Since arriving on the island of Attu, located in the Aleutians off the coast of the Alaskan Territory, on May 25, 1943, to cover the American army’s attempt to capture it from its Japanese defenders, Time magazine correspondent Robert L. Sherrod had been battling brutal conditions to report on combat operations.
In contrast to the Americans, Japanese soldiers had the advantage of fighting from prepared positions on high ground. “Their foxholes were large and dry, and were well supplied with food, clothing, bedding and ammunition,” said Russell Annabel, one of Sherrod’s colleagues. “In some cases they had dug underground chambers large enough for a dozen or more men.” In addition, each Japanese machine-gun nest was “a master of camouflage,” reported Sherrod, “well protected on all sides by individual snipers who protect the machine gunners.” The enemy, he estimated, expected to stay on Attu for a long time.
Before he could fall into a well-earned sleep, Sherrod was disturbed by Captain Harold Rosenthal, a surgeon who had recently come ashore from the USS David W. Branch, an army transport. Rosenthal asked Sherrod to return with him to the transport, tempting him with the offer of a hot bath, a steak meal, a warm place to sleep, and, most enticing, a few nips from a bottle of whiskey. Sherrod agreed to accompany Rosenthal to the ship and stayed there overnight.
Sherrod was writing his story about Company G when he heard the news of a desperate banzai charge the previous evening by the Japanese that had only been stopped by determined resistance from non-infantry forces, including cooks, bulldozer operators, band members, medical personnel, and engineers. Colonel Fish and everyone else in the tent Sherrod had stayed in had been killed in the attack. “I was lucky on Attu,” said Sherrod.
To fuel their courage, the Japanese downed forty-ounce bottles of sake and grabbed whatever weapons they could get their hands on, including rifles, grenades, and even bayonets tied to sticks. (Although later the Americans believed the Japanese had been doped before making their attack, examination of the vials some of them brought with them revealed no traces of narcotics. “The Jap dope was apparently sheer fanaticism,” said Sherrod.)
At 3:30 a.m. on May 29, just as the first hints of daylight could be seen peaking between Attu’s vertical peaks, the Japanese attacked, screaming as they ran, with some shouting “Japanese boys kill American boys” and “Japanese drink blood like wine.” Company B of the Thirty-second Infantry had been ordered to the rear to enjoy a hot breakfast before seeing action that day and were stunned to see the enemy springing on their rear guard.
As many Americans scampered for shelter on higher ground, the Japanese charged ahead, bayoneting or shooting men still encased in their sleeping bags and slaughtering wounded soldiers in aid stations and the chaplains who were there to offer them spiritual comfort. More than a 100 Americans were killed and 200 more were wounded, with some of them “horribly mangled by bayonets,” Sherrod reported, as fighting often degenerated into desperate hand-to-hand struggles. If not for the enemy’s “wild, weird screams,” he added, they “might have killed many more Americans in their sleep.”
Captain Ritchie Clark, commanding officer of the Seventeenth Infantry’s headquarters company, told Sherrod that he was asleep in his tent when he heard someone cry out, “the Japs are coming.” Clark dressed quickly, ran outside his tent, and saw his defense company streaming downhill. “We all grabbed guns,” he said. “Our noncombatant troops fought like real soldiers. The cooks and wire men and even the band gave a wonderful account of themselves.” A grizzled drummer sergeant told Sherrod he had been in the army for twenty-two years and never expected to be under fire, as he had been told that bands were not even going to be sent overseas, “and here I get into the damndest fight in history.”
Unlike Clark, some U.S. soldiers did not have time to fully dress before they went into battle. As one private, Casper Alligood, headed for the safety of a foxhole, one of his fellow soldiers ran past him, wearing nothing but his underwear. “I said, ‘Buddy, you’d better go back and get your pants,’” Alligood recalled. “But he wasn’t interested. He said, ‘The hell with the pants. If the Japs want them, they can have them.’”
Soldiers who found themselves trapped in their tents were sometimes still able to fight back. Captain Marvin Chernow and his men used their trench knives to cut slits in the walls of their tent, shoved their gun muzzles through the openings, and started shooting at the Japanese running by. When a Japanese bayonet pinned Chernow to the ground by his face, his tentmate, Captain Eugene McGee, grabbed the enemy by his shirt, pulled him inside the tent, and beat him to death with his rifle.
The stiffest opposition came when the Japanese faced off against the Fiftieth Engineer Regiment. Men from that regiment were able to set up a machine gun “which mowed down dozens,” Sherrod said. “Others took up rifles and fired round after round.” A sergeant with the engineers single-handedly rushed the Japanese, who were huddled in ditches below Engineer Hill, and killed at least twenty of them by standing on top of the ditch and firing at point-blank range until he was killed. “The 50th Engineers saved us all,” Sherrod quoted many soldiers as saying.
The strangest experience in a series of weird escapes happened to Company B of the Seventh Medical Regiment, housed in a double tent in Sarana Valley, alone except for a few pup tents surrounding it. Inside the double tent were two medial officers, Captains George Buehler and James Bryce; five patients on litters; five walking wounded; and two enlisted medics. When the Japanese ran through the valley, more than a hundred of the enemy swarmed nearby and killed the soldiers sleeping in the pup tents. The men in the double tent were completely surrounded for thirty-six hours but survived. “Whenever a wounded man would groan one of the medical officers would give him a shot of morphine to quiet him,” said Sherrod. “When one would snore someone would shake him or muffle the noise.”
