Friday, January 25, 2013

"Erik" Eareckson Hero Of Aleutian War - But Was The War Necessary?

"Major William O. Eareckson, forty-one, a raffish aviation pioneer who had been piloting fabric-and wood biplances when some of his squadron's young officers had been in safety pins.  A crack pilot who flew with his fingertips.  Eareckson was headstrong and sometimes arrogant;  he had a contagious drive and a romantic recklessness that infected his young pilots with the notion that pilots were a breed apart, a race of giants." (p. 53)
William "Eric" Eareckson is by far the clearest hero in Brian Garfield's Thousand Mile War about WW II in the Aleutians.  In fact, Part II of the three part book is titled "Eareckson's War."

He was the right person in the right place.  His personal set of skills - an ability to fly any kind of plane in any kind of weather,  an ability to think up new ways to do things when the regular way doesn't work,  a belief in his own immortality, and a drive to be the best - fit perfectly for the job he had to do.  He flew planes in the Aleutians to bomb the Japanese in Attu and Kiska and created a lot of new tactics to overcome the constant fog  (other severe weather conditions) and the Japanese anti-aircraft weapons - like flying in at water level to do the bombing.

He could do crazy things like have his squadron buzz downtown Reno at almost street level for his wedding.  But he also worked his squadron hard, making sure they were as well trained as they could be.  For example:
"Colonel Eareckson put his crews through the daily hurdles of deck-level practice missions at altitudes as low as 75 feet." (pm 112)
But while his squadron idolized him, not all those above him felt the same.
The Army did not like lone wolves;  and Eareckson, in Colonel Lawrence Reineke's words, was "the honest sergeant on the police force.  He bucked the system, and suffered for it."  Lucian Wernick recalls, "Eric was absolutely incapable of bowing and scraping.  He refused to show respect for superiors unless he felt it, and up there he didn't have very many opportunities to feel it."  (p. 156)
His superior in Alaska, General Butler tried to retire him to training status in California.  In a pile of complaints to General Buckner he
". . . suggested that Eareckson had too many missions under his belt, that he was flak-happy, that he had been warned to stop trying to be both commander and crew, and that he needed a rest." (p. 156)
Buckner didn't want to lose Eareckson, so he transferred him to his own staff.

But carrying out your orders well, if the orders aren't good in the first place, raises questions and  I've been wondering throughout the book whether we even needed to be fighting in the Aleutians.  The terrible weather - it's not horribly cold, but has constant rain, wind, snow, and cloud cover - gave the Japanese (and the Americans) enough trouble.  But hindsight is easy.  Just as the Americans - particularly General Buckner - saw the Aleutians as the pathway to invade Japan, they also saw it as a way for Japan to have bases closer to the US.  

You can see in the map how close Attu is to Japan.  (The reddish dot is Attu and the green dot is Anchorage.)


So, bear with me as I try to pull a number of different ideas together here.


In 1943, the US mounted an invasion of Attu, American territory then occupied by the Japanese.  They planned to take over the island in three days.  It took more like 17 days.  It was the first island landing.  It was the second most deadly of the Pacific war.
"In proportion to the numbers of troops engaged, it would rank as the second most costly American battle in the Pacific Theater - second only to Iwo Jima.  Total American casualties amounted to half again the number of Japanese troops on the island; the Japanese force suffered annihilation, almost to the last man.
"Landing force Attu had suffered 3829 casualties;  killed, 549; wounded, 1148;  severe cold injuries, 1200; disease (including exposure), 614;  other casualties (including self-inflicted wounds, psychiatric breakdowns, drownings, and accidents), 318 men." (p. 256)
Heroism is a tricky concept.  Some people fall apart under pressure.  Others firm up.  You don't know how you will react until you're in the situation.  Some people did crazy things and for some it turned out ok, for others not.
Two companies of Buckner's 4th Infantry got pinned down at the base of the ridge by nine Japanese machine-gun nests.  Private Fred M. Barnett remarked to a companion that he was fed up.  He walked up into the snowfall, carrying only his rifle and a string of grenades.  He disappeared, climbing, and his companions heard furious volleys from machine guns, rifles, and grenades.  The racket faded toward the distance, there was a single ragged aftervolley, and then silence.
Private Barnett reappeared and walked unhurriedly downhill.  When he was in full sight he stopped and waved the two companies forward.  The troops stepped from cover and climbed cautiously.  Barnett turned and joined the front rank.  The companies found the Japanese trenches free for the taking - Barnett had charged nine successive Japanese emplacements, wiped them all out and emerged without a scratch.   (p. 244)
Just five pages later we hear a different story.
Private Joe P. Martinez from Taos, New Mexico, was an automatic rifleman in Company K of the 32nd Infantry.  With the company stalled by enemy trenches, Martinez walked into the enemy fire, slaughtered five Japanese soldiers with grenades and his BAR, and reached the crest of the ridge before he collapsed with a mortal wound he had taken fifty yards down the hill.  Northern Force followed him up and took the northwestern razorback of the Fish Hook, which Martinez had cleared:  but it was too late for Martinez, whose posthumous reward was Attu's only Medal of Honor. (p. 249)
But based on this book's account, Eareckson seems to have been a true hero.  A good part of this was having skills and disposition that fit him perfectly into this sitution.


