By Jim Rearden
Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., Inc. 2005
World War II is something we studied in high school, a series of battles many of us are too young to remember as anything more than questions on a history test. We know how it started – at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941. We know it took place on islands and in jungles of far-off lands with names like Bataan, Midway, Iwo Jima, Chichagoff, Kiska …
Chichagoff? Isn’t that an Alaskan village on AttuIsland? And Kiska?
Jim Rearden, noted Alaskan author, reminds us that Alaska was the site of the only battle of WWI to be fought on American soil, the 15-month Aleutian campaign, in his book Forgotten Warriors of the Aleutian Campaign. Rearden’s “forgotten warriors” are regular military — Navy weathermen, pilots, ship captains and hunters, trappers and “livers-off-the-land,” lumped together in the Alaska Scouts.
Rearden has put together a series of stories about these forgotten heroes in such a way as to make them living, breathing three-dimensional people rather than dusty figures from an ignored tome. Using a mix of his narrative, the narrative of others, letters and other writings of the men themselves, and the words of their colleagues, Rearden makes these men jump out of the pages, alive, scared, courageous—real. The reader can almost hear their voices, smell their fear and sweat, feel the strength they all had.
Like any good historian, Rearden begins with an overview of the time and place he is covering. With a prologue that begins, “The Aleutian Islands was a helluva place to fight a war,” he lets the reader know this was no easy duty for the men who found themselves stationed at Dutch Harbor, Adak, or any of the other God-forsaken islands along the “string of oddly-shaped beads” that arc 1,000 miles to the west in the direction of Russia. Of the 40 “main” islands, Unimak, according to Rearden, is the largest at 50 miles by 23 miles.
Rearden sets the stage for the difficulties of the campaign with the sentence, “It is, ‘One of the stormiest regions in the world,’ says the United States Coast Pilot, the Bible of mariners. ‘Heavy weather with rain or snow is common. Violent winds over the Aleutians, especially in fall and winter, frequently make navigation extremely hazardous.’”
Rearden also includes the cast of characters, as it were—the islands of the chain that figured into the campaign. It is always helpful to visualize the locale of the action, especially when the “action” is war, which can be confusing at best.
Another thing Rearden does, unusual in these days of political correctness, is warn—although that seems like a strong word—the reader he is looking at men who lived in the 1940s, and they faced an enemy who would just as soon kill them as look at them.
“One more subject: the word Jap. Today it isn’t politically correct, and has racist overtones. This volume, however, represents the world of 1941-45 when the word was commonly used. … Our Jap enemy was trying to kill us, and we were doing our best to kill him. … Our verbiage about our enemy wasn’t polite.”
And he doesn’t apologize for it, either. He looks at history with neutrality, opening a window into the past without shading it or trying to condemn the actors. And that’s how history should be presented.
Another good point about Rearden as historian—he puts distance and geography is simple, understandable terms and images: “From Unimak, the easternmost (island), to Attu, the westernmost, it is 1,000 miles—the distance from New York to Minneapolis.”
Easy to picture, easy to imagine the distance involved—and easy to see how planes could be lost, how men could lose all sense of reality, distance combined with fog and wind and rain and snow.
The story begins on June 3, 1942, when the Japanese bombed DutchHarbor and occupied Kiska and Attu islands, and ends on May 31, 1943, after the battle of Attu. Although there was a mop-up on Kiska days later, the Americans found the Japanese had slipped away several days before the attack, a black eye for the military that today goes unmentioned. (The Japanese managed to slip several large ships past the watchful eyes of the Navy, and evacuate 5,000 men off the island and back home.)