On May 30, 1943, a frenzied Banzai charge by Japanese troops was repulsed by U.S. and Canadian troops to end a battle begun 19 days earlier.
It was to be the second bloodiest struggle in the Pacific Theater during World War II. It had the distinction of being the only battle with a foreign army to take place on American soil since the War of 1812.
The 75th anniversary of the Battle of Attu has been observed this month, including reunions of Attu survivors and veterans who took part in the engagement. A national historic landmark has been created on Attu; a Peace Monument was erected by Japanese citizens to commemorate the place where some 2,900 soldiers, 2,100 of them Japanese, died.
Excellent 75th Anniversary stories by Zoe Sobel of Alaska Public Media in Unalaska included interviews with three American veterans of that battle and with survivors and Unangan descendants of the villagers who were relocated because of the war. Nick Golodoff, a 6-year-old at the time of his capture, later wrote a memoir titled “Attu Boy” in which he recalls the invasion and his internment as a prisoner of war.
Their stories disclose the horrors of war but also demonstrate the healing power of forgiveness.
Allan Serroll, now 102, returned to Alaska to be a part of the anniversary commemoration. He and Joseph Sasser were both involved in the final hand-to-hand combat that brought the invasion to an end. Serroll was a Signal Corps sergeant assigned to the Alaska Communication System. They were detailed to help pick up bodies of dead Japanese and take them to a mass grave. Many of those casualties in recent years were disinterred and taken to rest in their homeland.
The “Forgotten War” of the Aleutians began in June of 1942 when Japanese forces invaded Kiska and the next day attacked Attu. They encountered no resistance at either place. Attu is at the western end of the Chain while Kiska is about 200 miles to the east.
The attack to reclaim Attu came on a foggy day with little wind.
Golodoff wrote that he and a friend were playing when they saw people running down the hill toward the village. They heard yelling, strange sounds and then gunfire.
“While I was still running after Alex, I could see a piece of mud popping up in front of me so I stopped. I looked back and the mud behind me was popping up. The reason we were not hit is that the bullets did not reach us, but they came only one or two feet short of the path we were running on,” he wrote.
Attu’s population was made up of 45 Aleuts and a white couple. Charles Foster Jones, originally from Ohio, was a radio operator who provided weather information. His wife Etta was the Bureau of Indian Affairs school teacher and hailed from New Jersey. They had married only the year before. Both were 63 years of age.
Residents were unaware they were being attacked, but knew the nation was at war.
When the soldiers crossed over the ridge above their village, they were unprepared and bewildered. They were rounded up and ushered into the church. Jones, who had broadcast word of the attack before disabling his radio, was brought to the church after refusing to repair the instrument. He was executed in the presence of his wife and the villagers. Two months later the survivors were loaded aboard vessels and taken to Japan where they were imprisoned. Once Japan surrendered and American forces occupied the island nation, the captives were rescued. Most were returned to Alaska and were resettled on Atka, a nearby island. They were not allowed to return to Attu because the village had been pretty well destroyed by bombing.
A government documentary, designed to inform the American public that the military had gone all out to take back the land and repel the invaders, can be found online. It said that B-17 and B-24 bombers flew daily missions over the occupied island, dropping 125-pound, 250-pound, 500-pound and 1,000-pound bombs in a series of raids.
Robert Brocklehurst, one of the Attu veterans who revisited Alaska for the anniversary, was a bombardier who flew those bombing missions over Kiska and Attu. He described the weather as always foggy and difficult.
While surface structures were damaged, the constant bombing had little effect other than psychological.
The troops were sheltered in caves and heavy weapons were protected from air attacks. American and Canadian aviators boasted that Japanese airplanes were hindered because their ground forces lacked the equipment, supplies and skills of the Americans in their ability to quickly repair damaged runways.
Japanese forces on Attu were under the command of Col. Yasuyo Yamasaki. In anticipation of an attempt to recapture the island, he ordered his men to take positions in higher elevations, leaving the rocky beaches defended only by artillery. Air support for his troops came from bases on the Kurile Islands about 1200 miles to the southwest. Because of Allied air bases at Dutch Harbor and Adak, the Japanese relied heavily on submarines to supply their Aleutian outposts.
When Allied forces attacked under cover of fog on May 11, they anticipated a quick victory. Intelligence reports indicated that only 500 troops occupied the island; instead, it was five times that number. Two landing forces were used to retake the island, one landing at Massacre Bay, the other at Holtz Bay. When the troops moved inland and uphill, they found the going to be treacherous. Defenders were dug in solidly and maintained a withering firestorm against soldiers ascending the slopes.
An enemy the Americans did not anticipate was the weather.
Most of the 15,000 troops were without adequate footwear and lacked clothing to withstand the severe windchill. Some of the soldiers had been diverted from destinations in the South Pacific; one group actually had been training for months in the Mojave Desert, preparing to go to North Africa. Leather boots remained soaked around the clock, causing more than 1,800 men to be sidelined by trench foot, frostbite or influenza. At a count of 1,148 wounded, administrative failures put more men out of action than did the defenders.
His troops wearied by the long attack, hungry because of being cut off from supplies and discouraged by a hopeless situation, Yamasaki devised a last desperate strategy. He ordered his officers to round up the troops and send them on a Banzai charge. His goal was to break through the American lines at a weak spot, capture a howitzer there and turn it on the Americans. He believed reinforcements would soon arrive.
The Japanese did break through the lines, continuing on to a rear area being occupied by support groups. When the engineers, cooks, clerks and medical personnel saw the onrushing horde, they did what they could. When ammunition ran out, the soldiers resorted to hand-to-hand combat, using their bayonets and tossing grenades. When it was over, the Americans were victorious. Scores of Japanese killed themselves rather than surrender—either setting off grenades held against their midsections or jumping off a high cliff at the edge of the clearing. Only 28 enemy troops survived and were taken in custody.
One of the veterans from that day was sickened by seeing wounded men bayonetted. He was angry, but said he understood the enemy soldiers were “just doing their job.” He said he no longer harbors ill feelings.
Serroll, too, now has sympathy for the Japanese who were killed. “When you see people fall, it does something to you,” Serroll told Sobel. “I keep thinking that these people have wives and they have parents. How different are they from us? They’re just wearing a different uniform.”
Why were the Japanese so eager to commit suicide rather than surrender? Some historians blame it on the Bushido Code followed by ancient warriors. Others blame propaganda used by both sides. Japanese soldiers apparently were under the impression that Americans were horrible people who mistreated prisoners—making it better to die than endure such a fate.
Americans, too, were fed information designed to make them hate and fear the enemy.
The sneak attack on Pearl Harbor that led the United States into World War II was an atrocity used to inspire our side to retaliate. Stories of mistreatment of prisoners and incidents such as the Bataan Death March spread, further angering the public.
The war was brought to an end after almost five years by dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, forcing an unconditional surrender. Those blasts leveled a wide area in both cities and killed thousands of people. People and structures near Ground Zero just disappeared, completely obliterated by the heat. People farther away suffered radiation exposure that shortened lives made miserable by disfigurement and pain.
While those weapons were effective in bringing the war to an end, thus saving thousands of other lives, today’s versions are much more powerful. The threat of a war between nations that have those capabilities is terrifying.
May God keep anyone from ever using one against any of His children, whatever their race or creed may be.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.