MILT RACKHAM COLUMN: One Last Japanese Surprise in the Battle for the Island of Kiska

Milt Rackham is an 86-year-old World War II veteran who was born in Drigs, Idaho, and raised in Lorenzo, Idaho. He joined the U.S. Navy when he was 17 years old, within weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Milt served on an 80-foot Navy Patrol Torpedo boat as an engine machine mechanic 2nd Class. He fought the Japanese first in the U.S. Aleutian Islands for 12 months, and then in the South Pacific for five and a half years. Milt and his wife of 61 years, Carol, live in Belding. This is the first installation of a series about his time in the service.

 

Milt Rackham

By Milton Rackham

Special to the Pioneer

 

U.S military planners had been caught off guard by what had happened to the American forces in the Battle of Attu. The level of Japanese military planning and preparedness, their knowledge and use of the Aleutian weather and landscape to their advantage, and the final suicide attack by the Japanese soldiers were only a few of the Japanese surprises that had contributed to the high price paid for the American victory on Attu.

U.S. military planners did not want a repeat performance of the Attu experience. Using what had been learned from the Battle of Attu, they redoubled their efforts and laid out a plan for the U.S. invasion of the island of Kiska, the last Japanese stronghold in the Aleutians, confident that there would be no more surprises. But, it was not to be. The American attack on Kiska would not be a repeat of the Battle of Attu, but it would end up revealing one last Japanese surprise. The following takes us on a journey through the U.S. invasion of Kiska.

The U.S. preparation for the invasion of the Japanese strongholds in the Aleutians were elaborate operations. The initial bombardment of the landing beach and inland island areas went on for days. U.S. bombers dropped bombs that exceeded the number of tons that had been dropped in one battle area up to that time. There was a surprising lack of return enemy fire, but reports from U.S. forward observers indicated Japanese activity as the bombing continued.

U.S. PT boats, including PT-81, were mocked up with plywood silhouettes to look like landing craft to simulate a two pronged invasion with the intent to spread the Japanese defenders over two separate beaches. As the bombardment subsided, U.S. aerial photos raised questions regarding the lack of any sign of Japanese forces. Last minute information arrived confirming that there were no signs of Japanese forces. History would show that U.S. military leaders paused and decided that if the Japanese were gone, that the operation would be a valuable “training lesson” that would prepare the U.S. for island operations in both the South Pacific and Italian theaters of war. If the enemies were hidden in caves and tunnels, they would have to be hunted down and removed.

Thirty-four thousand U.S. soldiers landed with no enemy resistance. They moved inland expecting Japanese snipers that never popped up out of trenches as they had on the island of Attu. The U.S. advance continued without Japanese resistance. History records that the U.S. and Canadian troops arrived at the Japanese camps and found them defended by four starving dogs and one dead Japanese soldier that had been left behind. Thousands of Japanese troops had been evacuated using Japanese transports between July 28 and the early August U.S. invasion date, during the time when the U.S. was preparing for the invasion. U.S. troops searched miles of tunnels, confirmed that the Japanese were gone, and pronounced the island of Kiska to be back in the hands of the U.S. as of Aug. 15, 1943.

The price of “victory” in the Kiska operation was 313 U.S. soldiers killed in action … by friendly fire. Two separate U.S. and Canadian units were both expecting to encounter Japanese at any moment on their inland march, based on their experience on the island of Attu. When they sighted each other, they mistakenly thought that they had finally encountered the Japanese troops and opened fire. Neither unit had been told that bombing photos had indicated that the Japanese had left the island prior to the invasion.

For the total Aleutian operation, the U.S. had deployed 144,000 U.S. soldiers against 8,500 Japanese. The total U.S. price for victory was 1,481 killed, 3,416 wounded and 640 missing. The Japanese price for their attempt to keep the Aleutians was 4,350 killed, 28 captured and an unknown number of missing and wounded.

As far as the Navy PT boats were concerned, our job was done. We returned to our Aleutian home base for some recovery time. In September 1943, Ron-13 left for Seattle. The South Pacific was still being ruled by the Japanese who were winning battle after battle. The need for PT boats in the South Pacific was high, especially for the redesigned versions like our PT-81.

A look off the back of a PT boat while heading back to Seattle from the Aleutians past the glaciers along the inland waterway. (Courtesy photo)

As we approached the Alaska coast line at the base of the Aleutian chain of islands, our skipper noticed that we were approaching the entrance to the inland water way. He radioed Ron-13 that PT-81 and two other PT boats were leaving the squadron for a detour past the glaciers that lined the waterway. I had never seen anything like it before in my 18-year-old life. Miles of green glacial ice hundreds of feet high along a wide waterway. Icebergs were floating everywhere as a result of having broken off, or “calved,” from the glaciers that moved just inches per year from the heights of the mountains down valleys and out toward the sea.

Our “cruise” past the glaciers was interrupted by a willowaw gust of wind that tore the chart house off PT-89. We were delayed two weeks for repairs and parts flown in by a Navy amphibian plane. Even so, it was a welcome break after our 12 months in the Aleutians. We were on our way to the warm South Pacific, both in terms of the weather and the heat on U.S. forces caused by the Japanese who continued to hold the upper hand in the war.

Leave a Reply