TIME CAPSULE ON ATTU
THE BATTLEFIELD REMAINS VIRTUALLY UNTOUCHED SINCE 1943
January 1, 1970
The last rifle volleys echoed through Siddens Valley on the Aleutian island of Attu more than 60 years, signaling an end to the only battle of World War II that was fought on American soil. When the fighting ceased, May 30, 1943, nearly 2,500 Japanese soldiers lay dead on this tiny volcanic outcropping on the edge of the Bering Sea, 2,000 miles from the Alaskan mainland. Some 550 American troops also lost their lives.
Unlike most WW II battlefields, time stopped on Attu that day in 1943. The craters left by artillery fire and bombs remain little changed from the instant they were blasted from the scrubby tundra. Shell and cartridge casings litter the battlefield where foxholes, trenches and gun emplacements remain clearly visible, particularly on Engineer Hill where a thin line of American troops shattered a final Japanese banzai attack on the night of May 29. The next day Japan announced the loss of Attu.
"Evidence of the desperate battle is profuse," says Erwin Thompson, a National Park Service historian who visited Attu in the 1980s to survey the island for designation as a National Historic Landmark (NHL). The Corp of Engineers cleaned up much of the dangerous ordnance but visitors are warned to "stick to the trail," Thompson says. Warrant Officer Michael Joyce, former commanding officer of the Coast Guard station at Holtz Bay, says the 20-man contingent occasionally hears the blast of unstable bombs and shells exploding in the spring thaw.
The arctic climate is a major reason why the remnants and debris of war remain on Attu. Shell craters and foxholes do not fill in as rapidly and the cold retards the disintegration of materials left behind. But Attu's remoteness protects it from the armies of scavengers who roam more temperate battlefields.
Carol Burkhardt, a park service historian says the wreckage of a downed P-38 lies abandoned in Temnac Valley and pieces of other planes lie here and there. The Air Force sent a team to investigate the wreck and determine if the plane could be salvaged. Remains of Japanese buildings are still to be found, and tracks from Japanese pushcarts are evident from the enemy's attempt to build an airfield.
The bodies of the fallen were removed in the late 1940s, the Americans to private and national cemeteries in the States. The Japanese dead were reinterred at Fort Richardson near Anchorage. Two memorials have been erected on Engineer Hill in honor of the Japanese commander, Col. Yasuyo Yamasaki. A memorial to the American forces who fought on Attu was erected at the Coast Guard station.
If Attu is a treasure of battlefield debris, the island of Kiska, 165 miles southeast in the Aleutian chain, is a virtual museum. The Americans invaded Kiska in August, 1943, but the Japanese, recognizing the futility of their position there, had already fled in July, leaving behind an entire base filled with abandoned military equipment. Much of it remains today, protected by the harsh cold and a location more remote than that of Attu.
"Kiska is probably the most well-preserved historical landscape I've ever seen," says Larry Murphy, a diver for the National Park Service. Murphy has explored the remains of the battleship Arizona and Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor, and investigated scores of sunken ships and downed planes from WW II at Truk lagoon, Palau, Bikini, and Guam.
The Corp of Engineers inventory of what remains on Kiska includes: submarine pen; 5 machine gun emplacements; 6 machine guns with mounts; 15 antiaircraft emplacements with guns; 9 emplacements with 6-inch coastal guns; freighter Nozima Maru, and bow of a second vessel; 1 midget submarine and parts of two others, 1 officers' quarters, with wall inscriptions; 2 coastal gun emplacements on Little Kiska.
Also remaining on Kiska are the caves and tunnel systems where the Japanese were forced to live during the constant bombardment by American planes. One of these raids was well-documented in John Huston's "Report from the Aleutians," a movie documentary now available on video tape.
The Americans too left behind evidence of their stay which includes 95 Quonset or Pacific huts; 21 wood frame buildings; 3 bridges; 2 docks; 1 wharf; 1 A-20 aircraft, wrecked; 1 PBY flying boat, wrecked.
Many of the artifacts of war remaining on Kiska are found under water in the island's harbor. Murphy, and a team of park service underwater archaeologists led by Dan Lenihan, chief of the service's Submerged Cultural Resources Unit, have systematically searched Kiska harbor for significant finds and found many. Using a side-scan radar sensor, towed underwater, the archaeologists created topographic "renditions" that show sunken ships and a plane some 120 feet down. Murphy believes the plane could be a B-17 lost in a bombing raid. Lenihan explored one of the objects on the harbor bottom, an RS 65 Japanese midget sub similar to the one on the island. Armed torpedoes were still in their launching tubes.
Because of their historical significance Attu and Kiska have been designated NHLs by the Secretary of the Interior. Sites on three other Aleutian islands, Unalaska, Adak, and Umnak, that were directly involved in the World War II campaign, also have been designated NHLs. NHL status ensures the protection and preservation of the battlefield sites.
Park service historians and archaeologists will continue to work on the various islands, particularly on Attu and Kiska, uncovering and preserving the artifacts of World War II. Much remains to be found and cataloged but weather and distance are serious constraints.
War has come and gone in the Aleutians and today both sites are administered by the Fish & Wildlife Service. Attu is now a popular spring destination for bird watchers who follow the migrations of North American and Asiatic migrating birds. The war was long ago, but unlike most battlefields, evidence of the struggle on this "oasis of green in a world of gray," will remain for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years.
David P. Colley