by Lieutenant Matt Forney and Captain Bob Pawlowski (NOAA, ret.)
July 28 marks a little-known but important milestone in our nation’s history.
On August 15, 1943, Allied forces stormed the beaches of Kiska Island, Alaska, in an attack on Japanese occupation. They found an empty island. As it happened, the Japanese Northern Army had secretly evacuated, under a cover of fog, a few weeks earlier, on July 28, thus ending the occupation of the Aleutian Islands.
Today, then, is the 70th anniversary of the last day that foreign forces occupied U.S. soil. And our Coast Survey predecessors were an important player in that event.
The U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey was one of NOAA’s predecessor agencies. During WWII, the USC&GS sent more than a thousand civilian members and over half of its commissioned officers to the military services. (See the NOAA Central Library account, The World Wars.) Coast Surveyors served as hydrographers, artillery surveyors, cartographers, army engineers, intelligence officers, and geophysicists in all theaters of the war. Civilians, on the homefront, produced over 100 million maps and charts for the Allied forces. Eleven members of the USC&GS gave their lives during WWII.
USC&GS in the Alaska War Zone
During World War II, the Japanese Northern Army occupied Attu Island (landing there unopposed on June 7, 1942) and Kiska Island, (landing on the next day.) The Aleutian Islands were strategic, as it meant that Japan would control the North Pacific Ocean great circle route for supplies, and the U.S. feared the Japanese would turn these locations into airbases for bombing the west coast of the U.S. mainland.
On May 11, 1943, the U.S. 17th Infantry Division made an amphibious assault on the Island of Attu to retake this territory and strategic landhold. Before the Army could carry out an amphibious attack, however, they called on the men of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey to conduct surveys of landings and anchorages.
The U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Ship Hydrographer conducted this important preemptive science to ensure the landing vessels avoided shoals and made it safely to shore. (The Hydrographer was originally built in 1930, and sailed as the USS Hydrographer after being transferred to the Navy on April 15, 1942, for the duration of World War II.)
Following the initial assault, the Hydrographer continued surveying in Massacre Bay, Attu, to identify shoals and outline transport anchorages and supply routes.
After 19 days of fighting between the Japanese Northern Army and well-supplied U.S. forces, the Japanese forces realized that all hope of rescue was lost. They made one last banzai-style assault, and hand-to-hand battle ensued. This fighting continued until almost all the Japanese soldiers were killed. After all was said and done, 549 U.S. soldiers died, and more than a thousand were injured. The Japanese lost over 2,850 men. The U.S. only took 29 prisoners alive.
Meanwhile, the USS Hydrographer was also providing transport services to Shemya, Alaska, so the U.S. could establish a bomber airstrip for retaking Kiska.
On August 13, 1943, the Hydrographer surveyed the approaches, anchorages, and landings on Kiska to support an amphibious assault to retake this territory. Two days later, Allied Forces invaded, unaware that the Japanese had completely abandoned the island on July 28, after hearing of the fall of Attu. The invasion force consisted of 34,426 Allied troops, including elements of the 7th Infantry Division, 4th Infantry Regiment, 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment, and 5,300 Canadians (mainly the 13th Canadian Infantry Brigade from the 6th Infantry Division). Support was provided by 168 aircraft and 95 ships – including the Hydrographer.
Even though the Japanese had gone, the reoccupation came with a price. Seventeen Americans and four Canadians died from friendly fire or booby traps, 50 more were wounded from friendly fire or booby traps, and an additional 130 men came down with trench foot.
The Hydrographer has successful career
In May, 1943, the Hydrographer’s commanding officer was awarded the Legion of Merit for surveying and charting the unknown and dangerous waters surrounding Attu Island during the assault and occupation of that island.
Following her successful service in Alaska, ending the last occupation by foreign forces, the Hydrographer surveyed at Guam during amphibious operations, and at many other locations throughout the Pacific Theater of Operations. The commanding officer was awarded the Bronze Star Medal.
After the war, the Hydrographer returned to USC&GS service. She spent most of the remainder of her career surveying the Atlantic and Gulf coasts before being decommissioned in 1967, after 37 years of service to the country.