Logistics Problems on Attu

by Major Robert E. Burks

The World War II attack on Attu in the Aleutian Islands would have been easier if logistics planners had anticipated

the effects of weather and terrain.

"The battle of Alaska has ended, and it may be reasonably contended that the Japanese won it." This statement, spoken over five decades ago by the Governor of the Territory of Alaska, expressed the sentiment of many who were involved in the World War II Aleutians campaign from June 1942 until August 1943.

The Aleutian Islands extend southwest from
the Alaska mainland 1,000 miles into the North

The campaign was of virtually no strategic value to either combatant and was fought as much to maintain national honor as for any other reason. The Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islands chain was the first occupation of American soil by a foreign army since the War of 1812. By the campaign's conclusion in 1943, 8,500 Japanese soldiers had engaged over 144,000 U.S. soldiers, sailors, and airmen and vast amounts of U.S. materiel and equipment and had embroiled the Americans in one of the costliest assaults in the Pacific theater, on the island of Attu. The attack on Attu was a force-projection operation that provided logisticians with many lessons on the effects of terrain and weather on military operations and on soldiers and their equipment.

A Matter of Honor

The Japanese attack at Midway Atoll, in the Central Pacific, in June 1942 was a disastrous setback after a long string of victories across East and Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Their only opportunity to save face at home rested on the success of what originally had been planned as a diversion from the attack on Midway. The Japanese High Command had assigned a small task force the mission of attacking several islands in the Aleutians, more than 2,000 miles to the north of Midway, to deflect American attention from the main effort at Midway. The original plan did not call for the permanent occupation of any of the Aleutians, only a harassing threat to draw off American strength. However, with the major loss at Midway, the Japanese Government decided to occupy two islands, Kiska and Attu, at the western end of the Aleutians and then declare victory back home.

This decision put in motion the beginning of the U.S. Aleutian campaign to expel the Japanese invaders from American soil. The primary objective of the campaign was to erase the psychological blot of having the Japanese occupy U.S. territory. The entire campaign lasted over a year and was conducted across 4 million square miles of ocean and land. At its zenith, it employed over 144,000 men working together to expel the Japanese. These men would establish 13 bases in the Aleutians, from supply dumps to airfields; construct over 1 million square feet of runways; complete the Alcan Highway through Canada to Alaska; and conduct four amphibious landings, including the assault landing on Attu.

A Forbidding Battlefield

The Aleutians, in the North Pacific, form a chain of approximately 120 islands stretching about 1,000 miles from east to west. They are primarily volcanic in origin and generally rugged and mountainous. The island of Attu measures only 35 miles by 15 miles and is a most inhospitable location on which to conduct military operations. The island is uniformly rocky and barren of trees, brush, or any other cover. The land rises steeply from the water's edge to heights of over 3,000 feet. The lowlands of the island are blanketed with muskeg, a type of bog up to 3 feet deep with a hard crust on top.

Attu is stark, barren, cold, and windswept, with steep slopes and boggy flats.

Attu is shrouded year round with fog that varies in density and can cover the island from the bays to the mountains, creating extreme overcast conditions that limit sunshine to a few days a year. The island normally receives 40 to 50 inches of rain a year, but that rain total accumulates from a constant misting rain that falls 5 or 6 days a week. The temperature during the assault on Attu averaged 25 to 37 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on elevation.

These were the conditions that awaited American soldiers when they arrived to drive the Japanese from the island.

A Joint Operation

The operation for reducing and occupying Attu was a joint exercise featuring personnel from four commands. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, the Commander in Chief Pacific Fleet, designated Rear Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, the Commander North Pacific, as the supreme commander of the operation and as the commander of Task Force King, the invasion covering fleet. Rear Admiral Francis W. Rockwell, the Commander Amphibious Force Pacific Fleet, was designated as the commander of Task Force Roger, the attack force, until landing operations were completed. The Western Defense Command provided the 7th Infantry Division, under the command of Major General Albert E. Brown, as the assault and reserve afloat force. The Alaska Defense Command provided the 11th Air Force as the air component of the operation and the 4th Infantry Regiment as the operational reserve.

