FILE - In this Aug. 1943 file photo, a bugler sounds taps during a memorial service while a group of G.I.s visit the graves of comrades who fell in the reconquest of Attu Island, part of the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. May 30, 2018 will mark the 75th anniversary of American forces recapturing Attu Island in Alaska’s Aleutian chain from Japanese forces. It was the only World War II battle fought on North American soil. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - In this Aug. 1943 file photo, a bugler sounds taps during a memorial service while a group of G.I.s visit the graves of comrades who fell in the reconquest of Attu Island, part of the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. May 30, 2018 will mark the 75th anniversary of American forces recapturing Attu Island in Alaska’s Aleutian chain from Japanese forces. It was the only World War II battle fought on North American soil. (AP Photo, File)

Soldiers recall carnage of Alaska WWII battle 75 years later

  • By Mark Thiessen
  • Monday, May 28, 2018 10:20am
  • News

ANCHORAGE — William Roy Dover’s memory of the World War II battle is as sharp as it was 75 years ago, even though it’s been long forgotten by most everyone else.

His first sergeant rousted him from his pup tent around 2 a.m. when word came the Japanese were attacking and had maybe even gotten behind the American front line, on a desolate, unforgiving slab of an occupied island in the North Pacific.

“He was shouting, ‘Get up! Get out!’” Dover said.

Dover and most of the American soldiers rushed to an embankment on what became known as Engineer Hill, the last gasp of the Japanese during the Battle of Attu , fought 75 years ago this month on Attu Island in Alaska’s Aleutian chain.

“I had two friends that were too slow to get out,” the 95-year-old Alabama farmer recalled. “They both got bayonetted in their pup tents.”

Joseph Sasser, then a skinny 20-year-old from Cartharge, Mississippi, also found himself perched against the berm on Engineer Hill when a captain with a rifle took up a position about 10 feet (3 meters) away.

“I noticed about after 30 minutes or so, he was awfully quiet,” Sasser said. “We checked to see if he had a pulse and if he was alive, and he was not.

“We didn’t even know he had been shot,” said Sasser, also 95.

American forces reclaimed remote Attu Island on May 30, 1943, after a 19-day campaign that is known as World War II’s forgotten battle. Much of the fighting was hand-to-hand, waged in dense fog and winds of up to 120 mph (193 kph).

The battle for the Aleutian island was one of the deadliest in the Pacific in terms of the percentage of troops killed. Nearly all the Japanese forces, estimated at about 2,500 soldiers, died with only 28 survivors. About 550 or so U.S. soldiers were killed.

American forces, many poorly outfitted for Alaska weather and trained in California for desert combat, recaptured Attu 11 months after the Japanese took it and a nearby island, Kiska. It was the only WWII battle fought on North American soil.

The Japanese staged a last-ditch, desperate offensive May 29 at Engineer Hill.

“Japanese soldiers surprise American forces on Attu with a fanatical charge out of the mountains,” recounts an Associated Press chronology of WWII events in 1943. “Savage fighting rages throughout the day and into the following night.

About 200 Japanese soldiers died in the assault, and the remaining 500 or so held grenades to their bellies and pulled the pins. It was the first official case of “gyokusai,” a Japanese euphemism for annihilation or mass suicide in the name of Emperor Hirohito, which increasingly occurred in other Japanese battlefields.

Tomimatsu Takahashi told Japanese public television network NHK in 2010 he was being treated for a bullet wound when the order for the final charge came. “I was going to die, I thought,” he said.

But as he headed out to fight, he collapsed, likely because he hadn’t eaten in days. He was captured and sent to several mainland POW camps — including in Seattle, San Francisco and Chicago — before he returned home to Japan’s Iwate prefecture in 1947.

His family already had a funeral and grave for him.

“I felt so relieved to be home,” he said. “But I never thought I was lucky to be alive. I thought I survived because I was not lucky. I felt I was not supposed to come back, because those who went to war were not supposed to come back, and that’s what we were taught.”

After the battle, Dover said things went back to normal for the American soldiers — except one thing: “Somebody had to bury those Japanese.”

During the war, the U.S. Army buried the Japanese soldiers’ bodies with care, built a memorial, set up a grave post and paid respects to the spirits, said Nobuyuki Yamazaki, whose grandfather died on Attu.

Yamazaki was among a delegation of Japanese soldiers’ descendants who attended a 75th anniversary celebration this month in Anchorage. The families have formally petitioned the Japanese government to have the remains returned, Anchorage television station KTVA reported.

“Japanese people find great comfort when the remains of the Japanese are buried in our homeland,” Yamazaki said.

The Aleut people living on Attu Island also suffered losses, becoming the only North American community to be imprisoned in Japan during the war, according to the book “Attu: The Forgotten Battle,” by John Haile Cloe.

While Kiska was unpopulated, about 45 Aleuts lived on Attu Island. When Japanese forces invaded, the Aleuts were captured and sent to Japan’s Hokkaido Island, where about half died, most from malnutrition or starvation.

The survivors never returned to Attu. The Army said it would be too expensive to rebuild their village, and they were relocated after the war.

The battle over Attu proved to be unimportant to the rest of the war, possibly why it’s forgotten today. However, American planes did use the island to bomb the northernmost reaches of Japan. And author and historian Cloe, who died in 2016, told the AP in 1993 that the Army learned much about amphibious landings and Japanese tactics from the battle.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now owns Attu Island, which is part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

Seventy-five years later, 102-year-old Allan Seroll of Massachusetts, who worked in communications including Morse code for the Army Signal Corps, still carries the burden of the Battle of Attu.

