Weeks before it would become one of the deadliest battles in the war, capped by a barrage of suicidal, grenade-wielding Japanese, Americans there found eerie quiet as they marched on the boggy soil on May 11, 1943.
A lone raven cawed and fluttered away. U.S. scouts took an abandoned hillside artillery position long after the Japanese defenders, 2,600 in all, fell back into the island’s interior and to the high ground among the treeless, snow-capped ridges.
But hours later, frostbitten, starved Japanese troops began attacking the U.S. assault force in what became the only World War II ground battle fought on American territory, capped by the “banzai” rush attack and mass suicide of Japanese soldiers on May 29.
The brutal coda — with hundreds of Japanese in the final charge killed while wielding samurai swords, grenades and even bayonets tied to sticks — left only 28 survivors taken as prisoners. U.S. troops buried 2,351 Japanese soldiers in mass graves when the fighting ended May 30.
That was 75 years ago Wednesday, and calls have been renewed from the families of the dead for the Japanese government to secure their remains.
Of 12,500 U.S. troops on the ground, 549 were killed, and more than 1,100 were wounded.
As a percentage of forces involved, it was the second-deadliest battle in the Pacific. Only Iwo Jima was more costly.
‘The weirdest war ever waged’
Historians have long debated the Japanese strategy to capture a string of islands in the western Aleutians in June 1942.
One theory is that Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of Japan’s navy, attacked the undefended islands to divert U.S. ships from the Battle of Midway and thereby crush the depleted force that remained.
That never happened, and U.S. forces prevailed in the massive June carrier battle, considered the turning point of the war in the Pacific Theater.
Brian Garfield, in his 1969 history “Thousand-Mile War: World War II in Alaska and the Aleutians,” also suggested that Japanese war planners did not know that the Doolittle bombing raid over Tokyo that April originated from an aircraft carrier.
Some among the Japanese staff suggested that the islands may have been the point of origin for the flights and must be taken to blunt future raids.
But what is known is that the Aleutian Islands are among the world’s most remote and difficult-to-reach areas. Attu, at the far end of a whip of islands in the Bering Sea, is about as close to Tokyo as it is to Juneau.
And yet — despite its extreme location, its Arctic conditions and its claim to fame as the site of the first horrific banzai charge of the war — the Aleutian campaign has been relegated by history to a footnote amid bigger conflicts in the Pacific, Garfield wrote.
A B-24 pilot who flew raids over nearby Kiska Island said the campaign was “the weirdest war ever waged,” history professor Terrence Cole wrote in Garfield’s foreword.
Most of the campaign’s oddities, command failures and tragedies emerged from the extreme weather — an unofficial belligerent in the conflict. A low-pressure storm permanently churns over the Aleutians, channeling thick fog, torrential rain and 100-mph winds.
Members of the 32nd Infantry Regiment, a unit within the 7th Infantry Division, had trained for desert warfare and were unprepared for the harsh conditions when they arrived at Attu. They trudged through waist-deep snow in leather boots unsuitable for soggy marsh. Sweat on their feet crystallized, causing crippling frostbite, Garfield wrote.
U.S. warplanes crashed into uncharted peaks cloaked by fog. One bomber commander turned back after flying eight hours over the Attu battleground without seeing a single patch of ground. The planes were often grounded during the Attu battle, undercutting a key strategic component.
“Despite all human courage and mechanical genius, the forces of nature in the Aleutians could always call the turns,” Garfield wrote. “No general or admiral was as powerful as the weather.”
The marshy tundra on Attu was the second enemy that U.S. troops encountered. The thick muskeg swallowed boots and mired vehicles and artillery pieces. Ammunition and food took days to make it ashore as the Japanese intensified their attack in Massacre Valley and elsewhere.
Soldiers famously march on their stomachs, but one platoon cut off early in the battle “traveled on sheer guts,” Garfield wrote. The soldiers vomited green bile after going days without food.
Others were more cold than hungry. When they encountered dead enemy troops, U.S. soldiers would sometimes take their superior boots and coats — an act that risked friendly fire from other soldiers mistaking them for Japanese.
Assaulting troops crawled to stay warm from movement, when walking upright was a deadly risk with snipers and machine gun positions embedded into the high ground throughout Attu.
The defending Japanese called out to the U.S. troops, dying by gunfire and grenade explosions and exposure.
