Submitted by Sue Jeffery, Kodiak, Alaska.
When Marty Owen was a youngster, he’d stand next to his dad as they brushed their teeth together every morning. Eventually, Marty noticed that some of his dad’s teeth were missing when his dad took the bridge with four artificial teeth out of his mouth to clean it.
“He’d admonish me and say, ‘be sure to brush really well or you too will lose some teeth,’” Marty said.
Some 65 years later, Marty got the whole story about the missing teeth during a recent chat with his 97-year-old father, Bud Owen. He had just returned from a dental visit and Marty thought to ask him, “So Dad, what happened to your four teeth?”
“Oh, it happened during the war,” Bud said. “Broke my jaw.”
“How’d that happen, Dad?”
“Oh, I just jumped into a foxhole and hit my head.”
“Did you get a purple heart?”
“Naw. You don’t get purple hearts for doing dumb things,” Bud said.
Bud most likely dove into the foxhole. This was May 1943 in the Aleutians during the World War II battle to recapture Attu from the Japanese. Bud had joined the Army a couple years after he had moved with his family from Ketchikan to Kodiak during the Great Depression. He was 16 years old when he arrived — old enough to recognize that Kodiak was on high alert.
“There was quite a lot of construction and troop activity in Kodiak,” he said. “We thought Japan was going to attack us.”
From Kodiak to Attu
World War II was escalating in the North Pacific in the late 1930’s, which soon landed Kodiak in the center of the war effort. In 1939 the U.S. began construction of military facilities on Kodiak Island, including a large naval base at Women’s Bay and coastal artillery at Miller Point, Long Island, Cape Chiniak, and Fort Greely near the Navy base.
When the Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor June 3, 1942 and occupied Kiska and Attu a few days later, Kodiak braced for an attack.
Not long after, Bud and 17 other young men from Kodiak enlisted in the U.S. Army and were sent to Anchorage for an abbreviated basic training at Fort Richardson.
“I had learned how to shoot a rifle long before that – and it wasn’t long after training that we boarded a troop ship.” Bud said. “I think there were several hundred of us on that one ship and they didn’t tell us where we were going.”
The soldiers were unaware of their destination and he said many arriving from the Lower 48 were woefully unprepared for the harsh Aleutian climate, he said.
Extremely Remote and Unprotected
Attu is the very last island at the end of the 1,100-mile long Aleutian Chain, the string of nearly 100 small and large volcanic islands that stretches like an arching boundary line between the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea. Extremely remote, Attu is roughly a thousand miles closer to Tokyo than it is to San Francisco. It sits wide open to williwaws, the hurricane-force winds that seemingly come up out of nowhere and scream across the open ocean, frequently at 100 mph for a few hours or several days at a time.Add to that, nearly constant heavy fog keeps air moist and temperatures in the mid 30’s for much of the year.
Trees and shrubs are not indigenous to the islands and human habitation on the remote Aleutians is sparse. The village of Attu was an exception. Established roughly 5,000 years ago, it was an active community until the war. The Unangan or Attuans, the Native people of the village, had been thriving on the natural resources of the region until Japan invaded the village in 1942 and took the 41 village residents as prisoners of war and held them in captivity in Japan. Confined in bleak conditions, almost half of the Attuans died of malnutrition and starvation. Survivors were not allowed to return after the war to the village, which had been totally destroyed and instead were relocated to the village of Atka.
Harsh weather played a major role in the battle to recapture Attu.
“There was a lot of fog,” Bud said. “Williwaws blowing constantly. And the temperature was a problem… some of the soldiers weren’t prepared for it.
“Those who came up from places like Tennessee … didn’t have cold weather gear. We Alaskans formed an outfit right there in Anchorage and were issued cold weather equipment. But many from the Lower 48 arrived with temperate-style clothing and shoes.”
The troop ship Bud took from Anchorage to Attu carried about 600 soldiers. When it stopped in Shemya for fuel, he had a brief visit with his brother, who was stationed there.
When they reached Attu, rough seas breaking on the beach greeted them.
“There was always quite a lot of waves on Attu,” Bud said, “which made it extremely difficult to land.”
“We went ashore in landing crafts … about 95 feet long and 25 feet wide that got us pretty close to the beach. The front door dropped and we charged out.”
Once on the beach, soldiers quickly realized the terrain on Attu was extremely rugged. Deep narrow snow-filled valleys and steep 3,000-foot mountains left very little flat ground on the 20 x 40-mile island for the Americans to set up camp. Instead, they slogged through soft snow and boggy tundra with 100-pound packs on their backs and started their ascent up steep cliff faces to find cover from the Japanese soldiers who had been encamped on Attu for nearly a year.
