A veteran of the Battle of Engineer Hill reflects

mdunham@adn.comMay 5, 2013 

After the Battle of Engineer Hill, Joe Sasser remained in the Aleutians "without much to do" except endure the constant wind and pounding rain. He eventually returned to various posts in the states. He was in Louisiana, preparing to ship out to Asia, when word came that the war was over.

Sasser went on to a long career as a banker in Carthage, Miss.

He revisited Attu in 2003. "I'd hoped to get to Engineer Hill, but there was more snow then than in 1943," he said.

He wanted to try another visit this summer, but decided not to when he learned that he'd have to hike 10 miles over the tundra and mountains to reach the site. "I'm in my 90s," he said. "I just don't think I can do it any more."

The trip that he'd signed up for was a commercial tour to the battlefield. Attu has been uninhabited since 2010, when a Coast Guard LORAN site closed. Access is difficult and commercial visits are so rare as to be almost nonexistent.

Among the few that will be on board the boat is a film crew from Japan. Historian John Cloe notes that Attu is better remembered in Japan than in America. The fact that the entire Japanese garrison chose death over surrender was used to inspire soldiers and civilians for the rest of the war and continues to resonate with the Japanese public.

Americans, on the other hand, tend to know little about it. Some have said that's because the U.S. government kept the occupation of Attu a secret, but Cloe points out that there were several reporters on the island filing regular updates with photos for major news services and widely circulated magazines like Life.

Instead, the neglect stems largely from American indifference to old news.

Sasser isn't surprised. Among his hobbies is record collecting. He's made a specialty of compiling recordings of songs connected with World War II and has assembled 32 CDs, each with about 70 minutes worth of music on them.

In contrast, he says, songs from subsequent wars are few. "I've only found one song about the Korean War," he said.

"In World War II, everyone was involved. The other wars we've had since then have been with most of us going about our daily business, not even thinking about the guys on the battlefield sacrificing their lives.

"I have mixed feelings about war. But I think if we do go to war, maybe we should make it more universal, go in full steam with everybody behind it."

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