Vintage Saturday: Fire on Ice August 17, 2013 Ian McCollum Medium MGs, Vintage photo 36 Wars are never held in comfortable places, are they? US troops manning a Browning 1919A4 in Alaska. Share this:RedditTwitterFacebook United States
Might be on one of the Aleutian Islands during the Aleutian Campaign. The photograph seems to have been taken on an exceptionally rare day when momentarily calm weather conditions and ( relatively ) warm temperatures actually prevailed, and when the ever-present sea fog lifted for awhile.
Talk about a truly miserable campaign that neither the Japanese nor the Americans really wanted. The vast majority of casualties were engendered by the terrible weather conditions and environment, not combat. For both antagonists, it was the perception that the “other side” was going to attempt something against the home territories via the Aleutian chain that drove a military build-up leading to eventual prolonged fighting in the theater. Once escalated, there was no turning back, and they were forced by circumstances to follow through.
Historian Brian Garfield wrote an excellent account of the Aleutian Campaign in “The Thousand-Mile War” ( Doubleday, October 1969 and Bantam Books, January 1982 ).
I think I checked that book out the library and never got around to reading it.
Maybe the second time around….? 🙂
Earl .. I read that book, years ago in paperback. Another “forgotten front” like the New Guinea Campaign. Unbelievable what it took to just build the “Alcan” highway. Another example of unpreparedness costing lives. Very little ever published about the Aleutian campaign or the number of aircraft that to this day are missing.
PS: I have received my hard cy of “Green Armour”. Hard to put down.
Glad to hear that there are more of us who are aware of the Aleutian campaign than I first thought!
I don’t blame you for being so engrossed with “Green Armour”. Osmar White’s narration has a breathless, inevitable yet very human quality to it that makes this the sort of book you’ll find yourself still reading in the loneliest hours of the morning before dawn, after having started out the night before after dinner. The other things I really appreciated about his account was how honest and cognitive of harsh realities it was, and his refusal to demonize the Japanese as so many other war correspondents of the time were wont to do in the mistaken belief that it would somehow boost the morale of Allied soldiers. White also showed great respect for the native peoples of New Guinea ; he was able to tell their life stories with sensitivity and without pandering while still recognizing and acknowledging the sometimes uneven relationships that existed at the time between the Colonial Administration and indigenous tribes.
Earl.. You always seem to sat it right. I wish I could express my feelings and thoughts so well concerning my experiences with mountain tribes of Viet Nam’s central highlands and the tri border area of Laos and (what was) Cambodia. One of the saddest days of my life was the day our team was pulled out of our camp and we said good by our Radhi and Stang tribe members and looked in their eyes. Not anger .. hurt and disbelief. They had believed all along when we promised we would never abandon them. Sometimes I look at old pictures of us and my heart breaks; Earl I know what the NVA did to them and their families for working with us.
I know what you mean, Thomas — I am with you on this.
those guys must be huge, I mean the M1919 isnt big but they make it look like an M4
It might be because of the angle at which the photograph was taken, plus the fact that they are dressed in cold weather gear and greatcoats, which would tend to make them appear a lot bigger than they actually are.
The fact that they are bare-headed would indicate that the picture was taken on an extremely rare and exceptionally mild day for that particular latitude.
Any guesses on what the ropes/lines that run behind them are for?
At first, I thought that the lines might be communications wire, which would make sense since a forward defensive position such as this would logically be wired in as part of a field telephone network.
However, upon examining the photograph more closely under magnification, the lines appear to be too thick to be commo wire. My best guess at this point is that they are rope lines rigged to assist personnel in moving themselves as well as guns, ammunition and other supplies and equipment up to designated positions, and to traverse from one position to another along the elevated ridgeline. This would make sense given the ruggedness of the terrain and the impedance of potentially deep snowdrifts.
Any other ideas, anyone?
@ Earl Liew :
Correction — I should have said “…and to traverse from one position to another below the elevated ridgeline”. Basic rule of tactical movement and deployment : Never show yourself on a ridgeline ; this will expose you as a silhouetted target to any observers on the other side.