The Japanese clearly held the advantage, dug into caves and along mountain ridges high above the American newcomers. And, according to Admiral James S. Russell, commander of the Navy Patrol Squadron 42, the Japanese soldiers probably came well prepared for the Aleutian’s hostile environment since Japan had a long history of commercial fishing in the region.
“…Japanese fish boats for a long time had been depleting areas of Bristol Bay of fish by their thorough methods. And these, along with the seal and sea otter harvesting in the southern Bering Sea, must have amassed for Japan very considerable meteorological and geographic, information.” Russell wrote in “Alaska at War, 1941-1945: The Forgotten War Remembered.”
Bud had heard that the battle was winding down when his company eventually landed on Attu.
But the fighting was far from over.
Hundreds of Japanese soldiers were still dug into caves and ridges at higher elevations where fog made it difficult for the Americans to find them. That and the Japanese troops wore white over-jackets, which camouflaged them against the snow-covered mountainous terrain.
“The Japanese wouldn’t surrender,” Bud said. “They went into caves … some 3,000 Japanese were well dug in.
“The [Navy] PBY’s and other aircraft had been bombing, but they wouldn’t surrender.”
The Americans pressed on to drive the Japanese off the ridges and out of the caves.
“Eventually we went in with flame-throwers,” Bud said. “I had one of the 72-pound devices strapped on my back.”
He recalls firing flame into a tunnel several times, when, unexpectedly, several Japanese soldiers ran out firing their rifles.
“We all ran for cover,” he said, and remembers thinking at the time, “I’ve got to get my head down.”
And then Bud went down.
“I was running and I jumped into a foxhole. And with that heavy flamethrower on my back, I guess I hit the far side pretty hard!
“Hit my head and broke my jaw.
“Knocked out four teeth and was bleeding so bad that when the Japanese overran my position, they must have thought I had been shot in the head and was dead.
“So they left me.”
But Bud got lucky.
“Later, when the American GIs came back for their dead, they found me unconscious and moved me back to the sick bay aboard the ship. When I woke up, my mouth was wired shut . . .
“The doc who patched me up, said, ‘You’ll survive.’
“And I did.”
U.S. military planners initially estimated that it would take three days to recapture Attu. Instead, American and Japanese soldiers fought for 19 days before the Japanese finally were defeated at a high cost on both sides.
“U.S. troops … would have to endure 19 days of furious combat … The men were to fight a tough, resolute enemy under conditions of wretched weather, unforgiving terrain, and sometimes nonexistent supplies and communications,” wrote Fern Chandonet, editor of “Alaska at War, 1941-1945: The Forgotten War Remembered.”
In the end, the Battle of Attu was the second most costly American battle in the Pacific Theater — second only to Iwo Jima. According to Brian Garfield, author of “The Thousand Mile War,” 549 American soldiers were killed during the Battle of Attu,; 1,148 were wounded; 1,200 suffered severe cold injuries; 614 suffered disease (including exposure); and 318 suffered other casualties, including self-inflicted wounds, psychiatric breakdowns, drownings and accidents.
Of the Japanese, American burial parties counted 2,351 bodies. Among the dead were 500 Japanese soldiers who committed suicide with grenades rather than surrender, Garfield wrote.
“It was critical to stop them,” Bud said.
“And, well, we did it. They never made it to Kodiak.”
Bud fully recovered from his injuries. After Attu, the Army shipped him and other soldiers from Alaska to Mississippi for advanced infantry training, then to Long Beach, California where they boarded another troop ship with about 3,000 soldiers headed to Karachi, in western India. The soldiers then traveled by train across India and were eventually assigned to a military police unit escorting convoys carrying supplies and provisions needed by the Allies in China.
“We were deep in the jungles of Burma when the war ended and were told to get to Calcutta any way we could, he said. “I remember walking, riding camels, elephants, and trains. We even stole a truck at one point.”
Bud was adept at math and soon put in charge of flight manifests. He booked himself on the last aircraft but shortly before departure, he gave up his seat to another Alaskan so he could get home sooner to a young family. That aircraft disappeared en route.
With the war over, Bud was discharged in California on May 31, 1946, his 21st birthday,
“I was given $800 and told to go home. I thought I was rich!” He exclaimed.
“I’d been completely around the world with stops in Attu, Hawaii, Australia and India and Burma.
“It was quite the adventure for kid from a sleepy little fishing village on Kodiak Island, Alaska.”
Bud returned to Kodiak only to discover that his parents and younger siblings were marooned on Marmot Island . . . but that’s another story.
“ I did a little fishing – purse seine and gillnet” – before moving to Washington State and marrying Virginia my childhood sweetheart.”
He worked as an accountant and together they raised five children, Marty, JoAnn, Clifford, Neal and Tina.
Bud still lives in the house where he, and his young son Marty, brushed their teeth together every morning nearly 70 years ago.