On the dawn of August 15, 1943, 100 Allied warships arrived at Kiska in the Aleutian Island chain of Alaska. They were followed by a chaotic but successful movement of around 35,000 U.S. Army and Canadian combat infantrymen, more than prepared to destroy the Japanese garrison and take the island back. The only problem was that they were two weeks too late.

Japan Invades the Aleutian Island of Kiska

In June 1942, the Japanese forces successfully invaded the island of Kiska under the command of Captain Takeji Ono, accompanied by about 500 Japanese marines. They immediately went after the American weather station situated on the island. They killed two United States Navy officers while the remaining eight were captured and sent to Japan as prisoners of war. Not long after, another batch of 2,000 Japanese troops landed in the Kiska Harbor. Additional anti-aircraft units, engineers, and some reinforcement infantry also arrived on the island by December.

Why did they even want these freezing windswept islands? Because of the Doolittle Raid on Japan a few months before.  The B-25 Army bombers had launched from the carrier USS Hornet but the Japanese believed they may come from Alaska.  They expected the United States would build up the islands due to their relative closeness to Japan and use it as an offensive springboard to invade them. Had they known just how harsh the weather was in Alaska and the Aleutian Islands, they would have put that idea right out of their heads.

Senior Petty Officer William C. House was one of the people on the island. He managed to run and remain at large for 50 days, eating nothing but plants and earthworms until he was too weak and dying that he had to surrender. On his accounts, he wrote:

On the 48th day I was on my way to the creek for some water when I fainted. This called for some soul searching; if I remained there I would surely die. I then carefully wrote my name on an old canvas hunting jacket that I was wearing so that my remains would be identifiable, if found. If I surrendered to the Japanese they might kill me, but it was my only lease left for life. Surrender with its chance of execution, surrender with its shame and humiliation, and surrender with its uncertainties was the only option. Early the next morning I started the slow climb over the hill to surrender. By going in a straight line, I thought some time might be saved, however, one incline proved too steep and I slid back down. Then I had to take the long way back.

As I neared the summit by midmorning, a Japanese AA gun emplacement came into view. There was patchy fog moving past and I would simply drop into the tall tundra when it cleared and walk toward the gun emplacement during the fog. I got right close to the gun and was then faced with the surrender act, as it was humiliating and scary. Traditionally a white flag is used, so I ripped off a piece from my undershorts and waved it as I marched in.

Battle of Attu

Now, it’s important to touch on the Battle of Attu briefly. It was what would lead the Japanese to leave Kiska later on. The Battle of Attu, codenamed Operation Landcrab, was fought between May 11-30, 1943, between the United States forces, with Canadian reconnaissance and fighter-bomber support, versus Japanese forces on the island of Attu. The battle ended with the Japanese soldiers being brutally killed in hand-to-hand combat. Their banzai charge was not enough even when it successfully broke their enemy’s lines. Because of this, their tactical planners realized that Kiska was no longer defensible; they had to evacuate before the same thing that happened to them in Attu happened to them in Kiska.

They did not waste time and started moving and withdrawing in late July. Aerial photograph analysts observed that the activities on the island decreased, and bomb damages were not repaired anymore. By July 28, no radio signals from Kiska were being detected.

Arrival in Kiska

The Kiska invasion fleet
The Kiska invasion fleet at Adak Harbor, Aleutians, Alaska (USA), in August 1943. (U.S. Navy (photo 80-G-475436), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In a rather stunning intelligence failure, on August 14, 1943, the U.S. 7th Infantry Division, 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment of the 10th Mountain Division, and the 13th Canadian Infantry Brigade from the 6th Canadian Infantry Division rushed shore on beaches on opposite sides of the island, ready to engage Japanese forces. However, they were greeted instead by half a dozen wagging tails of the dogs that were cared for by the Japanese but were abandoned when they evacuated. Among them was “Explosion,” which was owned by the Aerological Detail on Kiska.

An Allied soldier pets Explosion, one of half a dozen dogs that originally belonged to the Aerological Detail on Kiska. Cared for by the Japanese, the dogs survived the relentless Allied bombardment of Kiska. August 1943. (Courtesy National Archives via nps.gov)

As Billy Wheeler of 36th Squadron said, “The island appears desolate and unoccupied.”

It indeed was. However, the Allied forces refused to believe their own intelligence that the Japanese would evacuate from the island. For the next eight days, they would nervously search the whole of Kiska and fire into the dense fog at phantoms, sometimes accidentally shooting each other. Throughout their stay, 24 Allied soldiers were killed by friendly fire, four of them fell victim to booby traps, and 71 more died when the ship Abner Read struck a floating mine. All in all, they suffered 168 casualties. Perhaps to save themselves from the embarrassment, the operation was written off as a “training exercise” instead until the end of the Aleutian Campaign, when the warfare ended.

Today the US military uses Operation Cottage as an object lesson in perception bias for those studying intelligence and operations. Perception bias is a condition where presumptions are believed to be true even when evidence that the presumptions are wrong is presented.