Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. These articles are republished from V & V, a web site of the Center for Vision & Values. Paul Kengor is author of God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life (2004) and The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (2007). His latest book is The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007).
The Forgotten Battle of World War II: Remembering the Aleutian Campaign
The Williwaw War: The Arkansas National Guard in the Aleutians in World War II, by Donald Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon. University of Arkansas Press, 1992.
Every Memorial Day presents an opportunity to commemorate those who served in some faraway place long ago, many who paid that ultimate sacrifice. World War II offers its share of remembrances: Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941; Normandy, June 6, 1944; the Battle of the Bulge, December 16, 1944; to name a few.
Sadly, however, one series of battles continues to be ignored.
On June 3, 1942, the Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor, located at the Aleutian Islands, west of the Alaskan peninsula. Three days later, they landed on the islands of Kiska and Attu, culminating in the only battles of the war fought in North America. Many of the men there went through hell.
Remarkably, the battle is barely known.
One person who has not forgotten is renowned World War II historian, Donald Goldstein. Goldstein, a retired University of Pittsburgh professor, authored one of the only books on the campaign, called the "Williwaw War," named for the freezing, high-velocity winds flowing from Siberia and the Bering Sea, which made service in the Aleutians a constant misery.
"It was strategically very important who controlled those islands," says Goldstein. The Americans stationed there "kept the Japanese from the West Coast and from invading the U.S. mainland. . . . From a strategic point of view, you can't underestimate the situation there. Look at a map! The Aleutians aren't very far from Seattle."
In the Aleutians, American troops battled not only the Japanese, but debilitating weather and boredom. To combat the fierce and unpredictable williwaws, soldiers leaned forward as they walked, before falling on their faces as the winds abruptly ended. They battled blinding, waste-deep snow, dense fog, sleet that felt like a sandblaster.
To escape the climate, troops spent hours inside. The boredom was so bad that some drank anything they could find. There were stories of casualties from "torpedo juice." Morale was awful.
"War is boredom mixed with moments of stark terror," says Goldstein. "You sit and wait. And then all at once it comes."
And when it came to the Aleutians, it came with ferocity. Shortly after bombing Dutch Harbor, the Japanese took Attu and Kiska. Thirteen months later, in August 1943, American forces sought to drive them out. Kiska was easy, since Japanese forces had bailed out two weeks earlier. Attu, however, was another story.
Attu was taken back only after a horrible fight. Japan fought to the last man. Facing defeat, 500 Japanese soldiers committed suicide with their own grenades. Whereas Dutch Harbor witnessed fewer than 100 casualties, U.S. burial patrols at Attu counted 2,351 Japanese bodies. Total U.S. casualties were 3,829 -- 549 killed. Some believe it was the bloodiest battle of World War II.
And yet, few Americans have heard of the battle. Notes Goldstein: "Even [at the time] there was hardly any press coverage. If you ask most people today where Attu is they have no idea. . . . It's forgotten."
Do the veterans of this campaign feel neglected?
"Oh, yes," says Goldstein. "They're bitter. These guys never got the credit they deserve."
Many of the unrecognized survivors suffered premature deaths once they got home. One was Andrew Boggs Covert, a tall, lanky fellow who had worked at Pullman Standard in Butler, Pennsylvania prior to the war. Boggs found himself drafted into the Marines Corps as a 30-year-old with seven children. His surviving son, Jim, recalls riding to Pittsburgh to say goodbye to his father in 1942.
It was not a permanent goodbye, as Andrew survived the brutal combat. "He told me about some of the hand-to-hand stuff," says his son today. "It was traumatic. But he was matter of fact: 'Do it, take care of it, serve your country, get over it.'"
Still, getting over it was not that easy. Andrew died in October 1966 at age 54.
A survivor who outlived Andrew was Leonard Levandoski of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, a member of the 11th Fighter Squadron, who spent two grueling years at Attu.
A few years back, while writing for a newspaper, I tried to track down Leonard on a tip from the Department of Veterans Affairs: "This guy is perfect for you to interview," said the press person. "Every year he writes letters-to-the-editor trying to get people to remember what happened. He'll be thrilled to get your call."
