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Reclaiming a Nation's War Dead


Each November 11th, the United States officially honors the men and women who have served in the nation's armed forces. Originally called Armistice Day, marking the end of World War I, Veterans' Day has come to symbolize America's gratitude to all of its soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. While today there are only a few remaining veterans of World War I, there are thousands more who served during the Second World War. But few Americans know that Japan and the United States fought a battle on U.S. soil during World War II. It was on Attu Island, part of the Aleutian archipelago west of Alaska, near the Arctic Circle. Thousands of Japanese soldiers and hundreds of Americans died in the U.S. struggle to retake the island.

Japan invaded Attu in 1942, establishing a vantage point for possible attacks on the U.S. mainland. It was nearly a year before American soldiers were sent to retake the island, in what turned out to be a vicious battle lasting more than two weeks.

Bill Jones is 85 now. He fought on Attu. He says conditions on the island were much rougher than anyone expected. "We had a lot of things that were against us. The weather was one. We were wet from the time we landed until, well, in my case 18 days later. But for all the rest of the boys, 19 days. We were numb, actually. My partner, squad member, tells me we had two blizzards. I remember one. But the weather was damp and cold all the time. The fog on Attu is second to none in the world that I have seen," says Jones.

The Battle to Retake Attu

The U.S. troops sent to Attu had been equipped to fight in the deserts of North Africa -- their real destination was kept a secret. So in May 1943, thousands of American soldiers landed on Attu wearing the wrong clothes and without enough supplies. Much of the battle was hand-to-hand combat. At one point, Jones narrowly escaped being killed when Japanese soldiers bayoneted or burned everyone in two nearby hospital tents, but left his tent alone.

Jones says that experience had a profound effect on him and his fellow soldiers. "As you remember it and remember the close calls you had, you know you come so close to being killed. Yet you came through it and you're home. Well, it's emotional -- not only to myself, but I know to everybody that was involved in it."

Jones is still angry about the brutality of that battle. He has been back to the island since then to find a Japanese war memorial on the site of some of the worst fighting. Even though the titanium, star-shaped monument says it honors all of the war dead --U.S. and Japanese -- Jones is furious that the Japanese were allowed to place it there. For years, he has conducted a letter-writing campaign, asking government officials to have it removed.

Only 28 Japanese soldiers were taken prisoner when the Americans won the battle. The rest who hadn't been killed took their own lives. Filmmaker Tom Putnam, who has produced a documentary about Attu called "Red, White, Black and Blue," tells what happened next. "When the battle was over, the Americans basically brought in bulldozers. Many of the Japanese had died in these locations where they had committed suicide on the final day of the battle. They blew themselves up with their own hand grenades. And the Americans just dug these trenches with bulldozers, rolled the bodies in and then covered them up. Some of the graves are marked, some aren't," says Putnam.

Searching for a Nation's War Dead

A small contingent of Japanese officials made an exploratory mission to Attu this past July. Four days of searching yielded few results -- only a couple of boots and a few bones. A spokesman for the Japanese embassy in Washington, Masahiro Mori, says Japan is considering sending a bigger search mission next year for the remains of some 2,300 Japanese soldiers still believed to be on the island. He says the effort to find the missing men came about because of pressure from the soldiers' families, and the need to help the Japanese people deal with the history of the war.

"The family members are not getting any younger, so it's important for them to have the chance to see their relatives come back home. And this process is kind of one of the processes not to forget what we did in World War II," says Mori.

U.S. Army Major Craig Johnson accompanied the Japanese delegation to Attu. He has a personal connection to the island -- his grandfather served there. Major Johnson has served in Afghanistan and Iraq, so the mission was important to him for several reasons. "Soldiers want to know that they're not forgotten. And they want to know that the country's going to bring them home. So from a soldier's perspective, regardless of nationality, it was wonderful to be part of it from that angle," says Johnson. "From another angle was the connection with my grandfather, walking the ground, seeing what he might have seen. He was there a lot longer than I was, and he was exposed to a lot more of Attu's harsh conditions, which are harsh. But just getting a small flavor of that was personally very gratifying."

Honoring All Who Serve Their Country

Ted Spencer is a fifth-generation Alaskan and a longtime volunteer on missions to take veterans back to where they were stationed in the Aleutians. He says he, too, can understand the need to bring soldiers' remains back home. "I have deep respect for the people who serve their countries, any country really, because a lot of the folks are young. They do it out of idealism and love for their country. So to recover their remains and honor them, I think, is the best that we can do."

Spencer also says the cooperation between Tokyo and Washington on this project shows how much has changed between the two former enemies in the past six decades. "It's a sign of the times, the healing that has taken place there. And the world continues to be interested in the history of this conflict."

Filmmaker Tom Putnam says he made his documentary as a memorial to those lost on Attu. It's another way of honoring the victims of a little-known but important battle -- and all fallen soldiers whose families are still waiting for them to come home.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.