January 13, 1997 Buffalo Soldier

After the war, the town of Sommocolonia erected a Memorial, to nine brave soldiers who gave their lives, that their brothers might live.  Eight Italians, and one American.

In September 1867, Private John Randall of Troop G, United States 10th Cavalry Regiment, was assigned to escort two civilians on a hunting trip. The hunters became the hunted when a band of 70 Cheyenne warriors swept down on the trio. The two civilians were killed in the initial attack and Randall’s horse shot out from under him.

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Private John Randall

Cornered in a washout under some railroad tracks, Randall single handedly held off the attack with his revolver, despite a gunshot wound to his shoulder and no fewer than 11 lance wounds.

By the time help arrived, 13 Cheyenne warriors lay dead.  Private Randall was still standing. Word spread among the Cheyenne about a new kind of soldier, “who had fought like a cornered buffalo; who like a buffalo had suffered wound after wound, yet had not died; and who like a buffalo had a thick and shaggy mane of hair.”

167090-049-69103B80On July 28, 1866, the Army Reorganization Act authorized the formation of 30 new units, including two cavalry and four infantry regiments “which shall be composed of colored men.”

The 10th US Cavalry, formed on September 21, 1866 at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, was the first unit of “Negro Cavalry”.  The 10th would soon be joined by the 9th, 24th and 25th Cavalry, all-black units which would come to be known as “Buffalo Soldiers”.

While several all-black regiments were formed during the Civil War, including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry depicted in the movie “Glory”, these were the first peacetime all-black regiments in the regular Army.

ww1buffsoldThe original units fought in the American Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War, the Border War and two World Wars, amassing 22 Medals of Honor by the end of WW1.

The old met the new during WWII, when 1st Sergeant Mark Matthews, veteran of the Pancho Villa Expedition, WW1, WW2 and the Battle of Saipan, was sent to train with the Tuskeegee Airmen.

In the end, Matthews would prove too old to fly.  A member of the Buffalo Soldiers Drum & Bugle Corps, Matthews would play taps at Arlington National Cemetery, always from the woods. Blacks of the era were not allowed at “white” funerals.

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Mark Matthews

Matthews retired shortly before the Buffalo Soldiers were disbanded, part of President Truman’s effort to integrate United States’ armed forces.

In December 1944, the segregated 366th Regiment of the 92nd Infantry Division (colored), the Buffalo Soldiers, were fighting in the vicinity of Sommocolonia, in northern Italy.

On Christmas day, German soldiers began to infiltrate the town, disguised as civilians.  A heavy artillery barrage began in the early morning hours of the 26th, followed by an overwhelming attack of enemy ground forces.  Vastly outnumbered, American infantry were forced to conduct a fighting retreat.

1st Lieutenant John R. Fox, forward observer for the 598th Field Artillery Battalion, volunteered to stay behind with a small Italian force, to help slow the enemy advance.

From the second floor of a house, Lieutenant Fox directed American defensive fire by radio, adjusting each salvo closer to his own position.  Warned that his final adjustment would bring artillery fire down on his head, the soldier who received the message was stunned at the response. 1st Lt. John Fox’ last known words, were “Fire it.”

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1st Lieutenant John Robert Fox deliberately called down American artillery on his own position

When American forces retook the town, Lieutenant Fox’ body was found with those of about 100 German soldiers.

Sandra Fox of Boston, his only daughter, was two-years old when her father went to war.

The King James Bible translates John 15:13, as “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”.  After the war, the town of Sommocolonia erected a Memorial, to nine brave soldiers who gave their lives, that their brothers might live.  Eight Italians, and one American.

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Sommocolonia Memorial

In a January 13, 1997 ceremony at the White House, President Bill Clinton awarded the Medal of Honor, posthumously, to the family of 1st Lt. John Robert Fox.

1st Sergeant Mark Matthews died of pneumonia on September 6, 2005, at the age of 111.  The last of the Buffalo Soldiers was buried with honors, at Arlington National Cemetery, section 69, grave #4215.

The rank of General of the Armies is equivalent to that of a six-star general, the highest possible operational rank in the United States Armed Forces.  The rank has been held only twice in all American history, once awarded posthumously to George Washington, and once to an active-duty officer, John J. Pershing.

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1st Sgt. Mark Matthews, the last of the Buffalo Soldiers

Then-1st Lieutenant Pershing served with the Buffalo Soldiers from October 1895 to May 1897 plus another six months in Cuba, and came to respect soldiers of African ancestry as “real soldiers” in every way.

