Alaska in the War


By FATHER BERNARD HUBBARD, Famous Jesuit Explorer, Geologist and Scientist

Delivered at Luncheon of the Executives' Club of Chicago. February 5, 1943

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 374-377.

I WISH to express my extreme gratitude to Dr. Haake for that very courteous and real American introduction to a group of real Americans, because he echoed my own sentiments in the idea that we like to know what is going on. We like the unvarnished truth, we do not like propaganda, and we do not like to be made fools of without being fooled. We sometimes pay for being fooled, but we do not like to be made fools of. This is often the case when there is a suppression of non-essential news that would not hurt anybody to know.

I want to give you a brief word about my background so that you can understand what you are not to expect. As a youngster I was always in great difficulty because I was always arguing with my teachers. I received indefinite leaves of absence, without diploma, from two far western universities. I decided the only way for me to succeed was to go somewhere where I didn't know the language well enough to argue, so I went to the University of Innsbruck and passed with flying colors. That is my academic background, and I don't brag about it.

I am in the middle fifties, weigh over 216 pounds, but I am not concerned about that. I ate my ice cream and everything else today. I have a Ph.D., which means "phenomenally dumb" in so many cases, and I don't brag about that.

When I received my first "Doctor of Science" degree I really thought that was something. Shortly after that I happened to be in New York City, the New York City that used to belong to the United States, and I saw a man pushing a broom down the street—and since gasoline rationing, there is going to be a lot more of that—and this man had the initials "D. S. C.," and that didn't mean Doctor of Science at all. I felt that, after all, it was not the letters before or after a man's name, but the kind of an American he is, that counts now.

For the past seventeen consecutive years I have been playing around in Alaska. In fact, less than a month ago, I left the Aleutian Islands and came down here.

In the account of me on the table here was one sentence I didn't like. It says I am "Acting Civilian Adviser to the Western Defense Command." That makes it official. I have nothing official whatsoever. I am a member of the Jesuit Order. I am an auxiliary chaplain in the armed services. In that connection I have done quite a bit of traveling. Among other places, I have gone to Washington by their request, two or three times. But in all these adventures I have paid my own expenses and everything, and that means I am not official. (Laughter.) So, let's say, I have been used in a civilian advisory capacity. Put it that way. That makes it very simple.

When I came back to the University of Santa Clara is California, one of the schools that did without my valuable services as a boy, and now proud of me, I didn't have any professors to argue with so I had to argue with my textbooks. I had geology, ethnology, paleontology, and all that. Finally the President of the University said, "Why don't you write your own textbook?" That is what started me going to Alaska.

I got two young fellows, built like I am, like a battleship. For that kind of work there are four qualifications you need:

A strong back, a strong stomach, a dumb head and a good guardian angel. (Laughter.)

We went to Alaska and for five years studied glaciers and for five more years we studied Afognak. Then we picked on the Eskimos for five years, and I was already for retirement from Santa Clara University, when the big emergency broke and I naturally wanted to do everything that an American citizen can do who can not only sing

"My country 'tis of thee,
Land where my fathers died,"

but "Land where my fathers and grandfathers died," and so I put at the disposition of the armed forces over one million feet of standard size film and over one hundred thousand still pictures of the terrain. Likewise, I turned over all the material or reports that were the only ones in existence on the Bering Sea weather, and all other tricky areas, trying to do my part.

Last September, when I came back from my sixteenth consecutive year of work, Vice-Admiral Freeman, lately retired head of the Thirteenth Naval District, and a submarine master in the first world war, approached me in a very delicate way, as the Navy always does, and said, "Father, the boys go up to Alaska not afraid of the Japs but afraid of the country; I would like to have you go up to the stations and just teach them not to be afraid of the country."

Possibly he figured in the back of his head that if the boys could see that a fat, middle aged priest can lick the country, it would be nothing for them. I went up there, and I have just come back, and I will tell you a few of my observations.

