AP WAS THERE: 75 years ago, reporter lands on Attu Island

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EDITOR'S NOTE: The following story was written by war correspondent William L. Worden, on his arrival as an eyewitness to the Battle of Attu in Alaska 75 years ago . It was dated May 13, 1943, but didn't appear in newspapers until May 23, 1943.

Worden joined The Associated Press in Tacoma, Washington, but established his reputation as a war reporter after accompanying the first American troops to Alaska's Aleutian islands. After he left the AP, he was a staff member for the Saturday Evening Post and wrote several books. He later worked for The Boeing Co. as head of its news service, retiring in 1972. He died in 1982.



This correspondent reached Attu after seven days on a hatch cover. The hatch cover was below decks on a crowded transport ship and also was inhabited by some 20 junior officers and casuals, sleeping side by side on makeshift cots. On that ship, only men with rank of major or better — or who arrived very early — had permanent bunks.

For the rest, holds were home.

At that, the correspondents were lucky. Most of the hatch cover residents had been there 17 days when the headlands of Attu were sighted shortly after dawn on a day when everyone aboard the transport was awakened at 3 a.m.


The landing forces began to leave the ship in mid-morning. At 9 p.m., the second wave, of which this correspondent was a part, also departed. The conveyance was a tank lighter which carried a 10-ton tractor and a 5,000-pound field gun, plus miscellaneous gear and about 25 other men. The lighter had been imperfectly loaded and had a definite list to starboard; but it did not quite ship water.

From the transport, the lighter with the assistance of a hand pump to keep it afloat, followed other landing boats for two hours while the shore-bound convoy was gathered in under the stern of a destroyer operating as a guide ship. The fog was so thick that a boat a hundred yards away was invisible.

The destroyer's fog horn and one small light guided more than 50 small boats for miles into the rock-infested bay, stopped only when water became too shallow for it to go closer. Then a last long hoot of the whistles sent the boats on their own toward the beach, which was still invisible. A blinding guide light ashore came on, but served only to indicate direction and illuminated nothing beyond dozens of milling boats.

Our lighter came up astern of another boat which did not get out of the way. Backing with full speed, the heavily-loaded lighter missed the second boat by inches, while from the craft a coxswain shouted, "Look out rocks ahead."

The water under our snub bow was full of men. Life jackets floated singly, and men without life jackets beat against the sides of boats, trying to clamber into them. Our craft grounded with a crunch against a rock below the surface.


Eventually the lighter succeeded in backing off the rock. The nose touched shore, the ramp went down and the tractor snorted into water hip deep.

The beach was littered with soaking men just pulled from the surf. They were being stripped and wrapped in dry blankets at improvised medical stations while their clothing was dried. One huge technical sergeant pulled from the water half-drowned, shook off doctors, went looking up and down the beach for his men — though he himself was dripping, his teeth chattering so he could hardly ask questions.

For those with no immediate job up the valley, beds were tundra hummocks a few hundred yards from the beach. There was no sign of the enemy except sporadic machine gun fire barely audible above the roar of tractors and shouts of men on the beach.

In the morning, the beach was a hubbub. Boats had continued to operate all night, and now parties ashore immediately went inland to reinforce the front lines. Medium artillery set up a few feet from the sand began to pump shells up the valley.

The command post was a gully, the intelligence section at one end, the general's staff in the other. Lt. Col. Glen A. Nelson of Los Angeles, commanding a part of the front line troopers, told us the commanding general already was well ahead, looking over the front lines. When the general returned, he held all observers at the command post until an artillery barrage had been completed.

Troops then moved up from the beach in battle skirmish lines, accompanied by medical units and light artillery. The valley at Massacre is wide, and troops were moving all through it.

At a dressing station, a doctor pointed out the first casualty. He had a thigh wound and was thoroughly disgusted. "I had two hand grenades and an M-1 rifle," he said, "but I didn't get a chance to use any of them. Now I don't suppose I will ever get a chance to shoot any of those guys."

Col. Wayne C. Zimmerman gave permission to go forward. "There has been a lot of mortar fire on the ridge," he said, "so look out for it."

The ridge was neatly pock-marked with holes about four feet in diameter. The Japanese mortar fire had started at the forward regimental headquarters and "walked" its way down the ridge. But accurate as it was, it had caused only one casualty so far as I could learn.

At the left, a deep river valley cut into the mountains almost at sea-level. A similar gully at the right was cut off from a clear view by intervening humps. Ahead, on a snowy slope, a company of infantry moved slowly up into the fog.

"They just got one sniper up there," a passing private said. "They think there's another." Somewhat later, there was rifle fire in the fog above and the company came back down. There had been another sniper.

In the valley to the left, a company came on a Japanese captain and two men in a half-finished hut, killed them as they raced toward a machine gun. In the captain's pocket was a note. Interpreted it read: "Dear Wife: This is the last letter I expect to write to you. ---"

The letter had never been finished.

At regimental headquarters, the general received reports of bad sniping and enfilading machine gun fire from the forward units. Here the valley on the left of the ridge widened, then divided. The two arms of the Y thus formed, moved upward as the beginnings of the passes leading to Holtz Bay and Chichagof harbor. The general ordered an artillery preparation for both valleys from their confluence upwards for several hundred yards.

Behind us, the bench batteries opened up a steady fire, and behind them, the men-of-war lent it authority. The shells from the beach and those from destroyers chuckled as they went overhead. A bang, a long-drawn chuckle and another bang, in that order. The fire of the heavier ships was a bright flash, a long wait, a thundering overhead and then destruction.

The barrage continued to work up and down the valley. All evening it worked. I bedded down in a small depression on the hilltop and the last thing I remember hearing was the half humorous gurgling of another shell overheard, the hysterical sound of a Japanese machine gun which still had not been silenced.


The AP Corporate Archives contributed to this report.