Aleutian Allure

“Key Maritime Terrain—Any landward portion of the littoral that affords a force controlling it the ability to significantly influence events seaward.”-Tentative Manual for Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations, Second Edition 2023 

 Alaska is the most central place in the world … in the future, he who holds Alaska will rule the world.”BGen Billy Mitchell, U.S. Army Air Corps, Congressional Testimony, 1935 

The Aleutian Campaign may be one of the most forgotten U.S. undertakings of World War II. Its human carnage and materiel costs were not insignificant for both American and Japanese forces, yet few today know anything about it. Even among military history enthusiasts, names like Attu and Kiska often go unrecognized. Such obscurity is hardly surprising when one considers the large number of campaigns that took place across Admiral Chester Nimitz’s vast Pacific Ocean Areas during the war. Not only was the North Pacific Area a decidedly peripheral operational theater to Nimitz, but the campaign’s surprising and anticlimactic conclusion was also not one U.S. and Canadian commanders wanted to be remembered for. The subsequent decision by the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) not to use the Aleutians as stepping stones to invade the Kuriles and attack the Japanese home islands from the north further contributed to its historical ambiguity. 

As a case study, however, the Aleutian Campaign offers numerous insights for commanders and planners on the tensions that frequently arise between theater priorities and strategic imperatives driven by time-sensitive political expectations. It also provides lessons on why the value of key maritime terrain should be periodically reassessed from both friendly and enemy perspectives. Considering the tremendous operational and logistical accomplishments of both Japan and the United States, the inclusion of this campaign in professional military education and on reading lists could elevate discussions on distributed maritime operations as envisioned today by the Navy-Marine Corps team. Certainly, the strategic implications of seizing, occupying, and/or controlling key maritime terrain in the context of amphibious operations and expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO) deserve study.  

In the case of the Aleutians, the law of unintended consequences affected both sides. By seizing and retaining key maritime terrain for purposes subject to broad speculation by the United States, Japan set in motion events that reverberated well beyond the region and achieved outsized strategic effects on the pace and direction of the wider U.S. war effort. From this perspective, observations and decisions from the North Pacific Theater may have relevance to future naval campaigns against a peer adversary. 

Strategic Context 
The persistent presence of a relatively small but capable Japanese amphibious force in the Aleutians starting in June 1942 was an audacious affront to the nation’s sovereignty and a psychological burden on Washington. With the United States now in a global world war tilting precipitously in the Axis’ favor, the intense political pressure on the Joint Chiefs of Staff to push the Japanese out of the Western Aleutians was counterbalanced by regional fears bordering on paranoia about a Japanese invasion of the North American continent. Service commanders in theater began uncoordinated actions against the Imperial Japanese Navy and its advanced bases before they were fully ready. As the perceived Japanese threat in the North Pacific grew, a cumbersome and disjointed command and control structure was hastily concocted to oversee the massive buildup of land, sea, and air capabilities unsupported by prewar planning. Hundreds of thousands of American soldiers, sailors, and airmen, along with millions of tons of equipment and supplies, were diverted to the Alaskan theater on short notice. This military might would aggregate steadily into overwhelming land, sea, and air power until it could be focused on the annihilation of two isolated Japanese garrisons doing little more than occupying the most remote American territory in the world.  

The Aleutian Allure 
Comprising over 660,000 square miles of mostly wilderness and 34,000 miles of coastline, Alaska stands out prominently on the globe because of its enormous size and strategic placement in the North Pacific adjacent to the Eurasia land mass. The Alaskan Peninsula extends to the southwest from the mainland over a thousand miles before transitioning to the Aleutian Archipelago which continues in a gentle westward arc for another thousand miles. Comprised of 14 large islands, 55 smaller islands, and innumerable islets, the Aleutians appear on a map to form a natural approach route to either the North American or Asia continents. Their appeal as an invasion route in either direction quickly fades under analysis, however. The remoteness, inhospitable topography, and relentlessly harsh weather make the Aleutians unforgiving to all forms of movement and sustainment. Most of the islands are dominated by snow-covered peaks rising to 9,000 feet above the frigid, turbulent waters of the North Pacific. What level ground can be found is usually covered by muskeg—a thick, wet, spongy bog into which vehicles quickly sink up to their axles. Harbors and airfields essential for intratheater movement or to support landward operations are scarce and underdeveloped. When the islands are not shrouded in thick clouds and mist, they are battered by shrieking winds, driving snow, and freezing rain. Not even trees grow in the Aleutians. Despite these daunting conditions, neither the United States nor Japan discounted the possibility that the other side might make strategic use of the Aleutians in a war.  

Preparing Alaska for War
Although the Aleutians’ strategic linkage to control of the North Pacific was generally understood, little was done to protect the archipelago until war loomed. In 1938, Congress appropriated nineteen$19 million dollars for the construction of air, submarine, and destroyer bases in Alaska but few military forces were assigned until after the war began in Europe.1 The only military presence in the Aleutians themselves was a Navy radio station and a small Coast Guard base at Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island.2  In early 1940, the War Department developed plans to increase the Army garrison in Alaska, establish a major Army base near Anchorage, develop a network of airfields across Alaska, and provide troops to protect the naval installations at Dutch Harbor, Sitka, and Kodiak.3 The 750-soldier-strong Alaska Defense Force was created in July 1940 under the command of the energetic and flamboyant Brigadier General Simon B. Buckner of, the US Army. The remoteness of the proposed base locations, poor weather, and the lack of existing transportation infrastructure delayed progress on these plans until mid-1941—though Buckner spared no effort in tackling the myriad of tasks before him.4

