Operation Battle of the Komandorski Islands

The 'Battle of the Komandorski Islands' was a battle between US and Imperial Japanese naval forces in the northern part of the Pacific Ocean in the area to the south of the Komandorski islands group (27 March 1943).

The Japanese 'Aob' occupation of Attu and Kiska islands in the Aleutian islands group had opened a new theatre of operations in the Pacific War, but this was one which offered Japan no advantage. For the Japanese, it was not and had never been meant to be a new strategic avenue leading to the invasion of Alaska, but the occupation of US territory, however insignificant it was, wounded US pride and triggered an overreaction. This led to a campaign in which each side wasted ships, men and supplies, which could better have been used elsewhere, in attempts to take and hold on the one side, and to retake on the other side, what was little more than a near-arctic wasteland. Such was the psychology of the war, however, that each side believed that any enemy position must be tackled and taken. Even so, Japanese occupation of Attu and Kiska islands posed so slight a danger to the USA that they could have been ignored, except for routine surveillance.

Both Kiska and Attu are situated in some of the world’s worst geographical and climate conditions in which the adversaries had to cope with perpetual cold, fog, williwaw squalls and a terrain almost as completely unsuited for construction of airstrips as the climate is for flying. Yet the Imperial General Headquarters had to provide for the men stationed on these two desolate islands: the garrison on Attu island numbered fewer than 3,000 men and that on Kiska island numbered about 5,000 men who had to be kept warm, fed, supplied with munitions, supplemented by construction crews and tools to build airfields, and shielded against invasion. The two islands lay within range of bombers of both the US Navy and US Army Air Forces, and the attentions of these bombers made life miserable for the Japanese garrisons.

Japanese ship losses were usually caused by US submarines. The destroyer Nenohi, escorting the seaplane carrier Kamikawa Maru off Agattu on 4 July, was hit on her starboard side amidships by a torpedo launched from the US submarine Triton, and sank: only 36 of her normal crew of 228 men were saved. On the following day, off Kiska, the US submarine Growler launched four torpedoes which sank the destroyer Arare and severely damaged the destroyers Shiranuhi and Kasumi. In a USAAF raid on Kiska on 16 October, a bomb hit the destroyer Oboro, which exploded and sank with the loss of all hands, while the destroyer Hatsuharu was severely damaged.

Both sides expended considerable time and effort in the improvement of their positions for their next round. The Japanese concentrated much of their effort vainly in attempts to construct an airfield and strengthen the defences on Kiska and Attu. The Americans made the first move, occupying Adak island on 30 August 1942, and by 14 September had airstrip and seaplane bases in operation from which could provide fighter cover for USAAF raids on Kiska. Then on 12 January 1943 the Americans occupied Amchitka, only 60 miles (100 km) from Kiska, thereby providing themselves with a good harbour and terrain suitable for the construction of airstrips.

The Japanese believed Kiska, to the south-east of Attu and therefore closer to the US bases in the eastern part of the Aleutian islands chain and also the mainland of Alaska, would be the first point the US forces would invade, so their reinforcement and resupply convoys braved the winter weather to deliver additional men and supplies. In its turn, the US Navy decided to interdict these convoys and despatched a task group into the area between the Kamchatka peninsula and Attu island, to the south of the Komandorski islands group. At that same time, headed for the same area, Vice Admiral Boshiro Hosogaya was bringing in three large transport vessels, escorted by every ship his 5th Fleet, Northern Force could muster. What followed was the 'Battle of the Komandorski Islands', a long-range ship-versus]/e]-ship duel that lasted almost four hours.

At 05.00 on 26 March 1943, a Japanese column of eight warships and two transport vessels was steaming to the north: in the van were the heavy cruisers Nachi and Maya, followed by the light cruisers Tama and Abukuma, the destroyers Wakaba, Hatsushimo and Ikazuchi, two fast transport vessels (7,399-ton Asaka Maru and 7,158-ton Sakito Maru), and the destroyer Inazuma, which brought up the rear. Farther off, but on a converging course designed to provide a meeting with the other Japanese ships, were one slower transport vessel (5,491-ton Sanko Maru) and the destroyer Usugumo.

