May 1943. The Battle of Attu—called “The Forgotten Battle” by World War II veterans—was raging on the Aleutian island with an Arctic cold, impenetrable fog, and rocketing winds that combined to create some of the worst weather on Earth. Both American and Japanese forces tirelessly fought in a yearlong campaign, with both sides suffering thousands of casualties. Included in this number was a Japanese medic whose war diary would lead a Silver Star–winning American soldier to find solace for his own tortured soul.
The doctor’s name was Paul Nobuo Tatsuguchi, a Hiroshima native who had graduated from college and medical school in California. He loved America, but was called to enlist in the Imperial Army of his native Japan. Heartsick, wary of war, yet devoted to Japan, Tatsuguchi performed his duties and kept a diary of events as they unfolded—never knowing that it would be found by an American soldier named Dick Laird.
Laird, a hardy, resilient underground coal miner, enlisted in the US Army to escape the crushing poverty of his native Appalachia. In a devastating mountainside attack in Alaska, Laird was forced to make a fateful decision, one that saved him and his comrades, but haunted him for years.
Tatsuguchi’s diary was later translated and distributed among US soldiers. It showed the common humanity on both sides of the battle. But it also ignited fierce controversy that is still debated today. After forty years, Laird was determined to return it to the family and find peace with Tatsuguchi’s daughter, Laura Tatsuguchi Davis.
Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Mark Obmascik “writes with tremendous grace about a forgotten part of our history, telling the same story from two opposing points of view—perhaps the only way warfare can truly be understood” (Helen Thorpe, author of Soldier Girls).
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The Storm on Our Shores
Laura Davis was confused. In the living room of her home stood a fidgety old man, but she did not know what the visitor wanted. He talked about his grown children. He talked about his Arizona retirement. And he talked on and on about his beloved orchids and all their beauty and their fragility and their rewards. Davis had little patience for exotic flowers or idle chitchat. She was an intensive-care nurse scrambling at home with five-year-old fraternal twins, her live-in elderly mom, and an increasingly rocky marriage. She tried to be polite, but really, wasn’t it time for this guy to go?
Finally it was. As Laura walked the man outside to his car, he paused, then wheeled around. “By the way,” he told her, “I’m the one who killed your father.”
Laura reeled. Was this some kind of a sick joke? By the way? What kind of talk was that—so casual, yet so devastating? With his black frame glasses and shock of white hair, the visitor looked like a lanky grandfather, not some demented prankster. He seemed nervous, too. His face was ashen and grim.
Before Laura could ask a question, the man dropped into his driver’s seat, checked his rearview mirror, and drove away.
He left Laura so stunned she felt dizzy. She had been through a lot—crushing childhood poverty, a life-changing move from Japan to the United States, the birth of her beloved children—but she had always had one deep hole in her life. She had never met her father. He died when Laura was a baby, before she had babbled even her first word. The little she knew about her father came almost entirely from her mother, who wasn’t saying much. Laura had been too busy raising her own family to spend time researching the past of a man who only existed as framed photographs on a wall.
With the few brief words uttered in front of a house in Sherman Oaks, California, the lives of Laura Davis and her visitor were changed forever. Laura would spend the next years scrambling to uncover her family’s past. The visitor would struggle to overcome his own past.
They would each learn about honor and courage, anger and forgiveness, the duty of a man to serve his country even if the result was a pain that would not go away. They would become enmeshed in a military battle long forgotten, on a miserable island far from civilization, a place that claimed thousands of lives but ultimately yielded no prize for its conquerors. Davis and the visitor would discover the secrets that had ruined lives and the truths that had helped to heal them. They would find fathers who soared with joy and others who shouldered burdens that grew unbearable. They would learn about scars that could heal only with atonement.
At the center of all these revelations would be the diary. In his last eighteen days on earth, when Laura’s father was doomed and knew it, he had written a diary—his final farewell to the family he had just started and the daughter he had never met. That diary had been recovered by the stranger at Laura’s door. It had been passed around to thousands of servicemen. How the diary would change hands—and change the hearts of so many who read it—would be the greatest lesson of all to Laura.
Decades later, this diary started me on the long path of reporting this story. I first found out about it while researching an unrelated book. I was chasing a story about competitive birdwatching. It turned out that the greatest spot in North America to spot the rarest avian species of the 1990s had been amid the shrapnel of one of the most deadly firefights in all of World War II.
Attu Island was a forbidding outpost in the far western Aleutians of Alaska, a treeless crag that natives called the Cradle of Storms—the place where weather was born. In June 1942, exactly six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan invaded and conquered Attu and several other of the barren Aleutian Islands. It was the first time since the War of 1812 that the United States had lost territory in war. To win it back, more than 100,000 United States soldiers were called into an Alaskan military campaign that culminated in the ferocious Battle of Attu. By comparison, that’s roughly equal to the total size of the U.S. force dispatched decades later during President Barack Obama’s surge in the Afghanistan War.
The Alaska campaign had been a significant part of World War II. How had I grown up without hearing about any of this?
Despite their numbers, Aleutian veterans remained largely unrecognized in both the United States and Japan. In the depths of World War II, propagandists in Washington and Tokyo were not anxious to publicize a military campaign so stained with agony and blunder. While Midway, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa headline chapters in every history of the Pacific War, the location of the determining battle in the Aleutian campaign is known mainly today as the answer to an obscure clue in a difficult crossword puzzle. (Four letters, a Near Is., Westernmost USA pt—Attu.)
