Review: The Storm on Our Shores

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The Storm on Our ShoresMark Obmascik. New York: Atria Books, 2019.

Summary: The story of a forgotten battle in 1943 on Attu in the Aleutians, and two soldiers, “enemies” to each other, one who died, one who survived, and the after story.

You are living quietly as a Japanese-American on the west coast, caring for an aging widow, whose husband died in the Japanese war effort. An elderly man visits your home who was in the battle in which your father died. As he leaves, he finally blurts out the reason the real reason for his visit: “I’m the one who killed your father.”

Mark Obmascik tells the story of the battle that the devoted pacifist Japanese husband and father, Dr. Paul Nobuo Tatsuguchi, died in, and the story of Dick Laird, the scrappy, courageous soldier at whose hand he died. He fleshes out the life story of each that brought them to this moment, the moments that followed, and the healing Laird finally found as he and Laura Tatsuguchi Davis eventually talked.

Paul Tatsuguchi had emigrated from Hiroshima to California in the 1920’s, was raised in a Seventh Day Adventist home, and eventually enrolled in medical school, where he excelled as a surgeon. While there he met, and married Taeko Miyake, who he had known from childhood in Japan. Family needs brought them back to Japan where Paul served as a doctor in an Adventist tuberculosis sanitarium. As the clouds of war gathered, their first daughter Joy was born. Then Paul, who was a pacifist, was drafted into the Japanese war effort. Fortunately the need for doctors meant he would not be called on to kill the enemy. But he could still encounter those who once had been his American friends.

Dick Laird grew up in a southeast Ohio coal town. Enlisting in the army seemed the one thing that promised a better life. He met Rose in Columbus while going through training. They had a tumultuous relationship until the army finally grew him up. Laird was the guy you wanted on your side in a fight and he became a leader among men, rising to sergeant. He could have risen further except for his doubts about his education, offered the opportunity to go to Officers Candidate School.

In June of 1942, Japan invaded a lonely island at the western end of the Aleutians named Attu, about as far west as the U.S. goes. They thought they were getting a stepping stone, but the storms, the spongy soil, the cold and the fogs made it more or less useless as a base. They eventually took Kiska to the east. None of this afforded them much strategic advantage but they did not relinquish it.

American pride could not let this invasion of even these insignificant islands go unchallenged and so in May of 1943, Dick Laird was part of an invasion force sent to retake Attu. Much of the book chronicles this effort and the horrors to which this led. There was the Japanese no-surrender policy of fighting to the death, either in battle or in bushido (ritual suicide). There was the fog in war, in this case the literal fog that led to Laird accidentally killing one of his own runners, mistaking him for the enemy, and nearly taking innocent lives at another point. There were the gruesome deaths all around him of friends and others he fought alongside.

Meanwhile, there was the diary kept by Paul Tatsuguchi chronicling the deteriorating conditions that led to the giving of grenades to his patients so they could take their lives rather than be captured. There is also his faith, and his love for his daughters, including Laura, born during the war. The end came when the remaining Japanese defenders mounted a banzai attack. Tatsuguchi was among a group of soldiers charging Laird and his men. Laird had no choice but to throw a hand grenade, followed by his and his men’s rifle fire that wiped out the group.

When they searched the dead, Laird found Tatsuguchi’s diary, later widely copied and circulated by others. Someone else found his Bible. Laird struggled after the war with what we now know as PTSD, the memories of gruesome deaths, the runner, the innocent he almost killed, and the death of Tatsuguchi, a pacifist doctor mixed up in a fatal charge. He had nightmares for years, even as he tried to leave the war behind in the daylight.

The most moving part of the book is the encounters he has with Laura, including the incredible letter she wrote him that finally enabled him to sleep at night. The book also raises the questions war so often raises about soldiers each doing their duties honorably, mixed up in what was a needless battle because of the decisions of others and bearing the consequences in their deaths, or their lives. Laird is the embodiment of the tension of doing what he must do, deeply regretting what he had done and yet seeing no way out of this tragic dilemma. All the decorations he received could not unravel this. Only the aggrieved mother and daughter could do so. The wonder of this book is how they did.

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