Category Archives: Alaska History

100 Years Ago – a War that Never Ended

Who’s ready for a long rambling post?  In 12 minutes Alaska time (as I start typing this),  we mark the official ending of The Great War – the War to End All Wars.  It didn’t end anything.  Didn’t solve anything and didn’t prove anything.  As part of my hangar tours,  I say that there really wasn’t two separate world wars.  Just one conflict between mostly the same belligerents with a 13 or so year armistice in the middle.  (WWII began in 1931 with Japan’s invasion of Manchuria,  not in Euro-centric 1939…)

On 11/11/1918,  most soldiers on both sides had no idea what was happening.  3,000 servicemen died on the morning of November 11th,  as the Americans crossed the Meuse River,  leaving the bodies of Marines behind as they pushed through the fire of the German Maxim guns.  The Americans were seizing the high ground,  pushing the Germans back toward their homeland.  Then everything went silent.  Orders came forward from General Lejeune that our men were to retreat to the position they held at 11 o’clock.  Retreat to a position with our backs against the river with no escape,  should this prove to be just another rumor.  Back – past the piles of bodies,  who until moments ago had been their fellow marines,  friends,  brothers.  All killed AFTER the armistice.

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A 1917 Bond Drive poster from our collection

Japan and England were allies in WWI.  England asked them to strike Germany’s colonial outposts in the far east.  Japan wondered why they were doing this for England and not for themselves…  They spent the next 13 years reorganizing their society and building an army and navy capable of taking over half the world.  Italy too changed sides,  joining Germany and Japan,  after being on the side of France,  England,  Russia and the United States in the Great War.  An end to active fighting on 11/11 didn’t end the anger,  hatred,  jealousy,  coveting and desire for revenge.  Another 100 years passing hasn’t changed that either.

As part of our WWII hangar tour,  I show two infantry rifles from our collection.  One is a Japanese Koishilawa rifle made around 1927 or 1928.  The Japanese stopped making these in 1929.  The other rifle was actually my dad’s hunting rifle.  It is a Smith Corona 30.06.  I call it my “typewriter”,  because it was made by the Smith Corona typewriter company.  These two artifacts together really illustrate the difference in preparedness between Japan and the United States at the start of WWII.  Japan thought they were so well-prepared for their global conquest that they literally stopped making these infantry rifles in 1929!  The US was so ill-prepared,  we had to have typewriter companies like Smith Corona and IBM make WWI-era rifles for our soldiers to carry.

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Um…  we had a US Department of Labor CHILDREN’S BUREAU in 1918???

Our two Coastal Defense cannons on Cannon Beach are WWI guns.  They were supposed to be installed on a new battleship in 1919,  but after signing the Naval Agreement,  the size of everyone’s navies (except Germany and Japan apparently) was restricted.  The new ship was scrapped and the guns placed in storage.  In early 1942,  these guns were pulled out and shipped throughout Alaska.  WWI supplying the defense of Alaska in WWII.

If you go to the Aviation Museum in Anchorage,  look for two framed pieces of WWI aircraft skin on display.  They come from the aircraft of Charles H Russell,  a member of the Lafayette Escadrille in France during WWI.  The Lafayette Escadrille (originally called the American Escadrille,  but the Germans complained and so they changed the name…) consisted of a group of American volunteers flying for France prior to the United States’ direct involvement in WWI.  Basically an all American “French Foreign Legion” group of pilots.  A wonderful book that covers the Lafayette Escadrille (along with Manfred von Richthofen,  Pershing,  Patton) is To the Last Man,  by Jeff Shaara.  The Russells are a very prominent family in Yakutat,  since Charles H’s son moved here about 60-70years ago.

At the end of WWI,  we all held hands and signed treaties to reduce our military effectiveness voluntarily.  We didn’t change human nature.  We deliberately weakened ourselves,  making us vulnerable to aggressive psychos who’s goal was/is to subjugate and dominate the world.  Those people haven’t disappeared after 100 years.  They are still looking-hoping for a weakness to exploit.  Our only defense is a military so strong and deadly that the world fears a conflict with it.  And to keep our own aggressive psychos in check,  an armed populace to strong and deadly that our government fears a conflict with it.

