By Henry K. Yeo ’68
Wars have been an integral part of recorded human history, but the conflagration of World War II (1939-1945) is unique. There was action all over Europe, the North and South Atlantic Oceans, the Mediterranean Sea, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and the North and South Pacific Oceans. At the end of WWII, the estimated number of casualties was a staggering 50 million people.
This is the setting of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mark Obmacisk’s book on the American retaking of Attu and Kiska Islands in the North Pacific Aleutian chain of partially submerged volcanoes. The Japanese had shown up on Attu in June 1942 to occupy it and moved its 47 inhabitants to Hokkaido, Japan, for the remainder of the war.
On May 11, 1943, 12,000 American troops landed on the southern shore of Attu and moved north to engage the defending Japanese. Eighteen days after their first battle, all the Japanese would be dead except for 29 prisoners. The American casualties listed were 549 killed, 1,148 wounded, 1,200 cold injuries, 614 cases of disease, and 318 accidents.
Seventy-six years later, it is still unclear what the strategic importance was in the Japanese War Council’s decision to invade the Aleutian islands. They were mostly uninhabited small islands where the clouds and fog lifted only some eight days in a year.
Journalist Obmacisk’s book, “The Storm on Our Shores,” is the result of seven years of research, and the detailed accounts of the geography and climate, the Attuans, and the combatants and their maneuvers show it.
The book’s first section focuses on a Japanese medical officer, Paul N. Tatsuguchi ’38, assigned to the troops on Attu during the occupation. He was a casualty who left a unique handwritten diary that is the only eyewitness description of the brutal 18-day battle for Attu. It turned out that Dr. Tatsuguchi was a committed Seventh-day Adventist Christian who had studied at Pacific Union College (PUC) in the early 1930s and subsequently attended medical school at the College of Medical Evangelists (CME), now known as LLU School of Medicine. He then returned to Japan to work at the SDA Tokyo Sanitarium. His story survives primarily because of the contents of his diary.
The diary was retrieved by 1st Sgt. Charles Dick Laird, 7th Division, after a brief skirmish with eight Japanese soldiers on the final day of the fighting. There was also a satchel containing some medical books in English. He turned the journal over to the Army Intelligence for translation (it was written in Japanese and English), and he was later given a copy of it by the American Nisei translator.
The medical books were passed on to an American battalion surgeon on Attu, J. Lawrence Whitaker ’38, who was shocked to learn about Dr. Tatsuguchi being on the island. They were classmates from both PUC and CME. There was also a third CME graduate, Joseph Mudry ’39, on the island at the same time.
A good share of “The Storm on Our Shores” is deservedly given over to a biography of Charles Dick Laird, who would subsequently see more action in the South Pacific until 1945, winning a Silver Star Medal and a wall-full of other citations for gallantry. His story would be a good book all by itself. The most poignant sections are of his rediscovery of Dr. Tatsuguchi’s 1943 diary and how the doctor’s urgent, resigned personal jottings to his wife and two daughters at home in Japan progressively prompted Laird to attempt an almost impossible quest to personally connect with the doctor’s family some 32 years after their encounter on Attu.
It is impossible not to be moved by the accounts of their first tentative contacts leading to their eventual reconciliation and close friendship that lasted for several years until Laird’s passing.
The best features of “The Storm on Our Shores” are the little-known details of the Battle of Attu and its aftermath and the 12 pages of archival photographs, all presented in a concise readable account.
Dr. Yeo specialized in family practice and is a former editor of the ALUMNI JOURNAL.