November 11, 2009
Every Veterans Day presents an opportunity to commemorate those who served in some faraway place long ago, many of whom paid that ultimate sacrifice. World War II offers its share of remembrances: Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941; Normandy, June 6, 1944; the Battle of the Bulge, December 16, 1944; to name a few.
Sadly, however, one series of battles continues to be ignored.
On June 3, 1942, the Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor, located at the Aleutian Islands, west of the Alaskan peninsula. Three days later, they landed on the islands of Kiska and Attu, culminating in the only battles of the war fought in North America. Many of the men there went through hell.
Remarkably, the battle is barely known.
One person who has not forgotten is renowned World War II historian, Donald Goldstein. Goldstein, a retired University of Pittsburgh professor, authored one of the only books on the campaign, called the "Williwaw War," named for the freezing, high-velocity winds flowing from Siberia and the Bering Sea, which made service in the Aleutians a constant misery.
"It was strategically very important who controlled those islands," says Goldstein. The Americans stationed there "kept the Japanese from the West Coast and from invading the U.S. mainland.... From a strategic point of view, you can't underestimate the situation there. Look at a map! The Aleutians aren't very far from Seattle."
In the Aleutians, American troops battled not only the Japanese, but debilitating weather and boredom. To combat the fierce and unpredictable williwaws, soldiers leaned forward as they walked, before falling on their faces as the winds abruptly ended. They battled blinding, waste-deep snow, dense fog, sleet that felt like a sandblaster.
To escape the climate, troops spent hours inside. The boredom was so bad that some drank anything they could find. There were stories of casualties from "torpedo juice." Morale was awful.
"War is boredom mixed with moments of stark terror," says Goldstein. "You sit and wait. And then all at once it comes."
And when it came to the Aleutians, it came with ferocity. Shortly after bombing Dutch Harbor, the Japanese took Attu and Kiska. Thirteen months later, in August 1943, American forces sought to drive them out. Kiska was easy, since Japanese forces had bailed out two weeks earlier. Attu, however, was another story.
Attu was taken back only after a horrible fight. Japan fought to the last man. Facing defeat, 500 Japanese soldiers committed suicide with their own grenades. Whereas Dutch Harbor witnessed fewer than 100 casualties, U.S. burial patrols at Attu counted 2,351 Japanese bodies. Total U.S. casualties were 3,829—549 killed. Some believe it was the bloodiest battle of World War II.
And yet, few Americans have heard of the battle. Notes Goldstein: "Even [at the time] there was hardly any press coverage. If you ask most people today where Attu is they have no idea.... It's forgotten."
Do the veterans of this campaign feel neglected?
"Oh, yes," says Goldstein. "They're bitter. These guys never got the credit they deserve."
Many of the unrecognized survivors suffered premature deaths once they got home. One was Andrew Boggs Covert, a tall, lanky fellow who had worked at Pullman Standard in Butler, Pennsylvania prior to the war. Boggs found himself drafted into the Marines Corps as a 30-year-old with seven children. His surviving son, Jim, recalls riding to Pittsburgh to say goodbye to his father in 1942.
It was not a permanent goodbye, as Andrew survived the brutal combat. "He told me about some of the hand-to-hand stuff," says his son today. "It was traumatic. But he was matter of fact: ‘Do it, take care of it, serve your country, get over it.'"
Still, getting over it was not that easy. Andrew died in October 1966 at age 54.
A survivor who outlived Andrew was Leonard Levandoski of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, a member of the 11th Fighter Squadron, who spent two grueling years at Attu.
A few years back, while writing for a newspaper, I tried to track down Leonard on a tip from the Department of Veterans Affairs: "This guy is perfect for you to interview," said the press person. "Every year he writes letters-to-the-editor trying to get people to remember what happened. He'll be thrilled to get your call."
When I called, Leonard's wife, Geraldine, answered. "Who is this?" she said slowly. When I gave my name and purpose, Geraldine began to cry. "Leonard just passed away," she told me. "He waited years for someone to call."
Many of those veterans have now passed away. The years have slowly faded, with no one calling about the Aleutians. It is about time we remember.