"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Aftershocks. Part II


1. Look at a globe or world map and find the Pacific Ocean.

2. Locate the longitude on the eastern side of New Zealand. It will be 180° E.

3. Locate the latitude that runs north of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, above Washington state, approximately 50° N.

4. Follow the longitude north from NZ and the latitude west from Vancouver Island. The two intersect near the Rat Islands of the Aleutian Chain. The largest of those Alaskan islands, the long, narrow one shaped like a reverse comma, is called Amchitka (am-CHIT-kah).

This is the Aleutian Chain, a string of islands stretching 1300 miles towards the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. To illustrate how far away the island is, the International Date Line makes a zig and a zag to keep all of the United States in the same day. Flying to Amchitka from Anchorage takes more time than flying to Seattle.

As the saying goes, Amchitka isn’t the end of the earth, but you can see it from there.

Bald eagles atop cliff.

It may as well have been the end of the earth for the men stuck on the island in 1943. While their fellow soldiers were flying bombing missions over Germany or sinking enemy ships in the South Pacific, as many as 15,000 GIs were fighting the enemy without leaving U.S. soil. By mid-1942, Imperial Japanese forces had invaded the territory of Alaska and occupied the farthest west islands of Attu and Kiska. Next in their sites was Amchika Island. There are conflicting views as to their intentions. One is that their occupation of the islands was to divert the U.S. fleet north. Another is that they intended to use the islands as a base to strike and invade the West Coast of the U.S. mainland.

So why care about two or three God-forsaken islands out in the middle of nowhere, with abominable weather conditions, and with only a few Aleut natives living there?

Aleut cemetery on Amchitka.

This is what General Billy Mitchell said to Congress in 1935: “I believe that whoever holds Alaska will hold the world. I think it is the most strategic place in this world.”

Artillery mount along the coastline.

And so the U.S. Army set up bases at Adak and other islands closer to the mainland, and scouted Amchitka for the feasibility of airstrips. Despite being deemed horrendously difficult, construction proceeded anyway to prevent the Japanese from doing the same. Brutal weather in this place where storms are born and nurtured into vicious tempests, and constant Japanese air raids made the task even more challenging. Nonetheless, U.S. forces made an unopposed landing in January of 1943, and little more than a month later, the first airstrip was usable.

Hydrant for water supply.

Fifty miles away was the island of Kiska, teeming with well-fortified Japanese soldiers.

Kiska is at the far left.

GIs ill-equipped for the horrendous conditions dug in as best they could. Quonset huts were erected for quarters.

Enterprising young men built fireplaces of rock to warm them, but no trees grew on the island for firewood. Wooden pipes carried water across the tundra. The northern end of the island was a place of steep mountains and from there, on rare days of good weather, the occupied island of Kiska could be seen.

As time went on, they built a chapel and an officer’s club.

Officers' Club.

Two huge identical free-standing airplane hangers were constructed, each approximately 150 ft. by 200 ft. Eventually, three airstrips were constructed at the southern end of the island, but fog, snarling winds, and the notoriously inclement conditions of the Aleutians added to the danger from Japanese air raids

The South Hanger. Photo taken from Reeve Aleutian Airways plane.

A year and a half later, Attu Island was retaken in blood-bath fighting. An invasion of Kiska was planned, but when the U.S. forces arrived, they found the Japanese had slipped away from the island. The campaign to regain American territory is now called “The Forgotten War,” and is reduced to a trivia question. The large casualty list included not only those killed in battle, but those who lost their personal fight with the weather conditions.

Another view of Officer's Club and what were thought to be the only trees on the island. They were planted by GIs.

Now, in this month of November when we honor our veterans, when the few remaining survivors of the Alaska Territorial Guard have had to fight Congress for retention of their pittance of a pension, when our country is involved in two wars, and facing far-reaching decisions about troop strength and goals, I think about all the forgotten soldiers and veterans of the Aleutian campaign. Many Americans don’t even know our country was invaded and occupied. Fewer still know what brutal conditions the GIs endured.

The chapel.

Recently, while checking the Anchorage newspaper for the latest headlines, I came across a piece written by Lt. Col. Rob Waldman, a guest writer. I downloaded it to my computer for later perusal, but ever since then I have been thinking about its headline and message:

“Am I worth fighting for?”

I think about that a lot as young men go off to war and never come home again. I think about the principles on which our country was founded, and how terrible fragile our country was for many years after it declared its independence from an absentee landlord. I consider the Bill of Rights, the Civil War when along with the question of states’ rights, our country chose a path of freedom for all men rather than slavery. I remember the many wars our nation has fought in foreign countries. Maybe we didn’t always go to battle for the right reasons, or maybe not.

Still, young men and now young women go, and they fight for democracy, our country, and for you and me. Am I worth it? Am I worth fighting for? Am I living my life in such a manner as to make it worth someone fighting for, maybe dying for? I ask myself that question every day, and then I strive to do the very best I can.

(to be continued)

1 comment:

  1. This is the first I heard of this occupation of our homeland. Isn't it interesting that this is overlooked in our history classes. Those were truly heroes that served there. They certainly had the spirit of George Washington and Valley Forge.