'The Storm on Our Shores' tells the story of two families changed by the Battle of Attu

May 10, 2019

Japanese troops train in firing artillery on Attu in 1943.
Credit Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries via Wikimedia Commons

The Battle of Attu is often known as the forgotten battle of World War II. But a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist is bringing stories of the battle to new readers. Mark Obmascik wrote a book that came out this year called “The Storm on Our Shores: One Island, Two Soldiers, and the Forgotten Battle of World War II.” Obmascik is the featured author at the 27th Annual Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival in Homer this weekend.

Obmascik says he first came across the story when he was researching another book on competitive birding. Part of that book takes place on Attu Island.

“When I researched the history of that island, I learned that the Japanese had invaded and conquered it during World War II,” he said. “I didn’t know that….I also did not know that it was the only ground battle of World War II fought in North America. I also hadn't realized that it was a really brutal, nasty battle. The casualty rate in the Battle of Attu was exceeded only at Iwo Jima.”

Obmascik began researching more about the battle after the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival brought him to Alaska in 2012. He eventually focused in on two soldiers in the war: an American trained Japanese-surgeon named Paul Tatsuguchi and an American solider named Dick Laird.

In a bloody battle, Laird ended up killing Tatsuguchi, and other Japanese men. Afterwards, Laird scoured the ground and the bodies for military clues and found two items that belonged to Tatsuguchi: an address book and a handwritten document in Japanese. Obmascik says Laird hoped the document would contain military secrets.

“But in fact, it turns out to be even more powerful…,” he said. “It has Paul Tatsuguchi’s personal war diary and what the war diary shows is that he loved his wife. He has two daughters; he really misses…. And Dick Laird is just racked. He thinks that he's killed the wrong guy. The guy he killed didn't want to be in Alaska anymore than he did.”

Obmascik says Laird was haunted by this for years. Until one day, he worked up the courage to visit Tatsuguchi’s daughter who lived in California.

“This man just showed up at her door one day, a white-haired man, and she had no idea what he was up to until he turned around to leave,” he said. “And just looked over his shoulder as he got in his car and said 'oh by the way, I'm the one who killed your father.'”

The story follows the two family’s journey toward reconciliation. Obmascik will be giving a talk about his book and about his experience camping on Attu Island on Saturday in Homer at the Mariner Theater at 5:30 p.m.