While he irritated his commanders, he also had their begrudging respect.  On May 21, 1943 during the battle of Attu, on a ship, visiting General Buckner got Eareckson to give him a ride over the island to see things first hand.  After they got back the weather was so bad, there was no chance of more flying.  Eareckson went ashore with Buckner.  He hadn't spent any time on the ground and wanted to get a sense of things.
He walked up to the front line, borrowed a rifle and started shooting at Point Able.
He had fired three shots when a Japanese sniper's bullet creased him across the back.  Eareckson emptied his rifle in a furious barrage;  several witnesses claimed he killed the sniper.  His wound was dressed at an aid station, after which Eareckson walked back down to the beach.  Simon Buckner was there, looking after his 4th Infantrymen.  Buckner found a Purple Heart medal, pinned it on Eareckson's chest, and then turned Eareckson around and kicked him with a hard combat boot in the buttocks, "for being where you had no business being." (p. 241)

Eareckson made things work.

Japanese planes were trying to sink US ships at Adak and the American planes coming a distance from Unmak to combat them, didn't have enough fuel capacity to fly around waiting for them and it was hard to find them in the fog anyway.
. . .especially for American fighters which had maneuverability and firepower, but no radar.  Eareckson solved the problem with typical inventiveness.  No one had ever heard of using bombers to escort fighters:  traditional air tactics worked the other way around.  But traditional tactics had not been devised with the Aleutians in mind.  Eareckson's new P-38 "Peashooter Patrol" sent five radar-equipped B-17 bombers out, as mother ships to a pack of Lightning fighters. . .

. . . a B-17's radar flushed the three oncoming enemy bombers.  Fed range and directions by radio, the P-38 fighters dived straight into the soup and broke through shooting.  The . . . chatter of their cannon and machine guns caught the big Kawanishi 97s totally by surprise.   (pp. 111-112)

Their bombing missions faced
"the heaviest flak concentration of any forward Japanese base in the Pacific . . . but  Eareckson seldom lost a plane to enemy flak:  he made it a point to brief every outgoing mission on the exact location of every antiaircraft gun, as determined by weather planes' photoreconnaissance." (p. 113)

But as mentioned above, he had no respect for the official way if it didn't suit the conditions and created his own ways that allowed him to fulfill his mission.
General Butler's staff included a number of paperwork addicts who demanded "certificates of airworthiness" before releasing grounded planes, condemned beat-up engines and tires as "unfit for use," and tried to ensnarl Eareckson's Bomber Command in the kind of red tape loved by all military organizations.  Eareckson bulldozed his way through it all.  In the process he became known as "Commander in Chief, Junkman's Air Corps." because every plane in his command was composed of the cannibalized parts of at least three wrecked bombers.  . . "(p. 113)
The Japanese knew about Eareckson because he
"heckled the Japanese by radio - "How'd you like that bomb, Tojo?  Give Tojo headache maybe?"  It quickly became a daily trademark and before long Tokyo Rose was airing sarcastic remarks aimed at Eareckson by name." (p. 98)
        At Kiska the Japanese order came down:  "Get Eareckson"  (p. 115)

When Eareckson went to California to help plan the invasion of Attu, the Japanese no longer heard his taunts.
"Tokyo Rose announced with grim satisfaction, "Our very good friend, Colonel Eareckson is no more.  He was shot down in the sea on January 13."
"When Eric learned of this,"  recalls Colonel William Alexander, "he said, 'Why, the little bitch, wait till I get back up there!" (p. 157)
From most people that would be seen as just empty boasting, but as Eareckson is portrayed in this book, it's genuine.  


