Most long time Alaskans know about, even if it seems like the rest of the world never heard of them, the WWII battles fought between U.S. and Japanese forces in the Aleutian Islands. And some might even know about the Japanese submarine I-26 that patrolled from British Columbia to the California coast, sinking at least two ships and shelling a lighthouse and radio-direction-finding installation at Estevan Point, B.C.
But even those who pride themselves the most on knowing their WWII history in the Pacific Northwest are often surprised to find that there was enemy action and a small battle fought in southern SE Alaska off the west coast of Prince of Wales Island in July of 1942.
At this time an airfield had been established on Annette Island, 25 miles south of Ketchikan, to defend Canadian and U.S. interests along the coast. The Royal Canadian Air Force's No. 115 (Fighter) Squadron was established on the island on May 5, 1942 becoming "the first Canadian force ever based in U.S. territory to directly assist in American defense" according to M.V. Bezeau in the book "Alaska at War."
Alaskans and everyone else living along the Northwest Coast were jumpy at the thought of Japanese subs prowling about seeking a target, particularly after the I-26 sank the 386-ton freighter Coast Trader as it left the Strait of Juan de Fuca on June 7, 1942. The U.S. Government, fearing a panic, put out the word that the ship was sunk by "an internal explosion."
This official double-talk didn't calm everyone's fears. In the month following the sinking there were numerous reports of submarine sightings in southern SE Alaska, which, when investigated, turned out to be logs or whales.
Then, on July 6, a Coast Guard vessel patrolling near a small inlet on Noyes Island on the West Coast of Prince of Wales Island, heard from a group of salmon trollers in the area that they'd seen a sub's periscope in open waters half a mile off Cape Addington.
The Coast Guard passed on the information to the RCAF 115 Squadron on Annette Island. At the same time, two patrol ships armed with depth charges, the CG Cutter McLane and the Navy-requisitioned halibut schooner Foremost were dispatched. The next morning RCAF Bolingbroke bombers conducted searches of the area, but found nothing.
Both the U.S. and Canadian forces took the sighting seriously, however, and despite bad weather and limited visibility the RCAF sent out another Bolingbroke later in the day. Once over the search area, the crew reported a line of churning water and what they described as white puffs of smoke.
They dived on the target and at 500 feet they were able to see, running just beneath the surface, the dark, classic cigar shape of a submarine. The bomber released a 250-pound anti-sub bomb.
The explosion from the hit sent a 60-foot plume of water into the air. As the bomber circled above, the crew noted that while no debris surfaced an oil slick two to four hundred feet in diamter spread over the area. After circling for two hours searching for debris or survivors, the plane was forced to return to Annette Island.
Meanwhile, the two patrol vessels the McLane and the Foremost arrived on the scene to continue the search. Although there are deep waters off Cape Addington, the chart showed a shallow area where it was thought just possible that a damaged sub could come to rest and even effect repairs if the hit hadn't been too catastrophic. In the absence of any wreckage, the ships were ordered to maintain their position in the area and wait for the sub to possibly re-emerge.
Day two into the search, the McLane picked up underwater engine noises and dropped a depth charge over the position, but it was a dud and failed to explode. The rest of the day was devoted to a typical cat-and-mouse pursuit as the McLane continued to pick up the noises of a zig-zagging sub and dropped more depth charges, not duds this time.
The sub, tiring of being harassed, launched a torpedo which the crew of the McLane saw clearly as it cleaved the water toward them. As author Pat Roppel reports: "The commanding officer [of the cutter] was standing on the bow and saw the torpedo coming, recognizing the yellow head and green body and hearing it hiss. It left a feather of 125 feet as it came toward the cutter. The vessel moved astern, and the excited crewmembers watched the warhead speed by within two feet of the cutter's bow."
Immediately, the cutter and the Foremost steamed toward where the torpedo had been launched from.
The Foremost, unable to get far enough away from the range of the depth charges it dropped, was already damaged by its own blasts when, in deep water, it hit what seemed like a sandbar. As it turned out, the old schooner had struck the submarine so hard that it knocked her false keel eight inches off center. The wounded ship hurried away, dropping a smoke bomb to mark the spot. The McLane moved in and dropped two more depth charges, which produced an oil slick and shortly after that, the appearance of the sub's periscope.
The cutter, knowing its light armor was no match for the sub's deck guns if it should be allowed to surface and use them, closed in on the sub once more and dropped yet more depth charges. This time not only did more oil reach the surface, but so did chunks of what appeared to be the sub's insulation.