“Damn American dogs, we massacre you!” they shouted through megaphones, Garfield wrote.
Every inch of frozen soil captured by U.S. troops was a reckoning. Author Dashiell Hammett served in the Aleutians and wrote an Army history of the campaign in 1944.
“We would have to learn as we went along, how to live and fight and win in this new land, the least-known part of our America,” he said.
A brutal end
During the 19-day battle, violence percolated through occasional lifting of the blanketing fog. On many occasions, the opposing forces searched in vain for each other. U.S. warships launched depth charges on suspected Japanese submarines while battleships fired salvos when they veered into range.
American troops suffered heavy losses but had the advantage of reinforcements. Their blockade meant that no Japanese forces could arrive to evacuate wounded or provide fresh soldiers and ammunition.
The U.S. troops, in a pincer movement from two positions, pushed the remaining Japanese toward Chichagof Harbor on the northeastern side.
The Japanese commander on Attu, Col. Yasuyo Yamazaki, counted about 800 fighting men left on May 29 and ordered a last-ditch counterattack — a raid on Engineer Hill to capture artillery and replenish supplies.
Any troops still able to walk were ordered to make the final assault. Other patients who could not, Japanese medical officer Nebu Tatsuguri wrote in his diary, were killed by various methods, including morphine injections.
“The last assault is to be carried out. All patients were made to commit suicide … only thirty three of living and I am to die: I have no regrets,” he wrote on May 29, the day he was killed.
The raid startled rear-echelon troops as starved Japanese raided medical tents and killed the wounded. In brutal, point-blank fighting with bayonets, grenades and bare fists, U.S. forces beat back the raid short of the artillery guns on Engineer Hill. Yamazaki was killed, samurai sword in hand, by machine gun fire.
In the closing moments of battle ending May 30, hundreds would die with grenades clutched tightly to their chests in a violent display of gyokusai, or honorable suicide in combat. Their torn bodies lay on top of one another like stacks of firewood blown over by a strong wind.
“They were a tenacious group,” engineer soldier Joe Sasser told the Anchorage Daily News in 2013. “I was surprised. It was dishonor for them to be captured and an honor to be killed.”
That moment, and other violent encounters, still haunt Attu veterans.
“I wake up in the middle of the night and I can’t go back to sleep,” communications soldier Allen Seroll told KTVA. “That’s what this has done to me. That’s how much it affected me and still does.
The families remember
Seventy-five years later, the families of the dead have not forgotten the battle of Attu.
Nobuyuki Yamazaki, grandson of the Japanese commander, spoke at an Anchorage commemoration May 17 and delivered a petition for the Japanese government to repatriate the remains of soldiers still buried in the sub-Arctic soil there.
“We war-bereaved families wish to take all the remains back to our homeland,” he said, adding that it was the third request through the Japanese government.
The petition had nearly 4,000 signatures, KTVA reported.
“Japanese people find great comfort when the remains of the Japanese are buried in our homeland,” Yamazaki said.
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment on its role in negotiating the return of the 2,351 remains, plus more than 200 more unaccounted for, likely buried by artillery barrages or by the Japanese themselves.
Recovering and repatriating those remains would be a logistically and ecologically difficult task on Attu, a nature preserve since 1913 that has been uninhabited for years, said Steve Delehanty, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manager who oversees the island.
Husks of destroyed planes and vehicles and snaking pipelines have damaged Attu, and thickets of unexploded ordnance make traversing the land a difficult proposition.
Wooden markers outlining the graves have rotted away, Delehanty told The Washington Post, but surviving maps point to their rough locations. But his role is limited to protecting the environment as diplomats huddle to work out a plan. Talks years ago did not lead to a solution, he said.
Wildlife, including tufted and horned puffins and thick-billed and common murre, flourishes on the abandoned island. Delehanty said the Aleutian tern, which has faced endangerment, breeds on Attu.
But other life has yet to return after the war. The few dozen Unangans captured by the Japanese in 1942 were sent to prison camps, where many died.
Nearly 900 from other Aleutian islands were evacuated by the U.S. government and confined in internment camps. Many of them died, as well. That prompted an apology last year from the federal government.
Those who lived later returned to home islands, but not natives from Attu. The military built depots there, and it became off-limits. The war-weary natives had to settle elsewhere.
Seventy-five years after the battle ended, only the birds and the bodies remain.