Surviving Engineer Hill Veteran's Story: The Last Battle on American
|Yasuyo Yamasaki was appointed Commanding Officer of
the Japanese 2nd District Force of the North Sea Defense Force in
February of 1943. Transported to Attu by submarine in April of 1943,
Yamasaki’s tasking was that he should hold Attu with no assurances of
additional support from Japan in the near future. By the 28th of May
1943 Colonel Yamasaki, now commander of the Japanese 301st Independent
Infantry Battalion (which had attacked and captured Attu earlier on the
7th of June 1942), was running out of options, supplies, and manpower.
Col. Yamasaki planned a final all-out attack against the American forces on Attu using the remaining 800 or so of his men that could still walk, crawl or otherwise even carry a stick. His men were by now starving, having resorted to eating thistles during their final days at war, and they were running out of arms and ammunition.
The target of this attack was the American 105mm Howitzer cannon emplacements located on a hill overlooking Massacre Bay. The objective of this attack would be to capture the cannons and aim them towards the American troops and supplies amassed on the beaches of Massacre Bay, site of the American forces landing on the 11th of May, 1943. This rear area was inhabited by thousands of American troops and supplies, including ammunition. If this hill had been taken by Col. Yamasaki, thus giving him command of the high ground, he would be able to inflict high casualties amongst the Americans, and they in turn would be forced to engage in yet another battle against the Japanese to regain the hill.
The success of this venture would also be realized if they were able to locate and procure food along with additional arms and ammunition, which would then make available the option of withdrawing to more secure locations on Attu where they would await the arrival of reinforcements and resupply that ultimately would never happen.
Some say the Colonel formulated this attack knowing how futile his situation had become. His plan was in keeping with the Bushido (Warrior's) code that he and those in the Japanese military lived by which forbade the Japanese soldier the option of surrendering to their enemy. The Japanese soldier was to die in battle or commit suicide rather than being captured alive.
On the 29th of May, 1943, Company E of the 50th Combat Engineer Battalion played a pivotal role contributing to the winning of the last battle on Attu. On the 17th of May, 1943, six days after landing on Massacre Bay, Company E set up camp at a location on a hill of a little over 500' elevation overlooking Massacre Bay to the south and Sarana Valley to the east. It was a tedious hike uphill through the wet, slippery tundra, ice, and snow. It had been snowing and/or raining just about every day since their arrival on Attu. There was no shelter for these men save for their foxholes. Their initial tasking as combat engineers upon landing on the beach was in part to keep mortar crews supplied with ammunition. Now their job was expanding to points further east as the Americans continued to push the Japanese forces towards Chichagof Harbor, the main Japanese encampment.
The 50th reached the top of the hill by the sixth day. The front lines were now located down Jim Fish Valley several miles to the east-northeast of their camp. All supplies were "muled in" by the men on foot across the volcanic rock and tundra. There were initially no existing roads that would make their jobs any easier. The arrival of a bulldozer shortly afterwards soon enabled a hastily built semblance of a road leading down the hill and along the valley bottom that would enable supplies to be more easily moved up to the Infantry fighting the Japanese at the other end.
This hill was now part of a rear area that was home to the artillery and the Combat Engineers. The artillery’s 105mm Howitzers were located near or on the top of the hill, and were directed to fire towards the eastern end of the valley…shooting support missions for the Infantry at the forward edge of the battle area (FEBA) located 2-3 miles away. Company E of the 50th Combat Engineers was located several hundred yards down the hill east of the artillery emplacements.
An aid station operated by the 14th Field Hospital Unit was situated across Sarana Valley about 400 yards below and to the east of the 50th Combat Engineers on the hill. This aid station consisted of three large GP Tents, each capable of holding about 30-40 people. Wounded American infantry soldiers received their first treatments there, many the result of the raging battle with the Japanese further down the valley.
Close to this aid station in a gorge at the foot of the first steep rise down Jim Fish Valley and over near the left side of the valley was also located a supply dump and kitchens set up by the 2nd Battalion of the 32nd.
At 0300hrs on Attu during the month of May there is still some semblance of twilight, not the darkness of night as one would expect. Night appears as the light at dusk seen at lower latitudes for only about two hours during this time of year. Influencing the environment to a greater extent was the overabundant presence of fog. The fog enshrouding the islands results from the warm Japan Current flowing into the cold freezing waters of the Bearing Sea, home of the Aleutian Islands. This fog was used by the Japanese in the Aleutians to both their offensive and defensive advantages by providing concealment of their activities and their positions.
