Action off the Komandorski Islands, March 1943

By John Dudek 24 Apr 2014 0

In the cold, predawn hours of 3 June 1942, dozens of Japanese Diahatsu landing craft made landfall along the wave tossed, rock strewn shore. Hundreds of armed, grim faced, Imperial Japanese infantry splashed through the chilly breaker waters in this, the first enemy invasion of sovereign US territory since the War of 1812.  Their troops fanned out from the landing beaches, moving quickly inland to take possession of the nearly uninhabited island.  This was but one of two scheduled Japanese amphibious invasion operations.  As a result, the American islands of Attu and Kiska along Alaska's Aleutian most westerly chain of islands were now firmly in Japanese hands.  There were two primary reasons for this far flung invasion.  One was that the twin invasions were a Japanese Navy inspired diversionary ruse to draw away the US Navy away from the crucial upcoming amphibious invasion of Midway that was about to take place simultaneously. The other reason for the invasion was that it was a response to the US ?Doolittle Raid? on Tokyo and other major cities in the Japanese home islands.  Although the raid was launched from the decks of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet the Japanese Army did not know this.  Inter service relations and communications between the Japanese Navy and Army High Commands were never cordial, oftentimes on the verge of literally coming to blows. The Japanese Army thought the Doolittle Raid originated from an unknown US air base somewhere in the Aleutian Islands, and saw further air raids from this base as being a dagger aimed at the very heart of Imperial Japan and its god-like Emperor.  The Japanese Navy knew precisely where the raid originated from but chose not to enlighten the Army. The Japanese Army continued to believe that their occupation of these western Aleutian Islands would prevent any further bombing raids on Japan from ever being launched.

The Allied response to this unexpected invasion and Japanese carrier air raids on the Alaskan port of Dutch Harbor was immediate.  US and Canadian combined forces began collecting troops and material to throw the Japanese off the two islands, although this would take some time to achieve.  The reasons for this time lag were several.  Alaska's climate then, as now, was one of the most unpredictable and oftentimes most inhospitable in the world.  Its geographical location at the top of the world, and with close proximity to ocean water, ensures the thermometer and barometer will oftentimes dance to extremes in a very short time, bringing hugely destructive snow storms throughout the winter or heavy rains and dense fog in the spring, summer and autumn.  "Williwaws", an intense type of wind storm that brings all outside activity, military or otherwise to a halt are common.  Another factor was the lack of transportation and basic infrastructure of any kind in the Alaska of the day.  The primary means of communication and supply with the mainland US was through Pacific Ocean ship traffic and aircraft flights.  There were few to no connecting or improved roads. It wasn't until the ALCAN Highway was built and finished in October 1942 as a direct response to the Japanese invasion of Attu and Kiska, that a road route linking Alaska through central Canada to the lower 48 US states was finally made.  US Army and Navy Seabee construction engineer battalions equipped with heavy earth moving equipment and years of prolonged construction experience quickly descended upon Alaska to begin building the air bases, army camps, naval bases and basic infrastructure needed to support the growing number of Allied troops and equipment being sent there.

In the meantime, the Japanese on Attu and Kiska built up their own military fortifications, gun batteries and port facilities, constructing among many other things, a sea plane base, heavy lift cranes and a marine railway with which to bring their midget submarines out of the harbor water for repairs and basic maintenance on dry land.  In addition they dug deep into the permafrost to construct their own bomb proof rabbit warrens of numerous multi-level, underground tunnels, barracks and storage galleries  The Japanese were wise in doing this because US Army Air Force bombing of the two islands began almost immediately in both good weather and in bad.  With the notoriously bad climate native to the region, the air raids were mostly conducted in bad weather and the bombing results reflected this by usually being poor.  In addition, the US Navy clamped a naval blockade around the islands with equally indifferent results, also because of the weather.  The Japanese still managed to keep resupplying the islands to some extent, although they lost nine cargo ships and seven warships in the attempt.  The US Navy lost two submarines in the region, one to running aground on uncharted rocks and the other lost with all hands to still undetermined causes.  Unless the US Naval blockade on the two islands was tightened and counter amphibious invasions mounted, the Japanese would continue residing there while reaping an ultra rich propaganda harvest with which to keep up the morale of its homeland populace.

In early March 1943 the Japanese on Attu and Kiska requested a resupply convoy to be sent to them.  The Japanese Navy began gathering ships and men to momentarily raise the US naval blockade and bring in much needed reinforcements and supplies to the island garrisons.  The Japanese task force consisted of two heavy cruisers, IJN NACHI, MAYA, two light cruisers TAMA, ABUKUMA, four destroyers and three cargo ships under Vice Admiral Boshiro Hosogoya.  US code breakers quickly learned of the Japanese resupply attempt and gathered a naval task force of their own to counter this.  It was centered around the heavy cruiser USS SALT LAKE CITY, the 22 year old light cruiser USS RICHMOND and four destroyers under the command of Admiral Charles Soc' McMorris. McMorris had no way of knowing, but he would be greatly outnumbered both in numbers, of warships, their size and gunfire throw weight.  

The 14 year old, 11,000 ton heavy cruiser USS SALT LAKE CITY was armed with 10x 8 inch main battery guns and 4x 5 inch dual purpose guns, with a top speed of 32 knots.  The much older 22 year old light cruiser USS Richmond carried 10x 6 inch guns and 4x 3 inch dual purpose guns at a top speed of 34 knots.