When I called, Leonard's wife, Geraldine, answered. "Who is this?" she said slowly. When I gave my name and purpose, Geraldine began to cry. "Leonard just passed away," she told me. "He waited years for someone to call."
Many of those veterans have now passed away. The years have slowly faded, with no one calling about the Aleutians. It is about time we remember.
Helen Thomas Angers Her Media Colleagues -- Finally
Veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas announced her sudden "retirement" [in early June]. The source was an insight shared by Thomas outside the White House during a Jewish-American Heritage Month celebration. Asked about her feelings toward Jews and Israel, the 89-year-old conscience of the White House press corps opined that the Palestinian people "are occupied" by Jews, and that "Palestine" is "their land" and Israelis ought to "go home" to Poland, Germany, "and everywhere else." More pointedly, Thomas averred that Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine."
Thomas's statements are obscene in their historical, political, and moral ignorance and callousness. Jews, of course, lived in those areas prior to the founding of the modern nation-state of Israel. In fact, in large part because of what happened to Jews in those areas -- "liquidation" by Hitler -- Israel was created in May 1948. Thomas, more than any member of the White House press corps, should know this, as she actually lived through the tragic history.
No matter. Thomas believes what she believes, and now no longer works for Hearst Corporation, which responded by announcing her "retirement"--"effective immediately."
I won't dance on Thomas's grave. I'm fascinated, however, by her colleagues' sudden disapproval. In truth, Helen Thomas has been saying outrageous things for years. When she insulted Republican presidents like George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, liberals hailed her as "dean of White House correspondents," deserving of the opening question at press conferences. They adored her when she was a walking, talking Nickelodeon snapping at conservatives. Here are two memorable examples:
In his first week in office, George W. Bush launched his Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, providing federal money to local "helpers and healers." Importantly, these faith-based organizations were prohibited from proselytizing; they could assist the needy, but couldn't seek to convert them to a particular faith. Precisely because of that prohibition, many conservatives rejected the concept, fearing that it neutered these organizations.
But that wasn't how Helen Thomas saw it, as she made clear to the new president in his first press conference:
Thomas: Mr. President, why do you refuse to respect the wall between the church and state? And you know that the mixing of religion and government for centuries has led to slaughter. I mean, the very fact that our country has stood in good stead by having the separation -- why do you break it down?
Bush: Helen, I strongly respect the separation of church and state . . .
Thomas: Well, you wouldn't have a religious office in the White House if you did. . . . [Y]ou are a secular official. . . . [A]nd not a missionary.
To Helen Thomas, Bush had created not an Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, but an Office of Christian Apologetics and Crusading.
Another unforgettable Thomas moment -- much more damaging -- occurred two decades earlier at a Reagan press conference. At issue was the Strategic Defense Initiative, which, we now know, terrified the Soviets, and was decisive in the Soviet collapse. Thomas, however, saw SDI as a target for ridicule. Quite unprofessionally, she seized Senator Ted Kennedy's pejorative for the system: "Star Wars."
To this day, the damage caused by that term isn't appreciated. Ronald Reagan found that the Soviets employed the language to suggest that Reagan desired not a defensive system but an offensive system to launch war in space. Reagan privately complained that he "bristled" each time the media used the label. Here's an exchange with Helen Thomas:
Thomas: Mr. President, if you are flexible, are you willing to trade off research on "Star Wars" ... or are you against any negotiations on "Star Wars"?
Reagan: Well, let me say, what has been called "Star Wars"-- and, Helen, I wish whoever coined that expression would take it back again . . .
Thomas: Well, Strategic Defense . . .
Reagan: . . . because it gives a false impression of what it is we're talking about.
Thomas immediately rebuffed the president: "Even if you don't like the term, it's quite popular."
Reagan's request was reasonable: the program's name was the Strategic Defense Initiative. Professional reporters should use its proper name, not a name of political derision.
