By JAMES A. MACLEAN
British United Press Correspondent
"Kiska is no place to spend a vacation ... Two days after we landed the island turned into a morass of mud and water"
MAIN STREET, Kiska Village, Aleutian Islands: I witnessed the Kiska landing from a grandstand seat in one of the first Canadian landing barges to hit the beach. And together with thousands of tanned surf-soaked Canadians I climbed across the rocky back of this treeless muddy island and down into this bedraggled unpainted Japanese village.
I was amazed at the extent and depth of the Japanese defenses and at the amount of equipment, left behind. I was more amazed at the fact that we met no Japanese gunfire. But I can’t answer the question as to how or why they left. Instead, the thousands of Canadian troops here are more interested in the answer to two other questions: “Where do we go from here? And when is the next mail due from home?” The first flush of landing was over. And so was the momentary disappointment at finding no target for our guns. The rain was pouring down again and the fog had closed in. The 6,000 Canadians in the assault force have had time to think. And here is the way they reason things out:
“We,” they say, “wanted Kiska badly enough to prepare to take it by force. We were prepared to help the Americans take this forsaken rock at a price. We got it without paying that price. So why kick?” That’s how the average rawboned, muddy, cheerful Canadian soldier who helped take, Kiska has things figured out. Today he sits huddled in his poncho in a drizzling rain, beneath the tattered wing of a wrecked Japanese Zero seaplane, warming his hands over a gasoline fire—Japanese gasoline. And he’s thinking of home. . >
For months he had been trained and hardened for the fight he expected at Kiska. For months he had drilled into him the latest methods of fighting and for months he had been waiting to put that training into practice.
Then he found that the Japs had fled without waiting to fight—for the first time in this war.
The story really starts in April, 1943, in Vancouver at a conference between Major-General G. R. Pearkes and American General John DeWitt. The Japanese then held Kiska, the best submarine harbor in the entire north Pacific, a base the United Nations wanted for operations against the Japanese naval units based on Paramuchiro 700 miles to the west. The Americans were preparing to go ahead with plans for an attack of the type successfully launched against Att.u.
General Pearkes plied the American with questions. He found they both agreed that a two-pronged attack against Japan, from the north as well as from the south, was the best and fastest means of crippling the Nipponese.
The Canadian Pacific Coast Commander explained it to me as follows:
“If Canada is to be regarded as a power in the Pacific she must take part in operations against Japan. The correct and only way to defend Canada’s West Coast is to carry the fight to the Japanese across the international dateline. The Japanese have concentrated most of their power in the south Pacifia—the area they covet most. If we hit them there and only t here we are like a boxer using one arm. But if we can rock Japan from north and south the Japanese will be forced to split their naval force to guard their own home shores. No matter how they dispose their forces, under a two-pronged attack they will be weakened.”
Canadian participation in the move on Kiska was agreed upon and on several occasions Prime Minister W. L. Mackenzie King hinted at the coming operation in the House of Commons.
The London Fusiliers, the Winnipeg Grenadiers, the
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Rocky Mountain Rangers, and the Regiment de Hull were picked to form the nucleus of the three combat teams sent into action by Canada. The makeup of the force was something new to British military annals.
Generally speaking, the Canadian force was a “large brigade” twice the size of a normal brigade. Added to the first four regiments were units of the RCE, the RCA, the RCCS, the 25th Field Ambulance, The St. John’s Fusiliers (machine gunners), the 46th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, the RCOC, the RCASC, the Light Aid Detachment, the Provost Corps and a U. S. Field Hospital Unit, a U. S. air liaison party, a naval gunfire party from the U. S. marines, and a protective platoon for brigade headquarters from the Lome Scots (Peel, Dufferin and Halton Regiment).
This plan of battle affected the average soldier in several ways. Naturally he wasn’t let in on the ultimate objective this early in the game, but there was no doubt in his mind that something big was in the wind. Battle training and combined operations got into full swing at a number of training
centres on the Canadian west coast. Day after day the Canadians now on Kiska went through gruelling workouts —iron rations, three-day manoeuvres, barge landings, practice scaling and climbing down mock landing nets.
Day after day it went on. And the scuttlebutt, or rumors, flew thick and fast. Gossip had it that the various units were being trained to take part in operations anywhere from Siam to the Italian Alps. Many of these rumors were started deliberately to help keep the real objective dark.
Meanwhile, transports were being collected at various Pacific coast ports, and Canadian and American naval and air stations began gearing themselves to handle the job of convoying. Many who took part in tne groundwork were completely unaware of the significance of their job.
Sailing day came and with it the issue of clot hing and equipment such as were being worn by the Canadian machine gunner, resting in the mud in the lee of a hill to my left. He’d thrown his rain cape over a packing box and he’d got his head and shoulders inside, writing a letter to his wife.
