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
1,200-2,100-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.