The ships, accompanied by flyovers by the Navy, scouted the area but found no further trace of the submarine. On October 30, 1943 the U.S. Navy Department officially announced that an enemy submarine had been sunk off Cape Addington in a combined action between the RCAF Bolingbroke bomber crew, the Coast Guard crew on the McLane, and the Navy crew aboard the YP-251 Foremost.
It's not known for certain which submarine was sunk*, or why it was in the area, though a post-war report prepared by the US and British Navies noted that morale had become low in the Imperial Japanese Navy when so few important U.S. coastal targets were taken out by subs: "It was frankly impossible to believe that submarines could spend weeks on the US west coast 'without contacts'."
It's possible the sub was hoping to achieve something worth reporting. Instead, very far from home and loved ones, in a cramped, claustrophobic, and smelly vessel of war, it's believed that the crew pointlessly met their deaths on the bottom of the ocean just off Prince of Wales Island, Alaska.
*The submarine was officially cited, after the war, as the RO-32. However, the RO-32 appeared to be still in action throughout the rest of the war. Additionally, Japanese official records do not confirm that they lost any submarine in that area. It's entirely possible that the RO-32 was damaged and ejected oil and the insulation to fool its pursuers into thinking it had been destroyed and then, after the pursuit was called off, limped away to safety.
An early memory that I treasure and often revisit is of when I was about eight years old and I was staying with my grandparents at their cabin in Meyers Chuck on a dark fall or winter day. It was overcast, windy, and raw outside. The water was a dark, angry grey, slapping at the boats moored at the dock across the harbor and rocking them, making the bells on the tops of the trolling poles ring out. Inside the house the wood stove was crackling and a pot of fragrant coffee perked on top of it. My grandparents were quietly reading books and exchanging comments while I was curled up on the couch coloring.
The waxy smell of the crayons, the rough texture of the paper in the coloring book about fairytales, the picture of a young man attempting to strike a flint stone and my grandmother's explanation of what a flint stone was and why it had been so important--she knew that as a bush kid I'd appreciate the need for fire in heating, cooking, and lighting--all come back to me in a flood of warmth accompanied by a deep sense of security.
It's not a lone memory. My mom always loved coloring and she brought us kids up to color alongside her, particularly during those cold, dark days when we couldn't play outside. I have many memories of all of us grouped around the table or on the floor with the stove emanating heat and an audiotape playing The Lost World or Wind in the Willows as we shared stubby, broken crayons, squabbling over whose turn it was to use the peach or sky blue.
We were in perpetual awe at my mom's intricate coloring and asked her how we could color like she did. Her reply was always the same, "It's just practice. The more you do the better you get at it."
We all tried, but I don't think any of us ever really believed we'd be as good as she was. And, to be honest, we never did attain to her level. Her ability to put light and shadow into a bland, flat drawing, to bring people and images vibrantly to life, is, in my opinion, without parallel. Many was the time I'd give up coloring for the greater pleasure of watching a scene come to life under her skillful fingers.
All of the children who have stayed with us get hooked on the joys of coloring. Twelve-year-old A. C. Darden, who visits us regularly and spends summers with us (along with her brother), asked if we'd get her a coloring book based on the Archie comics, her favorite reading material. We were able to do so and when she visits us in these cold days she takes pleasure in spending quality time with Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead, and Reggie in summery Riverdale.
"What's your favorite part of coloring?" I asked her.
"The colors," she said firmly.
My mom said she'd have to agree. "It's all about the colors. I can remember the very first picture I colored," she added. "I was about three, I think. It was of a chicken and an egg. I remember trying really hard to get the colors just right and I must have colored it really well--I think I was shading even then--because the adults all raved about it."
With that kind of validation, not common from adults to children when she was growing up, she became addicted to coloring, and not just for the pleasure of it.
Long before the current adult coloring book fad, before therapists found out the soothing qualities of coloring and recommended it to their patients, my mom always turned to her coloring books whenever she was going through a stressful time (being often entirely alone in the wilderness with five kids, for example), and especially when she's coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Dr. Nicki Martinez, Psy.D., LCPC, writing for The Huffington Post, says that "There are many times when I suggest adult coloring books to patients and they look at me like perhaps we should be switching seats. However, time and again, they come back to me and tell me how beneficial they find them to be. Many psychologists and therapists 'prescribe' these to patients for various reasons, and many occupational therapists presribe them as well!"