Clad in American-type helmets and carrying American ski-troop-type rucksacks, rubber muckluks, rain suits, web belt and attachments, spare jackets and pants, arctic parkas, face camouflage paint, and some types of American small arms, these Canadian lads boarded their transports—-the same ships that carried the American troops into Attu. Crammed in the holds of these transports, or lashed to their spray-swept decks, were hundreds of tons of explosives, tractors, bulldozers, artillery, and motor transport.
The convoy stood out from a western Canadian port and steamed west before dawn. The force’s objective was still unknown to most of the troops aboard. Overhead, out of sight in the fog, planes of the Royal Canadian Air Force wheeled and circled. Around the host of grey 10,000-ton transports charged units of the Royal Canadian Navy. Later the naval escort was taken over by the American North Pacific Fleet.
Meanwhile, aboard the transports, officers in the know spent hours over their maps memorizing the contours of their island objective. “Main objectives—the village and encampments around Kiska Harbor, and at Gertrude Cove on the south shore. First day’s objectives—Rooster, Morgan and Rex Hills, 5,000 yards southeast of the Canadian beach head.”
Below decks the tension grew. Army censors found themselves facing a growing volume of troop mail—those last letters written by soldiers before going into battle. Card games flourished on the hatches on deck. Carbines, antitank guns and Bren guns were taken apart and cleaned and put together again for the 100th time. Magazines and books became treasures. And rumors rolled off the production line with clocklike precision. News from the outside world was cut off to prevent the enemy from picking up coded newscasts.
Gradually in the minds of the officers was etched an unforgettable image of Kiska: ‘‘Twenty-five miles long, five
miles wide. Shaped something like a bat. Four thousand foot semi-active volcano at the north end. Japanese work parties sighted inside the crater. Main resistance probably expected in the central part of the island. Heavy anti-aircraft defenses on the plateau north of the main harbor on the east
coast. Similar ack-ack dispositions south of the harbor and more around Gertrude Cove. Machine guns, caves, tunnels, operations posts, radio station and equipment in the harbor area. Damage already done to submarine sheds and seaplane hangars on the main harbor beach. Warn the men again about booby traps.”
And so it went. Objectives for the three combat teams had not yet been assigned. The Regiment de Hull’s beach party, split three ways among the combat teams, was busy working out the schedule of supply.
The convoy steamed on—due west. It dropped anchor at Adak Island, the advance task force base for the operation. These Canadian troops streamed ashore and wound uphill, waving greetings to American sailors and soldiers. Ribald wisecracks were fired back and forth. The Canadians wound their way uphill back of the harbor to await the signal for the final re-embarkation on the last leg of the trip.
The rain came down that night, and with it the Canadians got their first real taste of Aleutian weather. There are some, of course, who claim that it never snows or rains in the Aleutians— it snows or rains in Siberia and just blows past the Aleutians. An even more select group claims that the weather comes in so horizontally that roofs are really unnecessary—a stout set of walls will suffice.
The Canadian pennants fluttered soggily along the picket lines that night, and on almost every other night until sailing time. The deep churned mud around the tents became stickier and seemingly bottomless.
Sailing time came—on Friday 13th. Down from the hill came the Canadians, headed for the docks. They were loaded with equipment, fresh from final manoeuvres, armed with last minute information and toughened and ready for battle.
There is no sense claiming that the Canadians boarded those transports with high glee. They didn’t. It was the first embarkation of that type I had ever witnessed. But I suspect that this “carefree warrior” business is a product of fiction.
As the troops streamed past me, an endless line of marching men, trucks and guns, I found their faces hard to read. Many were bothered, I know, by the letters they’d left unwritten. I was in that spot myself. There never seemed to be time. Generally the faces of the troops were impassive. Not happy, but certainly not sad. This was their biggest adventure and they knew it. And each beginner at the game of war was anxious to acquit himself well. 1 ¡ was in that spot too.
One by one the transports pulled away from the dock and slid into position within the destroyer screen offshore. My transport was the last to leave. Aboard were the Winnipeg Grenadiers, lineal successors of the battalion wiped out by the Japs at Hong Kong. In from the bay drifted the strains of “Alouette,”deep-throated from the men of the Regiment de Hull in a transport ahead of ours.
I slept late the following morning i and perhaps it was just as well. News j correspondents got no sleep for the I remainder of the trip.
On deck the Grenadiers were playing ! cards or reading, their life jackets around their waists or within reach. Or they were talking to the Filipino mess boys or to the battle wise crew of j the transport. The transport had gone ' through the bombing of Dutch Harbor
unscathed although she lay there loaded with high explosives and without a pound of steam pressure in her boilers. She’d been to Attu, too, and the Canadians aboard her were missing no bets on picking up anti-Jap tips from her veteran crewmen.
The Filipino mess boys were the Grenadiers’ favorites, and it was an esteem that worked both ways. All of the mess boys had families in the Philippines—and an implacable hate for the Japs. It wasn’t a demonstrative hate. It couldn’t be gauged by anything the Filipinos said themselves. But it was shaped for me to see.