Shortly after 0300hrs on the 29th of May, 1943, Colonel Yamasaki along with somewhere between 600 and 800 of his men marched through this fog as they advanced towards their primary objective, the American 105mm Howitzer positions at the top of the hill. The hastily built and rather crude road built by the Americans provided an enhanced trail for the Japanese forces, for now they could travel more easily and faster on foot using the road as opposed to marching through the wet, snowy, slippery tundra.
The first obstacle encountered by the attacking Japanese forces and their targeted American 105mm Howitzers on the hill was the supply dump and aid station. The advancing Japanese were hidden from the Americans view by the same fog that kept the dump and aid station area hidden from the Japanese. The Japanese attackers upon reaching the dump and aid station knew that in order to achieve their objective they would have to neutralize this encampment. They began bayoneting and shooting those inside the tents and engaged in hand-to-hand and up close combat with the supply dump and aid station personnel (medics, administration, cooks, etc.). The intensity of this fighting was evidenced by the intermingling of both Japanese and American bodies as seen during inspection after the battle was over.
Extracts from the book "The Capture of Attu, As Told By The Men Who Fought there" reveals the events as they unfolded at the Supply Dump and Aid Station:
The Story of a Supply Dump, by Private 1st Class Thomas Allen Sexton, HQ Company, 32nd Infantry"...Sexton was the assistant company clerk for Company F and in the battle days every available man had been used to push ammunition and rations to the front-line boys. The 2nd Battalion of the 32nd had established the forward supply dump and set up kitchens there. The battle [at the other end of the valley] was going along pretty well and it was in the final stages. The Japs had been squeezed into a small area, and the pressure on them was increasing every hour. Everyone was nearing exhaustion from constant exposure to numbing cold and from constant driving. The haul up the mountain from the supply dump to the front lines was a five-hour back breaker, and Sexton had returned at 0100 May 29, from lugging a box of rations up the mountain and he was just about tuckered out. Staff Sergeant Joseph B. Orlow, the mess sergeant of Company F, and Corporal Wilson L. Johnson, the company clerk, had pitched a pup tent near the twenty-foot bank where the kitchens were set up. They got hold of Sexton and the three of them crawled into their sacks with Sexton in the middle.
About 0430 Sexton woke up. There was firing up the valley. This was not unusual, so they stayed in their sacks and listened for a few minutes. The firing was increasing in intensity to such a degree that the men started to get out of their sacks. Suddenly the volume of firing, and, for the first time, shouting mushroomed into bedlam. The three men scrambled to get out of the sacks when the first grenade went off in the area.
Sexton was dazed. Just a few seconds after the grenades landed, one of the guards, a Mexican boy, shrieked. He had been bayoneted, and only then did Sexton realize that the Japs were actually upon them. A horde of screaming, chattering Japs poured down over the bank onto the sleeping or only half-awake men. They had rifles, grenades, machine guns, and bayonets tied on sticks. The bedlam was numbing. Johnson showed marvelous presence of mind. The three men were sitting up, still in their sacks, and in the tent. Johnson was firing his rifle toward the top of the bank. He emptied his clip and made a grab for his pistol, a pistol he had picked up the day before. One of the sentries had fallen back and was standing just outside the tent. He was firing frantically. Orlow kept repeating, "What will we do? What will we do?" The sentry outside bent over and shouted to him, "Give me your gun, mine's empty." Orlow handed his rifle out. Johnson fired twice with his pistol.
A Jap fell just outside the tent. Sexton heard a bullet whistle and thump into Johnson's body. Johnson gasped, but continued to fire his .45.
Then the Jap bayonets began plunging into the tent. Sexton felt Orlow lurch as a bayonet got him. Johnson fired again. Bayonets were ripping into the tent from all sides. Sexton had his carbine going and was firing through the tent at each bayonet thrust. Then Johnson got stabbed again. He and Orlow went down together. Sexton fell back with them. The Japs were screaming all around the tent. Sexton felt someone lift the tattered tent and heard a short Japanese phrase spoken over his head. Two English words were being repeated with frenzy outside, words he will never forget because they were so familiar and yet so alien that morning. The Japs were raiding the supply dump and repeated "grenades" and "cigarettes" over and over. The fight was over in a few minutes, and most of the Japs moved across the valley."
A Day in Hiding, by Corporal Virgil F. Montgomery, 1st Platoon, 14th Field Hospital "The 1st Platoon of the 14th Field Hospital had been used almost entirely for evacuation, because that was the big problem - moving the wounded men back from the front over the steep mountains and the slippery tundra filled with deep, treacherous holes.