As West Point instructor beginning in 1897, Pershing was looked down upon and insulted by white cadets and officers, aggrieved over Pershing’s strict and unyielding disciplinary policies.  The press sanitized the favorite insult to “Black Jack”. The name they called the man, was uglier still.

During WW1, General Pershing bowed to the segregationist policies of President Woodrow Wilson and Secretary of War Newton Baker.

It seems that John Joseph Pershing understood what the northeast academic and the Ohio politician had yet to learn, a principle that the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. would spell out, some fifty years later

“We must learn to live together as brothers, or perish together as fools”. 

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it too. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

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January 8, 1945 The Sub that Bagged a Train

So ended the only ground combat operation of WW2, on the soil of the Japanese homeland. And so it is, that an American submarine came to count a Medal of Honor and a Japanese locomotive, among its battle honors.

In the early phase of WW2, the traditional role of the American submarine service was to search, identify and report enemy activity to surface ships. Customary tactics emphasized stealth over offense, preferring to submerge and lie in wait over the surface attack.

Small wonder. The Mark XIV torpedo, the primary anti-ship submarine-launched torpedo of WW2, was literally a scandal. Not only was torpedo production woefully inadequate to the needs of the war in the Pacific, but stingy pre-war budgets had precluded live-fire testing of the thing.

mk14torpedoAmong the Mark-XIV’s more pronounced deficiencies was a tendency to run about 10-ft. too deep, causing it to miss with depressing regularity. The magnetic exploder often caused premature firing of the warhead, and the contact exploder frequently failed altogether. There must be no worse sound to a submariner, than the metallic ‘clink’ of a dud torpedo bouncing off an enemy hull.

Worse still, these things tended to ‘run circular’, meaning that they’d return to strike the firing vessel.

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USS Barb (SS-220) underway in May, 1945

On July 24, 1943, Lawrence “Dan” Daspit commanding USS Tinosa (SS-283) attacked the 19,000-ton whale factory ship Tonan Maru III. Tinosa fired fifteen torpedoes with two stopping dead in the water and the other thirteen striking their target. Not one of them exploded. Thinking that he had a bad production run, Daspit kept his last torpedo for later inspection. Nothing out of the ordinary, was found.

Commander Eugene “Lucky” Fluckey didn’t subscribe to the conventional wisdom. WW2 vintage submarines were designed for speed on the surface, and USS Barb (SS-220) was capable of 21 knots.  Equivalent to 24mph on land. Under Commander Fluckey, Barb was for all intents and purposes, a fast-attack surface craft.

BarbperiscopeSam Moses, writing for historynet’s “Hell and High Water,” writes, “In five war patrols between May 1944 and August 1945, the 1,500-ton Barb sank twenty-nine ships and destroyed numerous factories using shore bombardment and rockets launched from the foredeck”.

In January 1945, the Barb, USS Picuda (SS-382), and the USS Queenfish (SS-393) were ordered to the China Sea, blocking the Formosa Strait to Japanese shipping.

On the 8th, the small “wolf pack” encountered eight large Japanese merchant ships, escorted by four patrol boats. In a two-hour running night battle, Barb sank merchant cargo ships Anyo Maru and Tatsuyo Maru in explosions so violent that Barb was forced to go deep, even then suffering light damage to her decks. She also sank merchant tanker Sanyo Maru and damaged the army cargo ship Meiho Maru.

The merchant tanker Hiroshima Maru ran aground in the confusion.  SS-220 returned the following day, to finish the job.

barbfastexitpaintingTwo weeks later, USS Barb spotted a 30-ship convoy, anchored in three parallel lines in Namkwan Harbor, on the China coast. Slipping past the Japanese escort guarding the harbor entrance under cover of darkness, the American submarine crept to within 3,000 yards.

Fluckey gave the order and Barb fired her six bow torpedoes at the tightly packed convoy. Swinging around, she fired her four stern torpedoes, just as the first salvo slammed home. Four ships were mortally wounded and another three heavily damaged, as a Japanese frigate opened fire.

It took a full hour to extract herself from the uncharted, heavily mined and rock-obstructed shallows of Namkwan Harbor. Torpedoes meant for the American sub struck Chinese junks instead. A Japanese aircraft appeared overhead, just as Barb slipped out into deeper water. No wonder they called him “Lucky Fluckey”.

