I heard this short tale around a campfire nearly forty years ago, thirty miles deep into the Bob Marshall Wilderness of Montana. Karl was then looking at his mid-seventies and we’d all walked in thirty miles to the China Wall–the seldom visited, incredibly abrupt, fault-wall backbone of the continent–a few days before. Brother Rich provided horses for our gear, but we’d all walked in on foot, as the old guys said, “While they still could.” Our party included two septuagenarians: Karl and Art, another youngster in his mid-fifties whose name, sadly, escapes me, and two kids: brother Rich and I in our thirties. Before we left the “Bob,” Karl had chased a grizzly out of camp by clapping his hands and scolding it like a misbehaving dog, but that’s a story for another time.
I may not have the details quite right–it has been a few years–but the story should be remembered, my imperfections and all. That generation is just about gone, and most of them did not talk much about the war, understandably, but this poignant account has special meaning to anyone from Idaho.
Karl and Art graduated from college just in time for World War Two. They both were from north Idaho and had taken officer’s training during their education at the University of Idaho. They were among the last of the horse-mounted cavalry from Idaho and during each summer encampment, came south and “chased rabbits through the desert on horseback and filled the streets of Boise with horse manure during our big finale parade.”
As educated men, both were made officers in the Army. Karl was sent to the “Pacific Theater” like so many other people from Idaho. In the early days of the war the Japanese and the Americans scattered personnel across the islands of the Western Pacific and due to the vagaries of the conflict, many troops on both sides were left to their own devices for a long time.
[Vagary explanation: By May 1942 Japan had taken the French, British, Dutch, and American colonies in Asia, while blunting the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and establishing a perimeter more or less along the International Dateline in the Pacific west of Hawaii. Japan stationed forward troops from the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, through numerous Pacific islands, to Australian New Guinea.
Pearl Harbor traumatized America. For weeks, with our Pacific fleet and air force shattered, residents on the American West Coast feared a Japanese invasion was imminent.
In June 3-6, 1942, American aircraft carriers–that had left Pearl Harbor hours before the Japanese attack–destroyed a major Japanese carrier force during the Battle of Midway. Midway was one of the great history-changing battles, isolating many Japanese troops in the east, and never again did Japan pose a threat to the Eastern Pacific. “It was still war but a different war.” This author has forgotten the source of this written comment.
Many American flyers failed to return safely to the decks of their carriers after their heroic torpedo and bombing attacks on the Japanese fleet. They flew to the limit of their fuel supply carrying heavy torpedoes in airplanes with canvas-covered wings. The Battle of Midway was the first major engagement where belligerent ships never came within visual contact.
Elsewhere it is reported that the admiral in command of the Japanese fleet, after experiencing the unanticipated dogged bravery of the “mongrel-Americans” on their suicide flights, knew that the war was lost.
Beginning May 1943 the U.S. took back the Aleutians, and began island hopping west, fighting some of the most savage battles of the war, while skipping over many Japanese-occupied islands in a campaign to quickly secure landing strips within bombing range of Japan.
Miscellanea: The U. S. had begun gearing up for war since at least August 1939 when Germany invaded Holland and Belgium, provoking World War Two. In 1940 Lockheed Aircraft posted notices throughout the Western States announcing tests for high-wage jobs. My father, who had been working as an irrigator and orchardist near Hazleton, Idaho, applied for the Lockheed test and passed. He hitchhiked and “rode the rails” to Los Angeles, California, and began six months of training as an aircraft mechanic. My mother remained in Idaho for some months, as she put it, “sewing traveling clothes for the kids and me.” She had her pride and was a demon on the sewing machine throughout her life. My mother, sister and brother arrived in L.A. about the first day of December 1941. The next Sunday, December 7, 1941 my father took the family to the Long Beach pier. Army units were piling sandbags on the beach for machine gun emplacements. “What is this?” My folks asked each other, but they walked out onto the pier, taking in the ocean and the tourist attractions and returned to shore. My father told my sister to hop up on the shoeshine chair. As my sister sat there getting her shoes shined and listening to music on the radio, FDR’s voice broke in announcing the attack on Pearl Harbor, “a day that will live in Infamy,” and asking Congress for a Declaration of War.]
I do not remember the name of the island where Karl was dropped off–there were many islands occupied by both sides–but I have the impression that Karl was in command of perhaps a company of troops or more, on a fairly large island. A friend suggested it might have been Guadalcanal, but if so, Karl did not mention it. I would have remembered that legendary island and battle. The Japanese controlled one end of the island and the Americans the other, and because neither side of the unsupported occupiers was powerful enough to dislodge the other, they pretty much left each other alone during their months of isolation.
Eventually the Americans returned in force, moping up strategic islands, bypassing others, island hopping their way toward the home islands of the Japanese Empire. Karl’s command post was atop a mountain and when the American ships anchored, he drove down the mountain to report in. The Americans were unloading vast amounts of materiel. After Karl finished his business at headquarters he noticed sack after sack of potatoes being offloaded and stacked on shore. He stopped his jeep.
“How about loading a couple of sacks in the back of the jeep?” He asked.
“These are for the troops we’re landing,” said the person in charge.
“Come on! My guys have been here for months on short rations. These guys are just arriving.”
Karl was persuasive, got a couple of sacks of potatoes, and started back up the mountain. It was getting late in the day. At every checkpoint–apparently there were quite a few on the road up the mountain–he passed out potatoes to his men. He said it was about dark when he returned to his command post. He looked back down the long mountain road and there were little fires burning everywhere in the dusk. The men had stopped whatever they were doing and started boiling potatoes.
I can almost see it: the oncoming darkness with battle looming, a lonely mountain peak in the endless Pacific, little fires boiling potatoes, young men thinking about home.
Randall E. Morris is a scrivener of myths about the modern and historical Northwestern USA. He also writes post revolutionary stories set in Central America where he lived for many years, and non-apocalyptic science fiction future-histories.