How a Japanese medic and American soldier became linked by World War II's Battle of Attu

A small Alaska island was the site of the only North American ground campaign during WWII. Though not well-known, the battle featured some of the war's most brutal fighting

Soldiers linked by WWII's Battle of Attu

Most of us learned in history class about the critical World War II chapters in the fight against Japan: Pearl Harbor, Midway, Iwo Jima. But who among us learned about Attu, site of the only ground campaign waged in North America during the entire war and a surpassingly brutal battle at that? Perhaps it's because Attu is the westernmost point of the United States, the last jewel in Alaska's necklace of Aleutian Islands. Perhaps it's because Attu's weather is so combative the island might be as difficult to reach as anywhere on the planet, but while the fight for Attu has been exiled to the smallest of military footnotes, a new book to be published this week by Simon and Schuster, a CBS company, tells the story of how 76 years ago, a Bible, a diary and two soldiers from opposite sides of the war came to define the impossibly remote island of Attu.

We set out in search of history, flying across the volcanic chain of Alaska's Aleutian Islands. Our destination: Attu. Two plane stops and 1,500 miles from Anchorage, Attu is so far west that if you drew a straight line down from the island you'd hit New Zealand. We had taken off not knowing if our plane could land on Attu.

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Attu

Mark Obmascik: Attu's home to some of the worst weather on earth. There's only eight days a year when the clouds and fog lift.

Mark Obmascik, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, spent seven years going through archives and soldiers' letters while researching his book, "The Storm On Our Shores." He accompanied our team for the trip. Only minutes from the island, a dense fog threatened to force our plane back to the nearest air strip, 400 miles away. Then, the fog suddenly parted like curtains and there it was: Attu.
Jon Wertheim: When you finally got there, what was that like?

Mark Obmascik: It was so gorgeous. It was so green and wild and raw.

No one lives on Attu today, the Coast Guard abandoned its station and the island nine years ago.
Mark Obmascik: I just was struck by how such a beautiful place could spawn such sadness.

The sadness began in June of 1942, six months after Pearl Harbor, 2,600 Japanese soldiers invaded Attu, populated then by 42 Aleut natives, a school teacher and her husband.

Jon Wertheim: Japanese arrive in 1942. Are they expecting any resistance?

Mark Obmascik: Well, they didn't find it. They could've taken the island with a bullhorn. Nobody on that island was armed.

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Mark Obmascik

America feared that Japan could use Attu as a launching pad to attack the West Coast of the United States.

Mark Obmascik: Attu was the first U.S. soil lost since the War of 1812. So it was a propaganda victory for the Japanese.

But one Japanese soldier was conflicted. Nobuo Tatsuguchi had lived for 10 years in America, finishing medical school in California. He called himself Paul.

Mark Obmascik: Paul Tatsuguchi fell in love with America. His girlfriend came over from Japan. He proposed to her at Yosemite National Park. For their honeymoon, they went from Los Angeles to Niagara Falls on a Greyhound bus.

Jon Wertheim: Quintessentially American?

Mark Obmascik: You can't get more American than that.

Paul Tatsuguchi loved America's open roads, its skyscrapers and its ice cream. But in 1941 he was conscripted into the Japanese army. He was a devout christian and a pacifist forced into war. He brought his Bible to Attu.
Mark Obmascik: Paul Tatsuguchi's favorite bible verse came right out of Deuteronomy: "Choose life."

Jon Wertheim: Choose life.

Mark Obmascik: Choose life.

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Paul Tatsuguchi

As chill winds whipped through Attu, the Japanese took to the mountains, digging foxholes and storing ammunition in sheds that can still be found on Attu today. As a medic, Tatsuguchi hunkered down in a makeshift hospital in what's called the Jarmin Pass, waiting for the inevitable American counter-invasion.

In May 1943, 11,000 Americans were sent north to recapture this far flung outpost of the United States. Riding on one of the boats, Private Harry Sasser. What he heard about Attu sounded ominous.

Harry Sasser: That it was treacherous weather. Storms came up just suddenly. I mean, in seconds.

