Raids on Aleutian Harbor Remain Little-Known Part of World War II : History: Veterans say they were prepared for the attack by Japanese forces, but the result was a gruesome comedy of errors.
Everyone remembers the first time the Japanese attacked American territory. But Art Bauman is among the select who remember the second time.
Bauman was a Navy photographer, stationed at Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands. He watched as a PBY Catalina flying boat, heading out of the harbor for a mail run to Kodiak, was attacked by Japanese fighters.
“That thing was just taking off and a Zero came down and blasted it,” said Bauman, 75, who lives near Kalamazoo, Mich. “It landed on a spit there and burst into flames. It was a gruesome thing.”
The attack on Dutch Harbor was part of a little-known chapter of World War II, and it indeed was gruesome: 35 people died and another 28 were wounded in two separate raids on June 3 and 4, 1942.
But it also was a comedy of errors, say the people who were there and the historians who have studied this overlooked installment of the war--an episode that would end with an enemy force holding U.S. territory for the first time since the War of 1812.
“Dutch was well-prepared,” said John Cloe, historian for the 11th Air Force at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage.
“Our intelligence had broken their radio codes and they (the U.S. Navy) knew it was coming almost to the hour. Most of the people who got killed had just gotten off ships the night before. Nobody had told them what to do.
“The Japanese showed up, they piled out of the barracks and got hit,” Cloe said. “Twenty-five were killed and 25 wounded by one string of bombs. The others were killed in ones and twos.”
Why did the Japanese attack this forlorn American outpost?
The seeds were sown in April, when 16 B-25 bombers, launched from the aircraft carrier Hornet and commanded by Jimmy Doolittle, bombed Tokyo. The raid did little real damage but shook the Japanese high command.
Planning was begun to enlarge the empire eastward, in an arc knifing across the Pacific from Fiji, Western Samoa and Midway Island to the Aleutians--a thousand-mile chain that bends like a longbow from Alaska toward Japan. Attu, the westernmost island, is only 380 miles from the Russian coast.
The Japanese intended to bomb Dutch Harbor a day before an attack on Midway to draw what remained of the U.S. Pacific Fleet out of position.
But all this strategy was known to American military leaders, thanks to radio intercepts. The Battle of Midway would rage June 4-5, and end with the first major defeat of the Japanese war machine.
Dutch Harbor would be a very different story. Lowell Thorsness was a 24-year-old Caterpillar driver there a half a century ago. He was a civilian helping the military blaze new roads and level spongy ground for barracks and warehouses.
“My foreman told us that they’d gotten word the Japanese had sent carriers from Tokyo Bay with orders to bomb Dutch Harbor, so we were to get ready for it,” said Thorsness, who lives in Anchorage. “He told us to dig a foxhole ‘cause they were coming.
“Typical of construction stiffs, someone said, ‘Let’s get up a pool,’ and we made bets on the day of the attack. Little did I know I’d be helping dig out bodies a few days later.”
Retired Adm. James S. Russell, 89, of Tacoma, Wash., was a PBY squadron leader at Dutch Harbor. He can explain some of the foul-ups.
“On the first day of the raids, communications failed between Dutch Harbor and Umnak, 60 nautical miles to the west. The Army planes on Umnak were sitting there fat, dumb and happy while the first raid took place on Dutch Harbor,” Russell said. “They didn’t even try for an intercept.”
At Dutch Harbor, heroism mixed with slapstick. “On the second day, I was in a bomb shelter with about eight other guys,” Thorsness said. “Most were infantry, firing .30-06 Springfields.
“One guy, I’ll never forget it, fired two rounds and had his rifle jam. In the middle of the bombing, here he sits, talking to his rifle.
“He said, ‘I had you in Ft. Ord (Calif.) and you never failed me. I had you in the desert on maneuvers and you never failed me.”
The first (enemy) I see you fail me, you dirty . . .’ ”
Johnnie Jenkins was a Navy mess steward who, with scores of Army troops, arrived at Dutch Harbor the day before the first air raid.
“We sat around drinking that first night, and the next morning, when everything happened, everyone took off and left me because I hadn’t been assigned duty,” said Jenkins, now 75.
“I tried to get in a foxhole but the guy who was in there told me I couldn’t get in because he was from Alabama. I’m black, you see.
“Well, the Zeros were strafing the area and I wasn’t about to go anywhere and I told him so. We got along fine after that and he invited me back the next day, but I told him I’d made other arrangements.”
The miscues were not solely American, Russell said.
“On the second day, the Japanese squadron decided to rendezvous off the western end of Unalaska Island to gather up stragglers,” he said. “Unbeknownst to them, that was just across the channel from our fighter field.
“Our P-40s knocked down four Vals (dive bombers). As the P-40s were finishing up that job, in came the Zeros and knocked down two P-40s.”
And there were instances of bravery. Ted Johnson, 83, of Pensacola, Fla., was one of several PBY pilots patrolling southwest of Dutch Harbor, looking for the Japanese carrier force.
“I was letting down through the soup and I broke out at 900 feet,” Johnson said. “On my right side was a carrier going away from us at right angles. Not an airplane was in sight, so I reached up and rammed the throttles full bore on both engines. We were trying to duck back into the clouds.”
It wasn’t long after that that one of the PBY’s engines began heating up and had to be shut down. Johnson said he jettisoned the torpedoes to maintain altitude, and then set course toward Dutch Harbor.
“I flew it 180 miles home. I was very, very busy flying that airplane--too busy to get scared. One lousy . . . bullet had cut the oil line.”
PBYs were two-engine patrol bombers that were slow, lightly armed and armored, but had high endurance and range.
“That was what you were there for. Find the enemy, tell the folks back home and then take your lumps,” he said. “We didn’t have any escorts.”
Their Dutch Harbor mission completed, the Japanese carrier group headed for the western Aleutians. On June 5, they landed troops unopposed at Attu; two days later, they occupied Kiska.
It would be 13 months before the Japanese were dislodged, and then at a terrible price.
What had they gained?
Many of the islands are volcanic, all are treeless and wind-swept, and most plunge from mountains as high as 9,000 feet directly into a churning sea.
“Look at them on a map and they look like a natural invasion route to Japan or to the United States,” Cloe said. “Get on the ground and it’s something altogether different.
“They’re completely unsuitable for large-scale military warfare. There are few places to build airfields and only a half-dozen anchorages. Few occur in combination. The weather is lousy.”
The region is called the “cradle of storms” because warm waters of the Japanese current collide with polar air from the north. That produces an unhealthy mix of fog, rain and winds.
Neither side fully appreciated the Aleutian climate as the campaign began. Both later would record more weather-related casualties than casualties caused by fighting.
The Dutch Harbor raids did little physical damage, said retired Brig. Gen. Ben Talley, 89, who was responsible for military construction in Alaska.
“While they attacked at Dutch Harbor, their battle at Midway was a great loss--the turning point in the war. Japan was never the same after that,” said Talley, who lives at Anchor Point.
“But the raids did have a tremendous morale effect on the civilian population in Alaska,” he said. “There were a lot of invasion jitters at the time and, eventually, politics from that led to the big military buildup here and finally the decision to throw the Japanese out of the Aleutians.”
Target: Dutch Harbor The forelorn American outpost of Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands was the unlikely target of a Japanese air attack in 1942.