Don’t think this is a “tactical picture” as some very important items are blatantly absent 1)no head gear (helmet w/skull cap issued in Alaska) 2) Even rapid employment even in tundra or ice called for some for of frontal cover especially on a clearly observable position 3) only 1 can of 250 rds on site. No matter what they were doing, firing or going to fire; the front sight is up so they were doing something besides FREEZING THEIR BUNS!. Just some thoughts, not meant to be picky-picky.
Those guys are sitting there like wasp on candy…. ))). Are they not concerned about visibility? Who is the enemy, where is he …. or do they care?
@ Denny & Thomas :
Perhaps on a training exercise with a side opportunity for a publicity shot per Army P.R.? Or on initial deployment to set up coastal defences knowing that the enemy was nowhere near, with a publicity photo shoot hastily thrown in before setting-up of proper defensive positions was actually undertaken?
Earl & Denny .. that sounds just about as close as we well get. Nice photo though.
Thomas, you just reminded me of another factor supporting the idea that this was a P.R. photo opportunity : The near-perfect weather ( extremely rare in those latitudes ), the lack of combat pressure and the luxury of sufficient time for the photographer to get the ideal set-up in place — all point toward the creation of a near-perfect photograph. Good call!
The Aleutians campaign was unusual in that the Japanese BOTH played to type by dying virtually to a man on Attu, AND sensibly exerting great effort to evacuate their garrison on Kiska.
The Japanese made a post-war film about the evacuation called “Escape (or Retreat) from Kiska”. It’s not a bad movie.
Yes, if I recall correctly, the successful evacuation of Kiska was a supreme example of how to extract one’s forces from a seemingly impossible position with an absolute minimum of casualties. Excellent point!
It was also wildly out of character for the Japanese. In most cases, they just left their garrisons to die, either through enemy action, as on Saipan, etc. or through starvation, as on Rabaul, etc..
The other notable exception was Guadalcanal.
Agreed. In most cases, a lot seemed to depend on who the senior decision-making officers were. Some saw the men under their command as mere “human resources” ( how I despise that G*****n dehumanizing term and all it implies today ), to be used like any other item of equipment and then discarded like so many sacks of rubbish when considered no longer viable ; others recognized and fully understood the enormity of the human cost of whatever decisions they made, and agonized constantly over it. Rear-Admiral Raizo Tanaka ( of “Tokyo Express” — more correctly “Cactus Express” — fame ), Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, General Tadamishi Kuribayashi ( Senior Commanding Officer, Iwo Jima Campaign ) and Colonel Takeishi Nishi ( Senior Armor Officer, Iwo Jima Campaign ) were prime examples of the latter. The armed forces and civil societies of the world might be far better off with principled yet open-minded, sensible and empathic leaders like them, rather than most of the politically-adroit but self-serving ones we seem to be saddled with today.
There is a pretty accurate and fascinating summary of the life and career of Colonel Nishi on Wikipedia. Of significant note are the deeply-intertwined historical and personal connections that were involved, eg., the attempts by Sy Bartlett, transferred from the Eighth Air Force in Europe to the Twentieth Air Force for the Pacific Campaign, to persuade Nishi and his men to surrender honorably because the United States, even as a wartime enemy, openly recognized and respected him. Sy Bartlett would later go on to co-write the definitive, fact-based novel of the Eighth Air Force and its struggles, “Twelve O’Clock High”, with Beirne Lay, Jr., who also served in the Mighty Eighth.
The Wikipedia history of General Kuribayashi’s life and career is also quite accurate and equally compelling — definitely worth contemplating.
Japan Times columnist Hiroaki Sato also wrote a telling commentary about General Kuribayashi as a family man, a leader and a human being in the Japan Times Opinion page ( http://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2007/02/26/commentary/eastwood-didnt-idealize-kuribayashi/#.UhD3Rn_m_Sg ) shortly after the release of Clint Eastwood’s “Letters From Iwo Jima”.
Earl .. good morning. I believe that upon close examination we can see the cultural ethics of a nations at any given time may be quite unique to that nation, and the military “leaders” are a product of that culture as it has been handed down to them by the personalities responsible their development as commanders at given time. The Japanese had as many personality types as we did. and I would believe, is abundantly illustrated in the various “biographies” and “memoirs” let alone the after action reports and historical records. From our Civil War on; the “Indian War’s and even up to Viet Nam the US Army has had those commanders that as you said “saw the men under their command as mere “human resources” Certainly some of the British, French and German commanders in WW I certainly exhibited this “I am GOD” trait also. If we examine closely and fully as just one example; Gen MacArthur and Gen Stilwell the variances are startling. My thoughts in short.