Though fascinated by the history and military significance of Attu, I kept coming back to the war diary of Laura Davis’s father. He was a Japanese surgeon who graduated from medical school in California and returned home to Tokyo only to be forced into a war he did not support against the United States. I was struck by his valor and dignity. His writings made many Americans think twice about the true nature of their foe in the Pacific. U.S. soldiers were told during training that the Japanese military man was a bloodthirsty savage who had engineered the outrageous sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. The diary, however, raised the possibility that the enemy might also be a homesick father torn between his love of family and country. The writing and the situation in the diary were so heart-wrenching that it went on the 1940s version of going viral—countless copies were transcribed and mimeographed and passed among United States soldiers.
Over the years, I worked on other projects, but the messages of the diary pulled at me. I wondered how I would confront similar circumstances. Could I fight in a war I deeply opposed? What if the nation I lived in and admired had tried to kill me? If I knew my end was near, what would I write to my wife and children?
Little by little, I traced the path of the diary, as well as the soldiers and families who saved it. I followed it from the military bases of Alaska to the document depositories of the War Department in Washington, D.C., and Maryland, from family rooms in Los Angeles to kitchens and courtyards in Tucson, Arizona, and Las Cruces, New Mexico. I found people still moved by the diary in Atlanta, Boise, Boston, Dallas, Denver, Orlando, New York, San Francisco, and rural Oregon, plus Hiroshima, Osaka, and Tokyo. I learned that the first translator of the diary, a Japanese American soldier fresh off the battlefield in the Aleutians, had been so taken by the writing that he wept.
I also learned that the U.S. Army, whether by accident or design, had lost the original diary.
Nevertheless, the surviving English translations had become so popular among American soldiers that I found at least ten different versions of the document. They were filed in the cabinets of windowless rooms on military bases, the stacked boxes of the National Archives, the microfiche libraries of several universities, and the personal collections of soldiers and their families. Some had only minor spelling changes, but others featured the addition or deletion of whole phrases. As a result, the exact meaning of some key entries in the diary remains under dispute, which I point out when it is applied. Otherwise I rely heavily on the judgment of Emory University professor Floyd Watkins, an Aleutian war veteran who studied extensively the similarities and differences in several versions of the diary.
No matter the interpretation of the diary, everyone seemed to agree on a few things: The Battle of Attu was fought by ordinary men thrust into extraordinary circumstances; soldiers on both sides were young, scared, and subjected to a relentless cascade of man and nature at their worst; and few sought glory, but many emerged as heroes, though in very different ways.
After conducting dozens of interviews and reviewing thousands of pages of letters, documents, photographs, and journals, I came away from this project in awe of the overwhelming dedication and humility of the men who froze and fought in Alaska.
I also admired the families back home who had to live with the difficult peace. The children of soldiers faced daunting problems, but the younger generation also crafted some of the most moving solutions. These American and Japanese families were linked by combat, and they toiled hard to transcend it.
All this work stretched well ahead of Laura Davis and the elderly stranger on that afternoon in front of her house in Southern California. As his car faded from view, Laura shook with worry. It felt as if an asteroid had hit. This man had come out of nowhere to reveal something about her father—something about her life—that she could not even fathom. How could someone unleash a thunderclap and then just exit?
Laura rushed back inside the house and found her mother, Taeko, who declined to talk with the man.
That man, Laura told her, just told me that he killed Father.
Her mother sat silently.
From her work as an intensive care nurse, Laura knew that people displayed their grief in different ways. Some dissolved into wracking heaves of sorrow; others stayed stoic. Laura tried to read her mother, but her own emotions blocked the way. She felt overwhelmed. Raising twins, having her mother move in with her—Laura’s life already felt so chaotic. The startling news about her father only deepened her vulnerability.
Taeko could see the doubt on Laura’s face. She moved to reassure her daughter. Your father, she said, was a good man, a devout Christian and gifted surgeon who did the best he could for his family and his country. He believed in the Bible. He was killed in war. How exactly that happened, she didn’t know. Did Laura want to know?
Laura thought. She didn’t especially want to know how her father died. She did, however, want to know how he lived.
Growing up fatherless, she had always watched her friends with their dads and wondered what might have been. Laura’s mother had been determined and brave, and her grandparents had helped out, but there were stretches when Laura and her sister lived in third-hand clothes and went to bed shivering and hungry. They certainly could have used a father’s financial support.
But her father sounded like more than a provider. Even in her own tense marriage, Laura could see how a man could offer love and guidance. What kind of man was her father?
“The more I think about this,” Laura told her mother, “the more I want to learn about my father. What would you think if I pursued this?”
“If it brings you peace, then do it,” her mother replied.
The visitor had given his phone number to Laura. At the moment, however, her five-year-old son and daughter were squabbling in the backyard. Laura folded the sheet of paper with the man’s name and phone number, and pledged to call him later.
Eventually Laura did make that call. She set about her difficult journey of discovering the man who helped start her family, as well as the man who shattered it. The story that follows is built upon discoveries by Laura and her family, plus much outside reporting by me and other researchers.
The passage of time may have dimmed some memories, but many important events remain vivid years later to family members, friends, classmates, and other witnesses. Whenever possible, I double-checked the recollections of these people with the recorded statements of letters, documents, and film. When the sequence of events is uncertain or disputed, I have noted that and tried to say why.
History isn’t always pretty, especially in wartime. One person’s truth may be another’s rumor or lie. Learning about the past can hurt, but it also can offer an unparalleled opportunity to heal and to grow.