The front lines were down Jim Fish Valley quite a ways so we had set up an advanced aid station across Sarana Valley from Engineer Hill, and for three days we had used it as a sort of combination aid tent and collecting station. Major Robert J. Kamish was working the station and there were seventeen men from our platoon with him. We had foxholes dug around the tent and pup tents had been pitched over many of them.
The night of May 28, Brown my buddy, and I were sleeping together a short distance from the aid tent in our shelter. The 2nd Battalion of the 32nd Infantry had established a kitchen and a supply dump in a draw to the left of our draw, maybe 400 yards, and the first we heard of anything wrong was a lot of shouting and some shooting coming from over there. I raised up to listen. It was about 0500 in the morning and still so dark that it was hard to distinguish objects. Firing from down the valley was the usual thing, but there had been comparatively little firing as far back as the supply dumps, so this sudden outburst worried me. I woke Cletus A. Brown up and we watched and listened. Then we saw six men moving out of the draw and coming our way. Although I could barely see them, something in the way they walked made me believe they were Japs. Others around us had heard the commotion and were getting up. We climbed out of our bags, and grabbed our boots and coats; the rest of our clothes were on; we had been sleeping in them right along. Other men had spotted the first group of Japs and had started to move out. We went toward the aid tent first, only to meet another column of Japs, who were running and chattering like monkeys, swinging in from the right. Brown was ahead of me and he started to run, shouting, "Up here!" We ran along the only route open to us, right up the hill between our draw and the draw the 2nd Battalion's kitchens were in. As we broke to run, the Japs spotted us and began firing. We ran frantically until we got into a small nook on the hill. Brown stopped, breathless, and I caught up with him. We were panting from the hard run. The shouting and chattering and firing of the melee behind us was terrible. Brown was looking back down the hill, "Hell, here they come!" he said, and he turned and started on up the hill. I took a quick look and six or seven Japs had just come into view over the crest of the little flat we were on. They began firing again. I ran a few feet and hit dirt. Brown kept running ahead. I had made three or four dashes, the bullets whistling around me, and I hit the dirt again; this time my left leg had gone into a hole in the tundra clear up to my hip. Brown was shouting at me. I looked up. He was skylined at the crest of the hill. While I looked he let out a cry and fell. He had been hit."
The Japanese attackers re-grouped and continued their efforts to close in on their objective. They took a quick turn and hurried up the fog-enshrouded hill...towards the bulldozer which had been used earlier by the Americans to smooth out the road leading down from their camp. The bulldozer was located just below the 50th Combat Engineers, Company E's dug in positions; the next and final obstacle on the way to reaching the 105mm Howitzers.
Meet the 50th Combat Engineers
There were apparently no communications or runners in place whereby members of the aid station or supply dump could notify those units located further up the hill and in line with the Japanese offensive. 1st Lt. Fred Messing and two NCOs of the 50th Combat Engineers were finally alerted by a sentry to the commotion and gunfire coming from the aid station area down the hill from them. They then ran about 25 yards through the fog and down the hill from their forward foxholes reaching the bulldozer just as the Japanese had approached uphill to within about 30 yards of it.
Messing had initially reached a point slightly beyond the bulldozer in an attempt to make sure the commotion wasn't coming from friendly forces made up of retreating American infantrymen. When he and his two companions heard Japanese being spoken in low voices off in the distance as the Japanese leaders were giving orders to their men, they knew they had to quickly return to their lines...but, by the time they made it back to the bulldozer they realized they weren't going to be able to reach their lines in time being hampered by the slick, thick, snow-covered tundra. They also knew that they themselves might be mistaken as enemy combatants by their own men and thus might be shot at as they approached their own positions! In light of all these considerations they made the final decision to quickly take up defensive positions at the bulldozer.
By now Messing and the two NCOs were separated from the Japanese attackers by only 15 yards. Luckily, two cases of hand grenades had been accidentally left on the bulldozer's driver's seat. These grenades, along with one M-1 Carbine and Messing's .45 pistol were all the arms they possessed to fend off the initial attack. Messing and the two NCOs fired at the Japanese from positions behind the bulldozer while at the same time throwing all 24 of the four-second fused grenades at the Japanese attackers who had been slowly advancing shoulder-to-shoulder towards the 50th CE's positions. The noise of the exploding grenades and gunfire gave the remaining Engineers, who were sacked out in their foxholes and bunkers, time to man their positions and engage the battle. One of the positions included a .50 Cal M-2 machine gun, a formidable weapon, which began tearing into the invading Japanese attackers.
The artillerymen, located above the Engineer's positions at about 200 yards up the hill, only became engaged in the battle about 15 minutes after the Combat Engineers were initially attacked. They were now firing on the Japanese attackers with small arms, having to shoot through the Engineer's positions located between the artillery and the invading Japanese. Unfortunately, several Engineers were wounded or killed by friendly fire as a result.
