On 70th Anniversary Of Battle, Memorial Placed On Attu

Captain Billy Pepper Playing Taps on the Harmonica, Courtesy of US Fish & Wildlife Service.
Captain Billy Pepper Playing Taps on the Harmonica, Courtesy of US Fish & Wildlife Service.

Seventy years ago, American forces recaptured the Aleutian Island of Attu from the Japanese, in the only ground battle fought on U.S. soil during the war. The fighting, which ended on May 30, 1943, took a heavy toll on both sides, but the battle is often forgotten by the history books.

Earlier this month, in an effort to remember both the soldiers and the 44 Unangan villagers who lost their homes on the island, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service installed a memorial on Attu.

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If the Battle of Attu is remembered for any one thing, it’s the extreme weather U.S. troops faced on the island. It was snowy and windy, and more troops suffered cold-related injuries than battlefield ones.

The Fish and Wildlife Service crew installing the memorial had better luck.

Pepper: “It’s was beautiful in Attu, and we got ‘er done in three days.”

Billy Pepper is captain of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s research boat, the Tiglax. He says the first step was finding somewhere to put the memorial.

Pepper: “We had an unexploded ordnance person with us, to scan the area, to make sure there wasn’t anything you were going to stick a shovel into that could blow you up, basically, because it was a battle area, and they took a lot of fire all throughout Massacre Valley.”

The crew eventually landed on a spot in the valley that the Tiglax’s chief scientist, Jeff Williams, says will give visitors a good view of the terrain that the soldiers battled.

Williams: “It’s just 2,000 foot mountains. They had to scale those and fight their up way those mountains. It was really impressive, and it brought a lot home to be able to see that, in that location.”

Attu is uninhabited, and only receives a few dozens visitors a year, so there won’t be many who get to see the memorial in person, but during its installation, Williams brought hundreds of visitors to the island through a ham radio broadcast.

Williams: “I just let folks know that I would be on Attu, and be able to make contact with them. And they get a card and they can say that they talked to someone on Attu on the 70th anniversary. So, it’s kind of an active thing. It’s not a PowerPoint presentation afterwards. But it’s so remote of a place that it’s difficult to bring lots of people there. So that was my way of bringing it to people.”

Williams says the best part of the 12-hour broadcast was when a veteran of the battle contacted him.

Williams: He was in Adak, and Amchitka and then Attu, and flew out of the base right there at Attu.
Pepper: “You remember when you talked to him over the radio, what his comment was? ‘I wonder if the chow’s better than it was back then.’”
Williams: “‘I sure hope the chow’s better,’ he said.”

The Tiglax’s crew is also raising awareness about the 70th anniversary in other ways. After installing the memorial, they held a dedication ceremony led by Captain Pepper, with an honor guard of veterans from the crew. The video of it is on YouTube.

Pepper: “Today, there are just a few of us gathered here on this remote island of Attu, to dedicate the Battle of Attu interpretive site. It is our great hope that Attu will remain a peaceful sanctuary for wildlife, and that by learning from the past, we can avoid Attu ever being a place of war again.”

[Taps played by Captain Pepper on the harmonica]

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