When Pvt. Lloyd Adams stepped off the USS President Fillmore on the afternoon of June 2, 1942, he and his fellow soldiers were in for quite a surprise. They were standing in the frigid Alaskan Aleutian Islands. They thought they had been ticketed for the South Pacific.
The soldiers had neither the clothing nor the gear for surviving in the icy conditions, an arduous task that started with an immediate 3-mile march through the thick spring mud to their bivouac area at Dutch Harbor.
But the surprises just kept on coming.
They arrived exhausted at Dutch Harbor at 10 p.m. and settled into thin-walled Quonset huts. Just hours later, shortly before 6 a.m., they were awakened by roaring sounds.
Adams first thought the noise was pounding from the sea. The soldiers quickly realized it was bombs. Exploding bombs. Japanese bombs.
"At first, we were dumbfounded," said Adams. "Then we were excited."
The enemy attack continued for more than an hour, reportedly called off because so much smoke from burning ships and military installations had obscured any remaining targets.
Adams and his buddy, unarmed because their weapons had not been unloaded from their troop ship, dashed from their quarters, crossed a creek and hid behind tombstones in an adjacent cemetery.
When they returned to their Quonset later, they saw so many bullet holes in the roof that Adams and his friend decided not to stay there for the night. They returned to the cemetery and raised a two-man pup tent, hardly any insulation against the 45-degree chill.
That afternoon, the troops finally got their weapons, rifles with 30.06-caliber ammunition. The rifles were effective against enemy troops; not so much against the returning warplanes.
"The planes came in low over the cemetery, maybe 400 or 500 feet. We laid there and watched,'' he said. "We got a few rounds off. We didn't have tracer ammo, so I don't know if we hit anything.''
When the raid ended, the duo found six bullet holes in their pup tent.
Last week, 66 years after the battle, Adams vividly recalled the Aleutian Islands campaign, sometimes known as the Forgotten War. He and his fellow soldiers drove off two land invasions by the Japanese and endured numerous air raids during the 33 months they were stationed in the desolate location.
It was only the second time in World War II that enemies attacked U.S. soil, but coming just six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and in a remote location, it has largely been ignored by history.
The battles remain fresh for Adams who, along with his wife, Loretta, now lives far from the frozen tundra in a comfortable home in Brookridge.
Adams, 86, has another, special reason to remind Americans of the sacrifices the soldiers and sailors made at that far-flung battlefield. Military archivists and the historical society in Dutch Harbor say that Adams is the last-known Allied survivor of the Japanese attack.
Adams can't believe he is the last. "There's got to be others out there," he said.
But at age 19, he was among the youngest of the defenders at the time, which included U.S. and Canadian forces. Most were in their 30s.
Archives list Allied losses at 1,481 killed, 3,416 wounded or felled by disease and frostbite, one warship lost and another damaged. Japanese casualties and losses are recorded as 4,350 killed, seven warships and nine cargo transport ships sunk.
About a year ago, Adams contacted the Dutch Harbor Historical Society, inquiring if there were any plans to commemorate the attack. Yes, he was told, he was urged him to come. He said he didn't know if he could afford the trip or whether his wife, also 86 and dealing with arthritis, could endure it.
The Grand Aleutian Hotel in Dutch Harbor opened its arms to what the locals saw as a genuine Allied savior. The hotel paid for first-class air travel for the couple, gave them their room at no charge, and arranged for travel throughout the island. The mayor of the small Aleutian city of Unalaska met them on arrival.
"They treated us like royalty," said Mrs. Adams. "So gracious, so considerate. They did our laundry. We'd never been treated like that."
Mrs. Adams brought the historical society's museum an Aleut doll dressed in fur and a warm scarf that Adams had given to her from his service there.
The spry Adams walked every day during the couple's 10-day stay on the island, climbing mountains, rediscovering remnants of the Quonset huts, mess hall and machine gun emplacements
Adams had been assigned to one such emplacement across a gorge from the bivouac and the mess tent. After four days of making the harrowing trek, the soldiers devised a shortcut: A swinging bridge only 3 feet wide with no handholds across the chasm.
On Adams' visit last month, the only remnants of the bridge were the buried timbers of the span's anchors.
Adams' recounting of his service in the Aleutians tells of a tough life there, but he tells it without complaint, except to say, "It was miserable conditions."
In winter, the snow could accumulate to 5 or 8 feet. A foot could fall overnight. To get out of their berths the next morning, the men would have to shovel the new snow into their Quonsets to forge an egress, then shovel it back out once they opened a path.
An enlistee, Adams was a volunteer all the way. He offered to make a thrice-weekly trek carrying mail to and from their outpost to the main post, over a mountain, 8 miles away.
The mountain was desolate and icy. Once he got blown off his feet by the wind and "skidded for a long, long way." There were no trees to grab hold of. He tried to slow his descent with his fingernails.
Adams also picked up movies to bring back to the outpost. "You've seen (the TV series) M*A*S*H?" he asked. "I was the Radar of the Aleutians."
Adams understates his military success. After starting as a $21-a-month private in 1941, he advanced to first sergeant then warrant officer. He made the difficult leap to lieutenant and retired in 1967 as a captain.
His career seemingly inspired the couple's three sons. Two served in the Army, and one in the Navy.
While Adams has copious notes and considerable photographs from his service in the Aleutians, he also has spread across his living carpet at least 100 photos from his recent trip.
He has archiving to do, to give memory to the Forgotten War.
Beth Gray can be contacted at [email protected]