History in Focus: Lyle Nunnemaker and his death in the arctic
The cold, foggy and forbidding Aleutian Islands sweep in a long arc outward from Alaska into the North Pacific. Early in World War II, these islands pivoted as a strategic location for both the United States and the Japanese, but just as quickly, the battles, like the islands, receded into the foggy shroud of history. Just as difficult to know is the life of Lyle Nunnemaker, who fought and died on the craggy outpost of Attu in May 1943.
The Nunnemaker family came to Craig in 1919. His father owned the Master Hand Garage and sold used cars. One of Phil and Amber’s children, Lyle, was born in 1917 in Wyoming and brought to Craig as a toddler. Lyle first hit the news in the Moffat County Courier of Sept. 18, 1919, when he was trumpeted as the male winner of the county fair’s “Most Perfect Baby.” By 1924, the newspaper noted, the garage had been rented to other mechanics, and the family had moved on to California and settled in Eureka. Details of Lyle’s life after Moffat County are sparse.
By August 1941, Lyle was 22 years old and inducted into the U.S. military. Details of his training and job are also scarce, however he did rise to the rank of corporal.
During the turning-point, battle of Midway in June 1943, the Aleutian Islands were used as a decoy by the Japanese but were considered strategic stepping-stones across the northern Pacific. The U.S. won at Midway, and the Aleutians receded in importance. However, the Japanese were still in control of U.S. soil, an irritating speck in the eye of the United States.
On May 11, 1943, the Americans began the uncontested amphibious landing on the craggy shores of Attu. The inexperienced troops struggled up the wind-swept, snowy slopes of the volcanic island. Slowed by the soggy and slippery muskeg (dense growth of moss and lichens), pea-soup fog and lack of proper gear for the arctic weather, the Americans soon encountered fierce resistance from 2,900 Japanese defenders.
Pressed back toward Chichagof Harbor, near Alaska, and cut off from their navy, the Japanese staged a frenzied and saki-infused banzai charge in the early morning hours of May 29. They caught the Americans off guard and broke through the combat lines. They rushed headlong through field hospitals but were finally stopped by a group of combat engineers. It was in this suicide attack that Lyle Nunnemaker was killed in action.
In the end, only a couple dozen Japanese soldiers were captured, and 500 Americans lost their lives for a small speck of cold volcanic island. Lyle was buried on Attu at Little Falls Cemetery. Later in 1948 Lyle, along with all of his fallen comrades, were disinterred and moved to various cemeteries. Lyle was laid to rest in Golden Gate National Cemetery. Through the decades, the arctic tundra has reclaimed the cemetery, and today, no trace remains.
Craig remained important to Lyle’s parent, though. In 1953, the Craig Empire Courier reported the Nunnemakers were back in Craig after a 30 year absence “visiting old timers and seeking new friends.”
The Battle of Attu is one of the most unique and forgotten battles of World War II. Even though Lyle Nunnemaker spent only a few years of his early life in Craig, he will receive the city’s due respect with his name on the World War II memorial, sponsored by the Museum of Northwest Colorado.
James Neton is a history teacher at Moffat County High School. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.James Neton is a history teacher at Moffat County High School. Reach him at email@example.com.James Neton is a history teacher at Moffat County High School. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Editor’s note: This story is part of an ongoing series highlighting voters throughout Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District. Through the month of May, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, The Aspen Times, Steamboat Pilot & Today, Craig…