The episode earned Commander Fluckey the Medal of Honor in March, 1945.

BarbOkhoskOn completion of her 11th patrol, USS Barb underwent overhaul and alterations, including the installation of 5″ rocket launchers, setting out on her 12th and final patrol in early June.

For the first time in the history of submarine warfare, rocket attacks were successfully employed against shore targets, including facilities in Shari, Hokkaido; Shikuka, Kashiho; and Shiritoru. Barb also attacked Kaihyo To with her regular armaments, destroying 60% of the town.

By mid July 1945, USS Barb had racked up one of the most successful records in the submarine service, sinking the third-highest gross tonnage of enemy shipping of the entire war, and the highest in Japanese shipping, according to the Japanese’ own records..

In poring over a coastal map of Karafuto, the Japanese end of Sakhalin island, the answer as to what to do next, soon came clear. The American sub was going to take out the supply line to enemy merchant shipping, and use a Japanese train, to do it.

Steel plates were bent and welded into crude tools, and a team of eight volunteers was selected. There was so much excitement among the crew over the idea, that even the Japanese POW on board wanted to go ashore, promising he wouldn’t try to escape.

On the night of July 22-23, Fluckey maneuvered the sub into shallow water within 950 feet of land, and put two rubber rafts ashore.

main-qimg-7d0915017cc1ad3409a1a960f4379e17Working so close to a Japanese guard tower that they could almost hear the snoring of the sentry, the eight-man team dug into the space between two ties and buried the 55-pound scuttling charge. They then dug into the space between the next two ties, and placed the battery.

At one point the team had to dive for the bushes, as a night train came through.

At last the work was done and, for the first time that night, the group disobeyed a direct order.  The other seven had been ordered to back off as Electricians Mate 3rd Class Billy Hatfield wired the switch and activated the bomb. That way only one man would die if things went wrong, but these guys weren’t going anywhere. Seven men looked on as Hatfield made the final connections, each wanting to see that this last step was done right.

Barb had worked her way to within 600′ of shore and the shore party was barely halfway back, when the second train came through. A thunderous explosion tore through the stillness, as night turned to day.  Pieces of the locomotive were thrown 200 feet in the air as twelve freight cars, two passenger cars, and a mail car derailed and piled together.

There was no further need for stealth.  With barely 6′ of water under her keel, Fluckey took up a megaphone, bellowing “Paddle like the devil!”  Five minutes later the shore party was on board.  As “The Galloping Ghost of the China Coast” slipped away, every crew member not absolutely necessary to the operation of the boat was on-deck, to witness the spectacle they had wrought.

So closes a little-known chapter of the war in the Pacific.  The only ground combat of WW2, carried out on the Japanese home islands. So it is, that an American submarine came to count a Medal of Honor and a Japanese locomotive, among its battle honors.

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Members of the USS Barb demolition squad pose with her battle flag at the conclusion of her 12th war patrol, Pearl Harbor, August 1945. Chief Gunners Mate Paul G. Saunders, USN, Electricians Mate 3rd Class Billy R. Hatfield, USNR, Signalman 2nd Class Francis N. Sevei, USNR, Ships Cook 1st Class Lawrence W. Newland, USN, Torpedomans Mate 3rd Class Edward W. Klingesmith, USNR, Motor Machinists Mate 2nd Class James E. Richard, USN, Motor Machinists Mate 1st Class John Markuson, USN; and Lieutenant William M. Walker, USNR.

In addition to Commander Fluckey’s Medal of Honor, the crew of USS Barb earned a Presidential Unit Citation, a Navy Unit Commendation, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with eight battle stars, the World War II Victory Medal, and the National Defense Service Medal.  Of all those awards, the one of which later-Rear Admiral Fluckey was most proud, was the one he didn’t get.  In five successful combat patrols under Commander Eugene Fluckey, not one crew member of the USS Barb ever received so much as a purple heart.

 

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it too. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

December 22, 1944 The Battered Bastards of Bastogne

The seven roads leading to Antwerp converged in Bastogne, in what the Germans called “Straße Oktopus”, “Road Octopus”. The town was strategically indispensable to the German drive on Antwerp, and all or parts of 7 German armored divisions converged on the place. Over 54,000 men. The Allies understood the importance of the place as well. General Eisenhower dispatched the 101st Airborne Division, to hold the town, at all costs.

