John Haile Cloe, whose encyclopedic knowledge of the military history of Alaska made him the leading expert on World War II in the territory, died at his Anchorage home on Dec. 26. He was 78 years old.
Born in Virginia on May 11, 1938, Cloe was a student at the Virginia Military Institute prior to joining the Army. In a recent interview with Alaska Dispatch News, he said he came to love stories of the past while at VMI.
"I'm not good at math and I can't spell, so that left history," he said in his customary low-key, mildly self-deprecating manner.
As an infantry officer, he served two tours in Vietnam and was later assigned to the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia. In 1970 he drove to Alaska and became the Alaska Air Command historian at Elmendorf Air Force Base.
His office at Elmendorf contained copious and detailed records of U.S. military actions in Alaska during World War II, when Japan bombed, invaded and occupied parts of the Aleutian Islands, as well as records of the Cold War era. In retirement, he used knowledge he'd acquired on base and information gleaned from repositories outside Alaska to produce fastidious research on the Alaska front, a part of the war that remains little known to most Americans.
He led tours to Attu Island, the site of the only land battle between American forces and an invading army since the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812. He was due to lead one such tour in 2015 but was advised by doctors to avoid the trip due to heart issues.
Cloe worked with the National Park Service to preserve the history of Alaska's war years. He served on the board of the Alaska Humanities Forum and was an elder at St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Anchorage.
In October, he completed the first major history of the Battle of the Kurils, a long-running air and sea assault on northern Japan that followed the Battle of Attu. "Mission to the Kurils" (Todd Communications) was the result of nearly 30 years of research and writing. Cloe described it as a "retirement project."
"I never learned to play golf, so that was not an option," he told Alaska Dispatch News. "Plus I was tired of writing classified histories and studies on the Cold War that ended up in the safe, where they still remain, and wanted something out in the public for a change."
According to aviation historian Ted Spencer, Cloe was recently diagnosed with advanced cancer of the lymph nodes.
Survivors include his wife, Susan. Services are pending for some time in January.