It is a truism that war is—by its very nature—tragic. For soldiers, it is about killing and being killed. World War II resulted in the deaths of more than 70 million people, a number which tends to overwhelm and obscure the individual lives lost. Sometimes the tragedy of war is easier to comprehend in small doses. That is what Mark Obmascik, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former writer for the Denver Post, has accomplished in this fast-paced tale of the lives of two soldiers—a Japanese surgeon and an American infantryman—whose paths crossed on a desolate island in the northern Pacific.
The battle fought on the westernmost Aleutian island of Attu between nearly 3000 Japanese and 16,000 American troops from May 11-30, 1943, was one of the smaller engagements of the Second World War. Attu had no intrinsic strategic value, but Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who planned the Pearl Harbor attack, thought it could serve as a decoy for his attack on Midway Island. Yamamoto, Obmascik explains, “wanted to boost his chances with a feint, a surprise, a faraway sneak attack that would distract the Americans from the true Japanese plans.”
Attu was snow covered most of the year, and when it was not snowing it was raining or sleeting, and the island seemed to always be enveloped in fog. Obmascik notes that Attu’s natives called it the “Cradle of Storms,” and he describes it as “home to some of the world’s worst weather”:
The wind and fog and cold and rain and snow were so relentless, and so brutal, that not a single tree survived on Attu.
Only 47 people lived there in June 1942 when Japanese troops invaded, so Japan’s conquest was easy but not without some of the brutality that epitomized all of their conquests in that war. Japanese troops murdered one man and shipped forty villagers to Otaru camp in Hokkaido, from which only 24 survived.
A second wave of soldiers arrived on Attu in October 1942, and among them was Paul Nobuo Tatsuguchi, a surgeon and a Seventh-day Adventist who had lived in America in the late 1920s and most of the 1930s. Tatsuguchi attended college and medical school in California, and was working as a resident at Los Angeles’s White Memorial Hospital in 1938, when he and his wife Taeko traveled back to Japan to rescue his sister who had been sold into the sex business in Manchuria. Japan was already at war with China, and in a few years it would be at war with the United States and Britain. The army needed surgeons. Tatsuguchi was inducted into Japan’s army in January 1941.
The American soldier whose fate would one day bring him face-to-face with Paul Nobuo Tatsuguchi on Attu was Dick Laird, a coal miner whose family had lived in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The army was his way out of the mines and Appalachia. He became a good soldier. “The military,” writes the author, “gave him everything that his life in Appalachia did not. He had structure, rigor, routine, and camaraderie.”
Laird and his fellow soldiers landed on Attu on May 11, 1943. The American plan of attack was to land troops on the north shore near Holtz Bay and the south shore at Massacre Bay, and then
pinch the Japanese from opposite sides, north and south, and then pin them against the eastern shore at Attu Village in Chichagof Harbor. There, they would be shelled by Navy battleships and Air Force bombers.
Due to the weather and the terrain, nothing went as planned. Fog limited visibility and the ground consisted of “black, sticky, volcanic muck”, which swallowed soldier’s boots and equipment. “Before they could fight the enemy,” Obmascik writes, “they would be forced to fight Attu itself.”
The Japanese, for their part, did not contest the US troops as they landed; instead, they retreated and dug in, sniping and machine-gunning the Americans from mountain ridges concealed by dense fog. As nightfall set in that first day, temperatures dropped below freezing, the wind howled, and rain and fog further diminished visibility. Dick Laird, the author writes, “had seen darkness in the depths of a coal mine, but he had never felt anything like the blackness of war on Attu at night.”
The fighting was brutal. Japanese soldiers did not surrender. They launched banzai attacks and when those failed they committed mass suicides by pressing grenades to their chests. Only 28 of the 2900 Japanese soldiers survived the battle. The Americans lost 549 killed, 1148 wounded, and more than 2000 who suffered from illnesses. Obmascik summarizes the outcome:
About one of every four American soldiers became a casualty on Attu. For the United States, it was the worst casualty rate up to that point in the war in the Pacific. (It was exceeded later only at Iwo Jima.) For every 100 Japanese found on the island, 71 Americans were killed or wounded. Few fights in modern warfare had more suffering than the Battle of Attu.
Paul Nobuo Tatsuguchi was killed as he moved forward in a banzai attack. Dick Laird killed him. The Americans discovered Tatsuguchi’s diary, which was subsequently copied and became “a coveted war souvenir.”
Obmascik notes that Dick Laird went on to fight at Kwajalein Atoll, Leyte Gulf, and Okinawa. At war’s end, he was highly decorated, having won a Silver Star and Bronze Star among other medals. But the war’s horrors caused him to have nightmares. Meanwhile, Tatsuguchi’s diary—the story of a Japanese surgeon who loved America and Japan, and whom fate placed in a terrible war between those two countries—became quite famous.
In 1983, Dick Laird read an Associated Press article that claimed Tatsuguchi had tried to surrender on Attu, shouting “Don’t shoot! I’m a Christian.” Laird read that article and knew it didn’t happen that way. He searched for and found Tatsuguchi’s widow and daughter Laura who were living in California. He visited them at their home. Obmascik notes that it was an awkward meeting for everyone. As he exited their residence, Laird told Tatsuguchi’s daughter Laura that he was the one who killed her father—a father she never knew.
Thirteen years later, Laura visited Laird at an assisted care facility. He talked about the circumstances under which he killed her father, and the nightmares of the war that never went away. He told her that he believed the Japanese soldiers in the banzai attack, including her father, were going to kill him, but now he wasn’t so sure. They cried together and she forgave him. She later wrote a remarkable letter to Laird, urging him to let go of the terrible memories of war and absolving him of responsibility for killing her father.
In 1993, Laura Tatsuguchi Davis traveled to Attu for a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the battle. “She looked around,” Obmascik writes, “and could not imagine why anyone would fight over such a place.”