The largest German offensive of the western front burst out of the frozen Ardennes forest on December 16, 1944, aiming to drive a wedge between British and American forces and to capture the Belgian port of Antwerp, vital to the German need to re-supply. It was called “Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein”.  “Operation Watch on the Rhine”.

The tactical surprise was complete, allied forces driven back through the densely forested regions of France, Belgium and Luxembourg. Wartime news maps showed a great inward “bulge” in the lines, and the name stuck. The Battle of the Bulge was the largest and bloodiest battle fought by the US in WWII, fought in the harshest winter conditions in recorded history and involving 610,000+ Americans.

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The seven roads leading to Antwerp converged in Bastogne, in what the Germans called “Straße Oktopus”, “Road Octopus”. The town was strategically indispensable to the German drive on Antwerp, and all or parts of 7 German armored divisions converged on the place. Over 54,000 men. The Allies understood the importance of the place as well. General Eisenhower dispatched the 101st Airborne Division, to hold the town, at all costs.

For two days, a desperate defense of the nearby villages of Noville and Foy held back the 2nd Panzerdivision, as 11,000 men and 800 officers of the 101st joined a combined force of 11,000 converging on Bastogne. By the 21st, Bastogne’s field hospital was overrun, surrounded by forces outnumbering them 2½ to one. Poorly supplied for the cold winter conditions with air supply made all but impossible by weather conditions, the citizens of Bastogne gave their blankets to the Americans, along with white linens to be used for camouflage.

On the morning of December 22, 1944, two German officers appeared at the American perimeter along with two enlisted men, carrying a white flag. They were a Major Wagner of the 47th Panzer Corps, and Lt. Hellmuth Henke of the Panzer Lehr Operations Section.

The pair carried a note from German General Luttwitz, 165 words in all, and reading in part: “To the U.S.A. Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne. There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honorable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note“.

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General Anthony McAuliffe

The note worked its way up the chain of command to the acting Division Commander, General Tony McAuliffe. Told that there was a surrender ultimatum, McAuliffe first thought that it was the Germans who wanted to surrender. Soon disabused of that notion, he laughed and said: “Us surrender? Aw, nuts!”

Knowing that he had to reply, McAuliffe said “Well I don’t know what to tell them.” Lt. General Harry Kinnard spoke up, saying, “That first remark of yours would be hard to beat”. McAuliffe said, “What do you mean?” and Kinnard replied “Sir, you said ‘Nuts’.” They all agreed, and McAuliffe wrote his reply.

“To the German Commander, “Nuts!” The American Commander.”

Joseph H. “Bud” Harper was the American army officer who delivered the reply, with medic Ernie Premetz acting as translator.

Confused by the American slang, Henke asked “What does that mean?” Harper said to Premetz “You can tell them to take a flying shit.” The medic, knowing he had to convey the intent of the message, translated as “Du kannst zum Teufel gehen”. You can go to hell. Harper then said, “If you continue to attack, we will kill every goddamn German that tries to break into this city.” Henke replied, “We will kill many Americans. This is war.” Harper then said, “On your way Bud, and good luck to you.”

Years later, Harper would say that he always regretted wishing the Germans luck.

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In his Christmas eve letter of 1944, General McAuliffe wrote “What’s merry about all this, you ask? We’re fighting – it’s cold we aren’t home. All true but what has the proud Eagle Division accomplished with its worthy comrades the 10th Armored Division, the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion and all the rest? Just this: We have stopped everything that has been thrown at us from the north, east, south and west”.

Elements of George Patton’s 3rd Army would break through from the southwest two days later, ending the German encirclement.

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By the end of January, the last great effort of German armed forces had been spent and driven back beyond their original lines. An official report by the US Army on the Battle of the Bulge lists 108,347 casualties, including 19,246 killed, 62,489 wounded and 26,612 captured and missing.

Those numbers could have been far worse, if not for what newspapers would soon call the “Battered Bastards of Bastogne”.

 

Afterward

A Black nurse called “Anna” briefly appeared in Historian Stephen Ambrose’ ‘A Band of Brothers’, and on the HBO series based on the book.  But who was Anna?  Was she a myth?  British military historian Martin King discovered her in a nursing home, 61 years after the encirclement at Bastogne.

Augusta-ChiwyAugusta Marie Chiwy (“Shee-wee”) was the bi-racial daughter of a Belgian veterinarian and a Congolese mother, she never knew.

