Next year will be the 75th anniversary of the only land battle fought in North America during World War II. That battle, one of the war’s deadliest, took place at what is now a national park site. Can you guess which park?
Most people visit World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument for its Pearl Harbor sites in Hawaii, but the monument also includes the battlefield where U.S. forces fought the Japanese for control of the remote island of Attu and repelled a foreign invader for the first time since the War of 1812 with Britain.
Attu is at the westernmost end of the Aleutians, a chain of volcanic islands that extends westward from the mainland of Alaska toward Russia. Attu’s misfortunes started on June 7, 1942, when Japanese forces invaded the island. Most residents were leaving church that Sunday morning when they came under fire from machine guns, with bullets hitting the wet ground all around them.
“I did not understand the mud popping up at the time,” Nick Golodoff, who was 6 years old then, later recalled, “but now I understand that the Japanese were shooting at us.” Attu’s radio operator, Charles Foster Jones, was killed during the invasion.
Three months after the invasion, the Japanese shipped all 40 of Attu’s residents, mostly native Unangans, to the Japanese island of Hokkaido, where they would remain captive until the end of the war. The Attuans were all housed in one building, guarded by a single Japanese police officer. They had some freedom of movement, but food was scarce and many of the captives became ill, perhaps as a result of malnutrition.
“I’m not sure exactly what happened, but they were dying one by one,” Golodoff wrote in his autobiography, “Attu Boy.” His father and an older sister were among the 21 Attuans who died there, as were four of the five babies who were born during the imprisonment.
On May 11, 1943, 12,500 U.S. soldiers landed on Attu and fought valiantly over the following two weeks to wrestle control of the island from the Japanese troops.
Small groups of Japanese soldiers fired on American troops from holes in the ground on various parts of the island. U.S. artillery was mired in mud, and American soldiers went hungry for days as supply planes couldn’t locate them in the Aleutian fog. Some U.S. troops used grenades to catch fish, while Japanese soldiers made meals of dried thistle. Soldiers on both sides struggled to stay warm as they contended with rain, snow, fog and 120-mile-per-hour winds.
On May 28, the Japanese commanding officer decided to launch a daring attack on U.S. positions with the 800 able-bodied soldiers he had left. Meanwhile, the 600 wounded Japanese soldiers received their own instructions. “All the patients at the hospital are to commit suicide,” wrote Paul Nebu Tatsuguchi, a Japanese medic, in his diary. The soldiers followed orders.
Those who fought did not fare much better. On the morning of May 29, the Japanese at first surprised the Americans and took control of their artillery, but U.S. troops reacted quickly and overpowered the enemy in hand-to-hand combat.
“Evacuation for either side was impossible or impractical,” Paul E. Carrigan, who participated in the battle of Attu, later wrote. “Options were reduced to one: annihilate or be annihilated. Can there be a more fertile ground for barbarism?”
By the time U.S. troops prevailed, a total of 2,351 Japanese soldiers had died, 549 Americans had perished, and scores of U.S. soldiers had been wounded in combat or had suffered severe injuries from the cold. Only 28 Japanese soldiers survived. Based on the ratio of casualties to the number of troops engaged in combat, this was one of the deadliest battles of World War II.
After the war ended, the Attuans held prisoner in Japan painted “POW” on the roof of their building so that American planes could locate them. After a long journey back — with a stop in the Philippines where Golodoff had his first taste of ice cream and Coca-Cola — the small group arrived in December 1945 in Atka, another Aleutian Island. The U.S. government told Attuans that they couldn’t return to their homeland because there were too few of them left.
Golodoff lived the rest of his life on Atka and in the surrounding region, but he never returned to Attu. He died in 2013 at the age of 77.
More than seven decades after the Battle of Attu, the island’s rugged landscape is still littered with remains of the fighting that took place there, including buildings, fuel storage tanks, pipelines and ammunition. Unexploded ordnance poses a risk to potential visitors, and fuel leakage constitutes a major hazard for the island’s abundant bird population. So many rare birds come to Attu that it’s been called “the Holy Grail of North American birding” and has played a major role in competitive birding.
The island is included in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, which is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The designation of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument in 2008 included four areas on Attu that are under the joint responsibility of the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service.
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No one has lived on the island since 2010 when the U.S. Coast Guard closed its station there. Marianne Aplin, the refuge’s supervisor of visitor services, said the island is so remote that very few visitors make it there. Those who do come on organized tours for birders or World War II history buffs.
To commemorate the invasion of Attu and the battle that followed, refuge staff will take descendants of those captured by the Japanese on a visit of the island this month, and they hope to bring veterans of the battle to Attu next June.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story’s headline said that the Battle of Attu was the only World War II land battle fought in the United States. The Battle of Attu was the only World War II land battle fought in North America. We regret the error.
About the author
Nicolas Brulliard Senior Editor
Nicolas is a journalist and former geologist who joined NPCA in November 2015. He writes and edits online content for NPCA and serves as senior editor of National Parks magazine.