Buckner was emphatic that Japan not be allowed to gain an expeditionary lodgment anywhere in Alaska from which they could launch air and naval operations across the North Pacific.5 He focused on defensive preparations, but remained convinced of Alaska’s offensive potential, believing the Aleutian Chain formed a “spear pointing straight at the heart of Japan.”6 He traveled throughout the archipelago identifying every island where an airfield could be built:  Umnak, Adak, Amchitka, Kiska, Shemya, and Attu. Before the war’s end, all would host advanced air bases with semi-autonomous garrisons to support maritime reconnaissance and offensive air operations.7 

Japan’s North Pacific Gambit  
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Imperial High Command commenced a war of conquest to establish its long-desired Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. By late April 1942, Japan had swept aside Allied power and seized strategic terrain across the Pacific at the cost of nothing larger than a destroyer.88 The elated Japanese High Command chose to capitalize on this momentum and press on to New Guinea and the Solomon Islands to set conditions for an invasion of Australia. 

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, respected American industrial capacity enough to know that time was not on Japan’s side. He believed their only hope for victory lay in keeping America on the defensive while striking a decisive blow against what remained of the U.S. Pacific Fleet—principally its aircraft carriers—while Japan still had the advantage.9 Such a victory might compel Washington to recognize Japan’s expanded empire and negotiate an end to the war. To this end, he sought to draw the American fleet from Hawaii into the Central Pacific where it could be destroyed by Japanese air power. To lure in the American carriers, Yamamoto developed an ambitious plan to seize Midway and conduct diversionary attacks in the western Aleutians. From Midway, he could project enough land-based air power to form a protective barrier for Japan straddling the North and Central Pacific.  

Japan’s Aleutian operation was intended to capture or destroy “points of strategic interest” in the Aleutians and check further U.S. naval and air movements from the north.10 Interestingly, this was not the first time the Aleutians had been identified by Japan as key maritime terrain. Just a year earlier, the Japanese Army had proposed a plan to sever U.S. and Soviet lines of communication by seizing some portion of the Aleutians. Moreover, from a strategically defensive perspective, Japanese planners saw the Aleutians as a potential northern axis of advance on Japan well before the United States had developed the capability to use them as such. After the bombing raid on Tokyo by Lieutenant ColonelLtCol James Doolittle in April 1942, some on the Imperial Staff suspected his B-25 Mitchell bombers had originated from a secret base in the western Aleutians.11

Japan Seizes Key Maritime Terrain
On 5 May 1942, Japanese Imperial General Headquarters issued Navy Order 18 to capture Midway as well as the islands of Attu and Kiska in the western Aleutians. It also directed an air attack on the U.S. base at Dutch Harbor, some 200 miles east of Adak. As Yamamoto’s armada set course for Midway, a smaller Northern Area Fleet under Vice Admiral Hoshiro Hosogaya composed of two light aircraft carriers, six cruisers, a dozen destroyers, and various amphibious support vessels moved east from the Kuriles to attack the Aleutians. The element of surprise was crucial, but U.S. success in breaking portions of the Japanese naval code informed Nimitz in mid-May of Yamamoto’s plan. Buckner’s Alaska Defense Command was duly warned as Nimitz prepared to confront both Japanese fleets simultaneously. While three U.S. aircraft carriers converged on Midway, a smaller force—Task Force 8 under Rear Admiral Robert “Fuzzy” Theobald—raced to the North Pacific to defend the Aleutians.

During 34 June, Japanese carrier-based aircraft bombed Dutch Harbor, killing 43 soldiers and sailors, wounding another 64, and damaging infrastructure. The Japanese also destroyed eleven U.S. aircraft while losing ten, including an A6M Zero fighter that U.S. forces recovered largely intact. It was quickly disassembled and shipped to the States, where a complete technical analysis was performed that was later credited with influencing U.S. fighter designs.12 Throughout the two days of attacks on Dutch Harbor, Theobald’s Task Force 8 had remained just south of his headquarters on Kodiak Island, wary of being discovered by Japanese aircraft but frustrated by his inability to locate Hosagaya’s fleet with his PBY Catalina patrol aircraft and help from Eleventh Air Force bombers.

Japan’s crushing defeat at Midway temporarily delayed their planned landings in the Aleutians as the two actions were loosely coupled. However, Yamamoto thought a small naval success would help offset the disaster at Midway, and the defensive value of establishing advanced bases in the western Aleutians remained valid. At the very least, they would bedevil the U.S. Navy’s control of the North Pacific.13 So Yamamoto directed the Attu-Kiska landings to go forward. During 6–7 June, Hosagaya landed 2,500 troops on Kiska and Attu—the first U.S. territory captured by an enemy force since the War of 1812. The landings were effectively unopposed. Once established ashore, Japanese soldiers and sailors set about fortifying positions, building seaplane ramps, and installing antiaircraft batteries. They would later attempt to construct two airfields with little more than hand tools.

America Retaliates
The occupation of Attu and Kiska dealt a serious blow to American prestige. The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff directed that the effort to recapture the islands begin as soon as possible. This operation, the first U.S. counteroffensive of the war (preceding Guadalcanal by two months), required a joint littoral campaign whereby a series of advanced bases would be constructed from east to west along the Aleutian Chain, with airfields suitable for heavy bombers situated close to sheltered harbors. The selection of mutually supporting airfields and harbor sites required close cooperation between the Services— a level of cooperation between the Army and Navy that had heretofore proven difficult.