Thinking it safe to visit her father in Bastogne that Christmas, Chiwy found herself, like everyone else in that place, surrounded.  A trained nurse, Chiwy spent the entire siege tending to the wounded, along with Dr. Jack Prior.  Once, she even ran through enemy fire to collect the wounded from the field.

On Christmas eve, the petite nurse was blown off her feet and through a wall. She got up and went back to it, despite the direct hit that killed 30 American wounded, along with the only other nurse at the Rue Neufchatel aid station, Renée Lemaire.

AugustaanuresChiwy married after the war, and rarely talked about her experience in Bastogne.  It took King a full 18 months to coax the story out of her.  The result was the 2015 Emmy award winning historical documentary, “Searching for Augusta, The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne”.

In 2011, Augusta Chiwy was awarded a Knighthood in the Order of the Crown in the name of King Albert II, of Belgium.  The United States Army awarded her the Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service, presented by the Ambassador to Belgium.

The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne died on August 23, 2015, at the age of 94.

November 24, 1962 Kilroy was Here

When Truman, Stalin, and Churchill met at Potsdam, a VIP latrine was built for their exclusive use.  Stalin was the first in, emerging from the outhouse and asking his aide, in Russian, “Who is Kilroy?”

The Fore River Shipyard began operations in 1883 in Braintree, Massachusetts, moving to its current location on the Weymouth Fore River on Quincy Point, in 1901. In 1913, the yard was purchased by Bethlehem Steel, and operated under the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation.

Most ships at Fore River were built for the United States Navy, including early submarines built for Electric Boat, the Battleship USS Massachusetts, and the Navy’s first carrier, the USS Lexington. In the years before WW2, non-US Navy customers included the United States Merchant Marine, the Argentine Navy, the Royal Navy of Great Britain, and the Imperial Japanese Navy.

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USS Salem CA-139 museum ship, Fore River Shipyard, Quincy

The Navy Act of 1938 mandated a 20% increase in American Naval strength. Much of that increase came through Fore River. The Shipyard employed 17,000 the day that Imperial Japan invaded the American Pacific anchorage at Pearl Harbor. That number increased to 32,000 by 1943, with a payroll equivalent to $9.69 Billion, in today’s dollars.

Kilroy-3Necessity became the mother of invention, and the needs of war led to prodigious increases in speed.  No sooner was USS Massachusetts launched, than the keel of USS Vincennes began to be laid. By the end of the war, Fore River had completed ninety-two vessels of eleven different classes.

Builders at the yard were paid by the number of rivets installed. Riveters would mark the end of their shift with a chalk mark, but dishonest co-workers could erase their marks, marking a new spot a few places back on the same seam.

Shipyard inspector James Kilroy ended the practice, writing “Kilroy was Here”, next to each chalk mark.

With hulls leaving the yard so fast there was no time to paint the interiors, Kilroy’s name achieved mythic proportions. The man literally seemed to be everywhere, his name written in every cramped and sealed space in the United States Navy.

For the troops inside of those ships, Kilroy always seemed to have “been there”, first.

Kilroy-1Kilroy was Here became a kind of protective talisman, and soldiers began to write it on newly captured areas and landings.  He was the “Super GI”, showing up for every combat, training and occupation operation of the WW2 and Korean war era.  The scribbled cartoon face was there before you arrived, and he was still there when you left.

Germans thought Kilroy was some kind of  “super spook”, able to go anywhere he liked, with ease.

Kilroy-6The challenge became, who could put the Kilroy graffiti in the most difficult and surprising place.  I’ve never been there, but I’ve heard that Kilroy occupies the top of  Mt. Everest.  His likeness is scribbled in the dust of the moon.  There’s one on the Statue of Liberty, and another on the underside of the Arc of Triumph, in Paris.  There are two of them engraved in the granite of the WW2 Memorial, in Washington, DC.

Under Water Demolition teams, the guys who later became US Navy SEALs, swam ashore on Japanese-held Pacific islands, preparing the way for amphibious landings.  More than once, UDT divers found that Kilroy had already been there, the silly cartoon nose scribbled on makeshift signs, and even enemy pillboxes.

When Truman, Stalin, and Churchill met at Potsdam, a VIP latrine was built for their exclusive use.  Stalin was the first in, emerging from the outhouse and asking his aide, in Russian, “Who is Kilroy?”

kilroy_no_spamA Brit will tell you that “Mr. Chad” came first, cartoonist George Chatterton’s response to war rationing.  “Wot, no tea”?