As additional good news--my mom is always worrying that she's on the verge of complete cognitive disintegration--Dr. Martinez also maintains that "coloring has intellectual benefits as well. It utilizes areas of the brain that enahance focus and concentration. It also helps with problem solving and organizational skills. This may sound strange, and like perhaps the usefulness is being stretched, but it is all true. Our frontal lobes are responsible for these higher level activities and functions of the brain, and coloring detailed pictures activates all those properties."
Plus, she adds: "Coloring utilizes both hemispheres of the brain, right and left. When we are thinking about balance,color choices, applying colored pencil to paper, we are working on problem solving and fine motor skills."
My sister, Megan. A Duncanson, a world-renowned artist, created her own coloring book titled "In the Garden." (Available at Amazon and elsewhere.) In the front matter she wrote a dedication to my mom, saying, "She raised my four siblings and me to appreciate the arts and we would spend endless hours coloring in stacks upon stacks of coloring books as children. It was one of the most memorable and enjoyable parts of my childhood growing up in the remote bush of Alaska."
I feel the same way, and, in fact, I'm getting the urge to pick up a coloring book and start coloring to ward off the cold and short days of winter.
Note: A version of this story appeared previously in Capital City Weekly.
I once had a kid's book rejected by a New York editor who insisted that my description of teenagers running around in T-shirts in Alaska in the middle of summer was unrealistic. Everyone knew it was far too cold in Alaska to EVER wear T-shirts. I explained that I'd lived in Alaska for most of my life and I knew from first hand experience that T-shirts were common wear at all times of the year here. She refused to believe it.
It's too bad I couldn't have sent her these pictures of fifteen-year-old Julian, who's been staying with us for the last week, wearing shorts in below freezing weather. Our first walk of his visit took place during a storm with 70 mph winds with the temperature at around 29 degrees F. The windchill was brutal.
At his blank refusal to put some pants on, I took him over to the beach that has southern exposure. It was a clear day and with the trees blocking the wind and the sun shining on us we were ready to break out the tanning lotion.
Looking at the frothing strait, Julian said, "I knew the waves were big, but I didn't realize they were THAT big." We watched as a large ship of some sort on the other side of the strait was hammered by giant seas. It was cloaked in spray, explosions of white water continually bursting at its bow.
Both of us were glad we weren't on board and said as much.
"Do you see that line of white going all the way down the strait that looks like haze or smoke?" I asked him. "The wind is blowing so hard that it's whipping the tops of the waves into the air and that's a curtain of spray."
Julian looked at it silently and for a moment I didn't think he heard me. Then he said, "Wow! We live in an amazing place."
The beach we were on was speckled white with quartz, which I showed him, and told him quartz could sometimes be an indication of gold. Instantly, Julian was infected with gold fever. He hunted down large rocks with veins of quartz in them, lifted them over his head and crashed them down onto bigger rocks hoping to break one open on a nugget of gold. It didn't work out the way he fantasized, but it was good exercise.
On our next walk, with him still insisting on shorts despite no warming of the temperature, I led him to a comparatively protected beach. "What's that?" he exclaimed, pointing at an alien looking artifact.
"The wall of a boat that wrecked," I said.
He investigated it more closely and I added, "You're standing where the pilot house door used to be. Look at that, you can see wiring still on the wall."
He shook his head and continued to circle around it. He'd watched or read something about the Titanic recently and he was impressed to find himself face to face with the remnant of another wreck.
We headed on down the beach toward a towering cliff with trees on top of it. "Look," I said, "a tree blew down." It was lying on the beach, its foliage still fresh and green.
Julian studied it. "Did it break?"
"No, it was uprooted." I showed him where its roots had been torn away from its cliff top perch.
During our most recent walk, Julian still in his shorts, we were graced with a gorgeous day. The strait was a deep rich blue, practically Mediterranean--looking, that is. Neither of us was tempted to swim in it. We hiked around some rocks and came across a field of gravel that the tide was swiftly claiming. It was apparently the favorite haunt of land otters--I found two giant sea urchin shells that the otters had left behind after having made a meal of the urchins inside them.
Julian searched diligently, and spotted a couple shells the same size as mine under the water. He waded out to retrieve them, nearly going over his boots. He carried them back triumphantly, knowing to be very careful with them. They crumble easily.
"I wonder how they eat the sea urchins without breaking the shells?" he marveled. "They're so fragile."
We lined them up on a log and I took a picture of them. Who knows what treasures we'll discover in our next walk?