Oddly Enough

Soldiers' remains found on remote Alaska island

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Japanese and U.S. officials have found four mass graves that they believe hold the remains of 500 World War II soldiers, nearly 65 years after a bloody battle on the remote Alaskan island of Attu.

A small team of specialists also found two boots containing bone fragments, remains that were exposed by erosion, said Bruce Woods, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the island.

The four-day search, which concluded over the weekend, was the third for soldiers who died on treeless, mountainous Attu -- on the western edge of the Aleutian Islands and the site of the only World War II battle in continental North America.

Previous searches in 1953 and 1978 led to the removal and reburial of about 300 sets of remains, but the bodies of about 2,000 more war dead remain on Attu, according to Woods.

Attu, about 1,700 miles (2,736 km) southwest of Anchorage, was occupied by the Japanese in 1942. Residents of the tiny Aleut village were taken prisoner and sent to Japan, never to return home.

In 1943, U.S. forces took control of the island after a two-week battle that claimed about 540 American and 2,400 Japanese lives. Many of the Japanese committed suicide instead of surrendering, with only 28 Japanese soldiers surviving.

Last week’s discovery of the mass graves confirmed some of the burial records from 1953, said a U.S. Defence Department officer who was on the expedition.

“It was not easy to find. Within the burial site, quite a bit of digging was done,” said Major Christopher Johnson of the department’s Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, noting that six decades worth of vegetation had concealed the sites.

The remains were reburied in a brief ceremony, according to officials.

The ultimate fate of the remains on Attu will be decided by the Japanese government. The bodies could stay on the island or be excavated for reburial elsewhere, said Woods.