Sasser is now 96, but back then he was a Mississippi boy, assured he wouldn't be on Attu for long.

Harry Sasser: We were told it would be about three days. That would be it. But that wasn't the case. The Japanese were very tenacious fighters.

The challenges of fighting — and filming — on Attu

The primary force of U.S. troops landed on this beach.

Mark Obmascik: So U.S. troops land on the shore. The adrenaline's pumping. They're expecting to be shot. And instead, nothing. All they find is black muck.

Black muck. It seemed to swallow the troops on the beach with every slogging step. The Japanese were hiding in the mountain fog, their snipers waiting to pick off the Americans once they crawled up the valley.

Mark Obmascik: The Japanese would follow the fog up and down. For U.S. servicemen, they said it was like trying to shoot birds out of a cloud.

"Goodbye Taeko, my beloved wife who loved me to the last."

Paul Tatsuguchi began writing a diary. On the second day of the battle, he noted: "Took care of patients during bombardment… our desperate defense is holding up well." But the Americans' four to one advantage in troops eventually exacted a toll and by May 29th, three weeks into the battle, the Japanese were doomed.

Mark Obmascik: And so, the Japanese commander organizes a final banzai attack. And Paul Tatsuguchi sits down at his diary and writes his final entry.

"Goodbye Taeko, my beloved wife who loved me to the last." And then he bid farewell to his daughters. His younger one, "Born February of this year and gone without seeing your father." Hours after writing those words, Paul Tatsuguchi left his Bible behind, and advanced to an outcrop overlooking a small lake. Below were unsuspecting American soldiers like Dick Laird, an Army sergeant from Appalachia.

Mark Obmascik: Dick Laird was a tough guy. But all the American training was that Japanese troops were bloodthirsty killing machines.

Jon Wertheim: And how did Dick Laird and Paul Tatsuguchi, how did they collide?

Mark Obmascik: Dick Laird looks up the knoll and sees that a group of Japanese soldiers has captured an American mortar. And so Laird pulls out two grenades. He pulls the pin and then he throws it. The grenade explodes and Laird finds that there are still some troops who are alive. And he and a fellow soldier kill them.

Jon Wertheim: He kills eight Japanese men.

Mark Obmascik: He does. And he wins the Silver Star for it.

Jon Wertheim: On one of them, he notices something unusual. What was that?

Mark Obmascik: There is an address book that's full of some names from California. And there is a sheet, the diary.

Jon Wertheim: Whose personal effects were those?

Mark Obmascik: He found the diary of Paul Tatsuguchi whom he had killed as Tatsuguchi was joining the banzai attack.

The banzai attack and the Japanese occupation of Attu came to an end later that day when 500 defeated Japanese soldiers gathered on this hill. Harry Sasser witnessed the mass suicide.

Harry Sasser: They pulled the trigger on a hand grenade and just blew their stomach out.

A gruesome scene.

Harry Sasser: It was. Oh, it was. It was. It was tough.

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Harry Sasser

Mark Obmascik: The code was death before dishonor, and of more than 2,600 Japanese men who started, only 28 survived.

Jon Wertheim: Twenty-eight?

Mark Obmascik: The only battle in the war in the Pacific that had a worse casualty rate was at Iwo Jima.

549 Americans were killed on Attu. More than 3,000 were wounded or suffered weather-related injuries. Dick Laird survived. He turned over Paul Tatsuguchi's diary to superiors. Instead of containing military secrets, the diary contained human sentiments. So much so, English translations began circulating. Harry Sasser read a copy in Mississippi.

Harry Sasser: Well, it was, it was a compelling account. And as he bid farewell to his wife and to his-- his daughter. I-- I-- I sympathized with him

Jon Wertheim: What was Dick Laird's reaction to reading the diary?

Mark Obmascik: Crestfallen but angry because Tatsuguchi was one of the eight guys who had captured the mortar and, here, they were going to try to kill him. But at the same time Laird could see that Tatsuguchi loved his family and that he was human

Jon Wertheim: Dick Laird never forgot about May 29, 1943.