Unfortunately, a unified theater commander for the Aleutian Campaign was never identified, exacerbating already tense command and personal relationships between Buckner and Theobald. In a rare oversight by Nimitz, the respective commanders of the Alaska Defense Command and North Pacific Force were directed to conduct a joint campaign through “mutual cooperation” and share the use of the Eleventh Air Force. Predictably, Buckner and Theobald were never able to set aside their differences and achieve a productive command relationship based on mutual trust and respect, and halfway through the campaign, Nimitz replaced Theobald.14

The campaign was slow to get organized and gain momentum, but Army and Navy engineers prevailed in unimaginably tough conditions, defying the skeptics, and proving essential to the ultimate success of the campaign.  Meanwhile, the fledgling Eleventh Air Force mounted a sustained long-range bombing campaign while the Navy prowled the fog-shrouded seas searching for Japanese vessels with the electronic eyes of radar.15 The weather was as much an enemy as the Japanese. Shifting winds, squalls, and low clouds made air operations extremely hazardous, while rough seas and limited visibility made the U.S. naval blockade challenging. Japanese Navy submarines were a constant menace, while its destroyers and transport vessels still managed to periodically slip past U.S. air and sea patrols to resupply and reinforce the garrisons. Japanese forces ashore not only survived the bombardments but also, over the course of the campaign, increased their concentration of antiaircraft guns, redistributed forces between Attu and Kiska, reinforced Attu, defended Kiska with seaplane fighters, attacked the new U.S. airbase at Amchitka, and most importantly continued to deny the Americans a northern approach to Japan.16 

Finally, on 4 May 4, 1943, ten months after Japanese forces seized Attu and Kiska, an American amphibious task force set sail from Cold Bay to recapture Attu. Kiska, the closer and more heavily defended of the two occupied islands, was bypassed for the time being.17 Operation LANDCRAB, the assault on Attu, began on 11 May and was spearheaded by the untested 7thth Infantry Division (7thth ID). Intelligence reports estimated Attu to be defended by a force of 1,600, but a successful Japanese reinforcement effort by fast transports and destroyers in early April had clandestinely raised the number of defenders to over 2,600. (18)  

Poor weather and difficult terrain hindered the entire U.S. operation. Dense fog caused at-sea collisions, and mist ashore delayed the multi beachmulti-beach landings and limited the use of naval gunfire. Trucks and artillery pieces became hopelessly mired in the muskeg, causing supplies and ammunition to pile up on the beach and ultimately be carried inland by hand.  

Japanese light infantry occupied carefully prepared defensive positions on high ground that dominated the landing beach exits. Concealed from observers below by a protective mist that hovered a few hundred feet above the landing beaches, the dug-in Japanese soldiers could nevertheless see well enough to deliver deadly accurate fire on American soldiers below as they struggled to advance over the wet, spongy ground. By massing indirect fires, the 7thth ID was eventually able to close on the Japanese defenders from multiple points and drive them into a pocket. The last of the Japanese, some 800 soldiers, ended the battle abruptly on 29 May with a vicious banzai charge that overran several frontline formations and a field hospital inflicting horrific casualties before being stopped by a hastily formed defensive line on a promontory known as Engineer Hill.  

Only 28 Japanese soldiers survived the Battle of Attu. Burial parties counted 2,351 enemy dead on the battlefield with another three hundred found to have been buried earlier by the Japanese.  Of 15,000 Americans in the invasion force (10,000 of whom constituted 7thth ID), 549 were killed and 1,148 wounded in action. Another 2,132 soldiers were evacuated for sickness and severe cold-weather injuries. What was planned as a three-day operation had taken a reinforced infantry division backed by overwhelming air and naval power three weeks to accomplish. The 25-percent casualty rate inflicted on the landing force was only exceeded in the Pacific war at the Battle of Iwo Jima.19

The suddenness and ferocity of the final Japanese banzai charge left a deep impression on one of the few Marines in the Aleutians at the time. Major General MajGen Holland M. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, who had overseen the amphibious training of the 7thth ID in southern California, was present as an observer during Operation LANDCRAB. After the banzai attack, Smith made a conscious decision to train specifically for such occurrences in the future.20 He would later credit this experience on Attu with his anticipation of both the time and location of the fanatical banzai attack that would occur in the closing days of the Battle of Saipan a little over a year later.21

The Kiska Surprise
With Attu in American hands, preparations for Operation COTTAGE, the amphibious assault on Kiska, shifted into high gear. Intelligence estimates fixed Japan’s Kiska garrison at around 10,000 men. With the painful lessons of Attu still fresh, American commanders assembled a massive invasion force of 35,000 troops (including 5,500 Canadians) and 100 ships at Adak over the next three months. After weeks of preparatory bombing and naval gunfire, the landing took place on 15 August.  It was unopposed. As U.S. and Canadian soldiers ventured inland, they encountered no resistance whatsoever. A cautious but thorough search revealed only abandoned and destroyed Japanese equipment, numerous bunkers, and an extensive network of underground tunnels.  

The news that so large a Japanese force had slipped away undetected despite daily bombing and aerial reconnaissance missions—to say nothing of the vastly superior American armada that encircled the island—was greeted with shock and disbelief by nearly all senior leaders. One notable exception was Major MajGen General “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, who, along with some of his staff, had returned to the Aleutians to direct amphibious training for the landing force. He had no direct role in planning the Kiska invasion but remained in Adak as an observer. For two weeks prior to the landing, Smith studied intelligence reports and aerial imagery of Kiska and, recalling how six months earlier approximately 11,000 Japanese troops had quietly slipped away from Guadalcanal on destroyers at night, concluded that the Japanese had already left the island.22 His call for a small ground-reconnaissance element to scout the island before the landing was rebuffed as too risky by the Army’s landing force commander, Major General Charles Corlett, who dismissed Smith as an interloper and would not even show him the landing plan.23 The decision was ultimately left up to Vice Admiral Thomas Kinkaid, the North Pacific Force commander who had replaced the prickly Theobald months before the Attu operation. Kinkaid considered the risk to the scouts greater than to the landing force and directed that the full-scale invasion proceed as planned, even if it turned out to be, in his words, just a “super dress rehearsal, excellent for training purposes.”24 

