17 August 2011

Oliver Rasmussen Evades the Japanese for Ten Weeks- *in* Japan

Oliver Rasmussen in the back seat of the Helldiver
The run up for the Allied invasion of the Japanese home islands began on 1 July 1945 when Task Force 38, a powerful US Navy fast carrier armada, weighed anchor and headed out from its forward anchorage in the Philippines. Under the command of Vice Admiral John McCain aboard the Essex-class carrier USS Shangri-La, TF38 was tasked with Phase One of Operation Olympic, the preparatory phase of the invasion of Kyushu planned for November 1945. The aircraft of the task force would establish air superiority by mid-August over Kyushu which would in turn set the stage for Operation Coronet, the invasion of Honshu in 1946. The first strikes would begin on northern Japan on 13 July before moving south to Kyushu. In poor weather than grounded most of the Japanese fighter forces, the aircraft of TF38 struck coastal targets and shipping on Hokkaido, the northernmost of the home islands. Despite the weather, the Japanese managed to put up a spirited defense in the two-day strikes, with the Navy losing 44 aircraft and 26 pilots in crew. 

On the first day over Hokkaido, the Shangri-La's air wing would lose eight Curtiss SB2C Helldivers. One of the Helldivers lost was flown by Lt.(jg) Howard Eagleston, who descended too low under the overcast and struck a mountain in rural Hokkaido. He was killed on impact, but his gunner, 23-year old radioman Oliver Rasmussen, survived. With only the clothes he wore and an empty backpack, Rasmussen knew all too well what the Japanese did to their prisoners and decided he'd chance it in the Hokkaido wilderness. Being part Chippewa Indian from Minnesota, Rasmussen had come from an impoverished family (he referred to them as "the second generation right out of the teepee") but had spent his youth in the great outdoors. Having only a vague idea of his general location, Rasmussen spent seventeen days trekking to the coast, living off the land and avoiding any Japanese residents he came across. On 31 July upon reaching the coast, Rasmussen found his first source of significant food- a farmer's cow near his hideout would provide the sailor fresh milk for nine straight nights- each night he'd creep out to the cow and help himself to the milk and return to his hideout. The farmer never figured out what was going on, eventually turning to cow lose figuring she was longer able to produce any milk. 

Rasmussen then built a small boat and tried to head out to sea, but the breakers on that particular stretch of coastline proved hazardous. He retreated back up into the mountains of Hokkaido and set up quarters in an abandoned railroad shack where he kept himself fed with raw onions, birds' eggs, uncooked rice and frog legs. On 16 August, the day after the Japanese surrender, he was spotting by a Japanese civilian, but not aware the Japan had surrendered, Rasmussen abandoned his hideout and sought new refuge. After several days of exploring, he found a site well-hidden that was within easy reach of five farms. He scavenged some scrap lumber to build a small shelter and helped himself to the produce and milk from the five farms each night. As he hadn't bathed in weeks, one of the farms' dogs got his scent on 5 September and the owners went to investigate. He managed to knock over some of the farmers as he made a narrow escape back into the wilderness. Each day he noted more and more American aircraft flying overhead, but he was unable to get their attention. He did find it odd, though, that they attracted no defensive fire and it didn't appear that they were conducting any offensive strikes.

Frustrated that he wasn't able to attract any passing aircraft and growing weary of being in the wilderness, he opted for the direct approach on 19 September and walked into the port city of Tomakomai and presented himself to the local police station to surrender. To Rasmussen's surprise, the police chief treated him as a guest with his first real meal in ten weeks and a bath. It was then that he found out about Japan's unconditional surrender on 15 August. Rather amusingly, the police chief asked Rasmussen if he knew anything about the rash of milk and produce thefts from local farms over the past several weeks- to which Rasmussen denied any knowledge. After an astonishing sixty-eight days in the Japanese wilderness, he was returned to the USS Shangri-La to a hero's welcome. While the end of the war dominated news headlines in the United States, upon his return stateside some news articles did cover his story and regrettably most were condescending about Rasmussen's experience given his native American heritage. As a result, he told no one else about his story despite remaining with the Navy. 

Donald Norton's book on Oliver Rasmussen's experiences

Postwar, he made a career in the Navy working the Berlin Airlift and flying combat missions over Korea. He retired a chief petty officer in 1962 and settled in California where he got a technical job at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab. He passed away in his sleep in 1980 after a year-long battle with cancer with only a few people aware of his story. In the 1960s, though, a family friend made numerous recordings of Rasmussen's ten-week experience in Japan for a planned book. That family friend, however, died a year after interviewing Rasmussen and Rasmussen's wife put the tapes into storage. There they remained until nearly 20 years later, when one of Rasmussen's subordinates in the Navy from the 1950s, Donald Norton, set out to document Rasmussen's story for his own book project. Finding out that Rasmussen had died in 1980, his widow passed on the recordings to Norton, which became the basis for the book Chippewa Chief in World War II: The Survival Story of Oliver Rasmussen in Japan which was published in 2001.

Source: Whirlwind: The Air War Against Japan, 1942-1945 by Barrett Tilman. Simon and Schuster, 2011, p199-204.


  1. Their are many similar stories out there waiting to be told! Even more as our Combat time has increased in places all over the world. Many of the veterans will not talk about it. Some will not even mention their service for fear of intrusive questions that cause recurring PTSD symptoms. A friend that I have recently told me that he needed help with recurring nightmares. He went on to tell me that he had been an MP and was part of the Funeral Detail. Flying into Vietnam to pick up the bodies that they would bury in traditional ceremony. Once they took charge of the bodies they were to stay with the coffin until it was put into the ground. I referred him to a friend of mine who had served as a VA Representative for the entire Upper Peninsula of Michigan.


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  2. My wife, Danna Rasmussen is Oliver's Niece. Her Father, also career Military, passed away in the late 50's while on active duty in the US Army.