It's a Big World

There is no use fooling ourselves about the fact that we are in a terrible war. And that this war is global, is likewise very correct. It is also correct that most of our history and geography lessons are very one-sided and very wrong. Because most of our ancestors came from Europe, we picture Europe as a great big place. We had to study so much history and geography that we thought, oh, my, it must be awful big. Let's put Europe right. You could put a big stick of dynamite under all of Europe, blow the whole works up and let all the pieces fall in the Pacific Ocean and they wouldn't take up as much area as the islands in the Pacific Ocean.

The Leningrad-Stalingrad line, where the Russian people are doing a magnificent job against their invaders, is considered about one of the longest battle lines in history. Probably the fate of the European conflict may be decided there in the next two months. That whole battle line you could put inside of a Pacific island and have a lot of island left over. That is how big Australia is.

Before the time General Montgomery started his drive in North Africa and our wonderful second front started there, all they were doing was running up and down practicing for the next Olympic games in a space you could put in at least four Pacific islands.

Just because Columbus had a hard time crossing the Atlantic Ocean and our books heroize him and his men, we think the Atlantic is a pretty big puddle. You could putthe whole Atlantic Ocean in the Pacific and have a great part of the Pacific left over. So much for that.

Under-Estimating the Japs

Also, we have been very, let us say, shortsighted in our underestimation of Japanese power. After all, there is no use fooling ourselves there. Going back fifty years we remember that the papers in California were speaking about the yellow peril, and they were laughed down by the rest of the United States. For the past twenty years the Japs have been increasing at the rate of one million per year, while birth control was killing France, ruining England and not helping us. In the long run it is the man with the bayonet that occupies the land.

Right after Pearl Harbor, when it was thought these Japs are nothing but a bunch of window cleaners and dish washers, and only eighty million people, we thought we could clean them up any time we wanted to. When we speak of the people of England, we think of the British Empire. When we talk about the population of Japan, we must likewise mean their empire. I am not including their new conquests of over a half a billion people, but merely those areas where they can draw from, and I say they have at least 180 million people, or 40 million more than the United States.

We have not yet, in the Pacific, won anything comparable to Singapore, Hong Kong or Manila. Every time we win a contest it is a "Grand Victory." In the Solomons we were protecting our jugular vein. We are doing the best we can in the Pacific, but we are focusing our attention on the Atlantic practically to the neglect of the Pacific Consequently, I would not be surprised at any time to see the conflict in Europe stop suddenly. I would be surprised to see it stop in many years in the Pacific. I hope I am wrong here, but remember one thing, as long as we are Americans, we have the right to be wrong.

Possibility of Invasion

Before the conflict started in the Pacific I went very definitely out on a limb to say that Alaska can not practically or successfully be invaded. No ifs or ands or buts. I leave that to people who need them. The occupation of a few Aleutian Islands does not constitute an invasion. Even the President said it was a token invasion.

The way I look at it, after spending over ten years in the Aleutians, the Japs occupied Kiska more to keep us from using it against them than to use it against us. If the Japs really wanted Alaska all they would have had to have done, right after Pearl Harbor, was to come over in force and take the little town of Ketchikan, population 5,000, and the nearby little Canadian town of Prince Rupert, of a few less, and Alaska would have been an island.

Now, though, in world record time, the Army engineers did the grandest job in their history when they put in the Alcan road, and the Japs now can't take it. But they never did want to take it, because it is so awfully big. If you put the map of Alaska over a map of the United States, of equal scale, it would touch both oceans, Canada and Mexico.

Alaska—a New Frontier

The chief difficulty in inhabiting Alaska has never been climate. It gets colder in Chicago than it does in many parts of Alaska. It gets colder in our northern states than in most parts of Alaska. Alaska could support ten to fifteen million people on our American standard of dairying and farming. One good thing will come out of the war. If God couldn't bring good out of evil, He wouldn't be God. The accentuation of Alaska will show a lot of people that it is a new frontier.

My main reason for saying Alaska can not be practically or successfully invaded is because an invading army would have to bring absolutely everything along with it and keep a continuous supply line moving supplies along with it. They would have a half a million square miles of territory to get into without any roads to go along. If they got into the middle of Alaska they would still have a long way to go and they would find themselves without any gasoline to get back. Let them come in. Whoever is in Alaska first has it, and we are definitely there, and they are not.

