Conflict echoes even through decades of peace in Mark Obmascik’s fascinating World War II history ‘The Storm on Our Shores’

December 1, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 1, 2019

Dick Laird was the fifth child born to a dissolute father. Frank Laird’s gambling and drinking led him to squander a modest inheritance. The Lairds moved from one coal town to another during Dick’s childhood, sometimes because there was no work for his father, sometimes because the locals forced the family out.

At age 14, not long after the start of the Great Depression, Dick quit school and went to work in a coal mine. It was a physically punishing way to make a living, assuming one was able to stay in the bosses’ graces and keep a job in the first place. It was also wildly dangerous: In the early 1930s, about one in 340 mine workers were killed on the job.

Laird, as he was widely known, was a strapping lad; at age 18, he was six feet tall and a well-muscled 160 pounds. He would have pursued a career as a boxer had not a doctor discovered a heart murmur that disqualified him from competition. At a buddy’s urging, he decided to join the U.S. Army. In the words of Mark Obmascik, author of the 2019 book The Storm on Our Shores: One Island, Two Soldiers, and the Forgotten Battle of World War II: “Could his odds of being killed in the peacetime Army really be any worse than his 1-in-340 chance at the Powhatan mine?”

Obmascik, a former reporter who was on the Denver Post staff when that newspaper won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Columbine High School massacre, knows along with his readers what Laird could not: That the Midwesterner was bound for battle in the Pacific, where he would participate in some of the fiercest and deadliest encounters in World War II.

Laird’s first action was on Attu Island, the main battlefront of the Aleutian Islands campaign. The remote and scarcely inhabited Attu was part of an Alaskan island chain marking the boundary between the Bering Sea and the bulk of the Pacific Ocean; Attu, at the far west, is actually closer to the Russian (then Soviet) Kamchatka Peninsula than any part of the main land mass of North America.

Japan’s June 1942 invasion of the Aleutians, which may have been meant to distract from a planned campaign against the strategic U.S. base at Midway Island, represented the first time since the War of 1812 that the United States lost territory to action by a foreign military. The U.S. War Department found the incursion to be both inconvenient and embarrassing; it took two weeks before the President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration acknowledged the Japanese occupation.

As Obmascik details, the campaign to retake Attu would inflict staggering tolls on both sides. Laird was one of more than 100,000 American soldiers used in the counterattack. Following several delays, the U.S. attempt to retake Attu began on May 10, 1943; although it was expected to last three days, Japanese resistance continued until the 29th.

Only 28 members of a Japanese force more than 1,000 times that size survived the counterattack as prisoners of war. When the local commander lost hope of repelling the Americans, he ordered suicide attacks; he also instructed medical personnel to end the lives of sick and wounded soldiers in Japanese sickbays. Both commands were in keeping with Japanese military doctrine.

“The Storm on Our Shores” by Mark Obmascik.

The Americans suffered 549 deaths on their side, but thousands were afflicted by weather-related maladies such as frostbite and trench foot, other serious illnesses, psychological breakdowns, self-inflicted wounds or accidents. Other than Iwo Jima, this proved to be the highest casualty rate in the Pacific for U.S. forces.

Attu, of course, suffers from some of the worst weather and most treacherous terrain on the planet. Unfortunately, U.S. troops were working with inadequate equipment for cold-weather warfare. Moreover, many of the Americans had trained for an entirely different type of warfare; Laird’s Southern California–based unit, for instance, had prepared for desert combat in anticipation of a possible deployment to North Africa.

Laird, incredibly, would go on to fight in three more major engagements: At Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands; Leyte, in the central Philippines; and Okinawa, the Japanese island. His experiences in combat would haunt him for the rest of the his life. He saw men wounded and killed by knives, bullets and explosives. On Attu, he fired in the fog and killed a messenger from his own company. In other action, he almost fired upon unarmed civilians. He once had to stop a crazed American from repeatedly firing his automatic rifle into dead bodies, to gruesome effect.

