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Vet pushes to have Aleutian battlefield memorial removed
Anchorage Daily News


March 19, 2008

The Battle of Attu ended 65 years ago but survivor Bill Jones has a new enemy on the island.

When he returned to the remote and barren Aleutian battlefield with a handful of other veterans in 2000, he was stunned to see a large titanium starburst, rising from a hill.

The World War II monument, one few Americans are ever likely to see, had been placed there by the government of Japan in 1987, with the approval of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Jones, who owes his survival of that battle to the death of another American, had no idea it was there.

The monument rises nearly 20 feet on Engineer Hill, site of the fierce and gruesome hand-to-hand finale of the battle against the Japanese to take back Attu. In addition to the Aleutian island of Kiska, it was the first time American soil had been occupied by foreign invaders since the British burned Washington, D.C., in the War of 1812.

An inscription, in Japanese and English, reads: "In memory of all those who sacrificed their lives in the islands and seas of the North Pacific during World War II and in dedication to world peace."

For Jones, still haunted by all he witnessed there, peace has been elusive all these years. No matter how many decades have passed, he sees the starburst as a memorial to the Japanese, and nothing more.

The final showdown of the Battle of Attu came on May 29, 1943, when Col. Yasuyo Yamasaki led a desperate middle-of-the-night attack on the Americans at Engineer Hill. Jones lay with multiple wounds in a medical tent while Japanese soldiers shot, bayonetted and even burned alive nearly everyone around him. The only reason he survived, he says, is that a body at the door of his tent gave the impression all were dead inside.

When the banzai attack failed, and Yamasaki lay dead, some 500 men, what was left of nearly 3,000 Japanese invaders, bowed to the bushido code of "death before dishonor:" They held hand grenades to their chests and pulled the pins.

To us, this is history. To Jones, it's his life.

Since he first laid eyes on the monument, he has led an impassioned, one-man crusade to have it removed. For years he's pretty much been ignored. This winter, at the age of 85, with emphysema, brittle bones and recent surgery to repair a broken back, Jones sent off his final letter of protest.

That's when Jack Jonas, a veteran from another era, who did military time on Shemya Island in the mid-'60s, took up the cause.

"I know I'm fighting an uphill battle here," said Jonas, 68 and living in Albuquerque, N. M. "Bill is politically incorrect, but he's not incorrect in his cause. The bottom line is our government made a mistake. They never should have let it be put there."

Last month, Jonas and Jones petitioned U.S. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne to return the monument to Japan, or at least get it moved off Engineer Hill. They have yet to hear back from anybody, only that their petition has been passed on.

"There are two camps of thought," said Ted Spencer, founder of the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum who has twice visited Attu. "One, let bygones be bygones; too much time has passed. And on the other side, you see the old ghosts standing up and saying, 'This isn't right.'

"I'm with them. They're the ones that went through it."

There are other ways of seeing it.

Maj. Mike Haller, a retired Alaska National Guard spokesman and military historian, was on Attu for the dedication of the monument 20 years ago. There he witnessed the sons of two soldiers on opposite sides of the battle honor each other's fallen fathers.

"It was a very tearful moment for everybody," Haller has said. "Suddenly, they were a couple of kids whose dads had died in a terrible place, in a terrible situation."

To Haller, the memorial was doing what it was intended to do.

"The Japanese government has, at times over the past 20 to 25 years, expressed public remorse at their part in the events of World War II," he wrote in a recent e-mail. "The desire for forgiveness was genuine."

In a statement issued by the Japanese Consular Office in Anchorage, Consul Hideo Fujita reiterated the words inscribed on the monument, that it was placed on Attu in memory of all those who died:

"The monument also renews Japan's pledge for peace, and deepens friendship and amity between Japan and America. The Japanese Government hopes that more Americans understand the monument was constructed based on theses ideas, and the Japanese Government will continue its efforts for peace and prosperity of the world in cooperation with other countries."

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