Field Notes
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
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AK MARITIME: Japanese Search for WWII Graves
Alaska Region, July 19, 2007
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Head of Japanese Delegation, Mr. Niitsu, examines first burial site located.  Kent Sundseth, USFWS.
Head of Japanese Delegation, Mr. Niitsu, examines first burial site located. Kent Sundseth, USFWS. - Photo Credit: n/a

On remote Attu Island on the very tip of the Aleutian chain, Aleutian Islands Unit Manager Kent Sundseth assisted a Japanese delegation as they searched for the mass graves of nearly 2300 Japanese soldiers from WWII.  The group flew to Attu Island last week on a four day mission along with Coast Guard and Department of Defense employees to investigate the possibility of repatriating the soldier’s remains.

Attu Island is the furthest west point of the United States and is administered as part of Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.  The island was captured and occupied by the Japanese Army in 1942.  The inhabitants of the Native village were imprisoned in Japan for the duration of the war.  In 1943, U.S. forces swarmed Attu in a fierce 18 day battle to retake the island that resulted in the death of over 500 American and 2,600 Japanese soldiers.  Only 28 Japanese survived the battle and only 300 of their dead were previously repatriated.  The remainder were buried on Attu in the mass graves.  This was the only WWII battle fought on North American soil. Today, only 17 Coast Guardsmen inhabit the fog shrouded and storm tossed island. 

The Japanese and American team searched for the grave sites using information and maps produced by a similar effort in 1953.  In total, eight grave sites were located and hand tools were used for small scale excavations at five of these sites.  The team unearthed two Japanese boots containing foot bones and a small leather article of clothing.  The remains were returned to the grave site with a small ceremony conducted by the Japanese members of the team.

The Japanese delegation will use the information gained during the project to determine if future repatriation efforts are feasible.

Contact Info: Kristen Gilbert, 907-786-3391, Kristen_Gilbert@fws.gov
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