70 years ago this month, the Battle of Attu raged in Alaska
05/06/2013 8:52 AM
05/06/2013 4:43 PM
Cpl. Joe Sasser was asleep in his pup tent on a cold, soggy morning 70 years ago when the alarm sounded. "Somebody was shouting, 'The Japs have come through!' " he recalled.
Sasser's outfit, the 50th Engineers, were builders, not fighters. Most of the men -- and there weren't a lot of them -- were what the Army calls noncombatants. Their job was to make roads and move supplies to the soldiers on the front lines. The strung-out line of supply tents was not fortified. The soldiers had rifles, not machine guns.
He struggled into his perpetually damp leather boots -- "Not the right attire" for the snow and mud of Alaska, he said -- grabbed his helmet and M-1 rifle, went to an embankment created when the road was pushed through a few days earlier and peered over the side.
"The Japanese were moving up the hill," he said. "The ravines were full of them" in numbers that far exceeded the Americans at the outpost.
He watched the mass of determined, desperate men swarm toward him in an action no U.S. soldier had faced since the War of 1812 -- a bayonet charge by an enemy invader on American soil.
Thus began the Battle of Engineer Hill, the last battle between warring nations to be fought in North America.
Theater of frustration
In 1942 Japan seized three islands at the end of Alaska's Aleutian chain. Only one, Attu, had a village. The citizens, mostly Aleut Natives, were sent to internment camps in Japan. The invaders prepared the island for the counterattack they knew would come.
Historians debate whether Japan's Alaska incursion was a feint to draw attention away from their real target, Midway Island, or part of an ambitious plan to create a virtual "fence" across the Pacific.
Either way, the propaganda value was undeniable. The Territory of Alaska was part of the North American continent, sharing the mainland with the 48 states. The occupation by a hostile force, even of an island 1,000 miles from the coast, constituted an embarrassment that could not be tolerated.
On May 11, 1943, the Americans launched the Battle of Attu with amphibious landings from two directions.
The day began in fog, Sasser recalled in a phone call from his home in Carthage, Miss., last month. "But it cleared up somewhat later in the day. We got on our boats and went ashore at Massacre Bay," the southern landing site.
"There was no resistance."
It was a misleading start.
American intelligence originally estimated Japanese strength at 500 men. There were more like 2,500. U.S. maps were incomplete or inaccurate. Planners failed to understand the swampy tundra that rose from the beach, a skim of grass over bottomless muck. Soldiers went ashore in summer uniforms and slick-bottom leather boots suitable for desert combat.
The defenders waited in the steep mountains, cloaked in clouds, set in positions to cover the approaches in crossfire. When the Americans were well into Massacre Valley, the Japanese opened up with machine guns and mortars. The valley offered little cover and no quick retreat. The advance ground to a halt and the scene turned into what one historian has called "the theater of military frustration."
Planes supposed to provide air cover crashed in the Aleutian winds. Some attacked American soldiers by mistake. The offshore armada couldn't see or reach inland targets where U.S. forces were getting ripped up. Heavy guns and supplies barely moved off the beach as heavy equipment bogged down in the mire.
"The invasion of Attu was scheduled for a three-day deal," Sasser said. "Three days, they told us, and we'd be out of there."
On the fifth day the commanding general was replaced. Reinforcements poured in as the Americans suffered heavy losses -- not just from the bullets but from exposure. Some froze or died from hypothermia. "Trench foot" and frostbite crippled their numbers. So did the psychological battering of constant incoming fire.
"We went on one detail all the way across the valley to pick up a guy who'd lost his marbles," Sasser said. "He was really a zombie at that point. He followed us back, almost like a child, not saying anything."
Gallons of blood
Historian John Cloe observes that "two under-strength Japanese infantry battalions on half-rations" repeatedly threw back six battalions of amply supplied U.S. infantry. But bit by bit the Americans pushed ahead -- particularly on days when air support could reach them.
On the seventh day, the Japanese retreated toward Chichagof Harbor. The Americans' northern and southern landing forces finally met. The Americans slowly took possession of strategic ground, one yard at a time, each little victory measured in gallons of blood. By May 28, the Japanese were cornered at Chichagof Harbor.
Commander Col. Yasuyo Yamazaki had less than half his forces still able to fight. They were almost out of ammunition and near starvation.
