Inside the Gates: The Battle of Attu, 75 years later
On June 7, 1942, Japanese soldiers surrounded and took over Attu island. The Japanese purpose was to draw U.S. Forces off of other areas of the war and to also protect their fishing rights in the Northern Pacific and approaches to their home islands. The fear was the Americans would fortify the Aleutians and eventually bomb Japan.
U.S. Ships arrived in May 1943 to take the island of Attu back.
"The Battle of Attu is the forgotten battle," retired Executive Director of Alaska Veterans Museum Col. Suellyn Wright Novak said. "The battle of Attu has a lot of ramifications, but those guys who fought in it are the forgotten heroes."
Military members who served in World War II and the Korean War are dying at a rate of 2,000 a day.
"That's why we need to preserve these stories," Novak said. "We need to commemorate their service and tell what this battle actually meant. It was the second bloodiest in the Pacific campaign."
From May 17 through May 19, 2018, the City of Anchorage is hosting a commemoration of the 75 year anniversary of the Battle of Attu.
"These three days are to commemorate these heroes while they are still here," Novak said. "The stories, once they are gone, they are gone forever."
Also being remembered are the Attu descendants who were forcibly removed from their homes and taken to Japan. When they came back to the United States, they were not allowed on their island because there were too few to constitute a village and the U.S. bombed their village. Japanese representatives are also on hand to commemorate the sacrifices of the Japanese soldiers on the island.
Of the 2,600 Japanese soldiers on Attu, only 28 survived. The memories of the battle and the final Japanese attack on Engineer Hill are still vivid after all these years to three men who were thrust in battle on the island.
Allen Seroll, now 102-years-old, made the trip to Anchorage from Massachusetts. Seroll served with the U.S. Army's Signal Corps and was involved with the Alaska Communications systems.
"There were no phones or any way to communicate on the islands," Seroll said. "So, if someone wanted to send a telegraph of information, that's what I'd do. I enjoyed my job but I didn't know what I'd be getting into."
The U.S. was able to intercept and decode Japanese naval encoded messages. Seroll says he was there helping in the decoding process.
"It gave the dates, the times and where it was destined to and every message would start off in a similar way," Seroll said. "I found this rather interesting and passed the information on to my superiors. It was in Japanese, and even if you knew Japanese, you still had to try to decode and figure it out. It was something that made me feel extremely good, knowing we took it seriously and it was of some significance."
William "Roy" Dover and Joseph Sasser both now in their mid-90s, worked for the U.S. Army worked with the 7th Infantry, 50th Combat Engineers. Dover, from Alabama, was on Attu building roads. Sasser, from Mississippi, did mostly clerical work and was a postmaster.
"There was no mail to deliver on the island," Sasser said. "That was until the battle was over. So I didn't have that to deal with. So, I was doing some detail work, special work that needed to be done. There was no resistance when we landed at Massacre Bay."
All three men witnessed in one way or another the final battle on the island. The Japanese soldiers were without food and supplies. In a last desperate attempt to repulse the U.S. invasion, the Japanese soldiers devised a surprise banzai attack in the early morning hours of May 29, 1943 on Engineer Hill.
"It caught us off balance because we were not anticipating anything of that nature," Sasser said. "I heard someone yell, 'the Japs are coming.' They came across the valley. If they were able to walk, they came to fight and give up their lives."
Roy Dover also recounts the day of the banzai attack.
"The Japanese had the cover from the fog," Dover said. "They could shoot down from the mountain and shoot the infantry. The infantry had it real rough. We lost a lot of good men. When they broke through on the banzai raid on May the 29, they came a-screamin' and a-hollerin'. It was in Japanese so I have no idea what they were saying but it was chilling to hear."
Dover and some of his fellow soldiers ran to a berm for safety. Other members of his unit were not so fortunate.
"My first sergeant-- he was a hero in my estimation," Dover said. "He was running up and down trying to get people out of their tents shouting the, 'Japs are coming.' Of course, he got shot and killed."
Allen Seroll also shares what he saw.
"They were like a bunch of maniacs," Seroll said. "Some of them had grenades wrapped around their heads, so they could pull the pin and kill themselves and at the same time, I get nervous talking about it. They wanted to kill as many Americans as they could. There were medics out there trying to help the wounded, the wounded were worthless to the fight, yet, the Japs ran up to them and killed them and the medics with their bayonets. Just ridiculous and I'll never forgive them for that. It was unnecessary."
Time does heal some wounds. Allen connected with some of the Japanese soldiers descendants and realized they hurt just as much as he did. Healing is a process and Allen is glad he came to Anchorage and was able to connect, talk and even took a few photos together.
The men shared stories even their families never heard. The commemoration and events like it may be helpful in the fact that it allows the soldiers to feel they are not alone. Someone has gone through what they went through. For so long, these stories are hidden deep inside. For Allen Seroll, sometimes they bubble to the surface while he's asleep.
"I wake up in the middle of the night and I can't go back to sleep," Seroll said. "That's what this has done to me. That's how much it affected me and still does. My family had no knowledge of me being involved in any kind of a war. They knew I was in the Aleutian Islands and that was it."
Seroll's granddaughter, who made the trip with him to Anchorage, says the family is just now starting to learn more about Allen's military life.
"He didn't share it with his wife, he didn't share it with my mother when she was growing up with him," Jillian Luchner said. "He didn't share it with us. So it's been emotional and a little frightening knowing that he's kept that inside for all these years."
In 1987 the Japanese Government, with the permission of the U.S., placed an 18-foot peace monument on Attu. It was updated in 2003 and honors all Japanese and Americans who died in the Aleutians during WWII, inscribed in English and Japanese.
Copyright 2018 KTVA. All rights reserved.