Recalling Kiska, the battle that never was

Longtime Juneau residents Tom Stewart and Bill Overstreet recall an invasion targeting one of three Aleutian Islands captured by the Japanese

Posted: Wednesday, September 17, 2003

As 1st Lt. Tom Stewart struggled down the cargo net in full battle gear to the landing craft below, he knew to expect 75 percent casualties on the beach. Stewart's boat was part of the first wave of soldiers assaulting the last Japanese stronghold in Alaska - Kiska Island, in the Aleutian chain. Their assigned beach lay beneath a 4,000-foot volcano. The date was August 15, 1943.

As Stewart's boat moved towards Kiska, a flotilla of ships, including three battleships and five cruisers, pummeled the beachhead with large-caliber shells. Aboard one of the cruisers was 17-year old Bill Overstreet, the second youngest of the 1,200 officers and men who made up the crew of the USS Portland.

Although neither Overstreet, now 77, nor Stewart, now 84, was aware of the other's existence, both would later become prominent members of Juneau and Alaska's political scene. Stewart would serve as clerk at the Alaska Constitutional Convention and later become a Superior Court judge. Overstreet was a principal and superintendent for the Juneau School District and later was elected mayor of Juneau.

Stewart commanded a platoon of 32 soldiers, part of the 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment. Behind his platoon stood approximately 35,000 combat infantrymen, with another 90,000 airmen, sailors and soldiers supporting the invasion. Unlike the American soldiers who had recently liberated Attu, another Aleutian Island, Stewart's men were trained, equipped and supported for what lay ahead.

As Stewart splashed ashore he remembers thinking the water wasn't as deep as he had expected. There were no trees, just heavy verdant grass that shimmered in the wind, said Stewart. "There were all the sights and sounds of battle but no small arms return fire from the Japanese. It was spooky. We never dreamed that no one would be there," Stewart said.

The only living things left behind by the Japanese were a couple of dogs. This was more than a little surprising since the Navy had gripped Kiska - an island about the size of Douglas Island - in a tight blockade that prevented the Japanese from reinforcing or supplying their garrison of 5,000 soldiers. It would be decades before the Americans understood how the Japanese had escaped.

Leap ahead 40 years. One of Stewart's former comrades on Kiska, Sherman Smith, came across a long-forgotten Japanese flag in his basement. The flag had Japanese writing on it and Smith began to wonder what it said. A translator told him there was a name, Kaoru Kasukabe, and the writing mentioned that Kasukabe was a mountaineer. Smith found the name of a Japanese mountaineering club and wrote the association asking if anyone knew a Kasukabe. It happened that Kasukabe was the club's secretary.

Move ahead 10 more years to August 1993. Kasukabe and Stewart are on a U.S. Coast Guard ship steaming into Kiska Harbor with 10 other veterans of the Kiska campaign to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the invasion. Kasukabe learned English while living in Washington state as a child. Prior to the war, his parents had moved the family back to Japan, said Stewart. During the five days the veterans spent touring the uninhabited island they were able to piece together events that arguably saved all of the Japanese lives and many American lives - including Stewart's.

The events start with a naval engagement that took place on July 22, 1943. This was a typical day on Kiska with American planes and boats bombing and shelling Japanese forces, softening the island up for the invasion that was still three weeks away. As night settled on the scene, radar on six of the larger American ships made contact with what seemed to be Japanese ships. The American fleet formed up and headed away from Kiska for battle.

"This was my first introduction to war," said Overstreet, who was envious of his shipmates who had already been through one great naval battle near Guadalcanal. Overstreet wanted to be as heroic and as salty as his shipmates. Instead, "I was as nervous as a cat," he said. As a topside deckhand and 20-millimeter anti-aircraft gunner, Overstreet had a ringside seat for what was about to transpire.

"It was a giant fireworks display," said Overstreet. "The smell of the gunpowder was god-awful and the vibrations were tremendous. The cotton for our ears was very ineffective," he said.

After twenty minutes of firing the pips (echoes) on the ships' radars began to disappear. Some of the ships went forward to see what damage had been caused. They found nothing, no debris, no bodies, and no oil slicks. Had there been ships there? Could there have been submarines on the surface? If not, what had caused the radar readings? The answers to these questions remained a mystery until recently.

On Kiska, Kasukabe was listening to the American communications as the ships moved away from the island. After firing most of their ammunition and using much of their fuel, the ships withdrew further from the island to resupply. "Kasukabe told us the American communications were in plain English," said Stewart.

Approximately 500 miles south of Kiska, unknown to the Americans, a small Japanese fleet lay waiting for a chance to run the blockade. Kasukabe told Stewart that when he heard the Americans say they were withdrawing, the Japanese fleet was given the signal to approach Kiska. Radar was used to help guide the ships in, said Stewart. Under the cover of fog and darkness the Japanese loaded 5,000 troops on the ships in less than an hour.

Had the Japanese not left Kiska, it's hard to imagine that the battle would have developed any differently from the way it did on Attu and countless other Pacific Islands during the war. American casualties would have been horrific and Japanese catastrophic, and there might not have been a spirited reunion for the survivors 50 years later.

As for the radar pips, the best answer to what happened comes from a longtime Aleutian fisherman, George Fulton. After reading "The Thousand-Mile War," a study of World War II in Alaska, Fulton wrote the author, Brian Garfield, that he knew what caused the pips. Fulton, an expert on ship navigation devices and with 40 years experience in the Aleutians, described in great detail how the radar signals depicted in Garfield's book fit exactly the night-flight pattern of the dense flocks of "mutton birds" or dusky shearwaters. Three other fishermen with similar experience in the Aleutians confirmed Fulton's description.

The gods of war were merciful if not kind to Stewart, Overstreet and Kasukabe. After spending four months on Kiska trying to stay dry and warm, Stewart ended up in northern Italy for the last six months of the war. He survived significant combat, although his division suffered serious casualties. Overstreet continued to serve on the USS Portland until the end of the war. His ship earned 16 battle stars and a Presidential Unit Citation for its participation in nearly every major naval battle in the Pacific. Kasukabe was taken prisoner by the Russians at the end of the war.

He was repatriated in 1948.

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