War memoir a diamond read in the rough

Posted: Thursday, October 07, 2004


  The Alaska National Guard in the Defense of Alaska By John H. Grainger Tongass Publishing Co.

The Alaska National Guard in the Defense of Alaska

By John H. Grainger

Tongass Publishing Co.

Remember the saying, You can't judge a book by its cover?

That is certainly the case with The Alaska National Guard in the Defense of Alaska. The amateur publication quality of this book of World War II recollections is a real turn-off. The cover looks like it belongs on a report rather than a book and doesn't even clarify the title.

But inside, the eyewitness accounts culled from dozens of contemporary sources make for fascinating reading.

John H. Grainger, a veteran from Southeast Alaska, took on the massive task of interviewing survivors and reviewing unpublished diaries and official records regarding his comrades in arms. Grainger, along with his twin brother and dozens of other Alaskans, mustered in 1941 and became part of the Alaska National Guard 297th Infantry Battalion (Separate). Filled out with draftees, some from outside the territory, it had about 900 men at its peak, served in diverse stations all over Alaska, and finally was decommissioned in May 1945.

This story of personal experiences of veterans who served in the battalion was written so their services would not be forgotten, Grainger writes.

Their firsthand knowledge of war, planning, and the effects of campaigning and extended combat operations are being lost forever. That is why this book is so important. That coupled with the fact that there is a dearth of information concerning World War II experiences in cold weather fighting techniques makes this book a wealth of data for military trainers, doctrine writers, theorists and historians.

The battalion consisted of four companies, A through D, formed respectively in Juneau, Ketchikan, Fairbanks and Anchorage. On Sept. 15, 1941, they were inducted into active service.

In a timely irony, part of the contemporary 297th was called into active duty this September to serve the Iraq war effort.

The guard troops started their service 63 years ago at old Fort Seward in Haines, where they received dilapidated equipment of World War I vintage one sign that the territory was woefully unprepared to stave off possible invasion.

The Japanese bombing at Pearl Harbor sent a jolt through Alaska's military.

Charles Middleton of Company D wrote in his diary on Dec. 7, 1941: "Since the alert this morning, pandemonium has reigned. ... All day long the quartermaster has been issuing guns, clothes and ammunition to never-ending lines. The barracks look like beehives with all the activity. The men are rolling up packs, cleaning guns, making black-out shades, testing equipment, and putting straps on snowshoes."

Grainger writes that General Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., the commander of Alaska's defenses, would call on the 297th whenever an odd job needed doing. If logistics to support the troops was lacking, he relied upon the creative Alaskans to take care of themselves.

They worked construction, hauled freight, long-shored ships and assisted with the lend-lease airlift out of Fairbanks. They also stood guard for long stretches on some of the world's most godforsaken shores on constant alert for Japanese landing parties. One platoon was marooned for months on St. George in the Pribilof Islands, the savage weather preventing delivery of any supplies.

Although the guardsmen did not see active combat, they trained for it, and their duties were far from safe. Men were drowned, frostbitten, lost and buried in avalanches. The battalion witnessed fatal plane crashes at close range and lost one comrade down a crevasse.

One incident involved a ski patrol near Valdez in 1943. Private Edward Jackinsky, from Ninilchik, was with two other men when a blizzard stopped them. He was outside their improvised snow shelter when an avalanche buried it.

Lightly clothed and in constant danger of another slide, Private Jackinsky stayed at the scene all night digging for his companions, Grainger writes. In the morning he traveled 16 miles over the dangerous ice with the blizzard still raging to get help.

Another remarkable tale chronicles a January 1944 expedition to test cold-weather gear. The battalion commander led 300 volunteers cross-country, bushwhacking north from Talkeetna. The plan was to march to the Denali National Park headquarters. The off-road vehicles supposed to supply them conked out. Temperatures ranged from frigid to rain.

The Alaska National Guard is full of these amazing anecdotes. The use of diaries gives such a sense of immediacy and intimacy that readers can almost taste the C rations. We feel the men's frustration when supply ships forget their mail or food supplies dwindle to Spam and beets. We cheer their fortitude as they live off the land, puke their way across the Gulf of Alaska in wallowing liberty ships and sometimes even face down Outside officers with independent Alaska sass.

These diary reports are real gems, and Grainger deserves kudos for the obvious labor of love put into compiling them.

The other material around them, alas, needs work. The photos are as murky as a foggy day on Attu, typos and formatting mistakes riddle the text and even the appealing drawings by the late Robert Wikstrom are almost too fuzzy to interpret. Worst of all is a map in the appendix purporting to show the duty stations, which places Valdez on the Kenai Peninsula and Skagway in the Bering Sea, among other proofreading disasters.

What Grainger needs is a professional publisher to reissue the book, clean up its jerry-built look and win it the readership its subject matter deserves.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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