The Battle of Dutch Harbor took place on June 3–4, 1942, when the Imperial Japanese Navy launched two aircraft carrier raids on the Dutch Harbor Naval Operating Base and U.S. Army Fort Mears at Dutch Harbor on Amaknak Island, during the Aleutian Islands Campaign of World War II. The bombing marked the first aerial attack by an enemy on the continental United States, and was the second time in history that the continental U.S. was bombed by someone working for a foreign power, the first being the bombing of Naco, Arizona by Patrick Murphy despite being an accident.
In this battle, a Japanese aircraft carrier strike force under Kakuji Kakuta launched air attacks over two days against the Dutch Harbor Naval Base and Fort Mears in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. The attacks inflicted moderate damage on the U.S. base. Shortly thereafter, Japanese naval forces under Boshiro Hosogaya invaded and occupied Attu and Kiska islands in the Aleutians.
Dutch Harbor was ringed with anti aircraft artillery batteries from the 206th Coast Artillery (Anti Aircraft), Arkansas National Guard, and was one of key targets protected by the Eleventh Air Force based out of mainland Alaska. The 206th CA (AA) was deployed to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, in August 1941 and had been on station for approximately four months when the Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7. The 206th CA was equipped with the 3-inch Gun M1918 (an older model with a vertical range of 26,902 ft (8,200 m)), .50in (12.7mm) M2 Browning machine guns, and 60 in (150 cm) Sperry searchlights. The 206th had one radar in position at Dutch Harbor at the time of the attack.
On June 3, 1942, a Japanese carrier strike force, under the command of Rear Admiral Kakuji Kakuta, comprising the carriers Ryūjō and Jun'yō, plus escort ships, sailed to 180 mi (160 nmi; 290 km) southwest of Dutch Harbor to launch air strikes at the United States Army and United States Navy facility to support a Japanese offensive in the Aleutians and in the central Pacific at Midway. The Japanese planned to occupy islands in the Aleutians in order to extend their defensive perimeter in the North Pacific to make it more difficult for the U.S. to attack Japan from that area.
Shortly before dawn at 02:58, given the geographic latitude and longitude, Admiral Kakuta ordered his aircraft carriers to launch their strike which was made up of 12 A6M Zero fighters, 10 B5N Kate high-level bombers, and 12 D3A Val dive bombers which took off from the two small carriers in the freezing weather to strike at Dutch Harbor. One B5N was lost on takeoff from Ryujo.
The planes arrived over the harbor at 04:07, and attacked the town's radio station and oil storage tanks causing some damage. Many members of the 206th were awakened on June 3 by the sound of bombs and gunfire. While the unit had been on alert for an attack for many days, there was no specific warning of the attack before the Japanese planes arrived over Dutch Harbor. With no clear direction from headquarters, gun crews from every battery quickly realized the danger, ran to their guns stationed around the harbor and began to return fire. In addition to their 3 in (76 mm) guns, 37 mm (1.46 in) guns and .50 in (12.7 mm) machine guns, members of the unit fired their rifles and one even claimed to have hurled a wrench at a low-flying enemy plane. Several members reported being able to clearly see the faces of the Japanese aviators as they made repeated runs over the island. The highest casualties on the first day occurred when bombs struck barracks 864 and 866 in Fort Mears, killing 17 men of the 37th Infantry and eight from the 151st Engineers.
When all the Japanese planes were recovered, there were erroneous reports of enemy ships in the vicinity, but search planes found no ships within the area. During the search, four Nakajima E8N2 "Dave" two-seat reconnaissance planes—launched from the heavy cruisers Takao and Maya—encountered U.S. fighters searching for the departing Japanese squadron.
The 206th CA spent much of the night of June 3/4 moving guns down off the mountain tops surrounding the harbor down into the city of Unalaska and into harbor facilities themselves. This was partially as a deception and partially to defend against an expected land invasion. Civilian contractors offered to help and were put to work filling sandbags to protect the new gun positions.
On June 4, the Japanese carriers steamed to less than 100 mi (87 nmi; 160 km) south of Dutch Harbor to launch a second attack. At 16:00, a second airstrike of nine fighters, 11 dive bombers, and six level bombers took off and attacked the U.S. facilities at Dutch Harbor again less than an hour later. More targets were damaged including some grounded aircraft, an army barracks, oil storage tanks, aircraft hangar, and a few merchant ships in the port. When the Japanese returned on 4 June, the Zero fighters concentrated on strafing the gun positions while their bombers destroyed the fuel tanks located at the harbor. One wing of the military hospital at the base was destroyed. After hitting the fuel tanks, the enemy dive-bombers and high-level bombers concentrated on the ships in the harbor, Fillmore and Gillis. Driven away from these two targets by intense anti-aircraft fire, they finally succeeded in destroying the station ship Northwestern which, because of its large size, they mistakenly believed was a warship. Northwestern was actually a transport ship which had been beached and used as a barracks for civilian workers. Although in flames and badly damaged, firefighters managed to save the hull. Its power plant was thereafter used to produce steam and electricity for the shore installations. An anti-aircraft gun was blown up by a bomb and four U.S. Navy servicemen were killed.
Two Japanese dive bombers and one fighter, damaged by anti-aircraft fire, failed to return to their carriers. On the way back, the Japanese planes encountered an air patrol of six Curtiss P-40 fighters over Otter Point. A short aerial battle ensued which resulted in the loss of one Japanese fighter and two level bombers. Two out of the six U.S. fighters were lost as well.
As a result of the enemy actions, the Eleventh Air Force lost four B-17s, two Martin B-26 Marauders, and two P-40, while the Navy suffered the most with six PBY Catalinas destroyed. 43 Americans were killed: 33 soldiers, eight sailors, a Marine, and a civilian. Another 50 were injured in the attack.
None of the Japanese ships were harmed, but one above-mentioned Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero was damaged by ground fire and crash-landed on Akutan Island, about 20 mi (17 nmi; 32 km) northeast of Dutch Harbor. Although the pilot was killed, the plane was not seriously damaged. This Zero—known as the "Akutan Zero"—was recovered by American forces, inspected, and repaired. The recovery was an important technical intelligence gain for U.S., as it showed the strengths and weaknesses of the Zero's design.
The following day, Admiral Kakuta received orders to break off further attacks and head for the central Pacific to support the Combined Fleet which was retreating after being defeated at Midway. Two days later, a small Japanese invasion force landed and occupied two of the Aleutian islands, Attu and Kiska, without further incident.
The bombing of Dutch Harbor and the subsequent occupations of Kiska and Attu by the Japanese helped trigger an impression among Americans that they were going to launch a full-scale attack on the United States West Coast. As a result, military and commandeered civilian aircraft flew nearly 2,300 troops to Nome, along with artillery and antiaircraft guns and several tons of other equipment and supplies to deter a possible Japanese landing in mainland Alaska.
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- Air Raid on Dutch Harbor & Fort Mears – photos & documents
- Logistics Problems on Attu by Robert E. Burks.
- Aleutian Islands Chronology
- Aleutian Islands War
- Red White Black & Blue – feature documentary about The Battle of Attu in the Aleutians during World War II