You’ve heard of Pearl Harbor, but the Battle of Attu? Probably not.
Best-selling author and Pulitzer Prize-winning former Denver Post writer Mark Obmascik is well-acquainted with Attu, an Alaskan island 15 times bigger than Manhattan that lurks where the Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea meet.
The unlikely locale has been uninhabited since 2010 due to hurricane winds that pop up out of nowhere, knee-high mud and impenetrable fog. But it’s the setting for Obmascik’s third nonfiction book, “The Storm on Our Shores,” set for release Tuesday.
In it, the Denver author revisits the largely unknown three-week World War II battle of 1943, when U.S. troops came to take back the island stolen by the Japanese. He intertwines the true stories of two soldiers stationed on the island: an American serviceman from Appalachia and the Japanese surgeon he later killed during battle. The story is based on the Japanese medic’s journal, which prompted the serviceman to spend four decades searching for the man’s family to seek forgiveness.
“It’s about family and the sacrifice our country still asks of people to defend us, and about how the enemy is sometimes not the person you think it might be,” said Obmascik. “It’s one thing to kill a symbol but another to kill a person. In war, we usually fight against symbols, but the aftermath is usually about people.”
Obmascik will make appear Sunday on CBS’ “60 Minutes” to discuss the book. He and a “60 Minutes” crew flew to Attu in September to visit key locations in the book.
The longtime newspaperman said the news cycle propelled him into writing nonfiction books. He was lead reporter on the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. “It was awful,” he said. “Nothing good came out of that story. I spent six months working Columbine, and there was so much grief, agony and horror. I needed a break.” Obmascik also covered a U.S. Senate race. “I’m a political junkie, but you need relief. You can’t do that all the time.”
Poking around at the American Birding Association office in Colorado Springs was one of the sparks that launched his 2004 nonfiction book, “The Big Year,” about competitive bird watching. Dreamworks made it into a 2011 film starring Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson. During his research, Obmascik discovered that the best place for birders in North America during the 1980s and ‘90s was the island of Attu. He began looking into its history and came away with another book.
“In journalism, you’re not chasing stuff that’s boring. These are stories you feel lucky to find and learn,” Obmascik said. “In the U.S., the times are so divided, and for me to see there are two families on opposite sides of the war — not opponents, but enemies trying to kill each other — and they found a way to find peace and reconciliation. That was inspiring to me.”