SERVING OUR VETERANS: Remembering the Battle of Attu
Several weeks ago, I was watching the television show “60 Minutes.” One of the show’s hosts was interviewing Mark Obmascik, the author of his recent book “The Storm On Our Shores.” It was a very moving interview, so I ordered the book. The book was about the World War II Battle of Attu. It focused on the connection between a Japanese soldier and an American soldier who participated in this battle. I won’t give the story away in case you want to read it yourself. I would highly recommend it. It is a true story of sacrifice, and healing words of forgiveness, amid scars of battle. I also learned much about the Battle of Attu, often called “The Forgotten Battle” by WWII veterans, and now a place of refuge and remembrance.
Seventy-Six years ago this month, the Battle of Attu was fought from May 11 to May 30, 1943. It was the only battle of WWII fought on American soil. It was the first time since 1812 that United States territory was lost to a foreign enemy. The natives of the Island of Attu called it the “Cradle of Storms.” It is the most westernmost island of the Aleutian chain of Alaska. Attu is home to some of the world’s worst weather. It snows eight months a year. The remaining four months of summer are thick with rain and snowmelt. Attu is almost always shrouded in fog. The rare exception comes during williwaws, unpredictable blasts of over 80 mph hurricane-force winds that can clear out the fog in a few minutes. When these gusts subside, the fog quickly creeps back. Some days the fog is so thick a man could stretch out his arms and fail to see his hands. The wind and fog and cold and rain and snow are so relentless, and so brutal, that not a single tree survives on Attu. This is where Japan decided to launch its ground war against the United States.
To an Imperial Army general poring over maps, invading Attu almost made sense. The island was closer to mainland Asia than mainland North America. It was midpoint between Japan and Anchorage, Alaska. In theory, Japan could use Attu as a forward base to launch attacks against mainland Alaska before leapfrogging down the Pacific coast to the Boeing bomber plant and Bremerton Navy Yard in Seattle, then on to San Francisco and Los Angeles. It could also be used as a decoy to avert American forces away from the Pacific islands and Tokyo. These were all just theories. In reality, they all failed.
On June 7, 1942, just six months after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Northern Army of 2,900 soldiers landed unopposed on Attu. The only inhabitants they faced were 42 native Attuans and an American school teacher and her husband. They were quickly taken as prisoners. By the end of the war, half of these had died due to starvation, illness, and the brutality of their captors.
On May 11, 1943, American units, totalling 15,000 men, made amphibious landings on Attu to retake the island from the Japanese. American generals in charge predicted it would take three days to complete the victory. It took nineteen days. Weather conditions, including cold, wind, and fog made progress very difficult and costly. In addition, quagmire ground conditions made it almost impossible for vehicle traffic, needed to transport soldiers and supplies, to move. Most of the time, they simply were just swallowed up by the mud. The burden then fell on the soldiers on foot to carry out these tasks and they too struggled in the mud.
On May 23, without hope of rescue, Colonel Yamasaki led his remaining Japanese troops in a final banzai charge. The Japanese code of honor instilled in them to fight to the death rather than facing the humiliation of being taken prisoner. The momentum of the surprise attack broke through the American front line positions. Shocked American rear-echelon troops were soon fighting in hand-to-hand combat with Japanese soldiers. Decimated and in disarray, the banzai attack collapsed. The Japanese realized they had lost their chance to seize American artillery and supplies. They were simply outnumbered by the American forces. They knew their obligation. They knew the code of bushido death before defeat. At the foot of Engineer Hill, as many as 500 Japanese soldiers massed together, pressed grenades to their chests, and committed mass suicide. One cannot imagine witnessing something as horrible as this.
Of the 2,900 Japanese men stationed on Attu, only 28 survived the battle as prisoners of war. The United States Army recorded burying 2,351 Japanese. An exact count was difficult because suicide by hand grenades had left behind so few intact bodies. The piles of casualties were so vast that many burials were carried out by bulldozer. The toll on the Americans was horrific as well. There were 549 killed, 1,148 wounded; 1200 with frostbite, trench foot, and other severe weather-related injuries; 614 with severe illnesses, and 318 with psychological breakdowns, self-inflicted wounds, and accidents. Hundreds of soldiers on Attu required amputations. All this was for a battle that the generals had predicted would require only three days of fighting. About one of every four American soldiers became a casualty on Attu. It was the worst casualty rate up to that point in the Pacific, only to be later exceeded at Iwo Jima. For every one hundred Japanese soldiers found on the island, seventy-one Americans were killed or wounded. Most dead Americans were buried at Little Falls Cemetery, near the base of a waterfall, at Gilbert Ridge on Attu. Their bodies were removed and transferred to other cemeteries in 1947. Few fights in modern warfare had more suffering than the Battle of Attu.
Despite the adversity and horror of this battle, American soldiers demonstrated once again their commitment, duty, and unity to defeat the Japanese. Many of them received medals for valor. Private Joe Martinez, a native of Taos, New Mexico, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously. He was the first Hispanic to win the nation’s highest military decoration, and the first private to win it in World War II. His final rallying cry, “Come on! Let’s go!”, was used for years as a slogan to sell United States savings bonds.
Today, there are no inhabitants left on Attu. The U.S. Coast Guard station there was decommissioned and abandoned in 2010. In spite of its extreme weather conditions, it is a place of beauty and a place of refuge and remembrance. Attu, like many battlefields throughout our history, has a tendency to be forgotten. As American citizens, we need to remember these battle fields are not forgotten, or seem insignificant, by those who are still living and fought there. Nor will they ever be forgotten by the families and loved ones of those who died there. Let it always be our sense of duty that calls each of us to remember and honor all who have sacrificed for our freedom, no matter when and where they served and died. In 1987, the Japanese government donated an eighteen foot titanium peace sculpture atop Engineer Hill on Attu. It carries an inscription in Japanese and English that reads, “In memory of those who sacrificed their lives in the islands and seas of the North Pacific during World War II and in dedication to world peace.” May God grant this to us all.
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