On an essentially parallel course, about 20 miles (32 km) to the south-east of the Japanese column, was Rear Admiral Charles H. McMorris’s Task Group 16.6 in two columns: the destroyer Coughlan, the light cruiser Richmond and the destroyers Bailey and Dale, 5 miles (8 km) on the port side of the column of the heavy cruiser Salt Lake City and the destroyer Monaghan. At 05.00, radar on two of the US ships detected at least five ships some 7 to 12 miles (11.25 to 19.25 km) to the north, and at once the US ships started to converge into a single column in the order Bailey, Coughlan, Richmond, Salt Lake City, Dale and Monaghan.

The Japanese force had been on the alert in the hours before dawn, and Inazuma, the rearguard destroyer, had reported sighting ship silhouettes at 04.00. At first Hosogaya believed that the ships which had been sighted were the destroyer Usugumo and the transport vessel Sanko Maru, which were due to link with the convoy. But after a reports by look-outs on Nachi at 05.08, other sightings followed rapidly, and at 05.15 Abukuma relayed specific information about nearby US ships. The Japanese commanders now knew that they were in for a battle, and the transports were instructed to slip away to the north-west, screened by Inazuma. At 05.30, Abukuma and her destroyers turned in column to starboard to act as a screen. At 05.42 Nachi, Maya and Tama also turned to starboard, paralleling Abukuma's column. At the same time, TG16.6, now with the two cruisers in column, screened on both sides by two destroyers, began turning in column to the west, in pursuit of the transport vessels.

At 05.42 both sides opened fire simultaneously at a range of about 20,000 yards (18290 m). Two minutes later Nachi launched two salvoes each of four torpedoes. Soon after this, the Japanese cruisers divided into three groups: first Abukuma turned to the south-west, paralleling the US ships on their port quarter;then at 05.47 Tama adopted the same course, close by the Abukuma's port side; and Maya and Nachi held their course with 24,000 yards (21945 m) separating the two forces, thus blocking the US force from returning to its base.

Fought at long range, what developed was a duel of heavy cruisers. Nachi and Maya, after an initial salvo at the outranged Richmond, concentrated their fire on Salt Lake City. Meanwhile, any aggressive US cruiser actions could be countered by Hosogaya’s lighter forces. McMorris, the US officer in tactical command, faced a dilemma, for he was clearly outnumbered in ships and weight of fire. Undaunted, at 05.42 he turned his column to port onto a south-westerly course. At that moment Salt Lake City on the one side and Maya and Nachi on the other side opened fire at a range of about 20,000 yards (18290 m). The two Japanese cruisers continued in a long looping turn to starboard, trying to prevent the US force from making any return to its base. This manoeuvre placed Maya and Nachi in the undesirable position of making their chase astern the US ships. At 05.50 Salt Lake City scored a hit on Nachi's bridge, and two minutes later hit her torpedo tubes. It was inevitable, though, that Salt Lake City would have to pay the price for the one-sided duel. Maya hit the US heavy cruiser’s midships catapult floatplanes with an 8-in (203.2-mm) shell at 06.10, and the US ship was struck again at 06.20 on her quarterdeck, probably by Nachi.

Tama had tried to close the US column, but her after-action report mentions no torpedoes or shells fired, and the Japanese light cruiser withdrew to the north-west, placing herself between the US force and the transport vessels. Abukuma also closed the US ships' starboard side, but then chose to veer in arcing turns to the north-west. She was taken under fire at 06.53 and 07.07, but was not hit. Hosogaya elected to play a cautious game, wanting to protect his convoy but nonetheless manoeuvre to destroy the US force. To do so, he continued to turn his two heavy cruisers and four destroyers to starboard until, by 06.57, they were steaming on a north-westerly course. Although Maya and Nachi were newer and faster than Salt Lake City, their stern chase forced them to zigzag, both to unmask their stern turrets and to avoid steaming into a torpedo attack. Thus they could not close the range on the US group. At 07.07 Maya and Nachi, 21,800 yards (19935 m) to the east of Salt Lake City, blocked McMorris from getting at the transport vessels. But McMorris’s concern shifted rapidly to saving Salt Lake City: at 07.02 she had begun to lose steering control, thus losing her ability to chase splashes. She was hit a third time, at 07.10, by a shell from Maya, which went straight through the main deck into the hull below the waterline.