Despite the absence of any Japanese defenders, however, the landings proved far more dangerous than a training exercise. Casualties ashore included 21 men killed and 50 wounded either by booby traps or shot by fellow Americans or Canadians, as edgy soldiers fired at each other in the mist, mistaking adjacent comrades for the dreaded Japanese.25 The last and most serious casualties of COTTAGE occurred when a destroyer, the USS Abner Read, had its stern ripped off by a moored mine in Kiska Cove, killing 70 sailors and injuring 47. (26) In his memoirs, Smith called the failure to allow a proper reconnaissance in advance of the landings an act of inexcusable negligence by senior commanders.27 Kiska was declared secure on 24 August 1942. Operation COTTAGE brought the Aleutian Campaign to an anticlimactic but frustrating end. 

Only after the war would Americans learn how a Japanese surface task force, under the command of Rear Admiral Masatomi Kimura, had accomplished the evacuation. Kimura had waited patiently for weeks until weather conditions favored an unobservable approach from Paramushir Island in the Kuriles to Kiska. Navigating by dead reckoning in a tight formation under radio silence, Kimura guided his task force through thick fog for a week to slip quietly into Kiska Bay on the afternoon of 28 July.  Immediately upon anchoring, Kimura’s task force and the Kiska garrison began the evacuation with remarkable precision and efficiency. In less than one hour and again under complete radio silence, the entire Japanese garrison of 5,183 men was transported by landing craft and loaded aboard six destroyers and two cruisers.28 The Japanese aptly described the evacuation as a “perfect operation”; it was undoubtedly one of the most daring and successful evacuations in military history.29 

Echoes of Attu and Kiska in the 21stst Century
While the Aleutian Campaign is rarely examined from the Japanese perspective, the accomplishments and shortcomings of Japan’s forces and methods offer some intriguing lessons and planning considerations for emerging operational concepts such as EABO—particularly in a conflict with a peer adversary such as China. Japan’s operational practices can be instructive for some of the challenges the United States currently faces in the strategic island chains of the Western Pacific. Certainly, the Imperial Japanese Navy’s operational reach, stealth, speed, and tenacity both on and below the surface were critical to the sustainment, mobility, and command and control of Japanese “stand-in forces” conducting a form of EABO in the Aleutians. That Japanese naval forces were able to evade detection, strike Dutch Harbor, seize key maritime terrain, and persist in their advanced Aleutian bases for well over a year was a remarkable feat. The weather conditions naturally helped in this regard. The adverse weather routinely shielded Japan’s most vulnerable assets from American eyes and bombs. At the same time, the Japanese Navy managed to exploit prolonged periods of darkness, fog, and cloud cover to evade U.S. air patrols and run the U.S. Navy’s blockade on several occasions. Japanese successes during the campaign were manifold. They were able to reposition and resupply their forces, deliver reinforcements, conduct seaplane operations, and build a formidable air defense capability. Their evacuation of an entire garrison completely undetected in an incredibly compact time period defies the imagination and remains an unrivaled achievement in the annals of amphibious evacuations under pressure.   

Given the ongoing focus within the Marine Corps on light and mobile “littoral” formations, the effectiveness of the Japanese Army’s landward defense of key littoral terrain is also worth studying. Small numbers of well-trained, dispersed light infantrymen were able to attract considerable attention and impose severe costs on a far larger, multidomain task force after it landed on Attu. The defenders’ resilience and tenacity, despite prolonged isolation and severe conditions, were perhaps their most obvious attributes. These attributes remain relevant today, particularly for an isolated force conducting EABO. During the campaign, the Japanese ability to exploit difficult terrain and turn unique weather conditions into an advantage was equally impressive.  

While it might appear that today’s advanced technologies such as long-range precision fires and unmanned aerial vehicles make comparisons between 1943 and the present (or even the near future) problematic, there are capabilities that remain valid for any outnumbered force defending a salient of key maritime terrain. The tactical value of all-weather, suppressive fires; anti-invasion obstacles; antiship weapons; air defense; and over-the-horizon reconnaissance assets is clear; these are enduring requirements for the defense of EABs. Stand-in forces operating inside an enemy’s weapons engagement zone may also require the ability to perform heavy engineering tasks to rapidly build airfields to project power and fortifications to survive sustained attacks. Furthermore, a force executing EABO that can organically emplace maritime sensors and undersea effectors (e.g., sea mines and decoys) to interdict enemy surface and subsurface vessels around vital, littoral chokepoints can contribute asymmetrically to sea denial with virtually no signature. Bringing such effects to bear requires a deep and modular inventory of maritime capabilities from across the naval force to build balanced or specialized task organizations as required.  

In many ways, this depth in capabilities was the decisive American strength that eluded the Japanese, who were unable to complete even a single airfield during their year-long occupation of two Aleutian islandsAleutian Islands. Yet their ability to construct fortifications and tunnels dramatically improved their ability to survive bombardments requiring a sizable landing force to dislodge them from the advanced bases they had established. Had their diligence and determination been complemented by such capabilities as long-range radar and engineering, the Japanese would likely have been able to build and operate airfields which would have delayed both U.S. amphibious assaults for many months.