Last June the Japs attacked Dutch Harbor. In one way it was a very good thing, because it accentuated the idea that those boys up there didn't have all the guns they should have had, nor everything else they should have had. Now they have them, but in that attack the Japs tried to think us out of the Midway battle. They didn't succeed. They attacked Midway the same day.

Previous to the attack on Kiska, there must have been some kind of an understanding between Tojo and Hitler. I feel the Nazis are absolutely fighting their war, and the Japs are absolutely fighting theirs. Whether we mixed up in somebody else's business in Europe remains to be seen. History will tell us that, but this war in the Pacific has been inevitable for a number of years.

The Aleutian Islands

Kiska is the best harbor in the Aleutian Islands. Dutch Harbor was always a convenient half way point between Seattle and Nome. Kiska was way out, and nobody cared to go out there. Those Aleutian Islands are 1200 miles long.

A little over a month ago I flew over that territory in a big paratroop transport plane and eventually got to Kodiak where I was told there were 1500 Navy men waiting to hear me. On a transport plane flying over the mountains you think the wings stretch out at least five miles. Every time you go around a peak you wonder whether it will hit or not. It is quite a lot of fun.

I went before those 1500 men and I said: "I might as well tell you why I am here. I don't know whether I am standing up or sitting down or lying down right now, but I will tell you what I have in mind. Most of you are waiting for furloughs and quite a few of you will be getting them in a couple of weeks."

Well, that tore the roof off. I said, "However, as soot as you get back to the United States, remember this. You are supposed to be an authority on Alaska. Everybody will ask you about the Eskimos and the polar bears and the igloo and everything we have heard of, thinking Alaska is about as big as Rhode Island. All you know about it is that you had a lousy trip up in a boat"—and I am telling you verbatim what I told those boys—"You are in the lousiest part of Alaska where the weather is bad 90 per cent of the time and the other ten per cent is not good. So we will spend the next month looking at the pictures of the Eskimos and the polar bears so that when you do go back you can lie like hell and nobody will know the difference." (Laughter.) That is the truth. One part of Alaska is not another part. The Aleutian Islands have been referred to as stepping stones, but they are not stepping stones. I have stepped on them and the guys that wrote that didn't. They are slipping stones, and you slip all over when you get on them. The Aleutian Islands are practically uninhabited and uninhabitable. Why stick out in that part of the world when you have the rest of Alaska that really is good? It is foggy and misty and rainy practically all of the time there. The only difference between the storms up there is that they are about ten days long in winter and three or four or five days long in summer. They are practically going all the time.

When the Japs wanted Kiska they thought they might want to intercept the lend-lease we are sending to Russia that way. It is no secret at all, because tens of thousands of people in Seattle see it every day, and what tens of thousands of Americans know all Americans have a right to know. But there are about five great, big Russian freighters going out of Seattle every day loaded to the gunnels with our best hams, bacons and lard, because one of them got wrecked before Christmas, and I saw that. If the Japs ever wanted to pull anything against Russia, Kiska would be exactly half way, and the vessels would have to go right through Kiska. Also, it is a very good submarine base. The Aleutians are very good as Submarine bases.

Weather Conditions in Aleutians

I have always maintained, both before this war startedand after, and I still maintain, that the Aleutian Islandscan not be flown successfully in long range bomber flights.

I am not at liberty to tell you how many of our boys have been killed up there in accidents. Before they even get out of sight of the place they leave, the weather bogs down, and if they fly over the storm they have no place to go. If they fly under the storm there is no place to land. Every time our boys bomb Kiska they have to fly a greater distance from Dutch Harbor than the RAF does when they leave London to bomb the cities in Italy. The RAF gets the headlines and our boys don't. At the same time, as is known, we are pushing out into the Aleutian Islands. We have the Andreanof Islands and, instead of a 1700 mile round-trip we can make it in less than 500 miles, round-trip, I would say that ninety per cent of the success of any attack in the Aleutians depends on the weather, and by getting closer, we can get close enough to wait for the weather and then dash out and back.

