When The US Fought A Deadly Battle With No One

“And there shall in that time be rumours of things going astray, and there will be a great confusion as to where things really are.” —Boring Prophet, The Life of Brian (1979)

In A Nutshell

The Second World War’s Alaska campaign is ruefully called the “Forgotten War,” but there is one monumental blunder that all involved are surely happy was forgotten. That blunder was the “Battle” of Kiska, where 35,000 Allied troops spent a week fighting for one of the westernmost Aleutian Islands . . . only to realize that Kiska was completely devoid of Japanese troops.

The Whole Bushel

The Alaskan war had begun in June 1942 as a corollary to (and perhaps as a feint regarding) the Battle of Midway. The Japanese invasions of Kiska and Attu were met with little resistance, as the island’s native Aleut population had been forcibly removed by the American government. In response, the Americans set up an airbase nearby to bombard the islands.

In May 1943, the American force recaptured Attu despite atrocious weather (including winds as high as 190 kilometers per hour—about 120 mph), equipment failures, and poor-quality landing gear. This required a fierce two-week fight, with the US suffering 4,000 casualties from a force numbering only 12,500. The battle concluded in bombastic fashion on May 28 with the remaining 1,400 Japanese (from a force of 2,600) launching a sweeping banzai charge. By days’ end, only 28 survived, the rest having died in action, committed suicide, or, in the case of the wounded, been killed by their doctors. Proportionally, the battle of Attu was second only to Iwo Jima in terms of casualties.

The stage thus set, some 35,000 men assembled for the invasion of Kiska (their ships are pictured above), and the island was pummeled from the air for two weeks prior to the landing on August 15. Unfortunately, the 5,000 Japanese had been evacuated wholesale on July 27, with the result that the Allied troops spent several days alternately firing at each other through heavy fog or stumbling onto Japanese booby traps. All told, they suffered over 300 casualties, including some 20 dead, in addition to the 70 killed when the USS Abner Read struck a mine.

In the midst of this, an even more ludicrous event occurred, the so-called “Battle of the Pips.” The seven pips (or “blips,” in modern parlance) appeared on American radar on the morning of July 26, and the US Navy proceeded to pummel them in the expectation that they were Japanese ships. Following an hour-long bombardment, all of the pips had disappeared, but the following day there was no evidence that identified destroyed enemy ships. Indeed, the only obvious damage had been sustained by the Americans, with the concussions from their own broadside having disabled a couple of float planes. So what did the Americans attack?

Many theories have been suggested, despite the official declaration that it was a simple radar malfunction. Theories include a Japanese ruse involving balloons, the presence of whales, and even increasingly implausible ideas like the northern lights, mass hallucination, hysteria, ghosts, and aliens. However, it has been strongly suggested that they were merely flocks of birds. An Aleutian-based fishing captain recognized the phenomenon and identified it as a group of dusky shearwaters, a type of albatross. These birds fly close together in huge flocks that would appear as a single mass on radar screens of the time period. Furthermore, the flocks zigzag when searching for food, not unlike the path of a ship under fire.

Some, taking this a step further, have linked the “Battle of the Pips” to the successful Japanese evacuation, suggesting that following the withdrawal of the American ships which had expended their munitions, a Japanese fleet was able to slip in and evacuate the island. So, 5,000 Japanese troops escaped and 35,000 Allied ones accidentally fought each-other because the US Navy was busy shooting at birds.

Show Me The Proof

Turn Around and Run Like Hell, by Joseph Cummins
Stamford Historical Society: The Battle of the Aleutian Islands
US National Park Service: The Invasion of Kiska
US National Park Service: The Battle of Attu
Alaska at War, 1941–1945

  • Hillyard

    Interesting, I never knew this. I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall when the commanders of this operation explained it to their chain of command. ‘We bombarded um, nothing and lost a bunch of men taking an uninhabited island.’ To be fair, there was probably no way for them to know that the Japanese forces had evacuated. Plus radar was new and not as good as it is today and the operators were probably leaning toward erring on the side of caution considering that the Japanese attack force that assaulted Pearl Harbor was seen on radar and dismissed as a flock of geese.

    • Clyde Barrow

      “…considering that the Japanese attack force that assaulted Pearl Harbor was seen on radar and dismissed as a flock of geese.”

      Don’t forget that an flight of brand new B-17’s were picked up by radar operators on the morning of December 7th, arriving at the same time as the Japanese air strike force. Since the B-17’s were expected, the operators didn’t see much reason to sound alarm when they picked up the approaching Japanese. Radar was still very crude, and aircraft types could not be determined. Of course, they both arrived at once and all hell broke loose, with several B-17’s being destroyed by friendly fire.

  • TheMadHatter

    Clap.
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  • Gary Lee

    Whoever the writer is on this piece has a few of his facts incredibly wrong. The Navy sent in recon patrols due to there being no resistance from the Japanese after Attu. The patrols radioed back that the island was empty. They then sent troops in to do a sweep of the island to be sure that the Japanese were gone. During the night a couple of patrols mistook each other for Japanese patrols and a couple, “not a BUNCH OF MEN”, were wounded. The Army came in and held the Island until replacements came to relieve the men who had been in the whole campaign. The reason I know this is that I had a very close relative in the Aleutians and he fought the whole campaign-from June 2, 42 until Sept 18, 1943.