ATTU ISLAND, Alaska -- Forty-four years ago, American and Japanese troops battled for control of a desolate gale-lashed island in the only World War II battle fought in North America.
On Tuesday, the two sides meet again on the tundra -- this time in peace and friendship. They will come together for a ceremony that only a few will witness to dedicate a memorial only a handful of people will ever see.
Japanese forces landed on the island in 1942, seven months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, at a time when Attu was home to 40 Aleut natives, teacher Foster Jones and his wife, Etta.
Jones was shot, the only victim of an otherwise bloodless invasion. The Aleuts were taken to Japan and, after the war, survivors were resettled elsewhere in the Aleutians.
Before invading Attu, the Japanese had bombed Dutch Harbor in the eastern Aleutians and invaded Kiska Island.
Historians believe Japan initially wanted to divert U.S. military strength to the far north, away from other theaters of war, but soon recognized the strategic value of the the Aleutians and decided to build air bases.
On May 11, 1943, 11 months after Japan took Attu, American soldiers landed to reclaim the island. Fierce fighting broke out the next day and lasted until May 30.
In proportional terms, the 19-day battle turned out to be the most costly of the war after Iwo Jima, according to Brian Garfield's history, 'The Thousand Mile War.'
Only 27 of the Japanese invasion force of 2,665 survived, according to the Japanese Consulate-General in Alaska. About 500 killed themselves, chosing death before dishonor.
The United States recaptured Attu with 15,500 men. Combat killed 550 Americans and wounded 1,500. Frostbite felled 1,200 more and many others suffered from trench foot and exposure on the cold, windy island.
The Japanese force was led by Col. Yasuyo Yamasaki, who died sword in hand.
Some of Yamasaki's relatives will be among the handful of Japanese scheduled to fly to Attu in a U.S. military plane for the dedication ceremony, which will also be attended by members of the U.S. Coast Guard and Alaska National Guard.
At the center of the ceremony will be a 19-foot monument erected by a nine-man Japanese crew last week where Yamasaki's men made their last stand. Built of silver titanium to withstand Attu's vicious gales, the monument is a modernistic blend of stars and pyramids.
The Japanese say the monument symbolizes peace, friendship and hope. Japan has erected similar monuments in Burma, Malaysia, the Marshall Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, New Guinea, and the Philippines.
On June 21, when the work crew arrived on Attu to erect the monument, most of the snow had melted and brilliant wildflowers covered the site, now peaceful but still blighted by foxholes, trenches, dugouts and rusty guns.
'I was out there recently wandering around in the fog, and you could almost hear the ghosts,' said John Martin, manager of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, which includes 37-mile-long Attu.
There easily could be more ghosts than people on Attu, whose unique place in history has done little to attract visitors.
No commercial airlines fly to Attu, the westernmost piece of U.S. soil, some 1,600 miles southwest of Anchorage. The only people who live there are 24 Coast Guardsmen who run a communications facility.
In 1976 and again last year, 35 Japanese -- families of the slain soldiers -- visited Attu, said Kaizo Sugimoto, president of an Anchorage company that arranges Alaska tours for Japanese.
Except for those tours and those coming to Attu in connection with the dedication ceremony, Sugimoto estimates that no more than 10 Japanese have visited the island in the last 40 years.
Sugimoto thinks that if the U.S. government were to permit it, many more Japanese would make the trip to Attu so they could visit the newly erected monument and gaze upon the inscription at its base.
'In memory of all those who sacrificed their lives in the islands and seas of the North Pacific during World War II and in dedication to world peace.'