Thomas, thank you for your hard-won insight, as always. I am definitely largely in agreement with you on this subject. The example of MacArthur vis-a-vis Stillwell is a very good one.
An old military adage “Anybody CAN be appointed a commander … Leader are Born”
“Anybody can be MADE a soldier by law ..but not every soldier is or can be made warrior.”
And that’s the problem….plenty of commanders and managers, but not enough real leaders ; also, plenty of followers, but not enough real Indians.
Earl .. You might appreciate this experience I had while attached to the 1st RAR, in 1965, and a CSM Jack Curry and I were discussing the planned incursion into War Zone D with the 173rd ABN BDE (SEP). The CSM and I were planning proposed/contingency supporting fires in and around the LZ’s. The CSM said “You know SGT’s Mike .. we need a bit of precision here, sure thing it could get a bit nasty on our arrival.” He then proceeded to identify with a TOOTHPICK where he wanted me to coordinate the supporting US, NZ and 105 and VN artillery(105 and 4.2 from SF camp). I was the attached LNO/ALO. Our discussion here led to this memory. CSM Curry was a leader, he cared about his men and he understood Colonels and General do not win battles … the soldier on the ground, in the mud, in the rain, in the sand they win battles, and winning battles must be done in order to win campaigns, to win wars. Forfeit the troops and at some point you forfeit the war. As we go up the chain of command, by necessity the toothpick turns into a grease pencil, then a drawn goose egg circle. The farther and farther away from CSM Curry’s tiny points on a map, sometimes it becomes easy to forget who wins wars.
Exactly, Thomas. That too, has all too often been what I have experienced. And I’m reasonably sure a lot of the other fellows on FW have been in the same boat one too many times.
No attempts a camo, either…basically sitting ducks…that SUCKS!!! They don’t appear to be dug in either…where’s the NCO in charge of this MG squad???
CB in FL…from what I’ve seen on both the Military & History Channels the Jap advance on the Aleutians was part of an attempt to draw valuable Navy Resources away from the REAL target of Midway…that dodge didn’t work out too well for the Sons of Nippon…Midway turned out to be the end of the Japanese advances in the Pacific when they lost 4 carriers,Kaga Akaga, Soryu & Hiryu
@ Earl Liew, August 18, 2013 @ 12:15 P.M. :
Just in case anyone misinterprets this, when I say “Indians”, I’m referring to the rank-and-file who are able to fully exercise their own initiative in conjunction with a sound leadership plan to successfully execute a plan of action — without the intelligence and awareness of these individuals, the most brilliantly-conceived strategies and tactics of the upper echelon would not be worth a brass farthing. The “Chiefs” need to start remembering and acknowledging the fact that without the “Indians”, they and their brilliant ideas are less than nothing.
Perhaps I used too strong a language here, so I will have to ask for everyone’s forbearance and understanding. My sincerest apologies to all concerned. A better way to say it would have been that, without the “Indians’ to translate concepts into actual working practice, even the most brilliant ideas would tend to fall short.
Earl .. when speaking of human lives being carelessly, without reason or human dignity being sacrificed due to stubbornness, arrogance, conceit and a personal political agenda. I find it hard to imagine “to strong a language.” I can and do only speak for myself .. Ya got it right.
Ian, I love the line about comfortable places…
Reminds me of Frost:
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
I just stumbled on this web site and thought that I’d add that this photo was taken at, or near, the top of Ballyhoo Mountain, on Amaknak Island, in Unalaska Bay, on Unalaska Island of the eastern Aleutian Islands. The location, part of what is also known as “Dutch Harbor,” is now within the limits of the City of Unalaska. The view is almost due west, with much of the small Hog Island in the middle distance and Unalaska Island in the far distance. The base at Unalaska was bombed by the Japanese in June 1942.
So our initial collective guesses as to location were reasonably accurate after all. Thanks very much for the interesting follow-up information :).