On the morning of May 11, 1943, thick fog blanketed the island of Attu. A plastic whaleboat, 1,000 yards from the narrow shore of Beach Red near Holtz Bay, bobbed in the rough water. Corporal Willis “Bad Whiskey Red” Cruden held a compass while Gray and the other Cutthroats pulled the oars through the tumultuous sea, their knuckles white and their joints stiff. Everyone was listening for the sound of gunfire, but all they heard were the oars slapping the freezing black water.
Their job was to reconnoiter Beach Red as a landing spot for the Northern Force troops. Another group of Cutthroats would go in ahead of the Southern Force and the Scout Battalion. The beach was small and surrounded by steep jagged cliffs, and the army wasn’t sure if a landing was even possible, but Bad Whiskey Red expertly navigated the boat through the fog and onto the beach. The Cutthroats quickly disembarked, fully expecting to be shot. Instead, they encountered silence. An all-clear signal went to the boats waiting offshore and the troops began landing.
Before the 7th Infantry Division even set foot on Attu, however, it was already heading for disaster. The division had been training in the Mojave Desert for duty in North Africa; when it had been called to action only weeks earlier, cold-weather clothing was in short supply. So the light infantrymen were sent to Alaska in short-sleeve fatigues, canvas field jackets, and non-waterproof leather boots. Commanders knew this was far from ideal, but assumed the battle would last no more than three days,so the summer-weight clothes and lack of mountaineering skills weren’t considered a problem. They were wrong.
The Cutthroats wasted no time getting started on their secondary mission: to reconnoiter the surrounding territory and contact the enemy. They climbed the steep rocky ridge, checking the area for Japanese, and saw none. The soldiers from the Northern Force quickly closed in on them, but as the climb proceeded they had trouble keeping up. Within a few hours their leather boots were soaking wet, and the smooth soles provided little traction, causing their freezing and water-logged feet to slip on the rocky, muddy, and snowy terrain.
The Americans didn’t catch their first sight of the Japanese until 3 p.m. when the fog lifted enough to see. But the Cutthroats were too far away to fire on the enemy. An hour later, the patrol spotted seven more Japanese soldiers along the beach on the other side of Holtz Bay, also too far away.
Darkness and fog soon closed in on the Cutthroats and the infantry following them. They were high on a ridge directly over the Japanese camp at Holtz Bay—an advantageous position—but the fog obscured their view. So they were ordered to descend from the ridge and to bivouac on the mountainside until morning. Under protest, Gray reluctantly complied.
“Giving up the high ground was to me…like pulling good teeth,” he said. “The night was spent miserably for all of us. We had no shelter or bedding of any kind, just the clothing we wore, and a cold, raw, wet wind blew the fog around us all night.” In the morning, Gray took a 10-man team back to the beach to retrieve the sleeping bags and food rations. He left Bad Whiskey Red behind with the others.
Soon after the party left, the fog lifted, revealing a horrible miscalculation. During the night, under the cover of the fog and the howling wind, the Japanese had climbed up from the other side of the mountain to the ridge and were now looking down on Bad Whiskey Red and the others. They had taken the high ground the Cutthroats had abandoned. When Gray and his team returned several hours later, they learned that Bad Whiskey Red was dead—shot through the heart by a Japanese sniper.
For the next two days, the Northern and Southern Forces and the Scout Battalion were pinned down and made little progress. Many troops were stuck in water-filled foxholes, their feet submerged in icy water. Hundreds of men suffered from frostbite and trench foot, which literally brought some soldiers to their knees, forcing them to crawl.
After two days of observing the enemy from the mountainside parallel to the battle line, Gray received orders on May 14 to lead his patrol forward and draw Japanese fire, creating a diversion so the infantry could advance into Holtz Valley. From his vantage point he could see that the infantry was already moving ahead, throwing off the plan. He grabbed his rifle and three grenades and charged forward.
The Japanese immediately started blasting their machine guns at him. Gray dove into a shallow pool of water. The spray of bullets kicked mud into his face. When the firing shifted direction, he crept toward a large boulder that jutted out from the mountainside, just 150 yards from the Japanese. His patrol caught up behind him and they inched their way up onto a small ridge right above the Japanese.
Artillery shells and jagged shrapnel flew all around the Cutthroats. Exploding grenades nearly destroyed their ear-drums. Gray wasn’t sure they were going to come out of it alive. But the Cutthroats were unharmed, with holes in just their helmets and clothes. Below them, the Japanese were either dead or retreating. The infantry stormed past Gray and advanced down the mountain.
The next day, May 15, the Northern Force finally broke through the Japanese defenses in bloody hand-to-hand combat. After several hours of fighting, the Americans gained control of Holtz Valley. They were unaware they had destroyed Yamazaki’s defense, but soon discovered that the hills in Holtz Valley were honeycombed with caves stockpiled with food, clothing, and ammunition; Yamazaki’s supplies were now out of his reach.
For the next two weeks, the Cutthroats scouted and patrolled the area, informing the troops of the enemy’s position. The Northern and Southern Forces and the Scout Battalion, now combined as one, had formed a semicircle around the Japanese and pushed them toward Chichagof Harbor and the Japanese stronghold at Attu Village.
Cut off from their supplies, the Japanese were starving, low on ammunition, and desperate. Reinforcements weren’t coming. They were on their own—but Yamazaki wasn’t about to surrender. He gave orders to his 800 remaining men. Above all, they were to maintain their honor by adhering to the bushido code of the samurai warrior.