Laird’s story would be no more remarkable than that of thousands of other members of what was has come to be known the Greatest Generation but for one thing: His link to Paul Nobuo Tatsuguchi, an American-trained physician stationed with the Japanese occupiers on Attu.

Tatsuguchi and his wife, Taeko, were ardent Seventh-Day Adventists who — quite unusually for Japanese citizens of the time — had lived in America for some years. As Obmascik documents, the couple’s love and respect for America deepened as they crossed the nation by Greyhound bus:

The ocean around Japan always inspired awe, but nothing prepared Paul and Taeko for the majestic open spaces of the Grand Canyon. A single place in Colorado, Rocky Mountian National Park, had forty peaks higher than Mount Fuji, the tallest mountain of their homeland. Rolling through the endless farmland of Nebraska and Iowa — two states that, combined, nearly matched the total area of all of Japan — made the Tasuguchis realize that America should never go hungry. And it was hard to tell which man-made creation appeared more impressive: Chicago and the sprawling stockyards that made it the Hog Butcher of the World, or Detroit and the massive factories that turned out more automobiles in a year (3.3 milling) than Japan’s second-largest city, Osaka, had people. 

The more the Tatsuguchis traveled, the more they fell in love, with each other and with their adopted country. On their honeymoon, they even traveled to the ultimate newlywed destination — Niagara Falls. When the vast cataract was illuminated at night, they had to ask: Could there be a more all-American honeymoon? In Japan, the Tasuguchis had always felt safe and secure, but in the United States they felt exhilarated. Americans were not preoccupied with avoiding embarrassment or failure. They dodged conformity. They took risks. They were optimistic. They believed they could control their own destiny and even change it. Plus, for Paul, the United States had one other big advantage: excellent ice cream. 

On their grand cross-country honeymoon tour, no place left the Tatsuguchis as amazed as New York City. Paul stood at the base of the Empire State Building, at 1,250 feet the world’s tallest, and gaped upward until his neck hurt. The highest building in all of Japan stood one-tenth as tall. Manhattan was almost incomprehensible. 

Paul and Taeko Tatsuguchi were taken aback by the wealth of a country that could create such magnificent structures. They could not imagine how Japan could ever match such an economic colossus in either war or peace. 

A family emergency forced Paul and Taeko to return to Japan in 1939. The nation they found was economically vibrant but still incredibly distrustful of outsiders. Both of these factors, sadly, would help lead Japan into an all-encompassing war against the United States and other allied powers.

On Attu, in an incident that would win him a commendation, Laird killed a small force that was preparing to fire a captured U.S. mortar into a defenseless group of American soldiers; Tatsuguchi was among them. Afterward, Laird picked up the physician’s documents and later had them translated, in the expectation that it might contain valuable secrets.

Instead, Army linguists discovered a remarkable document — Dr. Tatsuguchi’s war diary, a journal kept by a pacifist Christian who loved both his native country and the one he’d been ordered to invade. Tatsuguchi’s diary experienced the mid–20th century phenomenon of going viral; American soldiers circulated hundreds of copies of it. The document did what might have seemed virtually impossible — humanized an enemy that fought viciously, even against impossible odds.

Years after the war, Laird struck up a relationship with Laura Davis, the younger of Taeko and Paul Nobuo Tatsuguchi’s two daughters. Laura’s first meeting with Laird left her confused, but eventually she connected with him, in the process learning about those who had come to know Dr. Tatsuguchi through his war journal. In describing Laura’s efforts to discover the father whom she’d never met, Obmascik demonstrates that the impacts of war can ripple through individual lives long after the conflicts themselves have seemingly been settled.

I read The Storm on Our Shores in audiobook form; this is narrated John Bedford Lloyd, who has a wonderful baritone but a tendency to include a few too many pauses that were just a beat too long for my taste. The book, which runs a bit over nine hours in audio form, serves as an interesting meditation on the true costs of war.

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