During the Aleutian Islands campaign in the Pacific theatre of the Second World War, Allied forces landed on the island of Kiska, intending to capture it from the Japanese defenders. Despite taking over 300 casualties included 92 men killed, they ultimately discovered that the Japanese had abandoned the island two weeks earlier.
The Aleutian Islands, formerly known as the Catherine Archipelago, is a string of islands that form the Aleutian Arc, running around 1,200 miles across the northern Pacific between Alaska in the east and the Russian Kamchatka Peninsula in the West. Almost all of the islands are considered territory of Alaska.
As part of the wider Pacific campaign between Japan and the United States, the Japanese navy and air force launched an attack on the exposed US naval base of Dutch Harbor, Amaknak island, in the centre of the Aleutian Islands. More than 600 miles from the nearest US air support based on mainland Alaska, the base was considered easy pickings for the Japanese military. However, after dispatching a fleet of torpedo bombers to attack the base, the Japanese pilots found it defended by US fighter planes and heavy anti-aircraft fire, driving them off with minimal damage. A second attack was more successful, destroying a hospital and barracks ship. This attack was followed by Japanese invasions of Kiska and Attu islands in early June 1942, occupied only by native Aleut tribespeople.
Fearing that the island provided a strike base in reach of the US West Coast, the US launched the Aleutian Islands campaign. By May 1942 the Americans had recaptured Attu after heavy fighting and subsequently launched Operation Cottage, the codename for their invasion of neighbouring Kiska. The American 7th Infantry Division and Canadian 6th Infantry Division were tasked with capturing the island. However, Japanese strategists had come to the conclusion that the island was indefensible and steadily withdrew the troops stationed there. Despite surveillance noting signs of Japanese withdrawal and reduced movement on the island, the attack was launched on August 15 1943. American and Canadian troops landed on opposite sides of the island. In total, 34,000 men took part in the invasion.
Expecting to find Japanese resistance and with their vision obscured by heavy fog, US and Canadian forces mistook each other for the enemy, resulting in a number of friendly fire incidents that led to the deaths of 28 American and four Canadian soldiers, injuring a further 50. Even once communications had been resumed casualties continued to mount, the Japanese defenders having left behind a variety of mines, timed bombs and booby traps. More were killed or injured in vehicle or explosives accidents. It wasn’t until midday on the second day of the invasion that the Allies confirmed that the island was deserted.
The biggest disaster of the invasion, however, took place at sea three days after the start of the invasion. Conducting an antisubmarine patrol off Kiska, the American destroyer USS Abner Read struck a mine in a previously unidentified minefield. the mine blew a hole in her stern and set off the ship’s smoke screen generator, causing toxic smoke to fill the ship. 71 men were killed, either dragged down by a chunk of the stern which broke away and sank, being overcome by the smoke or in some cases even falling through holes in the deck into fuel tanks below.
In total, 92 men were killed and 221 wounded during Operation Cottage. The incident remains a commonly cited example of the dangers of assumption and failing to properly collect intelligence before launching an operation. Most observers agree that the Allied forces had ample chance to realise the Japanese had left Kiska before they attacked.