Thursday, August 23, 2012

What I'm Reading Now-Ghosts in the Fog

Ghosts in the Fog: The Untold Story of Alaska's WWII Invasion by Samantha Seiple--As is often the case, I saw this sitting on my library's "New Arrivals" shelf and decided to pick it up. I started reading, got a few pages in, got distracted by something else (probably The Stand) and almost returned it to the library unfinished. One night, while flailing around the house searching for something new to read, I decided I might as well pick this back up (since it was already overdue anyway--*sigh*), and I ended up finishing it a couple hours later. The quick reading can be attributed to several things; part of it is that this is a YA book and pretty easy reading--I would definitely consider this easy introductory reading for WWII--part of it is that it's only about 200 pages, and part of it is that I couldn't believe I had never heard about any of this before. The first lines of the book:
ON JUNE 7, 1942, Japan invaded Alaska.  
On June 10, 1942, the U.S. Navy denied that it happened: "None of our inhabited islands or rocks are troubled with uninvited visitors up to this time."

Whoa. Wait. What?? Did you know that? Maybe I'm just shockingly out of the loop on WWII Pacific Theatre history (which wouldn't be all that surprising--history's not really my strong suit), but this was hand-to-hand combat on American soil that resulted in almost 4,000* American casualties (including Private Joseph P. Martinez, the first private and the first Hispanic-American to earn the Medal of Honor in WWII). It also resulted in one of the biggest mass suicides in WWII when 500 Japanese soldiers took their own lives rather than face the dishonor of surrender.

I got chills reading about some of the strategies that were used by the Americans in their attempts to take back the Aleutian island of Kiska, which had been captured by the Japanese. Due to its location and its mountainous terrain, the island is often shrouded in fog and/or buffeted by wind and rain. If you've ever watched "Deadliest Catch" you have some idea of what the weather is like in this part of the world; and if you have a fear of flying because you are afraid you're going to slam into a mountain and die (or if you are just remotely aware of the importance of ground clearance in flight) (OR if you've ever had to drive in the fog), you will have some idea of the task these men were facing when they were asked "to dive-bomb the Japanese around the clock, regardless of the weather." For logistical reasons, they were using PBYs, or pontoon planes, which were not meant for such maneuvers and the pilots flying them had received no training in this specialized tactic. Here are a few excerpts about the bombing campaign:

This was a punishing plan for the PBY crews, and Captain Gehres knew they were on a death mission. "Every flight was a flight the crew should not have returned from," he said. "Every man knew this and yet none wavered."

Lieutenant Commander Carroll "Doc" Jones figured out the best way to dive-bomb the unwieldy PBY. The visibility problem was solved by flying above the blanket of fog, but this also created another problem. By flying above the clouds, they were up too high to drop a bomb. So the pilots searched for an elusive hole in the cloud ceiling. Once the hole was found, the crew hoped for the best as the pilot pushed the nose of the plane down into the death plunge.

As the speed of the plane increased to nearly 250 mph, the plane's wings shook violently. Pilots were careful not to exceed this speed because the stress of pulling out of the dive could cause the wings to rip off. As they continued to plunge, the wind howled through the openings around the gun blisters in the plane.
The Japanese caught on quickly though, and as soon as they saw the planes coming through the cloud openings, they would start shooting. To counteract this, the pilots "started to avoid the breaks in the clouds and dive directly through the thick bank of fog." Some of the planes were so shot up that they sunk immediately upon landing. Others used the local school's supply of pencils to fill in the bullet holes, presumably before heading back out.

Eventually, the Americans were able to get some bombers to the islands; they still faced the same fog, but without the relative maneuverability of the PBYs. To compensate, the pilots had

to fly in low over the water at thirty to forty feet. This broke the cardinal rule of aviation that a pilot should always maintain a high altitude to avoid crashing into ground obstacles and provide a safety net in case the plane has technical problems.