Practically the only way to do it is, when and if our Soviet allies allow us, to use the Soviet bases at the end of Kamchatka, near Vladivostok, because that is good weather. We have all the bad weather on our side.

The Aleutian area, though, is excellent, as I say, for submarines. The way things are now, a Jap cruiser will stop a Russian vessel and ask, "What have you got?"

The Russians will answer "Lend-lease material."

"American guns?"


"Let's see."


And that is the end of it. The Japs go and the Russians go. The Siberians and the Japs don't want to fight each other. That is the way the status is.

We can all thoroughly understand and appreciate that the Russian people are doing a grand job defending their homes in Europe. We can also understand, but not appreciate, that we have declared war on all their enemies, but they have not declared war on all of ours. There is a neutrality and an understanding there, but when that neutrality between Japan and Soviet Russia kills our boys—they might be your sons or your husbands or your menfolk—if you want that to happen, O.K. Here is exactly what I am driving at.

"Friendly" Enemies

Last January I noted the fishing rights in the Bering Sea had all lapsed. In April of last year, which was long after Pearl Harbor, the Russians renewed to the Japs the rights to the Kamchatka Fisheries. That more or less passed up everybody in the United States, but to me that meant they gave the Japs the key to the Aleutian Islands because they could attack any time they wanted to. The storms come from the China Coast and when they go up as far as Kamchatka they hit the permanent Siberian low and turn and go directly eastward through the Aleutians.

Having the weather installations, and so forth, in Kamchatka, and since the storms go directly toward Dutch Harbor, they know what the weather will be and we don't know that.

The Dutch Harbor Episode

On June 3 the Japs had sneaked an aircraft carrier across the Bering Sea with 75 planes on it. It anchored there in the fog and mist and wind and rain, outside Dutch Harbor and got in the weather reports from their own Kamchatka stations and the reports said this blue spot was coming right across the Bering Sea. They knew and we didn't know that it would open up like a curtain on June 3 at 5:45 a. m., and they could attack. Eighteen bombers dropped bombs, and those lousy Japs have a bomb that is pretty good. It has at the end what is called a broom handle, where the detonator is. That is a big, long appendage. When it hits it doesn't dig a crater and blow up. It blows out. Most of our casualties were from the waist up. It went over those that threw themselves on the ground. Anyway, one direct hit in the middle of our airdrome demolished the few planes inside. There was another direct hit on an anti-aircraft battery, and they bombed the docks, warehouses and installations.

After about an hour they went away, and the rain and the wind and the mist came down all that day and all the next day. And the Japs knew, and we didn't know, thanks to the Soviet cooperation in Kamchatka, that another blue spot was coming across the Bering Sea that would open up at five o'clock in the afternoon of June 4th. This time 28 to 35 planes flew over Dutch Harbor and they bombed everything else worth bombing. None of our planes got into action from Dutch Harbor. First, we didn't have any except a couple of Catalina flying boats, but, to show you how smart our American boys are, during that night they knew the Japs had taken photographs and knew just where all of our antiaircraft guns would be, so the whole works were moved, and the next day the Japs bombed every place they had been. Our boys are always on their feet when it comes to thinking.

Dutch Harbor was easy to attack and hard to defend. Kiska is hard to attack and easy to defend. The second time the Japs came over Dutch Harbor they stayed too long, and they even radioed Tokio and admitted the loss of 32 planes that didn't get back, and when you are in the Bering Sea, whether you have a rubber raft or not, you have very little chance of being another Eddie Rickenbacker. You pile up in no time. It is always bad and choppy.

Since then our boys just wished the Japs would come again. The Japs had a chance to occupy Kiska. They didn't want to take Dutch Harbor because they knew we could kick them out again. They took Kiska and built up all their installations and tried to make them permanently, but we wouldn't let them.

Last October I made the statement at the Civic Opera House here, that 1 would spend Christmas in Kiska. I like to say what I think and mean at the time and repeat it afterwards if it is possible. It is no sin to admit you are wrong.

