In February of 1942, by order of Chief of Staff General George Marshall, the cumbersome reporting mechanisms of the Army were reorganized into three components: Ground Forces, Air Forces, and Services of Supply (later to be simply known as the Service Force that also included the Army’s Technical Services). Among the latter was the Quartermaster Corps, and it is a unit of the command and one soldier in particular with which this month’s story is concerned. There is a Varnum Continentals connection in our look at the Aleutians Campaign of 1942-43: the contribution by Sgt. Douglas McGunnigle, the father of our own Bruce MacGunnigle (the family changed the spelling of their name in 1972 to return to the original as used by Bruce’s great-grandfather – a Civil War veteran who adopted the shorter version while in the Union Army).
The Aleutian Campaign was often called “the forgotten battle” because it was overshadowed by Guadalcanal and the war elsewhere in the Pacific. It also coincided with the Battle of Midway, which marked a key turning point in the war against Japan. It was in the Aleutians that Bruce’s father was stationed during his war service.
The Aleutians are a chain of 120 barren volcanic islands that extend some 1,200 miles west from the Alaskan Peninsula. The western-most US possession is the island of Attu, which plays a key role in our story. On 6 and 7 June 1942, the Japanese invaded Attu and neighboring Kiska. Some believe it was to divert attention from their attack on Midway. However, the US Navy had broken the Japanese naval codes. They knew the Japanese were heading to both locations. They initially did not respond to the Japanese invasion, concentrating instead on Midway. The outcome of that battle, of course, turned the course of the war against the Japanese.
The only real military value of the Aleutians to the US was to prevent a possible aerial attack against the west coast from a Japanese-held position in the islands. The outer Aleutians were within striking distance of northern-most Japanese territorial positions. American forces later conducted bombing raids on the Kuril Islands and the Japanese base at Paramushiro, forcing the enemy to retain troops and aircraft on the islands.
American forces were already stationed on the Alaskan Peninsula and on two inner Aleutian Islands, with a base at Dutch Harbor on Unalaska and an Army airfield on Unmak. Japanese naval air units attacked Dutch Harbor on 3 and 4 June 1942. Some damage was done, but the usual foul weather prevented both a follow-up by the Japanese and a retaliatory attack by American forces on the Japanese fleet. It also prevented the Japanese from attacking Adak Island. The Japanese had little trouble in occupying Attu and Kiska, capturing a small number of American troops stationed on the former. American forces had earlier evacuated the native population from Kiska.
Any service member who served in the Aleutians would sum up the experience primarily in terms of the weather: almost universally awful and equally unpredictable. There was an old joke about the isolation and desolation of the islands: it was said there was a woman behind every tree. Problem was, there were no trees.
The remoteness of the islands also played a key role in what turned into nearly a year of efforts by combined American and Canadian forces to expel the Japanese. In March of 1943, a Navy task force of cruisers and destroyers tangled with a similar sized Japanese naval force in the Battle of the Komandorski Islands. Both sides sustained damage, but the outcome discouraged the Japanese from supplying their garrisons by surface craft, using only submarines thereafter. This marked the beginning of the end for Japanese occupation.
It would be hard to pick a less hospitable place. The climate is characterized by mostly overcast skies, high winds, and frequent cyclonic storms. Adak, some 1,400 miles southwest of Anchorage, averages 173 days with fog. December through March is marked by high winds often reaching hurricane force. Average annual snowfall is about 100 inches with an average of 341 days a year with measurable precipitation.
To better enable Army Air Force B-17s, B-24s, P-38s, and other aircraft to attack the outer islands, the Army established a major base in August of 1943 on Adak with full support facilities and runways made of all-metal Marsden matting laid over the porous Alaskan tundra.
Adak remained an active military base into the 1990s. The airfield, now a civilian airport, still serves the island. The Navy carried out reconnaissance and patrols with PBY amphibious aircraft, destroyers, submarines, and PT boats to keep the Japanese at bay. Using this initial strategy, Army and Navy forces continued to face off against the enemy, scoring some victories over a period of months, but at an ongoing cost of men and equipment, much of it due to the foul conditions.
On 11 May 1943, Attu was invaded by American troops. An 18-day campaign ensued over extremely difficult territory, resulting in nearly 4,000 American casualties. On 29 May, the Japanese conducted one of the largest banzai charges of the Pacific campaign. Only 28 Japanese survived to be taken as prisoners. Some 2,300 Japanese bodies were recovered. It is estimated that many more were buried by bombardments. On 15 August, a combined American and Canadian force invaded Kiska. They met no opposition. The Japanese abandoned the island, successfully evacuating their troops under cover of fog and poor weather. Allied forces did suffer some casualties from friendly fire, booby traps, and frostbite. Again, Kiska lived up to the Aleutian’s unpleasant reputation.
One significant benefit of the Aleutians Campaign was the recovery of a nearly intact Japanese Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighter plane on Akutan Island where it had been crash landed after being slightly damaged during the 4 June Dutch Harbor raid. The Japanese Army pilot, 19-year old Tadayoshi Koga, sighted a grassy field that had been designated by the Japanese as an emergency landing site. Unknown to them, it was actually a bog that snared Koga’s plane and flipped it over, killing him. To prevent the agile Zero from falling into enemy hands, all pilots had been ordered to destroy their aircraft should it be shot down. Koga’s wingmen were afraid to strafe the plane in case they might harm their fellow pilot.
