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Military

Surviving Engineer Hill: A veteran recalls the last land battle on American soil

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published November 10, 2015

HALEYVILLE, Alabama – Roy Dover lives a peaceful life on his farm in the gentle hills that back up to William B. Bankhead National Forest. Dover, who turned 93 on Nov. 7, is active and loquacious, greeting visitors in the driveway off Dover Road with a cheerful smile and his dog, Happy, who looks a little concerned about strangers, but very well fed.

Inside the house he built, Dover proudly gives a tour of the pantry full of canned fruits and vegetables grown and put up by his wife, Willie Myree, and two chest freezers packed to the lid with corn and beans.

"We're never going to go hungry," he says, and laughs. "We could start a food bank."

It takes a little imagination to think of him as a soldier, little more than a boy, shivering in the cold of an Alaska morning as a shock force of Japanese soldiers stormed through the fog during the only World War II land battle to take place in North America. William Roy Dover is a veteran of the Aleutian campaign, one of the last surviving soldiers who made the stand on Engineer Hill.

Company F of the 50th Combat Engineers, Dover's outfit, was assigned to build a road across the eastern side of Attu Island. Their weapons were hammers, shovels and bulldozers. Although they were next to the fighting, few expected they would be thrust into the front line of hand-to-hand combat.

"We thought the infantry had the Japs pinned down pretty good," he said in an interview earlier this year. "We were wrong."

The Japanese army invaded Alaska in 1942, capturing the islands of Attu and Kiska at the western end of the Aleutian chain. The residents of Attu village and men at a small weather station on Kiska were killed or shipped to internment camps. Still reeling from Pearl Harbor, the occupation of even a small part of Alaska was a matter of huge concern from the War Department.

On May 11, 1943, Dover was part of the American force of 15,000 men who began the amphibious assault to retake Attu. "We were sent up on a converted cattle boat and it was rough," Dover recalled. "I was sick. We were all sick. I was on deck and heaved into a cigarette bucket and one of the sailors shouted, 'Hey, soldier! Can't you beat that?'"

It was a relief to get back on sturdy ground, Dover said, even if it was in a war zone.

The landing on Attu was not immediately challenged. A force of 2,900 Japanese on the island had taken positions in the mountains from which they slowed the American advance to a crawl. Clouds limited air support and the boggy terrain made it hard to bring big guns into position.

"The Japs were dug in good," Dover said. "We threw a million dollars of ammunition at them, but the infantry still had a terrible time."

Yet, inch by inch, the G.I.s pushed toward the enemy, often suffering as much from the cold as from the bullets. In Tokyo Bay, a major armada began to assemble to relieve the Japanese garrison and possibly trap the American forces. Whether American officers had that intelligence or not, they knew that time was critical and what had looked, on paper, like a quick, easy operation was turning into a quagmire.

As supplies ran out on the Japanese side, commanding Col. Yasuyo Yamasaki conceived a dramatic and desperate plan. He gathered all his remaining men for a shock attack at dawn, targeting the unsuspecting engineers, medics and cooks behind the lines, seizing supplies and a strategic position from which he might hold out until reinforcements arrived.

The weather on May 29 was not that bad by Aleutian standards, Dover said. "It didn't seem that cold, except higher up where there was still snow." He himself had been slightly wounded a week before, but was still in the field, sound asleep when urgent voices started shouting at the men to wake up.

"Two of my friends were bayoneted in their tent," he said. "If they hadn't got us up, there would have been a lot more."

The engineers took refuge behind the berm of a road they were building. "I had an M1 rifle," Dover said. "The lieutenant only had a pistol. When the Japs started coming at us he looked at me and told me to give him my rifle. Like a fool, I did."

Dover wasn't weaponless for long. A sergeant on one side of him was killed and he took the dead man's weapon as an officer on the other side of him went down.

Many of the engineers were not familiar with the guns dropped by infantrymen who had been rolled back by the surprise attack and were retreating across the road. Nearly out of their own ammunition, the Japanese grabbed discarded firearms and charged with knives tied to their guns. Yamasaki led with his sword.

But the Americans held the line. The Japanese backed off and, realizing they were beaten, committed suicide.