The cartoon appeared in every theater of the war, but few knew the mythical Kilroy’s true identity.

In 1946, the Transit Company of America held a contest, asking the “real” Kilroy to come forward.  Close to forty guys showed up to claim the prize, a real trolley car.  Doubtless they all felt they had legitimate claims, but James Kilroy brought a few riveters and some shipyard officials along, to prove his authenticity.  That was it.

That Christmas the Kilroy kids, all nine of them, got the coolest playhouse in all of Boston.

James Kilroy went on to serve as Boston City Council member and member of the Massachusetts house of Representatives before passing away on this day, November 24, 1962.

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Boston American, December 23, 1946 Image thanks to Kilroy grandson, Brian Fitzgerald

Feature image:  Kilroy, engraved on the granite of the WWII Memorial, Washington DC.

November 21, 1942 The Alcan Highway

Construction began in March as trains moved hundreds of pieces of construction equipment to Dawson Creek, the last stop on the Northern Alberta Railway. At the other end, 10,670 American troops arrived in Alaska that spring, to begin what their officers called “the biggest and hardest job since the Panama Canal.”

In-between lay over 1,500 miles of unmapped, inhospitable wilderness.

Discussions of a road to Alaska began as early as 1865, when Western Union contemplated plans to install a telegraph wire from the United States to Siberia. The idea picked up steam with the proliferation of automobiles in the 1920s, but it was a hard sell for Canadian authorities. Such a road would necessarily pass through their territory, but the Canadian government felt the project would have little impact, benefiting no more than a few thousand people in the Yukon.

In the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Guam and Wake Island fell to Imperial Japanese forces , making it clear that parts of the Pacific coast were vulnerable.

Priorities were changing for both the United States and Canada.

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The Alaska Territory was particularly exposed.  Situated only 750 miles from the nearest Japanese base, the Aleutian Island chain had only 12 medium bombers, 20 pursuit planes, and fewer than 22,000 troops in the entire territory, an area four times the size of Texas. Colonel Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., the officer in charge of the Alaska Defense Command, made the point succinctly. “If the Japanese come here, I can’t defend Alaska. I don’t have the resources.”

Alcan Lake

The US Army approved construction of the Alaska Highway in February, the project receiving the blessing of Congress and President Roosevelt within the week. Canada agreed to allow the project, provided that the US pay the full cost, and the roadway and other facilities be turned over to Canadian authorities at the end of the war.

Alcan_constructionConstruction began in March as trains moved hundreds of pieces of construction equipment to Dawson Creek, the last stop on the Northern Alberta Railway. At the other end, 10,670 American troops arrived in Alaska that spring, to begin what their officers called “the biggest and hardest job since the Panama Canal.”

In-between lay over 1,500 miles of unmapped, inhospitable wilderness.

Alcan BridgeThe project had a new sense of urgency in June, when Japanese forces landed on Kiska and Attu Islands, in the Aleutian chain. Adding to that urgency was that there is no more than an eight month construction window, before the return of the deadly Alaskan winter.

Construction began at both ends and the middle at once, with nothing but the most rudimentary engineering sketches. A route through the Rockies had not even been identified yet.

Radios didn’t work across the Rockies and there was only erratic mail and passenger service on the Yukon Southern airline, a run that locals called the “Yukon Seldom”. It was faster for construction battalions at Dawson Creek, Delta Junction and Whitehorse to talk to each other through military officials in Washington, DC.

Moving men to their assigned locations was one thing, moving 11,000 pieces of construction equipment, to say nothing of the supplies needed by man and machine, was another.

Tent pegs were useless in the permafrost, while the body heat of sleeping soldiers meant they woke up in mud. Partially thawed lakes meant that supply planes could use neither pontoon nor ski, as Black flies swarmed the troops by day, and bears raided camps at night, looking for food.

Alcan TerrainEngines had to run around the clock, as it was impossible to restart them in the cold. Engineers waded up to their chests building pontoons across freezing lakes, battling mosquitoes in the mud and the moss laden arctic bog. Ground that had been frozen for thousands of years was scraped bare and exposed to sunlight, creating a deadly layer of muddy quicksand in which bulldozers sank in what seemed like stable roadbed.