An extract from the book "The Capture of Attu, As Told By The Men Who Fought There" provides some further insight as to the conduct of the battle:
First Sergeant Jessie H. Clonts, Jr., Company D, 50th Engineers "We had worked all night and up until noon of the 27th carrying supplies up to the front, then we slept four hours and worked almost all night again. We were so tired when we finally did get into our sacks that I didn't think anything could wake us up, but the 37 mm shell that smacked through the tent did it.
The shell was the first indication we had that the Japs had broken through. We had just gotten up before they hit us and things really began to pop. It was foggy and dark, which made it almost impossible to tell Americans from Jap during the early part of the fight. Lt. John H. Green saw a man walking out ahead of him, and he hollered for the guy to get the hell down in a hole, the fellow replied, "Me do, me do," but he didn't get down fast enough because Lt. Green shot him. They were right in with us. Lt. Jack J. Dillon and I were trying to establish a line and our best protection was to walk up straight. We decided we'd take a chance on stray bullets; both of us being over six feet tall was pretty good identification for us so our own boys wouldn't shoot us. The captain had a loud voice and all morning he shouted directions and pep talks that could be heard, even above the racket of the fight, all over the hill. We put two BARs in, one on each flank of our line, and they got in some good licks with tracer ammunition which marked our own line for our men, and also pointed out targets. I saw Sergeant Allstead right in the thick of things, and he is not the type of person you'd expect to find in the middle of a good fight. I asked him what he was doing up there and he said, "Goddammit! I've got as much right to be here as you have," just like it was a party or something.
The line we had established held, and very few Japs got through it. When daylight came we discovered a whole bunch of Japs pinned in a ditch in front of the road along which we had been fighting. While the boys kept firing to keep the Japs down, several others of us crawled up the bank and threw grenades into them. Helmets, rifles, and Japs flew out of the ditch. We were astonished at the mess of them. They had been lying three deep in the ditch trying to hide."
There were an estimated 600 or so Japanese soldiers engaged in the battle. As the battle raged, many of the remaining attacking Japanese soldiers, seeing their attempted takeover of the hill and the American Howitzers was failing, began committing suicide. It was around 0900hrs on the morning of the 29th of May, 1943. While this battle for Attu was over, searches continued throughout the day for any remaining Japanese forces. The American defenders saved this day for victory and this location where the final battle for Attu was fought, this hill, would become known forever more as "Engineer Hill."
Pvt. 1st Class Robert W. Watson, an Infantry cook, was killed on this day. Bob Watson, his son and a contributor and frequent visitor to the Aleutian websites, presented us with a copy of the letter sent to his mother, Gladys, from U. S. Maj. General Larkin, dated the 27th of January 1947 regarding the burial location of Bob's dad at Attu’s Little Falls Cemetery. There would be many more letters sent to the families of those who paid the ultimate price at Engineer Hill and surrounding camps on that day, the 29th of May, 1943.
The Japanese bodies were buried in a mass grave, covered in dirt by the same bulldozer used to shelter Messing and the two NCOs of the 50th CEs as the Japanese attack ensued. In the end, there were only 28 surviving Japanese combatants who surrendered rather than commit suicide, none of them were members of the Japanese officer corp.
In Japan it was reported that all of the [Japanese] defenders of Attu died. The government of Japan's Prime Minister General Tojo (and it's media) called this "Gyokusai." This term in Japanese means "broken as a jewel," and comes from a Chinese saying "Not to preserve yourself as a tile, rather be broken in pieces as a jewel." This was the first of the gyokusai battles in the Pacific war. There were more than 10 gyokusai battles before the end of the war (ref. Dr. Kaji).
1st Lt. Messing received the Bronze Star "V" for Valor Citation for Bravery as a result of his part played in the Battle for Attu as a member of the 50th Combat Engineers. Lt. Messing's wound to the upper right arm was from a Japanese .25 Cal bullet, front to back, which resulted in Lt. Messing also being awarded the Purple Heart. He joked that he had to worry about being shot in the ass, as it was facing up the hill towards the artillerymen during the attack!
In the final days of the war on Attu, around 100 trucks and Jeeps, along with the bulldozer, were driven off a cliff and into the sea so as to not have to ship them back to the United States or to other theaters of war. These vehicles were in bad shape, and the units would get new equipment for the pending invasion of Japan.
[Updated 12 May 2010 with material and information supplied by Fred Messing's son, Andy, also a frequent contributor to the Aleutian’s websites, and from excerpts from "The Capture of Attu, As Told By The Men Who Fought There."]