"The carnage was a mess," Dover said. "There were bodies everywhere. We used the bulldozers to make mass graves."

It was the first time American soldiers had encountered the enemy's willingness to die rather than surrender. It was the first time they'd experienced a "banzai charge," the name given to the sudden, ferocious, last-ditch attack by Japanese forces who were cornered or otherwise in danger of defeat. Such charges were accompanied by blood-curdling cries of "Banzai!," involved hand-to-hand combat in a fight to the death and often ended with the Japanese killing themselves with grenades when they failed to achieve their objective. Though the tactic could be thwarted if defenders kept their cool, G.I.'s came to dread them. The lessons of Engineer Hill would haunt and inform U.S. strategy in the Pacific theater for the rest of the war.

Fewer than 30 Japanese were taken alive. One was found some time after the battle, dressed in U.S. gear and lurking near the back of a mess tent, Dover said. "The cook brought him in and tried to feed him what we had, dehydrated sweet potatoes." As hungry as the man was, he couldn't bring himself to eat it and looked at the food with dismay. "He wasn't sure what it was, but it didn't look like sweet potatoes to him."

Soon after the battle ended, Dover was sent to Anchorage for treatment of his previous injury, which was affecting his vision. He had plenty of company. Around 2,100 of his fellow soldiers needed treatment for disease and cold weather injuries, more than 1,700 Americans were killed and wounded in the fighting.

It was weeks before he was declared fit for duty and sent back to Attu. He recalled that trip as the worst part of his service.

"We came out the chain in a little 40-foot freight shuttle. It was awful. I couldn't eat," he said.

Back on Attu things weren't much better. One thing was the weather. "D Company had their mess hall on the side of a hill. One day there was a blizzard that covered the whole building. We had to bulldoze 'em out."

Williwaw winds wreaked havoc. "I watched stacks of half-inch plywood peel off like a deck of cards and scatter all over Massacre Bay," Dover said.

Another problem was the iffy food. "The army sent up a bunch of turkeys for Thanksgiving, but they weren't very careful about how they shipped them and the turkey had all spoiled by the time they served it. The whole company was sick and we only had an eight-hole latrine. You couldn't get a seat. The snowbank next to it was just yellow."

His platoon was sent to the northwest corner of the island to build a radar station. The weather turned bad and supply boats couldn't reach them.

"We were stuck there three or four months," he said. "We couldn't get mail. There was no fresh meat. They dropped some from planes. It hit the ground and got all gritty. But it was good."

The men realized they had abundant protein in the form of rainbow trout swarming the nearby streams. No one had any fishing gear, so they improvised. "We threw concussion grenades into the stream and it was fish for dinner," Dover said.

After waiting in vain for a boat to reach the site, the men decided to march out overland. At one point they found their way blocked by a flooding creek. But someone found a cache of canned food and a rubber raft nearby. "We used it to cross the creek two men at a time. It took a while, but we all got across."

Dover's 20 months in Alaska came to an end when he was sent home on furlough for the first time. During his stint he'd collected a Japanese .25 caliber gun as a souvenir. But he heard that it would be confiscated as contraband and sold it to another soldier for $15. "It turned out that everyone was packing guns and helmets and things in their baggage, and no one was stopping them. So that was a mistake."

His father's farm was almost as hard to reach as Attu. "There was no phone, no blacktop. I got off the train in Haleyville and got a cab. The road was just rocks and pine tips. We got stuck and stuck again and had to push it out. But I finally made it.

"There was a lot of jubilation."

After the war, Dover worked in the automotive industry, building Hudsons before returning to life on the farm. He met Willie Myree Porter at a church musical event and married her on Jan. 23, 1947. He jammed with country and bluegrass groups for many years, playing fiddle and guitar, but had to ease off recently as his fingers became tender.

He has children living nearby and, along with Happy, there's a cat named Phoebe they found at the door when they came home from church one Sunday. "She was just a tiny kitten. She couldn't have made it her by herself. Someone had to drop her off," Dover said. "So they're both strays. They just showed up here and liked us so well they wouldn't leave."

When asked to summarize his contribution to winning World War II, Dover was modest. "I just did what the job called for," he said. "And I was lucky to survive it."

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