[Lone Sentry: Notes on Japanese Forces on Attu, WWII Tactical and Technical Trends]
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"Notes on Japanese Forces on Attu" from Tactical and Technical Trends

The following article on Japanese forces on Attu in WWII is taken from Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 27, June 17, 1943.

[DISCLAIMER: The following text is taken from the U.S. War Department publication Tactical and Technical Trends. As with all wartime intelligence information, data may be incomplete or inaccurate. No attempt has been made to update or correct the text. Any views or opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the website.]


The Japanese plan of defense for Attu Island was to defend the high ground to the rear of each bay area. Only limited beach defenses were planned. This high ground ranging from 1,000 to 2,000 feet in height is irregular, rocky, snowbound at this season (May), and almost continuously shrouded in clouds and fog. Out-numbered, outgunned, and outflanked, the enemy defense became a delaying action with an orderly withdrawal to the Chichagof Peninsula for a last ditch stand.

The original Japanese installations were largely concentrated in the Holtz Bay--Chichagof Harbor areas. Valleys from both sectors lead inland to high passes which in turn lead down to Massacre Bay and Sarana Bay. These passes thus became the keypoints of the Japanese defense against attack from the rear.

The original American landing was at Blind Cove behind the high ground NW of Holtz Bay. The two main American forces landed, however, at the northern end of the beach at the West Arm of Holtz Bay and at Massacre Bay to the south. These landings were unopposed, and our troops and supplies were put ashore without casualties, although intense fog slowed up operations. Naval gunfire was of great assistance in neutralizing enemy positions at the head of Massacre Valley and in keeping the enemy under cover in the Holtz--Chichagof area. Weather curtailed air operations during the initial phase.

Certain general observations on Japanese ground tactics can be made. The Japanese counterattacked in small groups with reckless abandon, even when the odds were very much against them. They attempted infiltration tactics (again favoring small groups) but with less success than in Southwest Pacific jungle fighting. As might be expected, harassing fire by Japanese snipers was encountered in all sectors. Enemy rifle fire was accurate only at extremely short ranges, but excellent camouflage and smokeless, flashless ammunition made snipers hard to locate. (Actually the powder is not "flashless." It is true that the Japanese 38 year (1905) pattern rifle shows no flash when fired at night. However, this is caused not by the flashless properties of the powder but by the long barrel (31.5 in.), which results in the complete combustion of the powder before it reaches the muzzle. The smaller powder charge and lighter bullet combine to give a lower muzzle velocity, which also helps to eliminate flash. Flash is present in Japanese machine guns, carbines, and short rifles because some still-burning powder is blown out of the muzzle of these shorter-barreled weapons, proving their powder is not actually flashless.)

The Japanese displayed bravery and fortitude of a high order, with little inclination to surrender regardless of the odds against them. Some Japanese courage might have come from sake, as empty bottles were generally found in captured foxholes.

The Japanese exhibited a tendency to hastily vacate positions that could have still been defended. They also failed to destroy the equipment and materiel which they abandoned.

The Japanese had strongly prepared positions in all the key passes. These usually centered around machine-gun nests, but mortars were also used, and foxholes for snipers were arranged in depth. These foxholes were well-hidden, individually drained, and often interconnected with underground tunnels. They were well stocked with food and ammunition. Caves and small ravines bordering the passes became effective enemy strongpoints. The enemy made excellent use of the cover of clouds and fog, and the resultant limited visibility. This limited visibility aided enemy camouflage, prevented our estimating Jap strength, and restricted our air support and supply operations. In general the attacking Americans had to flank and overcome each position in hand-to-hand fighting using bayonets, rifle butts, and hand grenades. Most of the fighting in the higher areas was above the snow line, where the enemy made extensive use of short skis. American attacks usually followed considerable night patrol activity intended to locate weak points in the enemy positions. Effective artillery fire sometimes preceded American assaults. One enemy strongpoint was taken after scaling a 60-degree slope.

Japanese positions around the West Arm of Holtz Bay were so well prepared as to indicate an attack in that sector might have been expected. The trenches, dugouts, rifle pits, approaches to gun emplacements, and covered tunnels were effectively camouflaged. On the East Arm the air strip was found nearly completed. Hand labor had generally been employed, but two gas rollers and a Chevrolet-type truck with rear roller wheels were found. Push carts on narrow-gauge rails, and rickshaw-type wheelbarrows, were found.

[Attu Island Map]

The enemy was well equipped and supplied at the beginning of operations. He is believed to have had around 2,100 troops on Attu. He used standard Japanese uniforms (our aviators reported difficulty in front-line differentiation between American and Japanese troops). The enemy had wool and worsted short coats, kersey-lined trousers, and heavy sheepskin parkas. He had raincoats and rubber boots, and blankets of good grade although they were only 3 by 5 feet in size. Among captured weapons was a 3-inch AA gun, individually sighted and not director controlled. These guns effectively used time shell with a low air burst. Several were captured and restored by American troops who then used them against the Japs. Also captured were many mortars, "knee" mortars,* and Nambu light machine guns. The enemy is believed to have used 75-mm howitzers and 70-mm guns in defending the Holtz--Massacre pass. The enemy had many light and heavy machine guns and grenade throwers, and also medium artillery pieces. In the Chichagof Harbor area where he had fixed AA guns, he turned them against American ground troops. One captured strongpoint had been occupied by an enemy rifle platoon, machine guns, and a field piece. Enemy AA activity came mainly from the Chichagof area, where he was dug in along the beach, and among the buildings at Attu Village. In the AA machine-gun fire thrown up at our planes, many red tracers were noted. The most effective Japanese weapons were grenade launchers, mortars, and AA guns.

The Japanese on Attu were isolated after the American landing on May 11. The only known supplies that they received were in the form or two packages dropped from one of the Jap planes over Chichagof on May 22.

Enemy buildings were mostly used for storage. Salvage and reclamation tactics of the Japanese were apparently poor, as several slightly damaged barges were captured that they had made no attempt to salvage. The dimensions of the captured barges were: length (ramp up) 48 ft. 4 in.; ramp down 49 ft. 4 in.; beam 11 ft. 3 in.; inside of ramp, 7 ft. 8 in. These barges had a double keel and were extremely sturdy. Japanese tents were 11 feet high and 24 feet in diameter, and housed 30 men. Several damaged planes and 9 airplane engines were found in poor condition at Holtz Bay, where they had been stored on the beach for several months. The Jap ration included dried squid, canned salmon, beans, rice, dried potatoes, canned emergency rations, duck, canned mandarin oranges, fresh fish, and seaweed. Strings of freshly caught cod were found. Very large quantities of fresh vegetables, dried foods, ammunition, blankets, rifles, charcoal, and clothing were captured intact in the Holtz Bay area. In fact so much in the way of supplies was captured that it would be logical to suppose the Kiska had been receiving supplies from Attu.

*Actually this is not a "knee" weapon. It is a 50-mm grenade launcher with a small base plate designed to rest on the ground or any solid object.


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