Despite this impressive assembly of forces, the Aleutian campaign and the Northern Pacific Theater ranked as Admiral Nimitz's third priority in the overall Pacific Theater for receiving materiel and support. As a result, only attack transport (APA) ships were assigned for the assault, instead of the more desirable attack cargo (AKA) ships. This created extreme logistics burdens for the invasion force because it resulted in considerable overloading of the transports with both men and equipment. To compound problems, these forces were not able to assemble or train together before executing the Aleutian invasion on 11 May 1943. Lack of equipment and training subsequently resulted in confusion during the landings on Attu.

The 7th Infantry Division was not experienced at conducting amphibious operations. In fact, it was originally designated for service in North Africa. Due to prioritization requirements, the division never had sufficient resources to conduct full-scale loading and landing operations. This may help explain some of the confusion that reigned during the loading process at the San Francisco docks in mid-April 1943. The division placed too much emphasis on loading supplies required for an army of occupation instead of loading only requirements for combat. Cargo was loaded without regard for consequences, explosives were loaded in the same hold with fuel, and items that were not requested kept arriving and were loaded wherever there was space. The result was overcrowded ships with no identifiable load plans.

Admiral Rockwell, upon witnessing the loading, commented, "The time has come for combat troop organizations to realize that landing on territory occupied by the enemy means a campaign and not an occupation." Unfortunately, loading conditions could not be changed in time for the planned invasion on 7 May. The transports departed San Francisco in their overcrowded conditions on 24 April to link up with Admiral Kinkaid and Task Force King at Cold Harbor, Alaska, on 1 May.

A Confident Plan

The invasion plan called for simultaneous amphibious landings at Holtz Bay on the north side of Attu and Massacre Bay on the south side. The forces then would link up in the center of the island at the Massacre Valley passes and turn east to drive the Japanese out of the mountains and seize Chichagof Harbor.

The northern force landing at Holtz Bay consisted of the 17-1st Battalion Combat Team, which was loaded on one assault transport, the Zeilin. The southern force, going ashore at Massacre Bay, consisted of the 17th Regiment (-) and the 32-1st Battalion Combat Team under General Brown, and it was loaded on three assault transports, the Heywood, Harris, and J. Franklin Bell. The reserve afloat force consisted of the 32d Regiment (-), which was loaded on the Grant and Chirikof. The 4th Infantry Regiment, as the operational reserve, was located on the island of Adak, approximately a 10-hour sail from Attu.

Landing craft headed for two landing beaches on Attu.

The planners realized from the beginning that the troops would suffer from the weather, but they reasoned that the entire operation to clear the 1,500 to 2,500 Japanese off Attu would take only 36 hours. This reasoning proved fatal during the course of the invasion. Attu's weather and terrain had a profound impact on the invasion's reception, medical, and combat operations.

A Testing Environment

The amphibious invasion started off on the wrong foot, and the only saving grace was that the Japanese did not challenge the 7th Infantry Division on the beach. On the day of the invasion, the island was socked in by heavy fog, and it was difficult even to see the island from offshore. Massacre Bay turned out to be rockier than expected and had many underwater shoals that posed a problem for navigation. In fact, the assault ship Predia ran across a shoal on the first day and resources were diverted to beach the ship in an effort to save her cargo. The small landing craft bringing men and supplies from ship to shore took a beating from the shoals and rocks, with many suffering severe damage. By the second day, 10 percent of the landing craft fleet had been lost, primarily because of a failure to position repair parts forward to fix them.

The reception operations at the northern landing site in Holtz Bay fared no better. The landing zone was restricted to receiving only two landing craft at a time. This created huge delays in throughput of both men and supplies. The delays in unloading the ships were so extreme that by 13 May—the day planners expected to conclude operations—the four assault ships were only half unloaded. It took another 3 days to complete the process.

Combat troops were needed to break down supplies on the beaches (left) and then manually move them inland when vehicles could not navigate across the muskeg (right).

As expected, the lack of rehearsals resulted in uncoordinated efforts in unloading supplies from the ships to the landing craft. The system used to establish supply points along the beach broke down, and a jumbled set of supplies began to build up along the beaches.

The vehicles brought ashore to clear the beaches and provide logistics support to combat troops inland could not operate over the terrain. Either the ground was too steep for the vehicles to traverse, or the vehicles proved too heavy for the top crust of the muskeg to support. Once the crust was broken, vehicles sank beyond their axles in the bog. The unexpected loss of these vehicles forced logisticians to unload landing craft and clear the beaches by hand. This created a drain on manpower, as large formations of combat troops were drafted to clear the beach manually and deliver supplies forward to their units. It was a common site to see a team of six to eight men pushing and pulling a wooden sled up the hill to deliver artillery ammunition.