The impact of Japanese forces landing on American soil reverberated all the way to Washington. The political pressure to clear two Aleutian islandsAleutian Islands of fewer than 8,000 Japanese troops drained substantial resources at a dangerous time for the global Allied war effort. The Japanese achieved disproportionate effects against U.S. forces whose strategic objective became increasingly shaped more by emotional sentiment than reasoned assessment. Even when the actual invasion threat to the North American mainland was determined to be minimal, Washington had no strategic patience for any course of action that failed to yield a decisive tactical defeat of Japanese forces in the Aleutians. Thus, the United States adopted an attrition-centric operational approach that culminated in the costly recapture of Attu and, unknowingly, the embarrassing amphibious assault on Kiska nearly three weeks after the Japanese had departed.  

In the end, the 15-month campaign drew in over 300,000 Americans, thousands of aircraft, and hundreds of warships, transports, and merchantmen. It also necessitated an immense diversion of military engineering resources to build dozens of U.S. bases and supporting infrastructure where none previously existed—including the 1,640-mile Alaskan Highway across Canada to link the “Lower 48” with Alaska. The heavy commitment of manpower to the North Pacific disrupted mobilization plans and delayed global force deployments to primary theaters for nearly two years. It also forced the U.S. to pour billions of dollars of materiel into a physically taxing and dangerous theater that in the end contributed very little to defeating Japan and hastening the war’s end.  

The phenomena and interactions just described will likely be a feature of future wars and again prompt disproportionate, unnecessary, and even reckless decisions by distant political leaders seeking immediate results. The Aleutian Campaign case suggests that, in addition to contributing to sea denial, stand-in forces executing EABO can generate strategic effects by forcing an adversary to divert substantial resources from principal objectives to honor or neutralize the threat the stand-in forces appear to pose. Whether they can succeed in this regard will depend on their location and their attributes. Do they pose a credible and durable threat? Are they resilient, tenacious, stealthy, and survivable? Now, as then, the value of stand-in forces in the face of a regional hegemon will likely be tested. Whether they stand and fight, or slip away in the night, may once again be more a matter of strategy than tactics.

>Col Sinclair retired in 2018 after 30 years on active duty. He is currently a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory.



1. Stetson Conn, The Guarding of United States and its Outposts, US Army in World War II Series: The Western Hemisphere (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 1964).

2. Brian Garfield, The Thousand Mile War (Fairbanks, AK: University of Alaska Press, 1969).

3. Guarding of United States.

4. The Alaska Highway was not completed until November 1942. In 1940, there was only one government rail line between Seward and Fairbanks by way of Anchorage.

5. Guarding of United States.

6. Thousand Mile War.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Galen Roger Perras, Stepping Stones to Nowhere: The Aleutian Islands, Alaska, and American Military Strategy, 1867-1945 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2003).

10. Ibid.

11. Japanese Navy General Staff, “Aleutian Naval Operation, March 1942–February 1943,” Japanese Monograph No. 88, trans. Military Intelligence Service Group, G2, Headquarters, Far East Command (monograph, US Department of the Army, n.d.),

12. George L. MacGarrigle, Aleutian Islands, Center for Military History Pub 72-6, (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1992).

13. Guarding of United States.

14. Thousand Mile War.

15. Attu is 350 miles west of Kiska and was initially out of range.

16. Thousand Mile War.

17. Although Kiska was smaller, it was the more militarily important of the two islands with a much larger Japanese force. Attu was selected first both to gain valuable experience and because the number of available amphibious ships could not accommodate a multi-division landing force as was deemed necessary for Kiska.

18. Thousand Mile War.

19. Ibid.

20. Norman V. Cooper, A Fighting General (Quantico, VA: Marine Corps Association, 1987).

21. Holland M. Smith, Coral and Brass (Nashville, TN: The Battery Press, 1989).

22. Thousand Mile War.

23. Fighting General.

24. Thousand Mile War.

25. Ibid.

26. Aleutian Islands.

27. Coral and Brass.

28. Thousand Mile War.

29. Masataka Chihaya, “Mysterious Withdrawal from Kiska,” Proceedings 84, No. 2 (1958).

First to Fight

Lessons from the Battle of Belleau Wood
>Maj King is an Infantry Officer and currently serves as Commanding Officer, Recruiting Station Salt Lake City.

“And, waking or sleeping, I can still see before me the dark threat of Belleau Wood, as full of menace as a tiger’s foot, dangerous as a live wire, poisonous with gas, bristling with machine guns, alive with snipers, scornfully beckoning us to come on and be slain, waiting for us like a dragon in its den. Our brains told us to fear it, but our wills heard but one command, to clean it out, and I can still see before my very eyes those waves in the poppy-spattered wheat-field as the steady lines of our Marines went in.” (1)

Albertus Catlin,
With the Help of God and a Few Marines

Col Albertus Catlin, commander of 6th Mar at Belleau Wood, recorded these words a year after the Marine Corps’ performance in that small crop of woods east of Paris in the summer of 1918. Catlin’s first line poetically describes the overwhelming odds Marines faced in the battle: mustard gas from German artillery shells, Maxim machineguns dug in ready to fire, and enemy snipers scanning the battlefield for targets. It is his second line that reveals those intangible traits Marines exhibited during the almost month-long battle—virtues that have set the Corps apart since its inception: discipline, gallantry, grit, sacrifice, esprit de corps, and mission accomplishment among others. Outgunned and outmanned, a brigade of Marines fought for nearly 26 days against multiple divisions of battle-hardened German infantry and ultimately won.

Although the battle has long passed, we Marines have an obligation to look back at this storied engagement and extract from it applicable lessons for today. This article is just that, a simple recap and analysis of the Battle of Belleau Wood and the leadership fundamentals and virtues exhibited that remain timeless in war. Under the severest of conditions, Marines overcame their tactical and operational missteps, equipment shortfalls, and an overwhelming enemy force. These are the reasons every new generation of Marines must know the story of Belleau Wood.