“I wake up in the middle of the night, and I can’t go back to sleep,” Seroll told KTVA. “That’s what this has done to me. That’s how much it affected me and still does.”

In this May 19, 2018, photo World War II veterans Allan Seroll, left, of Massachusetts, and William Roy Dover, right, of Alabama, right, attend a 75th anniversary celebration of the Battle of Attu in Anchorage, Alaska. Dover was an American soldier who took part in the May 1943 effort to reclaim Alaska’s Attu Island from the Japanese. It was the only World War II battle fought on North American soil. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

In this May 19, 2018, photo World War II veterans Allan Seroll, left, of Massachusetts, and William Roy Dover, right, of Alabama, right, attend a 75th anniversary celebration of the Battle of Attu in Anchorage, Alaska. Dover was an American soldier who took part in the May 1943 effort to reclaim Alaska’s Attu Island from the Japanese. It was the only World War II battle fought on North American soil. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

Soldiers recall carnage of Alaska WWII battle 75 years later

In this May 19, 2018, photo World War II veterans Allan Seroll, left, of Massachusetts, and William Roy Dover, right, of Alabama, right, attend a 75th anniversary celebration of the Battle of Attu in Anchorage, Alaska. Dover was an American soldier who took part in the May 1943 effort to reclaim Alaska’s Attu Island from the Japanese. It was the only World War II battle fought on North American soil. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

Soldiers recall carnage of Alaska WWII battle 75 years later

In this May 19, 2018, photo World War II veterans Allan Seroll, left, of Massachusetts, and William Roy Dover, right, of Alabama, right, attend a 75th anniversary celebration of the Battle of Attu in Anchorage, Alaska. Dover was an American soldier who took part in the May 1943 effort to reclaim Alaska’s Attu Island from the Japanese. It was the only World War II battle fought on North American soil. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

Soldiers recall carnage of Alaska WWII battle 75 years later

In this May 19, 2018, photo World War II veterans Allan Seroll, left, of Massachusetts, and William Roy Dover, right, of Alabama, right, attend a 75th anniversary celebration of the Battle of Attu in Anchorage, Alaska. Dover was an American soldier who took part in the May 1943 effort to reclaim Alaska’s Attu Island from the Japanese. It was the only World War II battle fought on North American soil. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

Soldiers recall carnage of Alaska WWII battle 75 years later

In this May 19, 2018, photo World War II veterans Allan Seroll, left, of Massachusetts, and William Roy Dover, right, of Alabama, right, attend a 75th anniversary celebration of the Battle of Attu in Anchorage, Alaska. Dover was an American soldier who took part in the May 1943 effort to reclaim Alaska’s Attu Island from the Japanese. It was the only World War II battle fought on North American soil. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

More in News

Sockeye salmon. (Photo via Alaska Department of Fish and Game)
Fish and Game seeks comment on 2022 sport fish stocking plan

The Sport Fish Division plans to release approximately 7 million fish into the Alaska water systems over the next five years.

A map shows which parts of the Chugach National Forest are open to motorized winter recreation use for the 2021-2022 season. (Map courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service)
Parts of Chugach National Forest open to snowmachine use

The 2021-2022 winter motorized season will run through April 30.

Kenai Police Department Chief David Ross explains the purpose of a grant to be used for new radios during a meeting of the Kenai City Council on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021 in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Kenai Police to update radios using grant money

The department received almost $260,000 through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Democratic Party candidate for governor Les Gara attends a Zoom meeting with Homer residents on Nov. 18, 2021, from his Anchorage, Alaska, home. (Screen capture)
Gara makes election pitch to Homer

Democratic Party candidate for governor Gara visits virtually.

A man missing for more than 40 years was identified by the Alaska Bureau of Investigation as a Chugiak resident who was last seen in 1979. The man’s body was discovered on an island near Anchorage in 1989. (Courtesy photo/Alaska Department of Public Safety)
Body found in 1980s ID’d through DNA analysis

The body, found in 1989, had been unidentified until now.

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
COVID continues decline; 1 new death

The state had an estimated rolling average of 253.3 cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days.

U.S. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham addresses state and Alaska Native leaders Friday, Jan. 17, 2020, in Anchorage, Alaska. Dillingham will travel to Toksook Bay, on an island just off Alaska’s western coast, for the first count on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)
Census reports minimal state population growth

The Kenai Peninsula Borough’s population grew by about 3,400 people between the 2010 and 2020 census.

The old Homer intermediate school building, showing the Homer Boys & Girls Club and gym on the south side of the building at the corner of the Sterling Highway and Pioneer Avenue.
The old Homer intermediate school building on the corner of the Sterling Highway and Pioneer Avenue, as seen in October 2010. It’s now known as the Homer Educational and Recreational Complex, or HERC. (Homer News file photo)
Homer awards contract to study use of rec complex site

The goal is to help the city understand the maximum use of that property.

Genna Stormer gives Santa a hug during Christmas Comes to Nikiski at the Nikiski Community Recreation Center on Dec. 14, 2019. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)
December brings the holiday cheer

Groups across the peninsula get into the spirit of the season with public events.

Most Read