Company B attributed its great luck to one thing. In the doorway of the tent a dead man lay on a litter, Sherrod reported, and apparently the Japanese believed everyone else inside was also dead. When American troops had finally disposed of the enemy around Company B’s tent, one of the U.S. soldiers, wanting to make sure, said to one of his friends that they should throw a grenade in the tent. “No, no,” shouted Captain Buehler, “we’re Americans.” One of the infantryman said it was just another Japanese trick, prompting Buehler to emerge from the tent to come face to face with fifteen bayonet-wielding soldiers. “All I can say,” Buehler told Sherrod, “is that I really believe in Providence now.”
As the attack waned, the Japanese, instead of continuing to kill as many Americans as possible, did something that flabbergasted Sherrod. They took the grenades issued to them and committed suicide by holding them against their stomachs, chests, or heads and blowing themselves up. “They could have kept on fighting,” he said. “They had plenty of ammunition left. They had raided American supply dumps for food. But so eager for death were they that they could not wait. The grenades they could have thrown against Americans were pressed against their bowels in honorable hara-kiri fashion.”
Sherrod could find no meaning to these mass deaths of the Japanese, who suffered four times as many casualties on Attu as did the Americans. He could not believe that the United States would have to lose 2.5 million men to kill 10 million Japanese to win the war. “But the Jap is ignorant. He has not conception of what goes on in the world,” Sherrod said. “In all the documents we have captured there is nothing to indicate that these medieval minds have received any news of the world since they arrived a year ago. . . Perhaps the Jap is human. Nothing on Attu indicates it.” Looking upon what Sherrod described as “the grotesque masses of exploded bodies,” an American officer was moved to comment to the correspondent: “That just ain’t good soldiering.”
With the Japanese banzai charge on Attu repulsed, most organized resistance on the island ended. All that was left was to count the cost and bury the dead. The enemy had suffered most, with 2,351 dead to 549 lost for the Americans and another 1,148 wounded—ranking, in proportion to the troops engaged, as one of the costliest battles waged in the Pacific theater, second only to Iwo Jima.
Sherrod shared the human cost of the Aleutian battle with readers of Time in an article on how those who fell were laid to rest. For most of a night, caterpillar tractors towed trailers over the valleys and plateaus between Attu’s high peaks, bringing 125 dead Americans to be buried in the Little Falls Cemetery—named for a nearby waterfall and one of two graveyards on the island. Most of the dead had been killed in the Japanese banzai charge and had been “horribly mangled by bayonets and rifle butts.” (The Americans who collected their dead with “tight-lipped calm,” later vomited as they gathered for burial the approximately 1,000 Japanese who died in the attack, noted Sherrod).
“No nation handles its casualties as carefully as we do. The 125 who lie in rows at the edge of the crude cemetery were examined meticulously. A medical officer (Captain Louvera B. Schmidt of Salem, Ore.) recorded the cause of death and the number and type of wounds as each body was unclothed. Members of the graves registration company cut open each pocket and placed the personal effects of the dead in clean wool socks for dispatch to the quartermaster depot at Kansas City. One identification tag has been left on each body, the other nailed to the cross which will be placed above the grave until a larger metal plate can be stamped. The graves are laid out in perfect geometrical pattern; they have been charted so that no mistake can be made in locating any body.
Three sets of fingerprints were made from the hands of each dead man. One set stays with the man’s military unit, two will be sent to the Adjutant General in Washington [D.C.]. (If a soldier’s “dog tags” are missing and his personal effects carry no absolute identification, his body is not buried until some men from his unti have made positive identification.
After fingerprinting, the bodies were carried through the identification tent and wrapped in khaki blankets tied at three places: around the neck, the waist and the feet.”
Soldiers used bulldozers to dig the graves because there was no time nor labor available to dig them with shovels. “The bulldozers plow back & forth until a space seven feet deep has been scooped out,” he said, “which is long enough to place eight bodies 18 inches apart. Then into the collective grave small one-foot deep individual graves are scooped out by shovel. Thus, each man lies with seven of his comrades.”
Three chaplains conducted the burial service, singing verses of “Rock of Ages” over the clanking and chuffing of dozens of tractors working on the muddy roads and beaches a few hundred yards away. Sherrod noted that Lieutenant Colonel Reuben E. Curtis, a Mormon from Salt Lake City, Utah, opened his khaki-colored Bible and read: “Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. . . . O God, great and omnipotent judge of the living and the dead, before whom we all are to appear after this short life to render an account of our works, lift our hearts, we pray Thee.”
Close by the graves, two buglers closed the service by playing “Taps.” The chaplains placed their caps back on their heads, Sherrod reported, and the graveyard bulldozer “huff puffs again, pushing mounds of cold Attu earth over the khaki-clad bodies of eight U.S. soldiers.” Grief mixed with anger at the graveyard. A young lieutenant from Mississippi, just out of Officer Candidate School, spoke for many on Attu when he said, after looking at the bodies lined up for burial at the cemetery’s edge, “I wonder if those sons of bitches holding up war production back home wouldn’t change their minds if they could look at this.”