America Goes to War
To fully appreciate the battle, we need to go back further to 1917, the year the United States entered World War I. The war had been raging in Europe since 1914 with President Woodrow Wilson pledging to keep America out. When Great Britain intercepted the Zimmerman Note (Germany’s request for an alliance with Mexico) in January 1917 and turned it over to the United States, it was enough for President Wilson to petition Congress for war.

Beleaguered French and British allies needed the Americans immediately. The United States responded by assembling roughly 14,000 troops and sent them to France in June 1917. Named the American Expeditionary Force and commanded by Army GEN John J. Pershing, the force included 5th Mar. In February of 1918, the 6th Mar arrived in France and joined with the 5th Mar to form the Fourth Marine Brigade, attached to the Army’s U.S. Second Infantry Division. (2)

American action in the war was minor throughout the winter of 1918 until the Germans launched a series of offenses with fresh troops freed from the now-silent Eastern Front. British and French forces repulsed the first two German offensives, but the third, known as the Aisne Offensive, struck at French forces in the Chateau-Thierry region of France, only 39 miles east of Paris. The force and momentum of this German offensive smashed the French army and dashed most Frenchmen’s hopes of keeping the Germans out of Paris. The Allies suddenly threw American forces into the line to blunt the invasion. The U.S. Second Infantry Division was ordered to Chateau-Thierry, and the Marine Brigade’s mission was to take back Belleau Wood, an ancient hunting ground half the size of New York’s Central Park.(3)

Baptism by Fire
Departing their camp near Paris and traveling by foot and truck for over 36 hours, the Marines arrived filthy and exhausted, falling in along the front near the villages of Champillon and Lucy-le-Bocage only a few kilometers north of the Metz-Paris Highway and the city of Chateau-Thierry. By the morning of 2 June 1918, despite poorly designed French maps issued in minimal quantities, most of the Marine Brigade reorganized along a northwest-running defensive line.(4) French troops were tied in on the brigade’s western flank and the Army’s 9th Infantry Regiment was tied in to their east. When oncoming Germans repulsed a French counter-offensive forward of Marine lines, retreating Frenchmen demanded the Marines withdraw with them. Capt Lloyd Williams, a company commander with 2/5 Mar, replied to a dispirited French major, “Retreat, Hell! We just got here.” The brigade, although untested in battle, was ready for action.(5)

On the afternoon of 3 June, the woods across from the Marines’ line finally came alive. Waves of German soldiers emerged from the tree lines and advanced through waist-high wheat fields toward the Marines. Some reports list 500 yards away, others say 300 yards away, but at some distance the Germans were not expecting, the Marines of 1/5 Mar and 2/5 Mar, lying prone with their 1903 Springfield bolt-action rifles, began pouring precision rifle fire into the advancing enemy. While watching the onslaught, Col Catlin recalled, “The Boches fell by the score there among the wheat and the poppies … they didn’t break, they were broken.”(6) Marines and their rifles alone won the day in their first encounter with the enemy. Even nearby French units praised the Marines for their unmatched marksmanship. After three failed attacks on 3 June, the Germans limped back into Belleau Wood and began fortifying their front. The Marines rested and re-organized their lines over the next two days, preparing to clear out the woods when orders came.

At 2225 on 5 June, brigade headquarters issued orders for an assault, with zero hour set for 0345 on 6 June. Commanders now had only five hours to deliver the order to their men dispersed along the line, coordinate supporting arms, and ready their men. Despite the impossibility of the task word passed through the darkness, troops checked their equipment and readied their weapons, and platoons moved to their rendezvous points. The first objective would be Hill 142, a prominent terrain feature that commanded high ground a few hundred meters west of Belleau Wood. 1/5 Mar would spearhead the attack.

At 0345 only the 49th and 67th Companies were in position to begin the assault, and at 0350 whistle blasts signaled the weary yet eager Marines to begin the attack. Many veterans remember the initial waves moving toward Hill 142 as a textbook performance of an attack formation. The platoons attacked in lines of four, maintaining proper intervals, with French-made Chauchat light machineguns interspersed for suppressive fire. The parade-like formations, however, fell apart when German machineguns sprang to life. Withering fire from German Maxims and Mausers raked the approaching Marines, killing scores. Platoon formations quickly morphed into individual struggles for survival. Momentum stalled. Then small-unit leaders took charge. Only meters from machinegun emplacements, junior officers and noncommissioned officers rushed forward, inspiring their men to keep moving. One Marine lost a hand grabbing an enemy machinegun barrel. The enemy gun crew, however, suffered a worse fate at the hands of Marines with bayonets.

By noon on 6 June, 1/5 Mar had secured Hill 142 but at a cost of 16 officers and 544 Marines killed or wounded.(7) The Germans suffered far greater with an estimated 2,000 casualties. With the high ground overlooking Belleau Wood in American hands, the assault on the woods could begin.(8)

From just the first few days of the battle, we can take away several lessons:

  1. Forced Marches: When not enough vehicles were available for transportation, 1/5 Mar, and the 5th Machine Gun Battalion were forced to march with weapons and equipment to the front line.9 Rigorous training both stateside and in France prior to the battle prepared Marines to undergo these strenuous conditions and perform superbly. Although vehicles and aircraft are the norms for transportation today, commanders must still ensure that their units can move themselves and their equipment to distant objectives without those luxuries and still complete the mission.
  2. Marksmanship: During the initial encounter with the enemy on 3 June, marksmanship displayed by the Marines engaging targets out to 500 meters was far superior to French and German marksmanship during the war. Although mission sets change, the Marine Corps must continue to imbue marksmanship fundamentals to all Marines in both recruit training and the FMF, and commanders must make every effort to increase the accuracy and lethality of Marines under their charge. Get your Marines trigger time, that is always a good investment.
  3. Aggressive Execution: Poorly planned orders to secure Hill 142 gave subordinate commanders minimal time to plan and execute. Regardless, at zero hour, NCOs and junior officers were moving amongst the troops, getting them in order and inspiring them with their command presence and leadership. When chaos ensued, well-trained small-unit leaders made the difference in securing the objective. That legacy of sacrifice, determination, and leading from the front must continue to be instilled in all junior leaders throughout the Corps through rigorous training, effective promotion screening, and character development by their commanders and senior enlisted leaders.