But the valley above the harbor was lightly defended with the Americans' main fighting units dispersed along the high ground -- and there were caches of U.S. supplies at the top.
Yamazaki devised a last-ditch plan. A surprise attack could throw the Americans in Chichigof Valley back in panic. In the rout, his men might reach the heavy artillery in Massacre Valley and turn the Americans' own guns against them. He could replenish his stock of weapons, hold strategic ground, cut supply lines, divide the dispirited American forces and perhaps maintain a stalemate until help arrived.
But he knew the odds of success were slim. He ordered all documents burned. Men too sick or injured to fight died either by their own hand or from an overdose of morphine.
Just before dawn on May 29, Americans in the valley were told to leave their positions and get a hot breakfast at the regimental mess tent. Cloe suspects the order may have been spread by an English-speaking Japanese infiltrator.
The groggy men were thinking of coffee when upwards of 800 screaming Japanese came charging out of the mist and dark. The Americans were caught off guard and overrun. Fighting was hand-to-hand. It was impossible to see what was going on. There were no prisoners.
The Japanese reached the medical tents and slaughtered the wounded in their cots. Their death shrieks added to the chaos. U.S. troops, their top officers dead, uncertain of the number or positions of the invisible enemy, scattered or retreated.
It was one of those soldiers, fleeing over Engineer Hill, who gave the warning that woke Sasser.
Among those escaping the carnage was an unarmed doctor. "He asked for a gun, but nobody had two," Sasser said. "He disappeared for a while and came back with a rifle and took up position with us. He wanted to be in the fight."
Dr. John Bassett was killed about 15 feet from Sasser.
Sasser had a slight advantage over many of the other men. He had trained as a scout before being transferred to the engineers. As he looked down on the approaching Japanese, he felt lucky that he'd moved his tent the night before.
"Three of us initially pitched at the crest of a ravine. Then, I can't remember why, we moved 40 to 50 yards farther up the hill to the road bed," he said. "Two other guys thought it was a good spot and pitched there. They were bayonetted in their sleeping bags."
Sasser credited a small embankment along the road for saving him from a similar fate. "It saved our lives."
Outnumbered and rattled, a thin line of bulldozer drivers, mechanics, medics and cooks formed a hasty defense. Some of the men didn't have time to put on their boots. The only automatic weapons they had were those dropped by the men in retreat.
But the Japanese had even less, little more than bayonets, swords, knives and sticks along with a few precious bullets. Nonetheless, they engaged the Americans with a ferocity that Sasser recalls to this day.
"They were a tenacious group," he said. "I was surprised. It was dishonor for them to be captured and an honor to be killed."
Yamazaki died with his sword in hand. The Japanese fell back and reassembled for a second charge. The Americans had their rifles ready.
"We picked 'em off one by one," Sasser said.
As their assault crumbled, the remaining Japanese each took the grenade he kept for himself, gripped it to his chest or his head -- and pulled the pin.
The battle was over. The valley, in the words of one historian, looked like an excavated cemetery. Hundreds of corpses from both sides lay atop the rock and tundra.
"Then we had to go down there and pick 'em up," Sasser said.
Morning's heroes became the afternoon's grave diggers.
The Battle of Attu, often dismissed or forgotten, was remarkable in many ways.
More men were killed in action on Attu than at Pearl Harbor: at least 2,350 Japanese -- plus those never accounted for -- and 549 Americans; 1,148 Americans were wounded and 2,100 listed as casualties due to cold and shell shock. How many Americans died as a result of injuries in the weeks after the battle is uncertain, but some say it was equal to or greater than the battlefield deaths.
Fewer than 30 Japanese were captured alive.
It was the only land battle in the war fought in the Western Hemisphere, the first amphibious landing by the U.S. Army and, aside from Iwo Jima, the most costly in terms of the percentage of American casualties. "For every hundred of the enemy, about 71 Americans were killed or wounded," according to the official Army history.
It was the first time in the war that the U.S. military retook occupied American territory, and the first time the Army encountered the fanatical fight-to-the-death ethos of the Japanese.
It remains the only time American soldiers have fought an invading army on American soil since the War of 1812.
It was the deadliest battle on the continent since the Civil War.
But history wasn't on Sasser's mind as he braced for the screaming, charging enemy 70 years ago.
"At that particular point I was not aware of the significance," he said. "I just knew we were there because it was American territory. And we were going to get it back."
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