On October 25, Refines Sims Jr. of Philadelphia, with the all-black 97th Engineers was driving a bulldozer 20 miles east of the Alaska-Yukon line, when the trees in front of him toppled to the ground. He slammed his machine into reverse as a second bulldozer came into view, driven by Kennedy, Texas Private Alfred Jalufka. North had met south, and the two men jumped off their machines, grinning. Their triumphant handshake was photographed by a fellow soldier and published in newspapers across the country, becoming an unintended first step toward desegregating the US military.

Sims, Jalufka

They celebrated the route’s completion at Soldier’s Summit on November 21, 1942, though the “highway” remained unusable by most vehicles, until 1943.

NPR ran an interview about this story back in the eighties, in which an Inupiaq elder was recounting his memories. He had grown up in a world as it existed for hundreds of years, without so much as an idea of internal combustion. He spoke of the day that he first heard the sound of an engine, and went out to see a giant bulldozer making its way over the permafrost. The bulldozer was being driven by a black operator, probably one of the 97th Engineers Battalion soldiers. I thought the old man’s comment was a classic. “It turned out”, he said, “that the first white person I ever saw, was a black man”.

November 19, 1904 Another Man’s Shoes

We rarely hear about the work of the spy or the saboteur in times of war. They are the Heroes who work behind enemy lines, with little to protect them but their own guts and cleverness.

We rarely hear about the work of the spy or the saboteur in times of war. They are the Heroes who work behind enemy lines, with little to protect them but their own guts and cleverness. Their work is performed out of sight, yet there have been times when the lives of millions hung in the balance, and they never even knew it.

One such was Iacob Somme, a Norwegian who was caught, tortured and executed by the Gestapo, for his role in sabotaging the Nazi heavy water plant in Telemark, in 1943. We can only imagine a world in which Nazi Germany was the first to build a nuclear bomb.  We might thank this man that that world remains entirely imaginary.

Sven SommeAnother such man was his brother Sven, born this day, November 19, 1904.

Like his brother Iacob, Sven Somme joined the Norwegian Resistance to fight the Nazis who had occupied his country since 1940. He photographed strategic German military bases using a covert camera, sending tiny maps, photographs and intelligence reports to the Allies hidden under the stamps on letters.

In 1944, Somme was caught taking pictures of a German U-boat base on the island of Otteroy. Guards saw the sun glint off the camera’s lens, and they came running. Sven tried hiding the tiny camera under a rock, but the Germans quickly found it and he was put in cuffs.

That night, Somme managed to slip his handcuffs and creep past his sleeping guard. What followed was a two months-long race between life and death.

Sven Somme, treeThe Norwegian had barely an hour’s head start, and the Nazis couldn’t let this guy get away. He knew too much. Somme was pursued through streams and ravines as he worked his way into the mountains.

He wore a pair of beat up dress shoes and certainly would have succumbed to frostbite in the mountains, had he not been taken in for a time by a friendly family. He couldn’t stay for long, but this family’s 19-year-old son Andre gave him the pair of mountain boots that saved his life.

Somme would wade through icy streams to avoid leaving tracks in the snow, or leap from one tree to another, a technique he had learned as a kid. He trekked 200 miles through the mountains in this manner, dodging bears and wolves, all the while being pursued by 900 German soldiers and a pack of bloodhounds.

news-graphics-2007-_655294aSomme finally made it to neutral Sweden, where he was taken to England. There he met the exiled King of Norway, and the woman who would one day become his wife and mother of his three daughters, an English woman named Primrose.

Sven Somme passed away in 1961 after a fight with cancer.  Primrose died not long after. It was only in going through her things after she passed, that the three girls discovered their father’s history. The photographs, the letters, even an arrest warrant written out in German and Norwegian.

Somme had written a memoir about his escape, calling it “Another Man’s Shoes”. In 2004, his daughters used the book to retrace their father’s epic flight across the mountains. They even met the family who had sheltered him and, to their amazement, they still had his old shoes. The book is still in print as far as I know.  It has a forward by his daughter Ellie, describing their emotional meeting with the family who had sheltered her father.

It must be one hell of a story.

October 8, 1942 “Once!” 

Knowing he was about to die, Harl Pease uttered the most searing insult possible against an expert swordsman and self-styled “samurai”.  Particularly one with such a helpless victim. It was the single word, in Japanese.  “Once!”.

The Municipal Airport in Portsmouth NH was opened in the 1930s, expanding in 1951 to become a Strategic Air Command (SAC) base. The name was changed to Pease Air Force Base in 1957, in honor of Harl Pease, Jr., recipient of the Medal of Honor and Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism that led to his death in World War II.

