Full disclosure: I worked alongside Mark Obmascik at The Denver Post as a reporter years ago and he’s been a friend for a long time. He’s an award-winning (Pulitzer & more) journalist with two books under his belt–The Big Year, abut competitive bird watching, and Halfway to Heaven, about his ascent of the 54 mountains in Colorado that top 14,000 feet.
Halfway to Heaven was the winner of the National Outdoor Book Award for Outdoor Literature.
Doing the research for The Big Year (later given the Hollywood treatment starring Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson), Obmascik found the seeds for The Storm on Our Shores, one of the most gripping and simultaneously moving war books you might ever read.
It’s a book about one American soldier, Dick Laird, and one Japanese soldier, Paul Nobuo Tatsuguchi. It’s also about a forgotten and costly battle, the only one during World War II to be fought on American soil.
A full review follows.
First Mark, who had already been grilled by 60 Minutes, subjected himself to a few emailed questions, which begin with a question about the American, Dick Laird.
Question: Having studied Dick Laird so carefully, do you think there was something in his character that made his post-war search unusual? Or do you think many or most Americans would have been haunted the same way?
Mark Obmascik: I think Dick Laird had pangs for killing a man who, like him, had lived in and loved America, and who clearly was devoted to his wife, daughters, and faith. Also, Laird loved school, but he was forced to drop out at age 14 to support his family as an underground coal miner in Appalachia. By contrast, in war Laird had killed a man who had achieved the pinnacle of academic success as an accomplished surgeon.
Question: How did one Japanese soldier’s diary “go viral,” so to speak, long before the internet? What was the essence of that diary that made is so compelling and how do you think it became such a thing?
Mark Obmascik: The diary of the Japanese surgeon was not at all what US troops had expected. All the pre-battle training had been that the Japanese were ruthless, heartless killing machines. Yet here was a journal showing that Paul Nobuo Tatsuguchi loved his wife and missed his daughters, and that he didn’t want to be in Alaska any more than the Americans. In war, it’s easy to kill an enemy, but it’s much harder to kill a man. US commanders were concerned about the emotional power of the diary, and ordered all copies to be confiscated. But ground troops were so taken with it that they passed it between themselves with handwritten notes and mimeographed copies. I ended up finding 10 different translated versions of the one original diary.
Question: So when you were researching The Big Year, when did you come across the World War II history on Attu and what was the process in finding this particular story about the diary and everything else? At what point did you think you had the seed of a book?
Mark Obmascik: My first book was about competitive birding. Key parts of it took place on Attu Island, the westernmost point of the Aleutian chain of Alaska. While researching the history of Attu for the birding book, I learned that the Japanese had invaded and conquered that part of Alaska during World War II, and that it was the first US soil lost since the War of 1812, and that it was the only land battle of World War II fought in North America, and that the Battle of Attu had a casualty rate exceeded in the Pacific War only at Iwo Jima. Almost every account of the Battle of Attu mentions the diary of the Paul Nobuo Tatsuguchi, the American-trained Japanese surgeon. It took me a long time to track down Tatsuguchi’s surviving family. When I did, I learned that the Tatsuguchi children had reconciled with the American war hero who had killed their father.
For a writer, the themes here were terrific. What is the duty of a father to his family, his country, and his religious faith? To what lengths will a man go to ease his conscience? What can or should a younger generation do to settle the disputes of parents? Could you grant peace and forgiveness to the man who killed your father? The Lairds and the Tatsuguchis were ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Yet these families who were enemies in war set an inspiring example of how to reconcile in peace.
Question: The letter from Laura Tatsuguchi Davis—when did you first read it? Come across it? What did you think when you read it?
Mark Obmascik: Laura gave me a copy of that letter when I visited her at home in Los Angeles. After publication of my book, a producer asked me to read the letter aloud for a radio interview, but I couldn’t do it. I knew too much about the pain and suffering and heart and atonement that went into it. Laura Tatsuguchi Davis is an intensive care nurse, not a professional writer, but her letter to the man who killed her father is remarkable and powerful. It chokes me up every time I read it.
Question: Was it even harder to fathom the military strategy of taking Attu, or fighting to take it back, once you had been there?
Mark Obmascik: Yes. Attu is one of the most remote and unforgiving places on Earth. More than 90 percent of the shoreline is cliffs. The interior is filled with ice-encrusted volcanic mountains that rise 3,000 feet. Only eight days a year are free of snow, rain, sleet, or fog. The closest current civilian population is about 500 miles away at Adak Island. When our small chartered propeller plane took off from Adak, the weather was so unpredictable that we had no idea whether we’d be able to land on Attu. We were really lucky to have the fog lift to 1,000 feet just as our plane approached the island. It was very difficult to get a pilot, two 60 Minutes crew members, and me on Attu during peacetime. It’s hard to imagine moving thousands of men onto Attu while being bombarded by an enemy army.