One night when 1 was on my way to the galley for a cup of coffee; a lithe little mess boy with a thick shock of black hair touched me on the elbow. The passageway was dark but I heard him murmur, “This way, sir, please.” He guided me into the kitchen and asked me for my sheath knife. The knife, like most of those issued, was not really any too sharp. Five minutes later I walked out of the kitchen with an edge on that knife capable of splitting a piece of paper in half edgewise. 1 found out later the Filipinos had stayed up half the night sharpening Canadian knives.
We had our first attack alarm that night. It was my first, as it was for hundreds of Canadian troops aboard— many of them had never been to sea before.
Somewhere off to starboard an American destroyer shrilled the alarm. The transport’s alarm bell cut through the silence like a knife. There was no panic. But the alarm came as a definite shock, like a dentist running his drill over a nerve.
The next few minutes seemed like hours. No one knew whether to expect air or submarine attack. The muzzles of the transport’s guns in the armored “buckets” topside moved limberly in ready arcs. The seconds dragged. 1 thought of the tons of explosives in the hold and crossed my fingers.
Out of the fog came a steady drone. A plane. The 17-year-old American machine gunner next to me listened intently and then relaxed. “It’s one of ours.”
The all clear sounded two minutes later. I looked at my watch. What had seemed like hours had lasted just nine minutes. The young gunner rewrapped the breeches of his twin weapons in canvas and scuffed his toes on the deck. “I wish my folks would write me occasionally,” he said.
Our convoy was chosen to create a diversion off the south coast of Kiska in order to facilitate the landing of American troops on the other side of the island. Also, there was some hope by the Navy that Japanese naval units could be lured into action with the outside fringes of our naval cover. We were circling in the fog, not knowing whether to expect enemy fire from the land or sea side.
Shortly after the alarm and the diversionary circling we got good news. The captain pinned up a brief bulletin on the door of the officers’ mess. It said, “American troops have landed on the south beach head and have taken their first objectives without resistance.” Things were going well.
We steamed on through the night toward the northern end of the island where we were to open the northern beach head. The fog was endless and solidly black. The only light was the greenish-white glow of phosphorescence in the water. The transports nudged their way through the fog to within
1,000 yards of the island. Kiska looked black and deathly silent. The anchors went down with a rattling crash and I was sure then that the noise would waken every Jap for miles.
Through night glasses I stared hard at the ink-black shore. No sign of life. No noise. To the left the huge base of the Kiska volcano could be seen jutting out of the sea. Two thirds of it was hidden by the low-lying fog. Then, at dawn, the fog and darkness lifted.
From all over Bamboo Bay came the roar of winches and the faint shouts of men. The Canadians and Americans were pouring ashore in force. Scores and scores of blue-grey landing barges of all types sped in an endless conveyer belt to the beach, pounding through the icy surf and kelp to the sand bars just off shore.
The Canadians, their faces daubed with greenish-white camouflage paint, swarmed over the sides of the transports, down the thick rope landing nets and into the barges bobbing in the Bering swells beneath.
There were 250 Canadians in the first barge from our ship. And half way to the beach we thought the fireworks had started. Blue smoke and explosions rolled out across the bay from the hills above the beach head. We thought it was Japanese artillery or mortar fire. It turned out to be advance engineers destroying the thickly sown booby traps and land mines, devices that claimed Canadian casualties in the next few days.
Our barge hit the sandy beach and down the twin ramps the Canadians streamed ashore-—waist deep in the freezing water. Loud speakers ashore were blaring warnings to “Keep out of the grass—it’s filled with mines.” Two captured Japanese machine guns stood silent on the sand next to rows of mines already located and dug up.
The gunner next to me cursed as the surf poured over him, wetting him to the skin, and helped me nurse my portable typewriter through the waves to the shore.
From then on the occupation of the island—as it later turned out to be— went on at a pace that was breathless. Canadians, heavily laden with guns and equipment, swept across that mountainous terrain like a prairie fire.
I had to abandon all my equipment to keep up and even then I never did catch up with the advance patrols.
The weather was perfect for the first two days. After that the rains set in and the island turned into a morass of mud and icy water. Even souvenir hunting became boresome. The tons of enemy equipment abandoned when the garrison pulled out lost its attraction. The Japanese clothing stank with an animal odor, and the bullet-riddled ramshackle buildings on the Kiska harbor water front seemed to settle down further in the mud.
Kiska is no place to spend a vacation. So when the rains came again on the third day, the thoughts of the Canadian assault force turned back once more to home—to a country that has trees, real milk, dry quarters, and sunshine.
Your Canadian soldiers went ashore on this forsaken island with a particular job to do. A relatively small job in the vast mosaic of global war.
Within a few days, unexpectedly, that job was done—Kiska was taken.
And now, as I said before, there are two questions that the Canadians on Kiska are asking themselves, and they are waiting for the answers.
“Where do we go from here? And when’s the next mail due from home?” 4 + + + +