The Storm on Our Shores: One Island, Two Soldiers, and the Forgotten Battle of World War II
By Mark Obmascik. Atria Books, 2019. 236 pages. $28.
Last year, the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Attu was observed in Anchorage with the participation of veterans from the battle and descendants of Japanese soldiers and Attuans taken prisoner by the Japanese. The story of the capture and take-back of the Aleutian Islands of Attu and Kiska during World War II is not well-known to most Americans, and few veterans of the fierce three-week-long battle on Attu in May 1943 (ending in the death of nearly 3,000 Japanese and 529 Americans) remain to tell their stories.
Journalist Mark Obmascik, best known for “The Big Year,” a story of competitive birding, has now brought to life the very human tragedy of that time. With extensive research and skillful storytelling, Obmascik takes readers into the experience of two men, one American and one Japanese, who served their countries and had one fateful encounter.
The book begins with a chilling preface. A “fidgety old man” came to the California home where Laura Tatsuguchi Davis and her elderly mother lived. Laura couldn’t figure out why he was there. Only when she walked him back to his car did he say, “By the way, I’m the one who killed your father.” Then he drove away.
The story of Laura Davis’s father, Paul Nobuo Tatsuguchi, has been told in broad strokes in various historical accounts. (Brian Garfield’s “The Thousand-Mile War” among them.) A surgeon educated in the United States, who had lived in California for a decade, Tatsuguchi returned to Japan with his wife and baby in 1939 to take care of some family matters and work in a church-run tuberculosis hospital. A Seventh-day Adventist and pacifist, he was conscripted into the Japanese military in 1941 and sent in late 1942 or early 1943 to Attu to run its field hospital. When he died in the Battle of Attu, he left behind a personal diary of his last days, an address book filled with the names of his American friends, his Bible inscribed with his favorite verse (“Choose life”), and English language medical books. Translations of his diary circulated widely after the war, helping to counter the accepted views of Japanese as less than human.
The second soldier in the book, the one who came to Laura Davis’s door, was American Dick Laird. Laird grew up in Appalachia and dropped out of school at age 14 to work in the coal mines. The military was his way out of generational poverty. He saw considerable World War II action, including the Battle of Attu, the invasion of Kiska, battles in the Marshall Islands and the Philippines and Okinawa. His medals eventually took four picture frames to display. He suffered from nightmares and what today is called post-traumatic stress disorder for the rest of his life.
Obmascik weaves these two stories together, back and forth, tracing the men’s lives from their boyhoods forward, recreating scenes in an almost-novelistic fashion. He was assisted in his research by the children of both families and even met Tatsuguchi’s widow Takeo before her death. He especially tracks the quest of Laura Davis, who was only three months old when her father died, to learn who he was in life.
The experience of both men on Attu is described in excruciating detail. Excerpts from Tatsuguchi’s diary tell of having to care for dozens of wounded at the field hospital by himself and of his hopes that help in the form of evacuation was coming soon. Laird’s story tells of blackened feet from the cold and wet and of men in his fox hole having body parts blown off.
On the last day of the battle, rather than surrendering, the cornered Japanese launched a desperate banzai attack with the slim hope of capturing American food and weapons to start a new offensive. In the “fury of screams and blood and adrenaline,” Laird saw that the enemy had captured an American mortar position. “’Oh, boy, it’s going to come down right on our troops,’ Laird whispered. ‘It’s got to be stopped.’” Laird “lobbed the grenade over his shoulder and toward the Japanese and dug his face into the dirt for cover.”
In the fog of war, every man on Attu in 1943 was trying to serve his country, safeguard his comrades and stay alive. The logic of fighting over a remote island that no one really wanted was not in consideration. Decades later, when a middle-aged woman could think clearly, she reached out to that man who had so starkly admitted to killing her father. She found that he was tormented by what he had done. He told her, “I didn’t have any other choice, but that doesn’t mean it was right.” The letter she wrote in response, quoted in the book, will surely bring tears to any reader’s eyes.
“The Storm on Our Shores” is a well-told and important book, not only for understanding a particular campaign of a war that’s fading from living memory, but for questioning the demonizing of others. Even in a time of relative peace, we would do well to remember that, despite our differences in ethnicity, citizenship, beliefs, or appearance, it’s our shared humanity that makes us as one.