The diversion of combat solders to perform logistics functions, coupled with the stubbornness of the Japanese defenders, forced General Brown to call for the reserve afloat troops to land on 12 May. However, the crowded conditions and inadequate throughput ability at the reception sites slowed the unloading operations, so that only 25 percent of the reserve force was ashore by 14 May.

Attu's terrain and weather also had an unanticipated impact on the medical evacuation plan. The medical evacuation of casualties became a second major reason for diverting combat soldiers. Much like the cargo vehicles, the medical transport vehicles brought ashore could not operate over the muskeg or the steep slopes of the island. The division had to resort to four-man litters to move casualties to the shore hospital. The terrain conditions were so bad that litters took hours to move the injured and sick to aid that was only a few miles away.

The real logistics failure of the campaign began as early as 12 May, when the first seven casualties from cold-weather injury arrived at the shore hospital. The hospital continued to receive additional cold-weather casualties every day until the conclusion of operations on
30 May. Four days after the anticipated conclusion of operations called for by the planners, the shore hospital received 191 cold-weather casualties.

These casualties were the result of logistics failures. Logisticians failed to ensure that soldiers were equipped with appropriate cold-weather equipment. Most soldiers were issued only normal field jackets, not parkas, and leather boots, not footwear suitable for snow. The island's snow and constant rain, coupled with freezing temperatures, ensured that the soldiers were never dry.

Small teams of soldiers delivered ammunition on wooden sleds they pushed and pulled up Attu's snowy slopes.

Many soldiers went ashore without their sleeping bags, since the plan was for the bags to follow in a day. Unfortunately, the logistics problems on the beaches ensured that only those supplies critical to the warfight, such as ammunition, flowed from the beaches. Supplies soldiers needed to warm or dry themselves stayed on the beaches. The result was many cases of frostbite and trenchfoot. Cold-weather injuries would account for 31 percent, or 1,200, of the 3,829 total casualties suffered on Attu.

An Uphill Struggle

The extreme fog and rugged terrain of Attu also limited the effectiveness of artillery and naval supporting fire. The invasion of Attu demonstrated that indirect fire was useful primarily for neutralization and not for the intended destruction of enemy forces. The Japanese soldiers remained above the fog line, denying the shore fire-control parties the ability to provide accurate gunfire. The result of these factors was a higher expenditure of ammunition than anticipated by the logistics planners. By 17 May, the division was running low on 105-millimeter artillery ammunition and requested a resupply from Adak. The naval forces providing supporting fire also had expended all available 14-inch ammunition. It was fortunate that the Japanese did not pose a naval threat to the American forces.

Strategically, the U.S. attack on Attu was not decisive to the war effort, but it did provide some key lessons for logisticians in areas that still are overlooked today. A clear understanding of the operational environment's impact on a campaign is critical to ensuring uninterrupted logistics. Weather and terrain can pose a deadlier threat to the combatant than the enemy does if planners fail to factor them into the operation. The presence of appropriate cold-weather gear in the hands of the soldiers on Attu would have reduced their casualties significantly.

The logistician who plans for equipment to operate as advertised, without regard to limitations imposed by terrain, is falling into a common trap. The failure of planners to anticipate that their tractors might not operate over the frozen muskeg of Attu resulted in large diversions of combat troops to carry supplies forward. The true impact of this on the battle will never be known, but combat troops were required to deliver bullets instead of firing them at the enemy.

A final area often overlooked by today's logistician is the effect that terrain and weather can have on the warfighter's ability to execute the mission. The planners knew that Attu usually was covered in fog, but they failed to make the connection between the fog and the inability of spotters to call for effective indirect fire. A planner who made this connection would have realized that the operation would experience higher than normal expenditures of ammunition and would develop contingency plans accordingly.

The terrain and weather conditions on Attu placed the logisticians in a reactive instead of an anticipative mode throughout most of the operation. This is a failure that often must be paid for with soldiers' lives. ALOG

Major Robert E. Burks is a recruiting operations analyst with the Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox, Kentucky. He has a B.S. degree in aerospace engineering from the U.S. Military Academy and a master of operations research degree from Florida Institute of Technology. He is a graduate of the Infantry Officer Basic and Advanced Courses and the Army Command and General Staff College.