Japanese families request remains from Battle of Attu
Today, the Aleutian island of Attu is a federal wildlife refuge, home to mostly birds, where the wind is their constant companion.
Seventy-five years ago it was a small, peaceful village, suddenly turned into one of the deadliest battlegrounds of World War II.
Americans lost about 1,000 soldiers – the Japanese, more than twice as many.
At a gathering at the Loussac Library last night to commemorate the Battle of Attu, the grandson of a Japanese colonel who died in that fight spoke out. Nobuyuki Yamazaki called for the remains of the Japanese soldiers who died on Attu to be returned to their homeland.
“There are still 2,319 remains of Japanese soldiers on Attu. During the war, the U.S. Army buried the Japanese soldiers’ bodies with care, built a memorial, set up a grave post and paid respects to the spirits,” Yamazaki said, as he read from a prepared statement in Japanese, which was translated into English for the audience.
“We war-bereaved families wish to take all the remains back to our homeland. We have requested this through our Japanese government three times – and 3,948 signatures have been collected,” Yamazaki said. “Japanese people find great comfort when the remains of the Japanese are buried in our homeland.”
The manager of the federal refuge, Steve Delehanty, says it would be a huge diplomatic and logistical undertaking to return the remains, but not impossible.
The Japanese were buried in mass graves – and with the passage of time, it’s not clear how many of the remains are left to recover. Delehanty said both governments began looking into that question seven years ago, but the dialogue stopped. Delehanty is not sure why.
The descendants of the islanders also spoke about the trauma of war. They are called Aleuts, but their name for themselves is Unangan.
In June of 1942, the Japanese invaded Attu and sent them away to a prisoner of war camp in Japan, where many of them died from hunger and disease.
The Unangan village was completely destroyed in the combat that followed -- so when the war ended, the islanders had no home to return to on Attu. The U.S. government relocated them to other communities.
Sally Swetzof, an Unangan elder, spoke in her native language, which was translated Thursday.
“The terrible ordeal that our Unangan people suffered during the war still haunts many of our people, even those of us who did not experience it directly ourselves,” Swetzof told the crowd. “We lived with the grief of our parents and grandparents.”
Swetzof says the Unagans still suffer from the after effects of trauma from World War II.
“Perhaps the saddest part of the entire history of the war is that all the suffering and loss that our people endured had nothing to do with us Unangan people,” Swetzof said. “It was a war fought between two foreign governments, and our people were caught in the middle.”
Veterans of the Battle of Attu also sat in the audience. The oldest is 102.
It took one of the veterans, Lt. Bob Brocklehurst, a few minutes to climb the steps up to the podium. Brocklehurst says he still feels bitterness over the atrocities committed by Japanese warlords. But after the war, he visited Tokyo often, where he was greeted by smiles from people who were eager to be helpful.
“I began to wonder,” Brocklehurst said. “How did we get in a war with such friendly people?”
Other questions lingered throughout the evening, mainly what the legacy of May 28 and 29, 1943 will be -- a day when the earth was soaked with the blood of young Japanese and American soldiers – and the lives of the people of Attu changed forever.
The gathering began with a performance by an Unangan dance troupe and ended with an art show, which invited people to reflect on the past and consider the future.
It was the opening reception for three days of remembrances, which include panel discussions on the Battle of Attu from a variety of perspectives.
A variety of activities are being held in Alaska this month to commemorate the Battle of Attu's 75th anniversary.
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