By Linda Douglass, Fort Wainwright PAOAugust 26, 2010
FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska - People around the United States celebrated on Sept. 2, 1945, when Japan officially surrendered to the United States, ending World War II in the Pacific Theater.
Alaskans too celebrated, and with good cause - it meant no more fear of Japanese invasion and occupation, and no more battles fought in Alaska like that on Attu Island.
The Battle of Attu took place May 11, 1943, to May 30, 1943, on Attu Island in the Aleutian Chain. This battle between the United States and Japan was the only land battle of the Pacific war fought on U.S. ground.
Although outnumbered 5 to 1, the Japanese forces surprised their American counterparts by the strength of their defense. The Americans were hindered by the severe cold, suffering frostbite and other cold-weather injuries because they were unaccustomed to the arctic conditions.
In a final push, the Japanese launched a surprise counterattack and broke through the American front lines. The two sides engaged in hand-to-hand combat until all but 29 of the nearly 2,950 Japanese soldiers were killed.
Included in the 549 Americans killed on Attu was Capt. John Bassett, a doctor who died trying to evacuate wounded patients from his hospital tent. Today Fort Wainwright's Bassett Army Community Hospital bears his name.
A year before the Battle of Attu, in the South Pacific, Lt. Gen. Jonathan M. Wainwright was the senior field commander of US and Filipino forces in the Philippine Islands.
Holding off a major Japanese assault in January earned the American-Filipino forces the nickname "Battling Bastards of Bataan." The Japanese attacks resumed in earnest in April. President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized Wainwright to continue the fight from the island of Corregidor or agree to whatever terms he thought best. Wainwright chose to continue fighting with his men, despite advice that he leave. He fought alongside his men, often visiting the front lines.
After fierce fighting, Bataan fell on April 9, 1942.
Thus began the Bataan Death March - a 65-mile forced march to a prison camp through the unbearable heat and humidity of the South Pacific island.
The Japanese randomly beat the POWs, often denying them food and water. They executed those who fell behind, and tortured them with the "sun treatment" - forcing the captives to sit silently in the humid April sun without water, shade or helmets. Some of the POWs had to dig their own graves, then were buried alive. The Japanese used others for target practice.
Wainwright and 11,000 survivors held on in tunnels on the island for another month after the defeat. Without food or sleep, their hopes of survival were slim. On May 5, Wainwright sent MacArthur a letter informing him that air and artillery bombardment from the Japanese were strong, and he expected the Americans and Filipinos would not be able to hold out much longer. When the Japanese landed on the island, Wainwright called for terms.
Wainwright and his troops joined the Death March survivors at prison camps in the Philippines, Formosa and Manchuria.
Just two weeks after his release from the POW camp where he spent more than two years, Wainwright stood behind Gen. of the Army Douglas MacArthur as Macurthur signed the Japanese surrender instrument aboard the USS Missouri Sept.
After witnessing the Japanese surrender, Wainwright returned to the Philippines to receive the surrender of the local Japanese commander.
Called the "Hero of Bataan," Wainwright did not see himself as a hero, but as a failure because he had surrendered. The people and the government of the United States thought differently, however. Wainwright was awarded a fourth star and the Congressional Medal of Honor after the Japanese surrender.
This year, the 65th anniversary of VJ Day, we remember and we honor the memories of those who fought on the Pacific front.