MILT RACKHAM COLUMN: The First Day and Night of the Battle of Attu

Milt Rackham is an 86-year-old World War II veteran who was born in Drigs, Idaho, and raised in Lorenzo, Idaho. He joined the U.S. Navy when he was 17 years old, within weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Milt served on an 80-foot Navy Patrol Torpedo boat as an engine machine mechanic 2nd Class. He fought the Japanese first in the U.S. Aleutian Islands for 12 months, and then in the South Pacific for five and a half years. Milt and his wife of 61 years, Carol, live in Belding. This is the first installation of a series about his time in the service.

 

Milt Rackham

By Milton Rackham

Special to the Pioneer

 

The U.S. plan to quickly sweep Japanese occupation troops from the Aleutian Island of Attu met with obstacles beyond anything that had been anticipated by U.S. military planners. The combination of severe weather, landscape and well prepared Japanese troops was eventually overcome only by the perseverance of Americans troops and incidents of exceptional courage and heroism by individual soldiers. The price of victory was high.

The battle for Attu that had been postponed from August 1942 until May 10, 1943, was delayed an additional six days by the weather. On May 16, 1943, U.S. troops landed on Attu. The U.S. was intent on a quick victory. A large U.S. force was lightly dressed and lightly equipped to facilitate a rapid advance inland without the added weight of heavier clothing and heavy boots. The basic plan was to rapidly engage and overwhelm the enemy with a larger force. Supply trucks, mobile artillery and support vehicles were ready to land on command in support of what was expected to be a rapidly moving force of U.S. soldiers.

The attack was initiated by a bombardment from The Big Mo (the Battleship Missouri) and other support ships that sat offshore. The bombardment lasted for hours. U.S. Planes bombed and strafed the beachhead while U.S. bombers flew inland and dropped a tremendous load of bombs on the Japanese encampments. Although the Japanese inland encampments themselves were completely leveled by the tons of bombs that had been dropped on the surface area of the camps, the caves and tunnels where the Japanese lived beyond the reach of the bitter Aleutian williwaw winds were essentially untouched. Almost the entire Japanese force that had originally landed on Attu was still intact.

The initial bombardment was followed by PT boats that sped up and down the coastline firing at an unseen enemy to draw enemy return fire that would create fire flashes as targets for the heavy guns on the ships offshore.

PT-81 was one of the speeding targets for enemy fire from the beaches and remained untouched in a dozen passes in front of the enemy squads hidden along the shore. Not all PT boats were as fortunate. One PT boat drew heavy Japanese cannon fire and attempted to outrun the barrage. U.S. ships offshore promptly laid shells into the enemy fire flashes, but it was too late to save the PT boat. It was hit and destroyed as its 3,000-gallon gas tanks split open and exploded.

Landing craft followed and U.S. troops landed on the beach and began moving inland under relatively light enemy fire. Supply trucks, personnel carriers and mobile artillery landed on the beach and prepared to follow U.S. troops inland. The relatively light resistance at the beach seemed too good to be true — and it was just that, too good to be true.

Vehicles and supply trucks struggled through the loose beach sand and finally reached the Aleutian muskeg hoping for better traction. The trucks and vehicles came to a stop less than 100 yards beyond the beach, each buried up to its axles in wet, muck-like muskeg that was 12 to 24 inches deep. The beach became a parking lot.

Meanwhile, lightly-dressed, lightly-supplied U.S. troops moved inland with their only resistance being the same muskeg that had stalled the vehicles. The muskeg tangled and tripped running feet, and slowed those who walked until paths were worn down to the frozen Aleutian soil below. The paths then first turned into a slippery layer of mud over frozen soil, and eventually into a muddy mire as hundreds of soldiers made their way inland. U.S. observers watched the lack of Japanese resistance, looking for confirmation that the initial bombardment had done its job and severely weakened the Japanese forces. But that confirmation was not to be.

The ridges and hill tops along the valleys that led inland were dotted with trenches, each with a Japanese sniper camouflaged to avoid detection from the air. Each had orders to hold their fire until U.S. soldiers had fully entered the valleys and distanced themselves from their supplies; still sitting in trucks mired back at the landing beach. Meanwhile, U.S. observers watched the lack of Japanese resistance, looking for confirmation that the initial bombardment had done its job and severely weakened the Japanese forces. But that confirmation was not to be.

When the Japanese snipers did start firing, the U.S. soldiers in the valley below were like sitting ducks. They scattered in every direction looking for cover on the barren landscape with rocks everywhere, not big enough to hide behind. U.S. soldiers were pinned to the frozen ground that melted first to a slippery coating and then to a muddy mire.

As the end of the first day of the invasion of Attu, the sun set at 10 p.m. for a short four hour Aleutian summer night. The temperature plummeted and the mud mire began to freeze as the lightly-dressed, lightly-supplied U.S. Troops prepared to spend their first night in the Aleutians. The unexpected Aleutian enemy, the weather and its ally, the Aleutian landscape, had joined in the battle and began taking its toll on U.S. forces, as Japanese Snipers continued to fire for as long as there was a hint of daylight from their trenches high above the tragedy unfolding in the valley below.

As the sun rose at 2 a.m. the next day, courageous individual U.S. soldiers that had flanked the sniper positions in the dark of night, looked down into the enemy sniper trenches and found them empty. The Japanese had anticipated discovery in the night and had moved on, just far enough ahead to be able to continue their sniper fire.

Historians would study the Battle of Attu in an attempt to understand the lessons learned from the planning, preparation and execution of a disaster averted only by the courageous actions of U.S. soldiers willing to lay down their lives to protect their country and the families they had left behind.

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