Was the Aleutian War Worth It?

In 1943, Earickson had been pulled off bombing Adak and Attu to go help plan the invasion with the chosen force - made up of Southwesterners headed by a general from South Carolina - in the San Diego area.

Earickson's experience in the Aleutians caused him to question the wisdom of trying to retake Attu.   He penned a limerick (another example of his unique abilities was his ability to question his bosses without penalty):
In viewing Attu's rocky shores
     While planning how to take it,
This thought impresses more and more:
    The Nips should first forsake it.
Since Attu ain't worth a hoot
    For raising crops or cattle,
Let's load with booze and take a cruise
    And just call off the battle. (p.204)
Despite advice from Alaskan-experienced officers like Eareckson, the troops were grossly under equipped for the weather and terrain.  Despite warnings that the trucks would get mired in the wet tundra, large guns and equipment were shipped to Attu only to be left on the beaches.

I was reading the attack on Attu on the ferry from downtown Seattle to Bainbridge Island, when the speakers announced that we shouldn't worry that we were being escorted by the Coast Guard, that this was a routine Homeland Security activity.  Which got me thinking about the Coast Guard working closely with Shell right now near Kodiak.


And I thought about the Kulluk again when I read about the lack of news coverage of Attu.  Despite the importance of the operation there was very little publicity about it, especially compared to other Pacific battles.
Attu veteran George F. Noland recalls wryly:  "No Marines - other wise it would have been world history."  Attu did receive some press coverage, provided by the nine American war correspondents on the scene, the belated and superficial announcements of the Navy in Washington, and the daily accounts broadcast by Radio Tokyo on short-wave.  But the battle was soon eclipsed by developments in other theaters.
And here's where I perked up:
Meanwhile Washington's official information offices, embarrassed by the mistakes and failures of Attu, were not eager to encourage the public to ask questions. 
Sounds a little like the Kulluk Unified Command, apparently led by Shell, the company that has said how prepared they are for anything that could come at them in the Arctic, also limiting information about what is happening in the rescue of the Kulluk.  Their current embarrassment is at the eastern end of the Aleutian Chain.  
In part, the higher ups wanted to retake Attu because it was US territory.  And its possession gave the Japanese a base from which to protect their North Pacific Fleet and potentially attack the US mainland.  The American repossession would put the US within air striking distance of Japan.  In hindsight, neither of these scenarios happened.  The daily US bombing of Attu and Kiska when they were occupied by the Japanese prevented any offensive action by the Japanese.  Would it have been different without the bombing?  We don't know.

But the cost of retaking Attu and Kiska in lives and equipment lost, not to mention the pulling away of troops from other theaters, was high.

In Attu it was high because the Japanese soldiers stranded there fought to the death and the invading American troops were not prepared for the conditions they faced.

In Kiska, the Japanese had managed to sneak all their men off the island before the attack, but the US didn't know this, though the lack of movement on the island as observed by pilots raised this possibility.  This meant the Japanese soldiers didn't have to die in battle or through suicide.  But it didn't prevent American casualties:
"Twenty-four men were shot to death by their own comrades in the fog.  Booby-traps and mines killed four others.  Fifty were wounded - booby-trapped or shot by mistake.  One hundred and thirty men got trenchfoot.
Patrolling destroyer Abner Read  struck a Japanese mine moored in a Kiska cove.  It crushed her stern plates and filled her hold with asphyxiating smoke - several men died there, and then the ship's stern broke off and sank, carrying men down.  The final toll from Abner Read was seventy-one dead, thirty-four injured." (p. 288)
Garfield writes:
The outcome [the retaking of Kiska] was satisfactory, but nothing could disguise the fact that for more than two weeks the Allies had bombarded an abandoned island, and that for a week thereafter they had deployed 35,000 combat soldiers - 313 of whom became casualties - across the deserted island.   .  .  The Kiska operation reddened faces from Anchorage to Ottawa to Washington.
The positive outcomes, aside from getting the Japanese out of US territory, according to Garfield were the lessons that were learned in Attu and Kiska that would be applied elsewhere in the war. 



 




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