AWOL in Alaska
By Dr. Walter E. Howard
In the early years of World War II, the Japanese successfully invaded the United States. This is something most people donâ€™t know about and our government is reluctant to acknowledge. But I saw the evidence first hand and would like to tell you about my experience of this forgotten chapter of the war.
Kiska is a remote Aleutian Island not far from Russiaâ€™s Kamchatka Peninsula, and I was there as a private in the 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment. I stitched this account together from the notes I kept while I was there, and from letters saved by my wife and parents. The letters sometimes differed from my memory of the events (I was 89 in April 2006), so in deference to accuracy I trusted these letters more than my memory.
To start my three and one-half years of duty in World War II, I foolishly volunteered for the ski troops. Even though I had ROTC and had almost completed my PhD at the University of Michigan, Pearl Harbor infuriated me so much that it made me want to serve my country. I wanted to help drive the Germans out of Norway, where many of us thought the snow troops would go.
I was drawn to the ski troops because I love the mountains and loved to ski, having first put on skis in 1927. I started my military basic training in mountain, snow and winter warfare on December 12, 1942 at Camp Hale, Colorado, in I Company of the 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment, which later became the storied 10th Mountain Division.
Morale was very bad at Camp Hale. Everyone was depressed. One reason for this was the lack of training manuals for mountain operations. Consequently, lots of foolish mistakes were made. Many soldiers put in for a transfer, even into more hazardous military duty, but they were all denied. On one alpine maneuver, while snuggled in my down sleeping bag in a one-man pup tent, by candlelight I wrote a long list of suggestions on how our mountain training could be improved. When we got back to camp I proudly presented it to my first sergeant, who was â€œold Armyâ€ and not very smart. He was so mad at the private suggesting what the army should do that he tore it up, threw it in the wastebasket and put me on KP duty.
The Kiska Island assignment lasted from July 11 to December 22, 1943. Not much has been written about this small chapter of the war. It is important to remember, however, because it was an invasion of U.S. soil. Also, many soldiers became hardened there and were better prepared for future engagements.
After obtaining the required written support about my mountaineering and skiing skills from the National Ski Patrol in Auburn, California, I was able to successfully enlist in the ski troops at the Presidio in Monterey on December 5, 1942. Following the mountaineer training at Camp Hale, on July 29, 1943, we boarded ship in San Francisco. As we started up the gangplank, the Red Cross gave each of us an invaluable gift bag containing cigarettes, gum, a sewing kit, razor blades, shoestrings, a deck of cards, pencils, writing tablets, and envelopes. My pack with weapon weighed more than 100 pounds, but we were all fit and used to carrying heavy packs, even in the snow.
Our ship, S.S. Zeillin, sailed north through the Inland Passage to Alaska. Our contingent included three other troop ships, several destroyers, and for a short distance, a blimp. The islands and the rugged mountains were all covered with a dense green coniferous forest that was mostly uninhabited as best I could tell. It was a beautiful sight.
Sleeping quarters on the ship were very crowded. I had three bunks beneath me. The situation was barely tolerable, so I slept either on deck or in a lifeboat most of the time. Otherwise, it was a very pleasant cruise. The Navy was hospitable and accommodating. We had lots of free time except for guard duty. After our Camp Hale chow, we thought the food was fresh and extra good. We were free to roam around the ship. Morale of the ski troopers was greatly improved over what it had been at Camp Hale.