The plane lay undiscovered until July 10 when a US Navy pilot on patrol spotted it. After a difficult recovery process, the plane was salvaged, repaired, and returned to flying condition in California. Test pilots flew the plane multiple times over a period of several weeks, revealing at last performance characteristics that could give American pilots the much-needed advantage over the Zero.
New strategies to overcome the Zero were developed and, along with the arrival of the Grumman F-6F Hellcat, Army and Navy pilots went on to overwhelmingly defeat the Zero in repeated aerial encounters. A great book about this process is “Cracking the Zero Mystery” by Jim Rearden. For a look at how the Japanese viewed the capture of the Akutan Zero, look for “Zero” by former Japanese officer Masatake Okumiya who described the recovery of Koga’s plan as “no less serious than the Japanese defeat at Midway.” By the way, the captured Zero met an ignominious end after it had given up its secrets. It was struck by a Navy aircraft while taxiing and was totally demolished.
So, back to our Aleutians story…
The Aleutians marked the initial deployment of troops from the First Service Command, comprised of units from New England. Here’s where Bruce’s dad, Douglas comes into our tale. A graduate of East Providence High School and Burdett College in Boston, he was newly married to his wife Dorothy who was expecting their first child. Jane Douglas MacGunnigle was born in 1943 while her father was in the Aleutians, and he did not see her until he returned at the end of the war. At the age of 26, married and about to become a father, he was to his surprise drafted, inducted into the Army on 26 June 1942 in Providence and following basic training was assigned to the First Service Command’s Headquarters Detachment, SCU 1101 as a Warehouse Foreman. He was shipped out to Alaska where he was assigned as a supply sergeant at the Army’s new base at Adak. The facility included a major airfield, hospital, and a variety of support and supply facilities for troops engaged in combat on the outlying islands.
The Army, apparently to preserve security and the destination of troops, sent the men to Alaska in warm weather gear and had them set up in tents on Adak. It took a while for the all-weather Quonset huts to arrive. In the meantime, things (to say the least) were pretty uncomfortable. The same conditions initially existed for naval personnel sent north. The weather took a heavy toll on men, ships, planes, and machinery.
According to every veteran of the Aleutians, apart of the intensity of combat, the most overwhelming emotion was that of fatigue brought on by the sheer sameness of the territory. The old expression of moments of terror surrounded by long periods of boredom could be aptly applied to the Aleutians. The almost constant fog and dampness, frequent and intense snowstorms, chilling rain, mud-filled tundra that swallowed up vehicles and made even walking from one place to another a major effort: the Aleutians were a place where the temperature rarely drops below freezing in winter or over 60 degrees in summer. Rain falls upwards on the average of 250 days a year. The troops, of course, were charged with carrying out their mission, no matter what the conditions.
The Army’s Adak base was huge, primarily consisting of Quonset huts. The Navy also maintained an active presence on the island. The services there were manned right through to the end of the war and then beyond. Douglas McGunnigle served his country in the Aleutians through the end of the war and was mustered out of the Army on 25 September 1945. According to his separation papers, he was entitled to 300 dollars of which he was given $100 at the time, apparently to help get him back home.
Like others in the Greatest Generation, he gladly returned to civilian life and went to work for the James C. Goff Company, selling wholesale buildings materials in Rhode Island and east to Cape Cod. Bruce was born in 1947 in Providence, RI. His father died at the age of 43 in 1958. Seven years later, his mother moved the family to East Greenwich, RI. Bruce’s sister, who had suffered a fall as a teenager that resulted in her becoming physically handicapped and legally blind, died in 1970 at the age of 27. Despite her injuries, she graduated from college.
In one of those unforgettable family moments, Bruce recalled a Thanksgiving Day in the 1990s when his older cousin Hal came over with a videotape that contained newsreel footage shot in the Aleutians on Adak. It showed planes taking off from the metal grid runway under the usual poor weather conditions when the scene switched to sights of the troops in everyday activities including the all-important mail call. A sergeant was handing out letters and as he turned, he faced the camera for a moment. There, almost a half-century earlier, stood Douglas McGunnigle. Bruce recalled it was easy to recognize him, as he and his father look exactly alike. The family members cued up the video again to show Bruce’s mother Dorothy, by then her 80s. Bruce told her he thought the man in the scene was his father. His mother looked quickly at the screen simply said, “Sure, that’s him.” And she was undisturbed by the whole thing. She lived to be 91.
The legacy of the Aleutian Campaign?
Despite the inhospitable climate, the primitive living conditions and the isolation of one of the military’s most remote bases of the war, the thousands of men and women in the Army and Navy units (and even a number of civilians) stationed on those forsaken islands stuck through it all, did their jobs and did them well. Today, some of the battle and base sites are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Some are also designated as National Historic Landmarks to ensure they will be remembered. They will most definitely remain in the memories of those whose family members served there.
Note that the spelling of his father’s name is correct: the family changed it from “Mc” to ““Mac” after the war.
Join the Varnum Continentals for $35!
At only $35 per person annually, membership keeps you in the Varnum loop and supports our efforts to preserve U.S. history and educate the public. Members get a monthly newsletter and can also attend our monthly dinner programs that feature authoritative and engaging speakers on historic and military topics. CLICK HERE TO JOIN NOW!