Salt Lake City was now in serious trouble and requested a smokescreen, which was effectively provided by her destroyers from 07.18. At 08.03 Abukuma scored one last hit on her, ruining her after gyro equipment and flooding her after engine room. Eventually the US heavy cruiser’s speed declined as water flooded her fire rooms, and at 08.55 her engines stopped. By this time she had turned back onto a south-easterly course. Although by then Salt Lake City was scarcely visible, Abkuma, almost directly astern her, was still trying to score hits from long range. Also Hatsushimo had fired five torpedoes at Salt Lake City at 08.57, while Wakaba launched five at her screen, which was now steaming east on her starboard quarter, but none of these torpedoes hit. Salt Lake City finally got under way again at 10.00, but by then the 'Battle of the Komandorski Islands' was over: Hosogaya’s force was headed to the south-west escorting the transports back to Paramushiro in the Kurile islands group.

Because the battle had been fought at long range for nearly four hours, it is not surprising that the naval track charts of the two forces do not match. The Japanese track chart does not show Salt Lake City's loss of way at the time the US heavy cruiser was at her most vulnerable, nor does it record a torpedo attack by the destroyers Bailey, Coughlan and Monaghan. US records show that at 09.00 and 09.03 Bailey was hit twice starboard, one shell penetrating to the electric generators; then at 09.03 she launched five torpedoes and turned east, ordering the other two destroyers to follow her.

According to Maya's after-action report, she was unhit, but the blasts of her own guns set fire to her No. 1 floatplane. Abukuma and Tama received no damage. Nachi took the brunt of the US fire, however, mainly from Salt Lake City, and her after-action report records two hits at 05.55 and 08.48. Hatsushimo, Inazuma and Wakaba were not hit.

Although justifiably concerned for his transport vessels, Hosogaya had been overcautious and, even with a decidedly superior force, his ships sustained nearly as much damage as the US ships. He never closed the range to take on the crippled Salt Lake City and the lighter ships which were protecting her. His light cruisers did not make an all-out attack, and his destroyers did not make a typical Japanese torpedo attack. The battle might easily have been a Japanese victory, and Hosogaya was retired from naval service one month later.

McMorris probably displayed more courage than judgement in his actions. Although he did not get at the Japanese transports, he saved a heavy cruiser from a perilous situation and prevented the reinforcement of Kiska island.

The Aleutian islands phase of the war was concluded when, leapfrogging Kiska, the US Army landed 11,000 troops at Attu in 'Landcrab' on 11 May 1943, opposed by some 2,500 Japanese troops. The fighting was bitter, ending on 29 May with the Japanese forces totally destroyed with the exception of 28 men taken prisoner. With Attu lost, the Imperial General Headquarters decided to attempt another 'Ke' evacuation operation for Kiska. This started on 26 May with 13 'I' class submarines, but was abandoned after seven of the boats had been lost. Unwilling to have recourse to another 'Tokyo Express' type of undertaking in which Guadalcanal had been partially nourished and later evacuated by destroyers, the Japanese decided to evacuate the island by ship. As a result of good meteorological work and skilful execution, the troops were then brought off the island without the Americans realising that it had been done. A Japanese task force, advised that fog would cover its approach, left Paramushiro on 21 July. Slipping into Kiska Harbor, a dangerous mission in the fog, at 17.40 on 28 July, two cruisers and six destroyers lifted the entire garrison of 5,183 men in 55 minutes and were on their way back to Paramushiro.

Ignorant of the evacuation, a US invasion force of about 35,000 men landed at Kiska on 15 August in 'Cottage' only to find, after a two-day sweep and search operation, only four abandoned dogs. Even so, the US forces had learned something important from this turn of events, a lesson also being learned in New Guinea and the Solomon islands group: by leapfrogging the Japanese positions, certain islands could be 'taken', or rather neutralised, merely by being systematically isolated.