How can an empty Island cause 300 soldier casualties? - History Key

How can an empty Island cause 300 soldier casualties?

We have already discussed a strange military event from the past, when the Austrian army attacked itself, during the Battle of Karansebes in 1788 (around 10,000 casualties caused by friendly fire). This time the story is related to the US Army and its operation on a North Pacific island during WW2. The Operation Cottage aimed to occupy a small volcanic island, named Kiska, which was believed to be occupied by Japanese troops. Before the landing, the Allies launched a heavy bombardment on the island, in order to weaken any possible resistance coming from the enemy.

Kiska Island
Kiska Island © Image Source: Wikipedia

The attack was launched on August 15 1943, and sustained by a force of 34,000 soldiers, both American and Canadian troops, having as support artillery, navy and warplanes. What the Allies did not know is that the Japanese troops managed to be evacuated before the August attack. On July 28, more than 5,000 Japanese soldiers managed to escape the island in very short time and totally undetected. So, what were the origins of all the bad luck?

The first record in that direction is reported on August 18, when the Navy destroyer Amner Read hit a mine in the Kiska Harbor, resulting in the killing of 70 sailors, together with another 50 being wounded. Other casualties resulted from landmines, booby traps, friendly fire or vehicle accidents for a total of 92 deaths and 221 wounded, some of them seriously. None of the casualties was directly linked to a fight with Japanese troops. The preparation for the Kiska attack was planned having in mind a similar situation, more exactly the Attu Island.

On May 1943, Operation Landcrab was launched, with the intention to retake the island occupied by Japanese forces. In this operation, which eventually has proven effective, 16,000 Allied soldiers were involved, reporting a total of 3,829 casualties, including 549 killed in action (KIA). Interesting to note that of the 2.650 Japanese soldiers deployed on the island, only 29 did not fight to the death. Having this experience still fresh in mind, the Allies thought they would experience a similar situation on Kiska, but the island was evacuated three weeks before the assault.

U.S. soldiers on a beach from the ''Massacre Bay'' in Attu
U.S. soldiers on a beach from the ”Massacre Bay” in Attu © Image Source: Library of Congress, FSA/OWI collection


As stated by Del C. Kostka, from the National University Press (who has written several texts related to the Kiska episode):

“That the Allied staff might have had an unrealistic impression of Japanese resilience and fortitude in August 1943 is understandable given the context of prior events in the Pacific. Japan’s samurai heritage and code of ethics known as bushido fueled a stereotype of a warrior culture steeped in obedience, discipline, and staunch revulsion to surrender. The intensity and savagery of the fighting on Attu only served to reinforce this image.” (quote from Del C. Kostka)

After the Attu episode, the American intelligence estimated the presence of around 10,000 Japanese soldiers on the Kiska island. Even the aerial reconnaissance confirmed the large networks of trenches and bunkers placed on high ground, perfect in order to attack the landing Allied troops, which would make their way starting from the beach. During July, all kind of bombs were dropped on Kiska, for a total of 420 tons. They wanted to be sure in avoiding another “Massacre Bay”. Once landed on Kiska beach, all kinds of problems began to appear. Dense fog and wind, tanks blocked in the volcanic rocks from the beachhead, stationary vessels caused a traffic jam and lot of confusion. During that situations, the veterans from Attu’s Massacre Bay, were preoccupied by the lack of contact with the Japanese enemy, by the lack of any kind of offensive action. The veterans were convinced that the strange silence meant that the Japanese were only waiting for them, well stationed in their positions located on higher ground.

Aerial image of a Japanese position on Kiska island
Aerial image of a Japanese position on Kiska island © Image Source:

But despite all these preparations and efforts, the island was empty. No Japanese soldier was there when the attack took place.

“The decision to evacuate the Kiska garrison was not taken lightly, but even the most aggressive Japanese commanders realized that Japan’s hold on Kiska was pointless, and manpower was badly needed elsewhere in the Pacific.” (quote from Del C. Kostka)

The mystery of Kiska and the Japanese retreat was elucidated only after the war, when more details came from the interrogation of Japanese officers. The brutal Allied attack on Attu, made the Japanese official believe that an imminent one is scheduled for Kiska. The evacuation of Kiska was a hard decision for the Japanese, who felt that a retreat from Kiska would dishonor the dead from Attu, but logic won and the Japanese retreat took place. Originally, the plan was built around the idea to escape the island by submarine, but the plan was aborted after three submarines were spotted and sunk by Allied forces.

Three damaged Japanese ''midget'' submarines on Kiska beach
Three damaged Japanese ”midget” submarines on Kiska beach © Image Source:

The Japanese used surface vessels and small boats for the evacuation, managing to elude the Allied naval blockade. An important role for the success of the mission, was played by the dense fog, which guaranteed a perfect cover for the Japanese.


A very small Japanese task was the last one to leave the island. They functioned as rear guard, having also the mission to destroy all the important Japanese equipment left on the terrain. During the Kiska Allied attack, no Japanese casualties were reported.


Relics on Kiska island nowadays
Relics on Kiska island nowadays © Image Source:

(Article written using references from: Wikipedia,,

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