Into the Woods
Brigade headquarters issued orders to clear out the entirety of Belleau Wood while the engagement on Hill 142 raged back and forth. Setting zero hour for 1700 that same day, 6 June, Gen Harbord, commander of the Marine Brigade and a career Army officer, issued Field Order Number Two, calling for a multi-pronged attack on the woods. 3/5 Mar would execute the main attack by striking the woods on its western front while 3/6 Mar would penetrate the woods at its southwest tip and clear the woods northward. Rotating on 3/6 Mar’s right flank, 2/6 Mar would protect 3/6 Mar’s flank and secure the village of Bouresches east of the woods.

Intelligence on enemy activity in Belleau Wood during the days leading up to the attack was limited. Various French air scouts reported observing enemy activity inside the woods, and division intelligence believed that the Germans were consolidating positions in the woods. Gen Harbord, however, believed the woods were either empty or occupied by only a small force to be easily captured. As a result, the brigade scheduled minimal artillery support for the attack, a decision that would prove disastrous.(10)

At 1700 on 6 June 1918, the attack on Belleau Wood commenced. Leaving the safety of their lines, the attacking battalions proceeded through waist-high wheat fields toward their objectives in the dark, looming tree line. 3/5 Mar, the northernmost unit, had the most exposed approach to the woods.(11) 3/6 Mar, to the south, fared somewhat better with trees and terrain shielding their approach.

Spread out on-line in four different waves, 3/5 Mar’s Marines were several hundred yards from the woods when German machineguns ripped into their front and flanks. Marines fell by the dozens. Casualties mounted. Lieutenants abruptly found themselves in command of rifle companies, sergeants suddenly commanded platoons, and privates now led squads. Col Catlin, commander of 6th Mar, was observing his regiment’s progress when a German bullet smashed into his chest, rendering him unable to continue command. Maj Benjamin Berry, 3/5 Mar’s battalion commander, lost most of his right arm in the attack but remained with the battalion until forced to evacuate. 3/6 Mar, fighting to the south, gained a foothold on the southern edge of the woods but not before sustaining heavy casualties from devastating enemy machinegun and rifle fire.

Around 2100 on 6 June, Berry’s battered Marines of 3/5 Mar, having failed to gain a foothold in the woods, withdrew back to their lines. 3/6 Mar, also decimated by machinegun fire and low on ammunition, held only a sliver of Belleau Wood’s southwestern leg. 2/6 Mar, east of the woods, fared the best. Having gained a foothold in the village of Bouresches, 2/6 Mar would hold the village to the battle’s end.

The fighting on 6 June proved to be one of the costliest days for the Marine Corps in all its history. That day alone, the Marine Brigade lost 31 officers and 1,056 enlisted men.(12) Although the fighting spirit among the Marines was strong, valor and aggressiveness could go only so far against machineguns and artillery. The Marines would need the next few days to filter in replacements, resupply ammunition and equipment, and better coordinate their supporting arms.

The Brigade’s actions on 6 June reveal countless lessons worthy of review:

  1. Reconnaissance/Intelligence: Division intelligence reports suggested that the Germans were fortifying the woods. Any legitimate reconnaissance mission into the woods would have revealed significant enemy troop activity and the numerous machinegun emplacements. With these obstacles identified, the brigade could have ordered attacks at weaker points or utilized greater supporting arms to suppress enemy strong points. Commanders have a responsibility to get eyes on the objective whenever possible.
  2. Synchronization and the Use of Supporting Arms: Gen Harbord’s belief that the woods were lightly occupied caused him to forgo the extensive use of integrated artillery fire to soften enemy strong points. Further, the use and positioning of machineguns by the 5th and 6th Machine Gun Battalions failed to effectively suppress enemy machineguns and strong points in support of maneuver elements. Although speed and tempo are always factors in an operation, commanders must make every effort to fight the enemy using combined arms.
  3. Commander’s Intent and Mission Accomplishment: The capture of the village Bouresches east of Belleau Wood is a superb example of small-unit leaders understanding the commander’s intent and utilizing their own initiative, ingenuity, and resourcefulness to seize the objective. The first unit to enter the village was a platoon of Marines led by 2ndLt Clifton Cates, the future Commandant, whose report to higher, “I have no one on my left and only a few on my right. I will hold,” reflected the grit of those junior leaders committed to accomplishing the mission. Commander’s intent means something; it gives subordinates clarity in chaos and decision-making ease in situations of strained communication.

