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