At such a low level, the pilot, who was also in charge of pushing the button to drop the bomb, had to gauge it just right so the bomb would skip across the water like a stone, hitting ships and seaplanes. [Colonel Eareckson] also developed a four-and-a-half second delay fuse for the bombs so the pilot had enough time to pull up and get away before it blew up.
Good Lord! Can you imagine? As exciting as that stuff is, this isn't just a story about the heroics of our soldiers during this battle. It is also the story of the Aleuts, some of whom were detained by the Japanese for several years in Prisoner of War camps and many of whom were evacuated from their homes with nothing, sent to encampments with appalling conditions--abandoned structures made of rotted wood, contaminated drinking water, no indoor plumbing, unsafe electrical wiring, no medical supplies, and no supplies with which to make the needed repairs to their camps. Later, when the Aleuts were finally allowed to return home, they often returned to nothing, villages that had been bombed or burned and homes that had been looted by the soldiers who had been stationed there. The evacuations were mandatory and while some lives were certainly saved from enemy attack, there were arguably many more lives lost due to the poor conditions in the camps. As it turns out, the evacuations were only mandatory for the Aleuts on the islands, not the white people.  The book doesn't give any explanation as to why this was the case, and while it's possible that the motives were noble (an effort to protect native people from the dangers of battle?), it's hard not to be a little cynical. The American government did finally make an official apology and reparations to the Aleuts as well as to the Japanese-Americans who had been rounded up in internment camps during the war, but many would agree that it was too little too late.

I would definitely recommend this book to young readers and adults alike. Just be aware that it is written with younger audiences in mind--at first I was mildly turned off because I felt like things were a little dumbed-down, but when I realized that the intended audience may just be learning about war in general, WWII specifically, the military, different countries, etc., I felt like the writing was appropriate.

One thing that I have mixed feelings about is the sanitization of some of the quotes. For example, Charlie House, an American POW, says, "If there had been an invasion, the Jap[anese] would have killed every one of us." You know as well as I do that he probably didn't say "Japanese." This edit appears numerous times throughout the book, and I'm curious as to what you librarian/teacher/parent types think about this. Would it have been better to leave in the original language and explain that at the time it was common for Americans to use a derogatory term when referring to the Japanese and that today it is no longer acceptable, or is it better to just clean it up?

The only other minor criticism I have is about the maps in the book. I felt like some of them could have been more relevant. Occasionally there were places referenced that weren't shown on the map that had just been introduced. Also, be aware that some of the maps appear to be copies of actual strategy maps, showing enemy locations, which were, not-surprisingly, labeled in a rather non-politically-correct, not-sanitized-for-publication fashion.

*Breakdown of American casualties:
549-Killed in combat
1,148-Wounded
1,200-2,100-Casualties due to trench foot, exposure, friendly fire, etc. I can't find consistent numbers, but sources generally seem to agree that the figure lies somewhere between 1,200 and 2,100.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hello. And Bye.

Victoria Miller said...

ne thing that I have mixed feelings about is the sanitization of some of the quotes. For example, Charlie House, an American POW, says, "If there had been an invasion, the Jap[anese] would have killed every one of us." You know as well as I do that he probably didn't say "Japanese." This edit appears numerous times throughout the book, and I'm curious as to what you librarian/teacher/parent types think about this.

The author put the brackets [ ] around the portion of the word that Charlie House did NOT say. In other words, Charlie House said "Jap" as opposed to "Japanese." I assume the author was trying to keep the book politically correct. The brackets [ ] keep the quote's integrity intact while letting the reader know what the speaker actually said. I see no problems with the "sanitation." I certainly would not want a young adult to read it and learn to say the derogatory term.

Dreamybee said...

Hi Victoria,

I'm afraid your comment was stuck in moderation limbo-I didn't see it until today. My apologies!

I agree that I wouldn't want a young reader picking up this term and thinking that it was OK to use. It was just distracting to me as I was reading, and it got me thinking about the different ways in which it could have been handled.

It also brought to mind the controversy surrounding the removal of "the N-word" from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer and its replacement with "slave." This, of course, is a bigger change than what we are talking about in this book, and we are also talking about fiction v. actual historic quotes but it's situated on that same slippery slope. Do you avoid exposure to an ugly history in order to avoid its reemergence, or do you tell it like it was, and hope that we can learn from our mistakes?

I'm still not sure where I fall on this, and I was just curious what others thought, so thanks for stopping by and sharing your opinion. :)