Hard Fought Victory
On 8 June, only two days after the bloody lessons of the 6th, Maj Berton Sibley’s 3/6 Mar continued its assault into the southern leg of the woods until casualties and overwhelming enemy fire checked their advance. Gen Harbord, realizing the full strength of the German presence in the woods, finally made complete use of his artillery. Throughout the night of 9 June and into the morning of 10 June, allied batteries fired over 34,000 shells into the square-mile patch of woods.(13)

Attacking northward behind the rolling artillery barrage, 1/6 Mar relieved 3/6 Mar and finally captured the southern edge of the woods. On 11 June, 2/5 Mar braved devastating machinegun fire and crossed the same wheat field where 3/5 Mar was bloodied and repulsed four days earlier. Harbord’s artillery preparation had reduced German strong points, allowing 2/5 Mar to penetrate the woods on its western front. After four grueling days fighting inside the woods, LtCol Frederick Wise and the Marines of 2/5 Mar had captured over 300 German prisoners, dozens of machineguns, and the southern half of the Belleau Wood.(14)

German resistance was far from over, however. As the Marine Brigade consolidated its gains in the southern half of the woods, the Germans responded with precise artillery fire, wreaking havoc with high explosive and mustard gas shells. Yet, in the chaos heroes emerged. GySgt Fred Stockham, of 2/6 Mar’s 96th Company, seeing a wounded Marine in need of a gas mask, removed his own and gave it to the man. Saving the Marine’s life, GySgt Stockham eventually succumbed to exposure and died several days later. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.

After 10 days of intense combat, near constant artillery barrages, machinegun fire/and poison gas, Gen Harbord pulled the crippled Marine Brigade off the line. On 18 June, the Army’s 7th Infantry Regiment replaced the beleaguered Marines and spent a week trying to take the northern sector of Belleau Wood. Poorly trained and untried, the Doughboys fared terribly, and by 23 June the Marine Brigade was sent back in to finish the job. On 26 June elements of 3/5 Mar cleared the northern edge of the woods of all German resistance. Maj Maurice Shearer, 3/5 Mar’s battalion commander, passed up to brigade the famous message “Woods now United States Marine Corps entirely.”(15) The Battle for Belleau Wood was over, but the legend had just begun.

Final lessons drawn from the Battle of Belleau Wood:

  1. Quality over Quantity: The quality of officers and enlistees in the Marine Corps during World War I was far above average for the Services with 60 percent of enlisted men having completed some college.16 While the Army’s standards were lowered, the Marine Corps accepted only 60,000 out of almost 240,000 applicants, looking for candidates with high moral character, athletic abilities, and patriotism. Despite today’s recruiting challenges, the Marine Corps must keep the standard high. As 21st-century missions become more complex only the best and the brightest will allow our units to adapt, improvise and overcome, like our forefathers at Belleau Wood.
  2. Combat Arms: In 1918, the Marine Corps consisted predominantly of infantrymen, engineers, artillerymen, and machinegunners. Mission requirements today have changed those ratios, but the Corps should be careful in trimming its combat-arms element. Future conflicts have highlighted the need for increased numbers of cyber specialists, intelligence analysts, and other enablers, but near-peer threats will require troops on the ground using direct and indirect fire weapons to secure physical objectives. That will never change. Should we be worried about having enough Marines to staff the finance center or enough of the right Marines to hold the line when the enemy presses an attack? The Corps cannot lose its fighting edge.
  3. Recruit Training: Col Catlin claimed tactics employed by Marines were no different from the Army’s during World War I. What made the Marine Corps stand apart, he said, was the esprit and pride imbued in all Marines during recruit training.17 From that pride flowed discipline, gallantry, grit, self-sacrifice, esprit de corps, and determination to accomplish the mission, all of which were poured out in that small patch of woods. Leaders have an obligation to sustain in their Marines those same ideals instilled at Parris Island, San Diego, or Quantico by use of challenging and purposeful training, exemplary leadership, professional education, and historical study and emphasis. Leaders often fail to challenge their Marines after their completion of entry-level training or formal schools. They joined for a challenge; it is our job to deliver it.
  4. Service Above Self: Army GEN Matthew Ridgeway later cited Belleau Wood as a “prize example of men’s lives being thrown away against objectives not worth the cost.”18 We now know that the battle had a significant effect on halting the German’s advance, yet poor tactics and misuse of combined arms did cost excess lives. What carried much of the battle was individual and unit discipline, the ability of each Marine to subjugate their own personal interests and desires for the good of the unit and the mission. Ever present at Belleau Wood, the concept of service above oneself has almost all but escaped our society and is inching its way out of our Corps. Our Nation’s trending obsession over personal liberties and social movements in place of service to a greater good is eroding the patriotism and selfless service that have long been hallmarks of the American experience. Leaders at every level must curb this overt narcissism by fostering cohesion and esprit in their units. We are Marines first. The Marine Brigade was ordered to attack and, drawing on the discipline and selflessness of Marines at every level, unhesitatingly carried out the mission and captured Belleau Wood.


1. Albertus W. Catlin, With the Help of God and a Few Marines (Nashville: The Battery Press, 2004).

2. George B. Clark, The Fourth Marine Brigade in World War I: Battalion Histories Based on Official Documents (Jefferson: McFarland & Co., 2015).

3. Robert Coram, Brute (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2010).

4. Alan Axelrod, Miracle at Belleau Wood (Guilford, CT: Lyon Press, 2007).

5. The Fourth Marine Brigade in World War I.

6. Miracle at Belleau Wood.

7. With the Help of God and a Few Marines.

8. The Fourth Marine Brigade in World War I.

9. Miracle at Belleau Wood.

10. With the Help of God and a Few Marines.

11. Miracle at Belleau Wood.

12. The Fourth Marine Brigade in World War I.

13. Michael A. Eggleston, The 5th Marine Regiment Devil Dogs in World War I: A History and Roster (Jefferson: McFarland & Co, 2016).

14. Miracle at Belleau Wood.

15. The 5th Marine Regiment Devil Dogs in World War I.

16. The Fourth Marine Brigade in World War I.

17. With the Help of God and a Few Marines.

18. Ibid.