The gathering at Oxton Village Assisted Living in Social Circle witnessed a rare ceremony on August 25 honoring a WWII veteran of the Aleutian Islands campaign. Neglected by historians and academia, the men who fought and endured in the glacial seas in the Battle for the Komandorski Islands and struggled on the frozen tundra of Kiska and Attu were and continue to be overshadowed by the monikers of tropical island battles like Guadalcanal, Midway, and Guam. I had the honor to interview the Aleutian Islands veteran, Mr. Virgil Hanks.
Virgil Hanks was born in 1921 in Homewood, Alabama about five miles south of Birmingham. His family farmed 2 ½ acres of a 3-acre plot. He recalled, “We farmed corn, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, green beans, and had a cow to milk. We always kept four pigs in the pen. We didn’t have much money, but daddy would leave and come back with four pigs. Don’t know where those pigs came from and I never asked. My daddy died when I was 16 during the Great Depression. It was pretty frightening being the oldest and head of a household, but we did okay.”
A graduate of Shades Cahaba High School, Virgil was on a date with his future wife, Martha, when they received the news about Pearl Harbor. “We knew that I’d be going to war,” Virgil said. “So we got married on December 26, the marriage anniversary of her family from years back. I enlisted during the summer of ’42 and spent three years and three months in the Army Air Corps.
During the summer of ’42, the Japanese invaded the Aleutian Islands as a diversion from the Japanese attempt to take Midway Island. America purchased Alaska in 1876 with the barren Aleutian Islands thrown in for good measure. The native population of Unangans were renamed the ‘Aleuts’ by Russian fur traders in the 18th century. A free and nomadic people, the some 40 Aleuts on Attu were imprisoned by the Japanese.
Meanwhile, Virgil Hanks was in Montgomery, AL for basic training. “I didn’t think all that much about the transition to Army life,” he said. “I was just a small part of the men and women who volunteered to serve their country in time of war. I didn’t know a thing about airplanes, but we’d be on the flight line at 0300 helping with the preflight. We served the single seaters, very fast interceptors. The training lasted about ten weeks.”
Virgil’s grandson was also in attendance and assisted his grandfather in the interview. He mentioned, “Granddad told us the short pilots were picked for cramped fighters and taller guys for more roomy bombers. At 6’3”, Granddad was a bit too tall. Most of his high school buddies became door gunners on B-25s, and most of them didn’t make it back. Grandpa had skills, clerical and office skills, so that kept him out of the infantry. If you had skills, you had a job.”
As Virgil continued his training, the Aleutians became a battleground. A naval blockade was set up around Japanese-held Attu and Kiska Islands. In March of ’43, the US Navy intercepted Japanese resupply ships and their armed escorts in the Bering Sea. A rare long-range WWII naval battle ensued. The sea battle favored the Japanese, but rather than exploit the opportunity the Japanese tucked tail and ran. Henceforth, all supplies to the Japanese troops on Attu and Kiska were delivered by submarine, a very ineffective way to resupply large contingents of land-based troops.
By that time, Virgil was stuck at the overseas replacement center in Salt Lake City awaiting orders. He recalled, “Hundreds of thousands of boys were coming through that replacement center. I finally got my orders, Alaska. First Anchorage then on to Attu.”
May 11, 1943: Over 11,000 American soldiers land on Attu Island. The harsh terrain begins taking its toll; more American boys fall casualty to frostbite, gangrene, trench foot, and various illnesses than to Japanese bullets. Licking their wounds and outgunned, the Japanese take to the hills for protection and concealment. On May 29, remaining Japanese forces mount a massive suicidal Banzai charge. They breach American lines all the way to the rear areas. Hand-to-hand fighting ensued. By the next day more than 2,000 Japanese soldiers are pushed into an enormous burial pit by bulldozers. American casualties are heavy, but the only ground battle to take place on American soil in WWII was finally over.