Of course, the Soviets were elated. From Pravda to Izvestia, they ran with the label. TASS, the official Soviet news agency, adopted it, commending the likes of Thomas (and Kennedy) for "getting it right" on SDI, for calling Reagan's "bluff." It was a coup for the Kremlin, a gem of a propaganda tool.
Similarly, Helen Thomas's recent comments -- on Israel -- again thrilled the enemy. In calling for Jews to leave Israel, Thomas (no exaggeration) toed the party line of Hezbollah and Al Qaeda, of Osama Bin Laden and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
That's a dubious achievement for the dean of White House correspondents. I'm impressed that her liberal colleagues are finally offended.
With Father, Through the Valley of Death
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death/I will fear no evil: for thou art with me. (Psalm 23:4)
My family and I drove aside the Mall in Washington, D.C., creeping along Independence Avenue in search of a parking spot. We were beyond the Washington Monument, further south near our ultimate destination: the Lincoln Memorial. It was part of an educational field trip to teach our children about the Civil War, and to embrace a teachable moment on how the nation's Civil War president fought for the basic rights and dignity of every human being, including those that the culture and law of the day considered not fully human.
Finally, we found an open meter next to the Department of the Interior. We put the baby in a stroller and crossed the street. At a fork in the path, I suggested we go left, while my wife said we should head right. We went right -- good call.
Before we knew it, we encountered more people heading in the same direction. Suddenly, we descended into a dip in the walkway, and then I noticed it, for the first time, completely caught off guard, truly taken aback: I was staring at the Vietnam War Memorial.
I'm embarrassed to say I had never seen it before. I always wanted to see it. Now, we had happened upon it, and it isn't the kind of thing you want to happen upon.
The scene was absolutely somber, just as everyone says. It's the spirit of the place. All those names, cast against the black -- all those boys whose lives were cut short in that war in Southeast Asia decades ago.
The mood is remarkably sad for anyone -- even those of us with no recollection of a single person on that wall -- but it's devastating for those lonely visitors who have a connection, who have intimate knowledge of someone on that wall; they see a face, and memories, when they see the name. There they are: touching the chiseled name, caressing it, speaking to it, praying for it, crying over it, or placing a piece of paper atop it and rubbing a crayon to bring it home. It's the only physical remainder left from their loved one, and so they want to be with it and take it back where it belongs.
I glimpsed an old man, kneeling, weeping, as he rested his hand on what must have been his long-deceased son. For a younger dad, like myself, to witness that sheer sense of loss, aside my own young boys, alive and well, not yet of age for military service, is jarring.
We poked along gradually, haltingly, speechlessly, taking in scene upon scene. We were in the valley of death.
Alas, as I neared the end, having lagged behind in a daze, sauntering past the dead, it suddenly dawned on me that I had been clutching the hand of my precious three-year-old, Abigail Joy, the entire time.
"Good Lord," I thought to myself, "what have I just done to this child?" This sweet, innocent girl. What had I exposed her to? Had I just traumatized this beautiful little girl?
In that flash, I expected to look down and see a sobbing, troubled, confused child, who would need explanations and parental counseling. Instead, I was amazed when she looked up at me, beamed, cocked her head to the side, blushed, and smiled. She was filled with joy over simply being with her dad, holding his hand in a leisurely walk down a path on a pretty day. She hadn't seen a thing on that dark, grim wall.
Abigail had been shielded, protected, with her dad. All she knew, in her universe, was that she was with her father, and all was right with the world. She had walked through the valley of the shadow of death with her father, and feared no evil, because she was with him.
Yes, the Psalm fits. It had also once fit for those same boys on that wall, as they crept through the rice paddies and jungles, as gunfire and grenades and landmines surrounded them, and, most poignantly, as they met their own final moments in their own valley. It fits today, too, for their parents, peering at that wall, reminiscing back to when their children were three-year-olds.
All of them: those soldiers, their parents, and passersby who happen upon that wall; they all have a Father to lead them, to be with them, who they can hold on to and look up to, as they enter the valley. Sometimes, it takes the vantage of a child to bring the message home. *
"A just security to property is not afforded by that government, under which unequal taxes oppress one species of property and reward another species." --James Madison