The Japanese war machine seemed unstoppable in the early part of the war.  In 1942, that machine was advancing on the Philippines.

United States Army Air Corps Captain Harl Pease was ordered to lead three battered B-17 Flying Fortresses to Del Monte field in Mindanao, to evacuate General Douglas MacArthur, his family and staff, to Australia. One of the planes was forced to abort early, while the other developed engine trouble and crashed.  Pease alone was able to land his Fortress, despite inoperative wheel brakes and used ration tins covering bullet holes.

Harlan Pease
Captain Harl Pease, Jr.

MacArthur was horrified at the sight of that beat up aircraft, and refused to put his wife and son on board. The family would wait two more days before MacArthur made his famous exit, saying, “I shall return”.

Harl Pease wasn’t supposed to go on the “maximum effort” mission against Rabaul, since his aircraft was down for repairs. But he was determined. Harl Pease and a few volunteers grabbed an old trainer aircraft on August 7, too beat up for combat service. Its engines needed overhaul, some armament had been dismounted, and the electric fuel-transfer pump had been scavenged for parts. Pease had a fuel tank installed in the bomb bay and a hand pump was rigged to transfer fuel.  In fewer than three hours, he and his crew were on their way.Cmoh_army

Captain Pease’ Medal of Honor citation tells the story: “When 1 engine of the bombardment airplane of which he was pilot failed during a bombing mission over New Guinea, Capt. Pease was forced to return to a base in Australia. Knowing that all available airplanes of his group were to participate the next day in an attack on an enemy-held airdrome near Rabaul, New Britain, although he was not scheduled to take part in this mission, Capt. Pease selected the most serviceable airplane at this base and prepared it for combat, knowing that it had been found and declared unserviceable for combat missions. With the members of his combat crew, who volunteered to accompany him, he rejoined his squadron at Port Moresby, New Guinea, at 1 a.m. on 7 August, after having flown almost continuously since early the preceding morning. With only 3 hours’ rest, he took off with his squadron for the attack. Throughout the long flight to Rabaul, New Britain, he managed by skillful flying of his unserviceable airplane to maintain his position in the group. When the formation was intercepted by about 30 enemy fighter airplanes before reaching the target, Capt. Pease, on the wing which bore the brunt of the hostile attack, by gallant action and the accurate shooting by his crew, succeeded in destroying several Zeros before dropping his bombs on the hostile base as planned, this in spite of continuous enemy attacks. The fight with the enemy pursuit lasted 25 minutes until the group dived into cloud cover. After leaving the target, Capt. Pease’s aircraft fell behind the balance of the group due to unknown difficulties as a result of the combat, and was unable to reach this cover before the enemy pursuit succeeded in igniting 1 of his bomb bay tanks. He was seen to drop the flaming tank. It is believed that Capt. Pease’s airplane and crew were subsequently shot down in flames, as they did not return to their base. In voluntarily performing this mission Capt. Pease contributed materially to the success of the group, and displayed high devotion to duty, valor, and complete contempt for personal danger. His undaunted bravery has been a great inspiration to the officers and men of his unit”.

Pease was presumed lost, until Father George Lepping was captured, finding him and one of his airmen languishing in a Japanese POW camp. Captain Pease was well respected by the other POWs, and even some of his Japanese guards. “You, you ah, Captain Boeing?“, they would say.  Pease would stand up straight and say, “Me, me Captain Boeing.

Japanese officers were a different story.  They would beat the prisoners savagely on any provocation, or none at all.

On October 8, 1942, Captain Harl Pease, Jr. was taken into the jungle along with three other Americans and two Australian prisoners. They were given picks and shovels and forced to dig their own graves.  And then each was beheaded, by sword. Captain Pease was 25.

Decades later, an elderly Japanese veteran passed away, and his family found his war diary.  This man had been one of the guards ordered along, on the day of Pease’ murder.

Pease_planeThe diary tells of a respect this man had for “Captain Boeing”. Beaten almost senseless, his arms tied so tightly that his elbows touched behind his back, Captain Pease was driven to his knees in the last moments of his life. Knowing he was about to die, Harl Pease uttered the most searing insult possible against an expert swordsman and self-styled “samurai”.  Particularly one with such a helpless victim. It was the single word, in Japanese.  “Once!“.