The Navy flyers had sent me a message on the 6th of October that was picked up by old Father Breen at St. Ignatius. The message was: "Message for Father Hubbard. If the good Padre is listening in, wherever he may happen to be in the United States, tell him we are preparing a royal welcome for him in Kiska for Christmas."

I had enough confidence in those boys to feel they were going to do it, and they had enough loyalty to me to know I would be there. I was there, but I wasn't at Kiska, because

I didn't want Japanese rice and sea gull for my Christmas dinner. But, I had some wonderful turkey and steaks and everything else in our part of the Aleutians.

A Good "Rat Trap"

As the war progresses many circumstances change original ideas.

With the lack of accentuation on the north Pacific, Kiska would be of no practical use to us at all right now. It would be better to let the Japs build it all up and get all the ground work in, the WPA work finished, and then we can take it over and have it done.

Maybe the higher strategy was to let them stay there long enough to take out their first citizenship papers. Then they would go on relief and we wouldn't have to fight them. (Laughter.)

The Aleutian Islands that are farthest away are called the Near Islands, because they are so far from us and near the other side. Then you have the Rat Islands and the Andreanof group. It has really been a rat trap out there. Every time the Japs build anything up we bomb it to pieces. Every time they send reinforcements and transports in there we sink them.

One sailor said, "Don't squawk about the Japs having Kiska. It is easier to go there and sink them than it is to go all the way to Japan."

We have sunk at least fifteen transports and destroyers in Kiska harbor and we have only lost in combat two vessels in Alaska since the war began. One was an empty freighter and another an empty tanker. It has cost the Japs a lot. Before Christmas the Japs were just about starved when terrific storms came up. They have one advantage there. They only have to fight us. We have to fight them and the storms. They bring the weather with them. If we had the Philippines we could go behind a typhoon into Japan and they couldn't come through it.

With a terrific storm moving to the east, the Japs get behind it and sneak their supplies into Kiska and get them there before we can fly through the 100 miles of terrific gales and stop them. The 11 to 13 year meteorological cycle I studied in the Aleutian Islands gives you an average of what can happen.

Morale Builders

Presumably I was sent out this last trip to build up morale among the boys. They built mine up. For the past twenty years or so a whole lot of writers and professors that should have known better, have been leveling all kinds of libelagainst the youth of our nation. They said our youth was flaming youth, good-for-nothing youth. You find right now that those boys have risen to the noblest and highest ideals of young American manhood you could expect to find anywhere. (Applause.) They are utterly loyal and unselfish, and if we behind the lines can be half as loyal and half as unselfish as they are we will get out of this mess. (Applause.)

I found, too, that the closer you get to the battle zone the finer the morale. Those boys want to get at it and get in it right away.

To the parents of sons in the Aleutians, 1 have this to say, in general: Those boys are better fed and better clothed than most of them ever were at home. They have fine recreation facilities. I didn't see a sour puss in the whole outfit up there. We at home need our morale built up, and not the boys down there.

The real morale builders are the boys that wear the white aprons. They have the best cooks in the world. I have asked the boys up there, "What do you want?"

They answer, "We want mail and movies." Those are the only two things they want. They also want their home town papers sent up there, even if they are old.

Every sentry that challenged me last summer and winter spoke with a southern accent. They are boys from Georgia, Alabama, Texas and Arkansas. A lot of Georgia boys are so enthusiastic over the soil in the southeastern part of Alaska, I have seen them pick up the black dirt and say, "This is better than what we have at home. I will bring Susie up here when the war is over."

I am not officially connected with anything except the University of Santa Clara, but I can say our boys up there are doing a grand job and our future is perfectly safe in their hands.

The boys up there don't trust the neighbors on the other side of the Bering Sea any more than we do, and that is constantly brought out when you get a group of Soviet officers and our officers visiting up there. Over their cocktails I have heard the American officers say, "Here's to victory over Hitler," and down the hatch. The Russian officers would do likewise.

Then the American officers would say: "Here is to an American victory over the Japanese."

They would say, "No, no, we won't drink that, we are neutral."

That is that. Let us win the war. As long as they want to finish up in the Atlantic first, all right, but let's hope we can do something practical in the Pacific (Applause.)