The American forces, unprepared for the harshness of Attu, regrouped with better clothing and equipment then hit Kiska on Aug. 15, 1943 with over 35,000 troops. All resulting American casualties came from accidents or friendly fire. The Japanese, in one of the most audacious evacuations of WWII, had evaded American warships in thick fog then snuck in to evacuate their entire garrison from Kiska Islands before the Americans arrived. The Aleutian ground war was over. Now came the air raids to Japan.
Virgil arrived on Attu Island in Dec of 1944. He recalled, “I’ll never be able to forget my first night on Attu. I don’t drink alcohol, never have, but the guys got me drunk on beer, I don’t even like beer. I awoke the next morning stripped naked with a frozen chicken between my legs. I was sick for a week.”
The pranks over, Virgil settled in to become another bored stiff, if not frozen stiff, soldier of the frozen tundra called Attu. “Long days and cold nights,” he recalled. “To say ‘windy’ doesn’t describe a 90mph howling gale and fog so thick you can’t see the man standing next to you. Our Quonset huts were below ground, connected by steel cables we hooked up to for travel to the mess hall and latrines.”
Attu was littered with the debris of war. Virgil recalled, “Unexploded artillery shells were a danger plus unexploded hand grenades littered the beach. Guys would shoot at them from behind the protection of sand dunes, trying to detonate the grenades. If we walked the beach we just avoided the grenades.”
The Army sent 8 people to do the same job. “The Army sort of screwed up,” Virgil said. “Eight people to be the quartermaster. Thankfully, the Army chose me. The other seven guys stayed on Attu until the end of the war, but I have no idea what they did.”
The cold, the boredom, the isolation, hid the fact that the Aleutians and Attu played a very dangerous role in the air campaign against Japan. “I remember those dangers,” Virgil said. “We had B-25s and B-24s flying to the Japanese-held Kuril Islands and Sakhalin.” Sakhalin is just off the coast of Russia in the Sea of Okhotsk, a land mass one-fourth the size of Japan. Virgil continued, “If a plane was hit and ditched there wasn’t too much hope for a crew. The water temperature was around 34 degrees; after 15 minutes of exposure you’re dead.”
On one air raid, nine of the twenty B-25s and B-24s of the 11th Air Force were lost. Grounded to await fighter protection, the big bombers once again took to the skies with the arrival of P-38 fighter planes. Still, being shot up or losing an engine usually meant death.
“We knew we lost planes,” Virgil said. “Scuttlebutt was our only source of information because wartime censorship kept things quiet and out of the news. You know, I remember we had a 155mm Long Tom artillery piece on top of a mountain with a range of about 15 miles. Well, this general showed up and wanted to fire the Long Tom. He did, then was moved out the next day for breaking the rules.”
A crucial side effect of the 11th Air Force raids on Japan was Japan’s fear of a northern invasion route by Allied forces. Over 41,000 soldiers and hundreds of airplanes serving the Empire of the Sun were dispatched to the Kuril Islands to protect their northern flank, a diversion that saved a lot of American flyboys flying from Southern Pacific bases to bomb the Japanese homeland.
Virgil commented on the day the boys on Attu received word that WWII was over. “Well, they started taking in weapons. I guess to avoid folks from getting hurt in celebration. But they didn’t take the vehicles from us. We wrecked over 200 vehicles on the day Japan surrendered.”
Virgil Hanks returned home to Martha and family and work. “I worked warehousing for a short time, then worked in an office and eventually sales for a plumbing and heating company. After being transferred to Florida, another guy and I went into the supply business for ourselves. Atlanta was lucrative, so we moved there, but the outskirts, like Social Circle, offered good opportunities. You know, I don’t remember exactly when we moved to Social Circle but we certainly enjoyed it a lot better than downtown Atlanta.
His final thought: “It’s been a nice day, awards from two senators, the governor, a congressman, Loganville’s American Legion Riders, and the folks of Social Circle. I really appreciate what everyone has done, and I kept thinking all morning, ‘If momma could see me now.’ Let’s go see what they’re serving for breakfast.’
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.