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Soldier killed in 'Forgotten Battle' of Attu

Before being deployed, he told his family he wouldn’t be coming back

By Doris Hennen

This month is the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Attu, which occurred May 11-30, 1943. And Memorial Day this year (May 29, 2023), is the 80th anniversary of the death of a cousin, Wilfred Steil, who was killed in action in that battle.

The Battle of Attu has often been referred to as the “forgotten battle.” Attu was the only WWII land battle fought on US soil. It was the second deadliest battle in the Pacific, second only to the Battle of Iwo Jima. Although the United States was ultimately victorious in the Battle of Attu, 549 Americans died, 1,148 were wounded, and 1,200 suffered severe cold weather injuries resulting in hundreds of amputations.

Wilfred Steil, of Cold Spring, lost his life at the age of 27 in a brutal battle on the island of Attu, serving the U.S. Army. Contributed photo

I’ve known of Wilfred’s story my entire life. Wilfred’s mother was my grandfather’s first cousin. My father often spoke of how Wilfred, before being deployed, came and saw my grandfather. Wilfred told my grandfather he came to say good-bye because he knew he wasn’t going to be coming back.

Wilfred was the oldest of three children, and belonged to a large, close knit, extended Stearns County (Minn.) family. He grew up in Cold Spring, Minn., and entered the Army on Aug. 21, 1941. He served in the 32nd Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the 32nd was moved into west coast defensive positions to protect against invasion. When promoted to PFC on April 14, 1942, Wilfred was stationed in the Los Angeles area. The 7th Infantry Division was based out of Fort Ord, California, and trained in desert combat.

The Japanese quietly invaded and captured the Aleutian Islands of Attu and Kiska in June of 1942. This was the first time a foreign country seized and held US territory since the British in the War of 1812. For numerous reasons, the US was not in any position to take immediate action.

Attu is the last, westernmost island in the Aleutian Island chain, 1,500 miles from Anchorage, Alaska. It’s fairly small, 20 by 35 miles in size with a land area of 344.7 square miles. The Aleutians are cold, desolate, barren, mountainous, treeless, volcanic islands plagued by very harsh weather; some of the worst in the world. Attu has year-round storms and a nearly constant layer of dense thick fog, which is often accompanied by snow or icy rain. There are rarely more than eight or 10 clear days the entire year. During severe storms, they have sudden, violent, blasts of wind in excess of hurricane force.

Why would the Japanese even want Attu? That isn’t entirely clear and continues to be debated by historians. It may have been to try to divert US forces during The Battle of Midway in the central Pacific, also in June of 1942. The Japanese may have thought holding these two islands would prevent the US from invading Japan from the north Pacific via the Aleutians. Japan may have been trying to separate and create a boundary between Russia and the US in the event Russia decided to band with the US and together attack Japan. This Japanese occupation was a huge blow to American morale.

In January of 1943, the 7th Infantry Division was chosen to retake the Aleutians because at the time they were the only battle-ready troops on the west coast.

The recapture of Attu was named Operation Landcrab. On April 24, an invasion force made up of 11,000 men of the 7th Infantry sailed out of San Francisco aboard transport vessels overloaded with passengers and cargo. They were well out to sea before the troops were informed of their destination.

Military leadership expected the mission to be brief and take 36 hours. It would take nearly three weeks with troops on the ground fighting for every single inch in some of the harshest combat conditions US forces faced in the entire second world war.

The US 7th Infantry Division landed on Attu on May 11, 1943, and began driving inland from the invasion beaches. Their clothing and footwear were inadequate for the soggy marsh and waist deep snow they encountered. The initial troops who went ashore were wearing the same summer weight uniforms they wore training in the California desert.

Attu Island has almost no low-lying areas. The land rises abruptly from the coasts to steep mountains. It is covered by a layer of muskeg tundra several inches to three feet thick. Men on foot easily broke through the tundra, sinking in watery mud up to their knees. Vehicles got stuck in and swallowed up by the mud. The beaches very quickly became jammed with supplies and bogged-down vehicles. Vehicles couldn’t climb the steep mountain terrain. They put chains on tires and tried to winch vehicles up hillsides, without much success. They were able to use gravel-bottomed creek beds in the interior valleys as roadways. Often food, supplies, and ammunition ended up being moved in by hand or on the backs of soldiers. Hundreds of soldiers would stand shoulder to shoulder in supply lines extending for two or more miles and pass in supplies in man-to-man relays.

The Battle of Attu was essentially an infantry battle. Due to the fog, planes were grounded most of the time. Resupply planes couldn’t locate their intended drop sites in the fog.

In relentless combat, the Americans slowly gained ground as the Japanese withdrew. The Japanese were pushed toward the sea and finally cornered in a small hillside harbor. By May 28, the Japanese situation was desperate and critical. They were badly outnumbered, obviously losing, cut off from reinforcements without hope of rescue, and rapidly running out of food, ammunition, and medical supplies. The US dropped leaflets in Japanese on the evening of May 28 advising them of their hopeless situation, encouraging them to surrender, and instructing them how to surrender.

The Japanese commander first ordered that hundreds of Japanese soldiers too sick or wounded to fight be killed.

In the very early morning hours of May 29, the Japanese Colonel led the 700 to 1,000 remaining Japanese soldiers on a banzai charge, a last-ditch attack carried out when Japanese forces had lost or were losing a battle. In traditional Japanese code of honor, dying honorably is preferable to surrender. Surrender is considered the ultimate dishonor.

The screaming Japanese swarmed out of the fog in a final charge easily overrunning the US position. Mostly out of ammunition at this point, the Japanese were armed with samurai swords, grenades, and even bayonets tied to sticks. This would be the fiercest and bloodiest engagement of the entire battle. The Japanese were upon the US troops before the troops even knew what was happening. Breaking through the front, the Japanese made their way to the rear of the American camp in hand-to-hand combat. Some soldiers were bayoneted as they slept in their pup tents. There were three large US hospital tents in the rear area, each clearly marked with the International Red Cross symbol. The Japanese swept through two of the tents, viciously bayoneting the unarmed medical personnel and wounded Americans as they lay helpless in their bunks. Those inhabitants in the third tent survived by lying motionless and playing dead. Many rear-echelon troops, medical personnel, and bed-ridden wounded were killed.

A mixed and outnumbered group of US Army combat engineers, medical personnel, and headquarters troops turned the tide against the Japanese when they made a stand on the crest of a hill, repulsing the last Japanese counter-attack on Attu. This hill was later named Engineer Hill in their honor.

At that point, those Japanese still alive while standing together began to kill themselves, many by clutching grenades to their chests. This was the first time US soldiers encountered Japanese soldiers in battle and witnessed their willingness to die rather than surrender.

Wilfred Steil’s final resting place is at the Fort Snelling National Cemetery. Contributed photo

Wilfred died at the age of 27 on this awful day.

Wilfred, like most of the US soldiers killed in the Battle of Attu, was initially buried in the Little Falls Cemetery on Attu, which was located near the base of a waterfall. It was one of the two temporary cemeteries for US war dead on Attu. The U.S. also buried more than 2,000 Japanese soldiers in temporary mass graves on the island (separate from U.S. troops) and some are still buried there. Wilfred’s funeral was held in St. Cloud on June 29 that year. Wilfred was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart for military merit and wounds received in action. In 1947, the remains of all US servicemen were removed from Attu. Wilfred was then reburied in Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis on Oct. 27, 1948, more than 5 years after his death.

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