Japanese troops get ‘confused’ on Attu

Seventh Infantry Division troops landing at Massacre Bay, Attu, May 1943. Japanese defenses were hidden above the fog line.

Seventh Infantry Division troops landing at Massacre Bay, Attu, May 1943.
Japanese defenses were hidden above the fog line.

On the island of Attu the U.S. 7th Division were now consolidating their positions and moving inland to engage the Japanese defenders. This meant long arduous marches carrying heavy equipment across the mountainous, boggy terrain. When the time came to dig in the heavy wet ground proved most inhospitable.

Apart from the soft ground and the cold, the characteristic feature of Attu was the thick fogs which added a particular dimension to the battle area. Not only was vehicle support very restricted but air support was almost impossible. This was an infantryman’s war and even he was affected by the fog. Sergeant Richard H. Mason, Company L, of the 32d Infantry gives this account of how the two sides were dug in unusually close together:

The Attu fog that draped over the gaunt mountains like a wet shroud was alone confusing enough, but add to its blurring wetness a couple of quarts of warm sake, and, brother, you’ve got “the department of utter confusion.”

Company L had moved up on Hill 3 above the east arm of Holtz Bay during the day, and we held a line across the hill a little over halfway up; some points of the line were almost to the top. The Japs had holes all around the place and were still holding the high ground. It had been foggy during the attack, and toward the end the exact disposition of the forces was somewhat confused, not to mention the soldiers.

About half of my squad, on a flank, had crawled up during the fighting to within seventy-five yards of the Jap lines, and we had taken over some Jap holes there, while we waited for orders. It was getting well along into the evening, and we could hear the Japs up above us talking and clinking their gear around. We were in a nice joint as foxholes go – a duplex job, one without running water, which was something especially nice. But the neighbors weren’t so hot — a bunch of drunks — although they were hospitable enough in a confused sort of way.

We had waited about an hour, I guess, when who should come trotting down the hill, his rifle slung jauntily over his shoulder, but our first caller of the evening. He ran up to within twenty feet of our hole just like he was going to move right in with us, and then he stopped.

His slant eyes bulged even farther out of his head as he spotted the grimly smiling faces, and the business end of an M1 came hulking up out of the hole at him. He turned to run back, as the M1 barked, and he fell.

We sat back and waited some more. The party upstairs was getting good. The clinking of gear and the talking were boisterously rising almost to the pitch of normal conversation. It sounded funny on the battleeld where you’re either whispering so you won’t be heard or screaming your lungs out so you can be.

We had waited about another hour, I guess, and it was getting pretty dark, when we saw another one hop up out of the hole and start down the hill. He had his rifle slung over his shoulder, and he almost skipped down the hill toward us.

As he came closer we saw that he was all gassed up, practically drunk, and he was carrying a bag of dried fish and rice balls right up to our front door. This little character kept coming until he was ten feet from us. Then he stopped. He stared at us, sort of dazed, like he had suddenly remembered he forgot to turn the water heater off, and he began backing up.

We raised up out of the hole without rifles, and in good English he said, “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot!” But his rifle had a fixed bayonet on it, and he had gotten it off his shoulder. It looked, somehow, as though he might be going to stick us with it, so we cut down on him.

We weren’t bothered with callers any more; we stayed awake all night, just so we could be sure we wouldn’t snub anybody who might drop in and find us asleep. I guess our neighbors had a hang-over the next morning, because they were in a lousy mood, and even tried to kill us as we went up the hill.

See Robert J. Mitchell: The capture of Attu.

Both photographs courtesy Elmendorf Air Force Base History Office, Alaska.

American troops sending supplies to the front lines during the battle for Attu Island, May 1943. Even where the terrain was flat, the soggy tundra could not support heavy vehicles.

American troops sending supplies to the front lines during the battle for Attu Island, May 1943.
Even where the terrain was flat, the soggy tundra could not support heavy vehicles.

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