In World War II, the only U.S. soil to be captured by the Japanese Imperial Army was the so-called Outer Aleutians. Located approximately equidistant between Los Angeles and Tokyo, the unopposed seizure in June, 1942, of the barren and virtually unpopulated islands of Kiska and Attu in the Bering Sea was the only Japanese success resulting from the otherwise disastrous Battle of Midway.
The Japanese forces committed to this diversionary operation were barely adequate — the Imperial Navy’s Fifth Fleet, including two light carriers and a seaplane carrier along with the Imperial Army’s Northern Sea Detachment (Hokkai) of little more than a single infantry regiment, augmented with a separate force of about 550 special naval landing troops.
This force managed to capture two U.S. missionaries and 10 unarmed weather personnel, and due to the bad weather it took the Americans a week to discover that Japanese forces were on Kiska and Attu, causing American military planners to rush troop reinforcements to Alaska to counter whatever the Japanese may have had in mind.
Some thought that the unopposed Japanese landing was a first step for a drive into Siberia and urged quick action to retake the islands, while others suggested that the Japanese simply wanted the United States to divert scarce troops and supplies on a trivial task. Whatever the Japanese motive, many American civilians imagined a threat to Alaska.
As military historian Ronald Spector has written: “Washington decided that there were more important areas than the Aleutians” and that “year round weather was so severe — with winds so high, storms so frequent, fog so persistent, terrain so forbidding” that the region was not a good area for an offensive.
Japanese forces for the defense of Attu numbered about 2,500. Among the defenders was medical officer Tatsuguchi Nebu, a native of Hiroshima, who had received his medical education in California between 1929-1937 and, indeed, received a license to practice medicine from the state of California on Sept. 8, 1938.
Tatsuguchi was inducted into the First Imperial Guard Infantry Regiment in January, 1942, and went to Massacre Bay by way of a series of short assignments in Indonesia, Guadalcanal and Rabaul. Fortunately for historians, he kept a diary that provides a first-hand account of the human dimension of the campaign from a Japanese perspective.
Tatsuguchi was far from being a reluctant warrior. While in Indonesia in mid-September, 1942, he learned that he was going to a combat area, and confided to his diary that “I feel very happy and I am determined to do my best,” adding that he was “determined to destroy the enemy force to the very last soldier.” Finally, on Sept. 24, he and his unit embarked on the “Kiyozumi Maru” with the moon “shining brightly in the sky . . . as though it was wishing us success in the future.”
Reaching Rabaul Oct. 6, his unit underwent training and Oct. 8 Tatsuguchi experienced the first “big enemy air raid,” and declared that “I want to get into battle soon.” It is unclear exactly when he reached Massacre Bay, but he was clearly prepared to serve his Emperor.
Meanwhile the U.S. occupied the island of Amchitka, 100 km from Kiska, and built air facilities. Soon U.S. naval vessels were engaging in antishipping patrols and both naval and air corps aircraft pounded Japanese positions regularly.
By early March, 1943, preparations for an American invasion, called Operation LANDGRAB, were under way, with D-Day set for May 7. Preceded by several weeks of air bombardment, D-Day landings were carried out by Admiral Chester Nimitz’s task force, including an escort carrier and three older battleships.
The Japanese position was hopeless as the American landing force outnumbered the Japanese defenders by at least five to one. On the day of the landing, Tatsuguchi writes that 41 small American transports landed troops, about half at Holtz Bay in the north and half at Massacre Bay in the south. He also comments on the frequent air attacks and naval gunfire. On the third day of fighting, he writes that despite the “Continuous flow of wounded in the field hospital . . . our desperate defense is holding up well.”
The following day, May 14, the “fierce bombardment of enemy land, and naval forces” continued. By May 14, he is resigned to the fact that the Japanese forces are doomed, and “I have burned documents and prepared to destroy the patients in the hospital.” His entry for the night of May 16 gives us a glimpse of what the reality must have been to this young man facing a very uncertain future.
Told to move the field hospital to a safer location, Tatsuguchi described how “under cover of darkness, we left the cave. The stretcher went over muddy road; steep hills of no-man’s land. . . . I was rather irritated in the fog — by the thought of getting lost. We sat down after every 20 or 30 steps — would sleep; dream; and wake up again. Same thing all over again. The one patient on the stretcher who does not move is frostbitten.”
On May 20, Tatsuguchi writes, “I was strafed when amputating a patient’s arm,” and the following night “a mortar shell came awfully close.” The naval gunfire was not only continuous, but also fierce, making life very difficult. He complains that he is “suffering from diarrhea and feel dizzy.” By May 25 the naval bombardment intensified and the barracks feel as if they have blown up. “One tent burned down from a hit by an incendiary bomb. Eight strafing planes hit the rest room; two hits from a 50-caliber shell . . . .”
On the 27th, Tatsuguchi realizes that his life is drawing shorter as “The remaining ration is for only two days,” and what is worse, “our artillery has been completely destroyed.” In addition, a company nearby “has been completely annihilated except one.” He reports that there are “Continuous cases of suicide . . . and half of the sector unit headquarters was blown away. . . . I heard that they gave 400 shots of morphine to severely wounded (men), and it kills them. I ate a half-fried thistle. It is the first time I have eaten something fresh in six months.”
The final entry (May 28) in this young doctor’s diary is quite moving: “At 2:00 o’clock, we assembled in front of headquarters. . . . The last assault is to be carried out. All the patients in the hospital were made to commit suicide. . . . Only 33 years of living and I may die here. I have no regrets. Banzai to the Emperor. . . . At 1800 I took care of all the patients with grenades. Goodbye Taeko, my beloved wife who loved me to the last. Until we meet again, grant you God speed. Misako, who just became four years old; will grow up unhindered. I feel sorry for you Tokiko — born February of this year, and gone without seeing your father. . . .”
Thus ended a campaign that, in retrospect, was not only unnecessary, but exerted little, if any, influence on the war in the Pacific. It does, however, illustrate the typical Japanese soldier’s strong sense of patriotism and loyalty to Emperor in spite of overwhelming odds.