Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

Thousand Mile War

I’ve been sick all week, with a really light cold. It’s so mild, I have almost no symptoms and it hasn’t been the knock-you-down sort of virus like usual. But even the slightest cold seems to mentally knock me out of orbit and make me feel like the living dead. I haven’t been able to concentrate on anything lately, and that blows away any chance of writing or doing anything creative, hence the lack of updates.

I got a Flickr account, or rather paid them the $25 to become a Pro user. My account is at http://www.flickr.com/photos/jkonrath/. I am still not sure why I did this. There are a million little bugs that I need to work out to get it integrated into my life, and I’m still not sure I want to ditch the photos hosted on my site. I hate the gallery script I have, but I’m not that fond of how it does things, either. I also know the second I get all of my crap up there, the company will go stupid or raise their rates to an unholy amount. For now, I’m just playing, and it might be a better solution, but who knows. And if you have flickr (or something else), please let me know and maybe I can bounce some of my problems off of you and see if there are obvious solutions I missed.

I just finished reading The Thousand-Mile War by Brian Garfield, and it’s one of the best World War II books I’ve read in a while. It’s about the war fought in Alaska’s Aleutian islands (the westmost tiny pieces of lava on Alaska’s “tail”.) Not many people know the Japanese captured a few of these islands, actually bringing the war home to American soil. The resulting battles were a comedy of tragedies that remind me of a real-life Catch-22 and made this an incredible read.

First of all, the Aleutians are a shithole. There’s this constant low-pressure front that creates basically a permanent hurricane of fog and high winds right over the islands. Planes can’t see anything; weird mineral deposits and iron ore threw off compasses; and radar was so primitive, the 11th Air Force went out the bomb the shit out of Japanese submarines once and after unloading their HE on target, found out they actually cratered a grouping of uncharted islands instead of Jap pigboats. There were no maps of Seward’s Folly, especially the far extremes. The Army was using a Rand-McNally map that you’d find in front of a third-grade classroom to plan their invasions. Radar was primitive and largely unavailable. When planes did have this new feature, they would often do stuff like report a flock of geese as a Japanese naval division. Aside from the wind, there was the fact that this was a place with super-low temperatures, where you had to keep two pairs of boots, one on your feet and one on the stove that you switched out every fifteen minutes. Men were living in tents that knocked over daily in 90 MPH winds, with mud floors. Entire islands were made of mud that sucked in trucks, boots, and airplanes. Airstrips couldn’t be made of concrete, since it would freeze and crack instead of cure, and you couldn’t dig down enough. They used premade steel mesh strips, which worked, but weren’t much fun when wet, which was constantly.

Aside from the environmental problems, there were tactical and governmental issues. Uncle Sam couldn’t decide whether or not there should be any troop strength in the area, since it was tactically useless property. The first round of Navy ships were old mothballed WWI dinosaurs that were brought out of retirement, which led to some extremely lopsided engagements between the US and Japan’s top-notch fleet. Not that many men were sent to Alaska. When they were, they usually got told they were going to the Pacific, and then got piled in windowless trains to Seattle, where they were shipped out and then told their destination. News was heavily censored back then, and very little was said about the Alaskan theater. Troops weren’t rotated out regularly, and supplies were a major issue, both because of the lack of government buy-in, but because of the difficulty in sending stuff up north. This was before the Alcan highway was built, and you couldn’t just pile up a deuce with shipping crates and head north. The territory of Alaska as a whole wasn’t self-sufficient and needed to ship in stuff to live. Result: lots of troops eating C-rations and canned Spam three meals a day, freezing their asses off in tents that collapsed every day, counting off days until never, when they could go home.

Garfield’s book reads like a modern-day Clancy novel, but better. He was a fiction and screenplay writer before he turned to history, actually writing the infamous Death Wish book that became Dirty Harry’s movie vehicle. The whole book flows well, and he has a great talent for making you feel like you’re following the battle from a recon plane, rather than just reading a regurgitation of facts and dates. He also pulls together a lot of the weird coincidences and factoids that make the story funny, either in a ha-ha or dark comedy way. It’s good stuff.

Not much else. I just started reading Kerouac’s new (well, newly compiled and released) book of journal entries. It’s not bad. I actually skipped the stuff from when he was writing his first book and jumped into the writing of On the Road.

I was hoping for a good weekend of great weather after the 70-something weather the other day, but it looks like it’s dipping into shitty and raining all weekend. Maybe it’s a good time to make a drive to the mall…