By Rachel D'oro | The Associated Press
ANCHORAGE - The searchers dug for days, ignoring blisters and sore muscles to look for remains of Japanese soldiers buried in mass graves on the Aleutian island of Attu following one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.
But old bullets and bits of barbed wire were all that emerged from beneath the grassy tundra - until the end of the two-week mission by U.S. and Japanese representatives who traveled to the remote resting place of nearly 2,500 soldiers. On May 23, searchers struck their shovels on decaying wood boxes and found the well-preserved bones of two Japanese soldiers likely buried by their comrades during the 1943 Battle of Attu.
"I was very happy and satisfied that everybody's effort finally resulted in something that we all appreciate," Hiroshi Sato with Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare said Wednesday through an interpreter in a telephone interview from the Coast Guard station at Attu, located at the Aleutians' western tip about 1,500 miles southwest of Anchorage.
Sato's office is working with U.S. officials to excavate the remains of Japan's countrymen and take them home for reburial. Given Attu's forbidding weather and terrain, it's sure to be a job rife with challenges, as this early leg of the ongoing project soon proved when participants arrived to icy rain in mid May.
Subsequent days were better, but the six mass graves - where the great majority of the dead are buried - lie in roadless areas on the east end of the mountainous island. To reach the sites, searchers traveled in a tracked vehicle that was flown in.
The Coast Guard has excavation equipment on the island, but deep snow in places prevented its use. Participants had to use shovels and pickaxes to explore the three mass graves still not laden with snow.
"We were at a disadvantage because we were digging with hand tools and the graves were originally dug with bulldozers," said Lt. Col. Matt Kristoff with the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office at the Pentagon. "The bottom line is, in order to excavate these mass graves, we'll need to have heavy equipment."
That's not to say the searchers didn't try mightily with their low-tech tools, digging as deep as 15 feet at one site, according to U.S. Army Capt. Kurtis Schaaf, who led an eight-member team from Fort Richardson near Anchorage to assist. Many Attu-based Coast Guard members also pitched in during their time off.
"There was a feeling of disappointment of not finding what we expected to be there after working as hard as we did," Schaaf said of the mood before the two graves were discovered.
There were concerns that unexploded ordnance might be hidden in the spongy ground. A Navy ordnance disposal specialist was brought up from San Diego for the mission, but found no explosives, Schaaf said.
The obvious place to start looking for remains, participants decided, was near the spot where two left boots containing foot bones were found last July by Chief Warrant Officer Robert Coyle, who commands 20 Coast Guard members stationed on Attu. His discovery was made during an exploratory dig by U.S. and Japanese emissaries.
"It was in an area of natural erosion," said Coyle, who also found a leather pouch likely used to hold bullets. "There was a creek there, a ravine, and I was poking around in there when I found the boots."
Those remains were reburied but have returned with Japanese officials, who aborted a plan to donate the pouch to the Coast Guard station's display of war mementos when Coyle noticed the faded inscription of a name. The remains found in the latest expedition also were reburied and will be recovered later and hopefully identified, Sato said. No subsequent digs have yet been scheduled.
"The intention is to return as many remains as possible," Sato said. "I would like to continue to find more and to keep coming back."
Attu was one of the deadliest conflicts in the Pacific, second only to Iwo Jima.
Japanese troops invaded Attu and the neighboring island of Kiska in June 1942, in the only occupation of U.S. land during the war. No one was living on Kiska, but the Japanese captured a small Aleut community when they seized Attu. Almost half of the 45 residents taken to Hokkaido, Japan, died during internment.
American forces arrived at Attu the following May, waging a 19-day campaign before they retook the island. Most of the fighting was hand-to-hand combat in 120 mph winds, driving rain and dense, damp fog.
Of an estimated 2,500 Japanese troops on Attu, only 28 were taken prisoner. The others died in battle or committed suicide with their own grenades.
American deaths numbered about 550 among more than 15,000 troops. The dead were temporarily buried at two cemeteries on the island, but ultimately exhumed and reburied in locations designated by their families.
More than 60 years later, signs of the battle remain, including numerous foxholes and trenches and the occasional rusted field artillery that belonged to the Japanese. But it wasn't until the Japanese search was launched last year that the carnage became real for Coyle, who is ending a year's assignment on Attu in June.
"Finding shoes with bones in them, that's when it hit me that guys died here," he said. "A lot of people perished here in a brutal battle under brutal conditions."