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On the other hand, the Japanese heavy cruisers IJN NACHI and MAYA each carried 10x 8 inch main battery guns and 8x 5 inch dual purpose guns.  The NACHI carried 8 of the devastatingly effective ship killing "Long Lance" torpedoes, whereas the MAYA carried 16.  They both had a top speed of 34 knots.  The Japanese light cruisers IJN ABUKUMA and TAMA carried 7x 5.5 inch guns and 8 torpedoes with a top speed of 36 knots.  There were also five escorting destroyers to shepherd the convoy to its final destination.

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Upon receiving information of the Japanese resupply convoy, the US task force departed their anchorage at Adak Alaska heading due west.  For several days the US ships steamed on an alternating north-south course heading 180 miles west of Attu Island awaiting the arrival of the Japanese convoy.  On the clear, calm morning of 26 March 1943, with the temperatures hovering just above freezing, the US task force made contact with the supply convoy just south of the Komandorski Islands.  The Japanese cargo ships turned and fled to safety while their escorting warships turned to engage the US forces. What followed was a traditional long range, naval running gun battle, one of the last in history where no torpedoes, aircraft or submarines played a pivotal role.

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Around 0840 hours the opposing task forces opened fire on each other at a range of 20,000 yards. The light cruiser RICHMOND was quickly straddled by the early Japanese gunfire salvos.  Realizing their mistake, the Japanese switched their fire to the much larger SALT LAKE CITY.  McMorris responded to the hail of gunfire by "chasing salvos."  In short, changing one's ship course to the exact spot where an enemy salvo had just impacted.  That way, when the enemy gunners correct their aim, the following salvo would in theory miss as well.  Still, at 0910 hours an 8 inch shell from the MAYA struck the SALT LAKE CITY, but she shrugged it off without even slowing down.  SALT LAKE CITY continued firing at the Japanese task force hitting NACHI several times and MAYA once, jamming her forward gun turret. Ten minutes later McMorris turned his ships north in a high speed attempt to get around the enemy cruisers and attack the thinner skinned cargo ships, but the Japanese foiled them in their attempt.  At about 1100 hours, and from a range of 12 miles, another 2 shells struck the SALT LAKE CITY and she suffered a momentary loss in steering as her rudder stops were carried away by one of the plunging Japanese shells.  Other shells soon impacted at the waterline, venting the ship to the sea. Now deliberately making smoke to obscure the Japanese observer?s sight, the US task force moved to disengage from the superior sized force.  The inrush of water from the waterline hits into her ruptured fuel tanks put out the SALT LAKE CITY'S boiler fires and she gradually came to a halt.  For nearly ten minutes the heavy cruiser lay motionless as her damage control crews frantically fought to stem the inrush of seawater. Meanwhile, her black gang engine room crews purged the salt water from the contaminated oil fuel lines and relit the ship's boiler fires.

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To protect the now helpless SALT LAKE CITY, US destroyers were ordered to make a suicidal close range torpedo and gunfire attack upon the oncoming Japanese warships as the RICHMOND continued firing while shrouding the motionless SALT LAKE CITY in dense clouds of smoke.  This was again done to obscure her from Japanese gunner's sight.  The attacking US destroyers soon fired their torpedoes, but to no effect.  They wildly charged the Japanese task force, firing all the way.  From close range the USS BAILEY shot up the NACHI's superstructure, firing five torpedoes with equally no effect and took several shell hits in return, but managed to flee to safety.  Suddenly, a near miracle occurred as the SALT LAKE CITY was seen to slowly begin moving again, picking up speed as her black gang got steam back up in the ship's boilers.

Following the US destroyer attack, Admiral Hosogoya's task force was now in complete disarray  The Japanese warships fired 43 torpedoes at the American task force, but to no effect while shooting off most of their compliment of shells from the ship's magazines during the extreme long range battle.  MAYA and NACHI fired some 904 and 707 8-inch rounds respectively at the Americans, while the SALT LAKE CITY fired 832 rounds of 8-inch shells at the Japanese.  Hosogoya, now fearing long range US bombing attacks from their air bases at Dutch Harbor quickly withdrew his battered task force, never knowing how close he had come to completely destroying the entire US task force with his superior size task force.  His poor leadership and battle performance resulted in a court martial and dismissal from further naval service.  One result of the battle, and one that would have a major bearing on the future conduct of the campaign, was that the Japanese halted all further surface ship resupply efforts to Attu and Kiska islands.  They were forced to rely on much smaller supply submarines to run the US naval blockade and bring in badly needed foodstuffs, fuel, medicine and ammunition to the twin besieged islands.

Both Attu and Kiska would fall to combined US and Canadian amphibious invasion assaults that were mounted later that same year.  As the Japanese Army feared, US aircraft flying from bases in the Aleutian Islands soon began making long range bombing raids upon the most northerly of the Japanese home islands.  The Kurile Islands and its base at Paramushiro now felt the weight of being bombed continuously right up until the end of the war.  This effectively tied down 500 Japanese aircraft and over 41,000 troops in its defense that were badly needed elsewhere.

As the historian Samuel Eliot Morison would later write of what has been called the Forgotten Battle of the Komandorski Islands: "So this battle deserves a place in the history of naval warfare as the last heavy gunfire daylight action with no interference by air power, submarines or torpedoes."  The sea battle against far superior numbers was "tremendously heartening to the United States Navy."

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