence Service Language School in June 1942.7 Tanakatsubo had been assigned to kitchen and garbage duty at Fort Lewis when he was first interviewed as a potential MIS recruit. His parents were at Tule Lake when he was assigned to the 7th Infantry Division for the Attu assault.8
Another small team of MIS linguists participated in the recapture of Kiska that took place on August 15 and 16, 1943, while a separate group worked the Alaska Defense Command headquarters at Dutch Harbor. Thankfully, the recapture of Kiska was far less difficult than that of Attu. The Japanese had in fact abandoned the island more than two weeks before the American invasion, and the troops arrived to find the island deserted. Nevertheless, the men confronted other dangers in the form of booby traps left behind by the Japanese.
Despite the casualties and struggles in the Aleutians, American troops succeeded in stopping the Japanese advances and secured bases in the North Pacific for future Allied operations.
1US National Park Service, Alaska Regional Office, World War II in Alaska (Washington, DC: US Department of the Interior, 2013), p. 3, accessed on January 15, 2015, http://www.nps.gov/akso/history/PDF/WWII-Resource-Guide.pdf.
2George L. MacGarrigle, "Aleutian Islands: US Army Campaigns of World War II," US Army Center of Military History, last updated October 3, 2003, accessed on January 15, 2015, http://www.history.army.mil/brochures/aleut/aleut.htm.
3James C. McNaughton, Nisei Linguists: Japanese Americans in the Military Intelligence Service during World War II (Washington, DC: US Department of the Army, 2006), p. 166, http://www.history.army.mil/html/books/nisei_linguists/CMH_70-99-1.pdf.
6McNaughton, p. 169.
7"Satsuki Fred Tanakatsubo," DiscoverNikkei.org, accessed on January 16, 2015, http://www.discovernikkei.org/en/resources/military/13179/?view=print.
8McNaughton, pp. 55, 123.