Mark Obmascik’s website
Before he died, the journey of Paul Nobuo Tatsuguchi was already unusual. And epic. Raised in Hiroshima as a Christian, he fell in love with the United States, proposed to his Japanese girlfriend in Yosemite National Park, included Niagara Falls on his honeymoon itinerary, and earned his medical degree at Loma Linda University in California. His favorite Bible passage was from Deuteronomy, “choose life.”
After he died, during a banzai attack as a surgeon alongside Japanese troops defending a useless hill on the far western tip of the Aleutian islands, in a vastly overlooked moment of World War II history, the journey and legend of Paul Nobuo Tatsuguchi became no less impressive.
That’s because Tatsuguchi kept a diary that went viral in the way that things went viral in the 1940’s—via paper copies getting passed around. The translated diary was a hit among U.S. soldiers who fought on Attu and, once ships carried the copies to the mainland, among a wider military audience and a hungry media, too. In death, “Tatsy” was instantly famous.
The nuts and bolts of Tatsuguchi’s cross-cultural, circuitous, and remarkable life are readily available on an extensive Wikipedia page, along with some key excerpts from the diary itself.
The rough outline is powerful. In The Storm on Our Shores, Mark Obmascik makes it a two-man story, contrasting Tatsuguchi’s life with Ohio coal miner Dick Laird, who killed Tatsuguchi and seven other Japanese as the brief but horrific Battle of Attu entered its final phase. Laird, who dropped out of school at age 14 and who killed a man who pursued education through medical school, would be haunted for decades by the moment and everything he’d done.
Tatsuguchi’s story has been told. The Storm on Our Shores contrasts Tatsuguchi and Laird in riveting detail. The contrasts couldn’t have been more striking, with Laird belonging to a family in which the parents “seemed to look for any excuse to deliver a whupping.” The family was so poor that a wounded mule might be become stew. The family moved ten times through the Appalachian coal mines before Dick Laird was six years old. His father drank and gambled to oblivion. Dick Laird loved school, but he was forced to quit to help work in the mine to help the family coffers.
The human portrait is powerful and beautifully sets up Laird’s earnest search for closure and humanity. After the war, Laird sought redemption by reaching out to Tatsuguchi’s family and, well, you need to read the book. Synopses, for the emotional part of this saga, won’t do it justice. Among its many strengths, The Storm on Shores is impeccably timed for maximum emotional punch.
Start to finish, the Battle of Attu was baffling. Attu is about as remote as remote gets. The Japanese took it with about 2,000 troops, hoping to distract the United States into defending its home soil (1,500 miles west of Anchorage). The island was lightly inhabited and easily taken by the Japanese.
The United States waited a few weeks and then sent 15,000 soldiers to take it back—only to see soldiers and sailors die trying to land and fighting the elusive Japanese, who used the foggy mountains to their strategic advantage. Planning, execution, communication, coordination—the assault on Attu took military ineptitude to a new level. Five hundred and forty-nine U.S. soldiers lost their lives fighting on Attu. More than a 1,000 were wounded.
Obmascik goes back centuries for history of Japanese religion, its isolation, earlier wars, and the all-important “true Holy Writ of Japan” that demanded “essential loyalty” to the emperor over wife, children, everything. The code taught that Japanese soldiers that death is “noble and purifying” and as “light as a feather.”
And here is where it gets so hard to imagine that a devout Seventh Day Adventist like Tatsuguchi (again, “choose life”) would agree to serve alongside his fellow Japanese soldiers and commit to the banzai attack. “Only thirty-three years of living and I am to die here,” he wrote. “I have no regrets. Banzai to the Emperor. I am grateful that I have kept the peace of my soul which Christ bestowed upon me…”
The Storm on Our Shores is, quite frankly, almost impossible to believe. Almost. We all know truth is stranger than fiction. This story is proof of that. Don’t ponder the odds of some of the coincidences that emerge from the fog (and muck and misery) of this story. You are better off letting the surprises happen mid-story.
Obmascik’s meticulous research and straightforward narrative style make this non-fiction account a gripping page-turner with genuine heartache. Could you grant forgiveness to the man who killed your father? Would you? And, if so, why?
A godforsaken location, an under-reported battle of World War II, and two remarkable characters—one whose life was cut short and one who survived but was never the same. The Storm on Our Shores is a trip you won’t forget.