Operation Ke (ii)

This was the Japanese evacuation of Kiska island in the Aleutian islands group (27/28 July 1943).

Kiska is the most westerly of the Rat islands group of the Aleutian islands chain to the south-west of mainland Alaska. Located 610 miles (980 km) to the west of Dutch Harbor, it is so isolated and inhospitable that it had no permanent inhabitants in 1941. However, Kiska Harbor was probably the best natural anchorage in the western part of the Aleutian islands group, with room for as many as 40 ships. The island itself is 22 miles (35 km) long with an area of 107 sq miles (277 km²), and its highest point is Kiska volcano, at 4,004 ft (1220 m), on the island’s north-eastern end. The island’s coast is rocky, steep and backed by cliffs in most locations, leaving only a few small beaches suitable for landing operations.

The 3rd Special Landing Party and 500 marines had arrived on Kiska during 6/7 June 1942 in the ‘Aob’ operation planned as a diversionary part of the Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s ‘Mi’ (ii) plan leading to the Battle of Midway. The Japanese captured the sole inhabitants of the island (a small US naval weather detachment consisting of one officer, nine other ranks and one dog). One member of the detachment escaped for 50 days and hid out on the island before surrendering once again as he was starving.

So adverse is the weather in the western part of the Aleutian islands group that it was not until 10 June that a US reconnaissance flight was able to confirm that a Japanese landing had been made. Once established ashore, the Japanese built up an impressive underground base and improved the harbour, but were unable to complete a usable airfield.

The island was bombarded on 7 August 1942 by a force of cruisers and destroyers in an effort to divert Japanese attentions from the 'Watchtower' and 'Ringbolt' landings on Guadalcanal and Tulagi in the Solomon islands group.

The military value of this isolated and inhospitably frozen island was questionable, but the psychological impact upon the Americans of losing US territory was nonetheless real. During the winter of 1942/43, the Japanese reinforced and fortified the islands, to a strength of 6,000 men, not with any intention of further advances along the chain of the Aleutian islands group, but to prevent a US operation across to the Kurile islands group between the Japanese home islands and the southern tip of Sakhalin island.

The US Navy began operations to deny Kiska the receipt of any supplies, and this led to the Battle of the Komandorski Islands. During October 1942, seven bombing missions were undertaken over Kiska by the US air forces, although two had to be aborted as a result of weather problems. Following the winter, Attu island, just to the north-west (taken by the Japanese one day after Kiska), was liberated and Kiska was bombed in a programme lasting 10 weeks before a larger US and Canadian force was allocated to defeat the expected Japanese 5,200-man garrison in ‘Cottage’ (i). The Japanese had meanwhile decided, on 21 May, to evacuate the garrison of Kiska, whose men would be used to boost the defence of the Kurile islands chain. It was originally hoped that the evacuation could be completed in 50 round trips by the submarines I-2, I-5, I-6, I-7, I-9, I-21, I-24, I-35, I-168, I-169, I-171, I-155 and I-157, constituting the 1st Submarine Squadron of Vice Admiral Shiro Kawase’s 5th Fleet.

On 10 June I-24 was rammed and sunk by the submarine chaser PC-487, which was also damaged in the attack; on 13 June I-9 was sunk by the destroyer Frazier; on 22 June I-7 was damaged by the destroyer Monaghan, beached on Kiska during 7 July and was later scuttled; on 5 June I-155 was lost in heavy weather; and in July I-2 and I-157 went aground and were lost.

On 6 July a US task group commanded by Rear Admiral Robert C. Giffen and comprising the heavy cruisers Wichita, Portland and San Francisco, light cruiser Santa Fe and four destroyers, shelled the Japanese positions on Kiska, and on five nights in the period 8/20 July the shelling was repeated by the destroyers Aylwin and Monaghan. By this time the Japanese had despaired of completing the evacuation of their garrison from the island by the use only of submarines, and now opted instead for a risky single-day evacuation using surface vessels. A force therefore departed Paramushiro on 7 July but, because of the weather, was unable to carry out planned evacuation and returned on 16 July. On 22 July Giffen’s TG16.21, comprising the heavy cruisers Louisville, San Francisco and Wichita, light cruiser Santa Fe and destroyers Aylwin, Bache, Hughes, Mustin and Morris, shelled Kiska once again, and Rear Admiral Robert M. Griffin’s TG16.22 (battleships New Mexico and Mississippi, heavy cruiser Portland and destroyers Monaghan, Abner Read, Farragut and Perry) shelled Little Kiska. On 27 July, 90 miles (145 km) to the west of Kiska, Griffin’s reinforced task group (battleships Mississippi and Idaho, heavy cruisers Wichita, San Francisco and Portland and a number of destroyers) ‘fought’ what became known as the ‘battle of the pips’ with radar phantoms, in the process expending 518 rounds of 14-in (356-mm) and 487 rounds of 8-in (203-mm) ammunition.

Finally, in ‘Ke’ (ii) proper, another force commanded by Rear Admiral Masatomi Kimura (light cruisers Tama, Abukuma and Kiso, and destroyers Ikazuchi, Inazuma, Wakaba, Hatsushimo, Asagumo, Hibiki, Yugumo, Kazegumo, Akigumo, Shimakaze, Naganami and Samidare, as well as the transport Nippon Maru and frigate Kunajiri) departed Paramushiro on 22 July and reached Kiska on 28 July. On 25 July, off Kiska, while waiting for the weather to clear, Kunajiri collided with the cruiser Abukuma and then Hatsushimo rammed Wakaba, only to be rammed herself by Naganami. On 27 July the evacuation of the Japanese forces was finally concluded without being detected by the US forces. Kiso lifted 1,189 men, Abukuma 1,202 men and the destroyers 2,792 men. The naval force arrived back at Paramushiro on 1 August, and on 17 August the deserted island was reoccupied by US and Canadian forces in ‘Cottage’ (i).