ANCHORAGE, Alaska – The Japanese government has resumed a search for the remains of World War II soldiers said to be buried in mass graves on the Aleutian island of Attu, U.S. officials said.
More than 60 years after one of the deadliest battles of the war, the bodies of nearly 2,500 Japanese soldiers still lie beneath the bog of the tiny fog-draped island at the western tip of the chain, according to estimates by the Department of Defense.
Last week, a group of Japanese and U.S. officials made a four-day trip to the island and used hand-held shovels and pickaxes to verify the location of burial sites mapped by the Japanese government in 1953 and by the U.S. Navy, officials said Monday.
Japan's Ministry of Health and Welfare is studying the feasibility of excavating the remains and taking them back to Japan for reburial, said Maj. Christopher Johnson, a policy advisor in the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office at the Pentagon.
Chief Warrant Officer Robert Coyle, who commands 20 Coast Guard members stationed on Attu, said he found two left boots made of rubber containing foot bones and a leather pouch that soldiers may have used to hold bullets. The group also found an old wooden cross in a valley thought to contain the bodies of 501 Japanese soldiers.
After a short ceremony to honor the dead, Japanese officials reburied the remains, said Johnson, who was also on the expedition.
Calls and e-mails to the Japanese embassy in Washington, D.C., were not immediately returned.
Japanese forces landed on Attu and the neighboring island of Kiska on June 7, 1942, in the only land invasion of the U.S. during World War II.
American soldiers arrived the following May. Most of the fighting involved hand-to-hand combat in 120 mph winds, driving rain and dense fog. The battle lasted for more than two weeks before the U.S. retook the island.
Attu is considered the second-deadliest battle in the Pacific behind Iwo Jima. Of the roughly 2,500 Japanese troops on the island, only 28 were taken prisoner. Most died in battle or committed suicide by holding grenades to their chests, according to the National Park Service, which manages the Aleutian World War II National Historic Area. American deaths numbered about 550, according to the Park Service.
American soldiers used bulldozers to bury the Japanese in mass graves on the island, marking them with wooden posts, Johnson said. The burial sites lie in roadless areas covered with high grasses and boggy ground that could contain unexploded ordnance, officials said.
Coyle said an excavation would be difficult and require heavy equipment to be flown out to the isolated island, which lies in stormy waters on the border of the Bering Sea and Pacific Ocean.
"I don't know how they would do it because there's no road access to the burial spots," he said. "Maybe they could bring heavy equipment in by plane. And they'd need a crew of hardy guys with some pretty strong backs."