Mark Obmascik: Dick Laird did not. He suffered nightmares for years. He just kept coming back, thinking that I killed a guy who shouldn't have been there. You know, I, I, I killed a father.

Forty-one years after Dick Laird had fought on Attu, he pulled up to this home in Sherman Oaks, California in the spring of 1984.
Jon Wertheim: Did he seem nervous?

Laura Tatsuguchi Davis: Yes, he seemed nervous.

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Laura Tatsuguchi Davis

This is Laura Tatsuguchi Davis, the younger daughter Paul had never met. After the war, she moved with her mother to the place her father loved: Southern California. Laura didn't quite understand why Dick Laird showed up.

Laura Tatsuguchi Davis: He didn't tell me anything until I walked him out. And when we walked out, he said, "I'm the one that killed your father." And he just drove off. And I was in, I was in a daze.

Jon Wertheim: You were in shock.

Laura Tatsuguchi Davis: Totally in shock.

Jon Wertheim: Did you have anger or resentment toward Mr. Laird?

Laura Tatsuguchi Davis: Yes I did.

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Dick Laird

Laird had left his phone number with Laura but she refused to reach out. A decade later, another American veteran of Attu tracked down Laura. Alvin Koeppe of Michigan wrote this letter. He wanted to return something he had found in 1943 on Attu's Jarmin Pass.

Laura Tatsuguchi Davis: This is the bible that was found by the Jarmin Pass.

Jon Wertheim: This is the Bible your father took to war.

Laura Tatsuguchi Davis: Yes.

Jon Wertheim: Oh wow.

Laura Tatsuguchi Davis: And he writes in the very first page of the Bible. 'Therefore, choose life.'

Jon Wertheim: 'Therefore, choose life.'

Laura Tatsuguchi Davis: 'Therefore choose life.'

Jon Wertheim: This is the bible that gave him strength when he went off to war.

Laura Tatsuguchi Davis: I think so.

Jon Wertheim: What's it like for you holding that?

Laura Tatsuguchi Davis: It gives me strength.

The Bible is now housed at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. Tucked inside the Bible are reminders of what Paul Tatsuguchi lost.

Laura Tatsuguchi Davis: And there is a picture of my sister. She was almost three. And I was three months. And he had not seen me.

Jon Wertheim: If this Bible could talk.

Laura Tatsuguchi Davis: Yeah, I wish it could.

For years, Laura wondered why Dick Laird had been so determined to reveal that he had killed her father. Then it came to her.
Laura Tatsuguchi Davis: I wrote to him saying, "Please forgive yourself."

Jon Wertheim: What made you do that?

Laura Tatsuguchi Davis: I started thinking. I said, "This man did not belong in Attu just as much as my father. He was protecting his country. He had to protect himself."

Jon Wertheim: You wrote to him, "None of you should have been there, but you were. And that fact cast upon you terrible duties, duties you discharged the only way you could. What happened, happened. You were not at fault."

Laura Tatsuguchi Davis: He was not.

Jon Wertheim: You wanted to free him?

Laura Tatsuguchi Davis: Yeah. And I was the only one that could.

Mark Obmascik: Laird said that he read the letter and he cried. And he said it was the first time in a long time that he slept without nightmares.

And most improbably, Laura and Dick Laird became friends, meeting often in Tucson, where her son attended school and Dick Laird had retired.

Laura Tatsuguchi Davis: He said, "I killed the wrong man, you know?" This is how he felt.

Jon Wertheim: Was it almost like he felt like he killed another American?

Laura Tatsuguchi Davis: Yes.

Dick Laird died in 2005. As for Paul Tatsuguchi, near the spot where he was killed on Attu, a monument to peace was erected by the Japanese government.

Signs of the American presence still abound. So do signs of a battle lost to the rust of history. Attu's been left to the snowy owls and to the ghostly winds that will go unheard.

Produced by Draggan Mihailovich. Associate producer, Cristina Gallotto.