This Memorial Day weekend we honor the military men and women who have died in America's wars. It's particularly poignant coming on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Engineer Hill, the climax of the Battle of Attu in the Aleutian Islands (more below).
The combined death toll of American, Allied and Japanese on Attu exceeded 3,000 -- officially. Unofficially it may have exceeded 4,000.
Not long ago I spoke with a survivor of that fight, Joe Sasser, and wrote his story for an article that ran earlier this month. In the past few weeks I also got to write about airman George Miller, who belatedly received a Distinguished Flying Cross 68 years after his heroic actions following a bombing run. And Henry Neligan of the Alaska Territorial Guard, who received his honorable discharge just before his 101st birthday.
World War II remains a living memory, at least for the time being. In 11 days the world will mark the 69th anniversary of D-Day, the massive amphibious assault that gave the Allied powers a toehold in northern France from which they were able to win the war in Europe within the next year.
Newspapers customarily remember the date of the event, June 6, not only for battle's strategic importance, but because of the high number of casualties. One source puts the American death toll at 2,499 with another 1,915 from the other Allies, notably Canada and Great Britain, and many more on the other side. That makes Operation Overlord, to give the maneuver its formal name, perhaps the bloodiest single wartime engagement for the American military with the exception of the Civil War Battle of Antietam, which recorded 3,654 combined Yankee and Rebel fatalities.
As important as it is to remember the sacrifice and achievement of D-Day, it sometimes overshadows other key battles that took place on June 6. In 1918 the U.S. Marine Corps suffered is worst single day at Chateau-Thierry while winning the Battle of Belleau Wood. Total U.S. fatalities, which would include regular Army as well as Marine fighters, are given as 1,811.
Even more crucial was the Battle of Midway. It can be argued that, despite its scope, D-Day merely accelerated, at considerable cost, the inevitable end of the war. By June of 1944 the Allies had forces in Europe, Russia had turned the tide on the Eastern Front and Hitler's goose was cooked; it was only a matter of time.
In June of 1942, however, the outcome was very much in doubt. Only a lucky break in cracking the Japanese code allowed the U.S. Navy to respond with as much strategic advantage as it had -- and even then it was nip and tuck. Had the Japanese prevailed at Midway the war in the Pacific would have been a significantly different matter.
Alaskans, in particular, should recall the Midway action since it coincided with the bombing of Dutch Harbor and the occupation of two Aleutian islands by enemy forces. The extraction of the enemy from Attu, considered complete on May 30, 1943, cost the lives of many more Americans than died at Midway, 307 according to my sources.
Returning to the Civil War, June 6, 1862, saw the Battle of Memphis, a chaotic scrap between gunboats that might more accurately be described as rafts. Total casualties were probably around 200.
One other crucial American battle on June 6 is almost never mentioned in this country, but is exuberantly celebrated in Canada. The Battle of Stoney Creek in 1813 marked the furthest penetration into Canada by American forces in the War of 1812. Though seriously outnumbered, the British had a chain of events turn in their favor, including good intelligence, the capture of two senior American officers, a successful night attack and the fact that the Americans had overestimated the number of British forces.
We should note that this was a battle between English and Americans; the Canadian militia had been sent home by British officers who calculated that the citizen soldiers might be more of a hindrance than a help. Nonetheless, it is the occasion for fireworks, speeches, patriotic music and re-enactments at present day Stoney Creek, near Hamilton, Ontario.
Stoney Creek is considered a turning point in the defense of Upper Canada. American forces had been striking hard up to that point. They'd fire to the Legislative Assembly building and other government buildings in York, present day Toronto. (That act would later be used as justification for Britain's torching of Washington, D.C.) This battle more or less permanently deterred the United States from taking up arms against England's northern colonies; subsequent disputes happily have been settled by diplomacy -- a particular benefit to Alaskans.
We remember today the 16 Americans who died in the Battle of Stoney Creek; 38 were wounded. British casualties were somewhat higher -- but they won.
The list of June 6 fights around the world and throughout history is longer, but this summary only considers U.S. engagements. However, I can't help noting an upcoming anniversary for one battle far from the USA that really did change the world permanently. On June 2, 455 the Vandals sacked Rome, ushering in the Dark Ages and supplying the dictionary with a pejorative term that remains in the vocabulary.
The two Western Hemispheres
On May 5, I published an article about the American recapture of Attu Island from the Japanese in 1943. The 70th anniversary of the culminating Battle of Engineer Hill will take place on Wednesday, May 29. In the article I referred to the Battle of Attu as "the only land battle in (World War II) fought in the Western Hemisphere." It should have read "the only land battle in the war fought in the Americas."
Author Steven Levi called my attention to the problem. He noted that, at around 173 degrees E. longitude, Attu is in the Eastern Hemisphere; insofar as strict geometry dictates. But The Associated Press sees things differently, geopolitically. My copy of the AP Stylebook defines the Western Hemisphere as incorporating "the continents of North and South America, and the islands near them," which includes Attu. The boundary of the hemisphere is determined by the international date line, not 180th degree of longitude.
But Levi is right. A correction notice ran on May 8, the long-winded explanation waiting until this column.
In investigating the matter I found that, despite being further west of Washington, D.C., than any other piece of America, Attu technically is not the westernmost point in the United States. That's Amatignak Island at 179 degrees W., which is just a few miles to the east of Semisopochnoi Island, the easternmost point, 14 minutes west of the 180 degree longitude line. So in response to Kipling's "Ballad of East and West" one might say that the twain do meet -- in the Aleutians.
There was an additional reason to correct the questionable sentence, however. Both western North Africa and Normandy, sites of intense land battles during World War II and west of the prime meridian, are in the geometric Western Hemisphere, though not in the geopolitical one.
RIP Barbara Smith
Earlier this month we learned of the death of Barbara Sweetland Smith, a scholar who never needed a correction. Her name is associated with several important museum exhibits in our town. Smith was born in New York City in 1939 and studied Russian language, philosophy, theology and art at Columbia and Harvard universities. She was a news analyst for KING TV in Seattle and moved to Alaska in 1970. She taught Russian history at the University of Alaska Anchorage and worked to recover and preserve old records of the Russian Orthodox Church in America, a subject on which she wrote extensively.
Working with the Anchorage Museum, she curated "Russian America: The Forgotten Frontier" in 1990, "Heaven on Earth: Orthodox Treasures of Siberia and North America" in 1994 and "Science Under Sail: Russia's Great Voyages to America, 1728-1867" in 2000.
She played a key role in collecting information about the dislocation of Aleuts by the U.S. government in World War II and was among those who pushed for restitution. Her efforts helped the restoration of historic churches in the Aleutians and the replacement of others. She was instrumental in getting funding to conserve, catalog and restore the treasure house of icons at Holy Ascension Church in Unalaska, perhaps the largest single collection of pre-20th century art in Alaska. She was also involved in various charities.
Smith died in Portland, Ore., on March 12 at the age of 76. She is survived by her husband, Floyd, daughters Lauren M. Smith and Allison Blandini of Portland, sister Rebecca A. Sweetland and an extended family. A memorial service in Anchorage will take place at 2:30 p.m. on Friday, May 31, at St. Mary's Episcopal Church on the hill overlooking Tudor Road and Lake Otis Parkway.
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.