Storm on Our Shores - Book Review
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. Mark Obmascik relates a beautiful wartime tale in his book The Storm On Our Shores. The story traces the experiences of two men from two different worlds, and how their paths collided in one of the most desolate and forgotten theaters of the war. Nobuo “Paul” Tatsuguchi, born and raised in Hiroshima, Japan, decided to pursue a medical degree in California during the 1930s. Dick Laird grew up in hard scrabble Appalachia during the Depression, working in a coal mine by the time he was sixteen years old. They both married and they both had two daughters. And eventually they both ended up in their respective armies at the outbreak of the Pacific War; one by choice, the other by fate. One day fifty years after the war ended, Dick Laird walked back into the life of the Tatsuguchi family, forming an unlikely friendship and bringing the story full circle.
When Paul Tatsuguchi returned to Japan after almost a decade in California, he was as much American in personality as he was Japanese. And as a Seventh Day Adventist Christian, he stuck out like a sore thumb among his Japanese compatriots, who were already gearing up for a war that Paul knew they could never win. Because of his medical training Paul was drafted into the Japanese Army as a combat physician. After a brief spell in the South Pacific he was dispatched with Japanese forces invading the remote Alaskan island of Attu, situated in the Aleutians, closer to Kamchatka in the Russian Far East than to Anchorage. There he began recording a diary of his daily existence, with loving reference to his wife and daughters back in Japan.
Dick Laird found a calling in the peacetime American Army, and soon was promoted to non-commissioned officer, attaining the rank of company first sergeant after the war began in the Pacific. He was sent with the Seventh Division to retake the only U.S. soil occupied by foreign troops during the war. The unrelenting nature of the environment on Attu was brutal, with boggy ground and freezing rain during the late spring of 1943 when the battle raged for two weeks. Fifteen thousand Army soldiers eventually overwhelmed the three thousand Japanese occupiers. On the last day of battle, Dick Laird decimated a squad of Japanese soldiers, winning a Silver Star in the process. Among the Japanese Laird killed was Paul Tatsuguchi, whose Bible and diary Laird found among the corpses. The diary was translated by Army intelligence, and eventually bootlegged versions made their way to Army troops throughout the Pacific. Tatsuguchi’s descriptions of his family put a human face on the enemy for the American troops, and they came to understand that Japanese soldiers were suffering just as much as they were. Dick Laird would go on to fight in the cauldrons of Kwajalein Atoll, Leyte Gulf, and Okinawa. He would emerge at war’s end twice wounded and multi-times decorated. By anyone’s standards a war hero.
Decades passed, but Dick Laird, far from feeling himself a hero, could not shake the grief and guilt of the men he had killed and the men he had seen killed. Because of the diary, Tatsuguchi stood out in his mind. Tatsuguchi’s widow Taeko and her two children eventually emigrated to Hawaii and then to California after the war. The two daughters, Joy and Laura, always wondered about their father. Before Taeko passed way, Dick Laird paid the family a visit. As shocking as the discovery was that this was the man who had killed Paul—their husband and father—both the Tatsuguchi family and Laird were able to gain peace through a friendship that would last for the final years of his and Taeko’s life. It is a moving story, especially the last few chapters. We owe Mark Obmascik a word of thanks for bringing this small episode of the larger war to our attention.