And a hope that we never have to use either.  Thank you to all our veterans on this and EVERY day.

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This 1917 Navy recruiting poster with “Christy Girl” is our most valuable propaganda poster in the collection (so far)

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The weather lightened up today,  making it possible for Alaska Air Fuel to fly in and take on a load of diesel for Icy Bay.  They parked in front of the hangar while Delta Western pumped fuel into their big internal bladder.

A gorgeous classic Douglas DC-4,  N96358 was built in 1944 and delivered to the USAAF in WWII.  Couldn’t really glean too much about her history on my brief search,  other than she used to serve as a fire bomber/tanker in Utah.  A real beautiful plane!

And here is a DC-4 in Yakutat during the war…  Probably 1943 or 44.

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Back when I was a kid,  they would occasionally bring in a DC-4 to Dry Bay to fly fish out to market.  Usually a DC-3,  but on rare occasions a DC-4.  My memory seems to think it would have been mid to late 1970’s.  My DC-3 came to Yakutat in 1982 to fly fish out of Dry Bay.

The Ambulance

As we approach Independence Day this week,  maybe it is a good time to reflect on the miracle of being born in this country and the freedom espoused in the Declaration of Independence.  And of the debt owed to so many who have fought so that that freedom remains after more than 200 year.

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From our propaganda collection

 

Sitting out in front of the hangar in our parking lot is an Army ambulance.  Not WWII era,  but rather a 1967 Viet Nam-era vehicle.  This ambulance came to Yakutat as surplus and served as our first official EMS vehicle.  As a kid,  I remember it parked in the brush just about 100 yards from where it sits now.  It unfortunately rotted away in the weeds for a long time and is far too gone to be restored.  Although it is a neat decoration for the hangar,  she is in a real sorry shape.

Last year,  there was a huge armory auction down in California.  Among the various Shermans and artillery was a 1967 Army ambulance exactly like ours.  They had estimated its value to be between $5,000 and $10,000.  I fantasized about buying it and secretly one night swapping it out with our derelict version and then wait to see how long it would take anyone to notice.  Unfortunately,  the bidding got out of hand and it ended up selling for a whopping $65,000!  Oh well.

Today,  I stumbled upon a find…  A nice drivable 1967 Army ambulance.  Not restored,  but preserved in relatively good shape.  It is OUR ambulance!  The seller wants $14,750 for it.  No idea how to get it from Virginia to Seattle for the barge trip to Yakutat…  Would make for a fun road trip and there are “bunks” in the back you can sleep in!

https://classiccars.com/listings/view/1083719/1967-jeep-military-for-sale-in-lynchburg-virginia-24501

Unfortunately this isn’t to be…  We’re still trying to get out from under the fuel facility debt,  so this year doesn’t have any extra cash for artifacts,  no matter how cool they may be.  Oh well.  Maybe the 3rd time will be the charm.  Although if anyone out there needs a tax deductible donation for their taxes…

Here are a few more of our original propaganda posters…  Tried to give you a variety…

Alaska Warbird in Smithsonian

A friend of ours lives down in Florida,  who’s grandfather served in Alaska during WWII with the RCAF.  She has a great blog that honors her granddad as well as the other men who fought and served during the Aleutian campaign.  Her link has been on the right side of my blog for several years under the “WWII Web Sites” box titled “Florida Beaches to the Bering Sea“…

This morning,  Karen e-mailed to say she had helped to find the true identity of the P-40 hanging in the Smithsonian Air and Space museum…  It was her grandfather’s plane!

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The Smithsonian just posted a story about the plane and its history on their website:

https://airandspace.si.edu/stories/editorial/unknown-history-curtiss-p-40e-lopes-hope

All I can really add is that I hope they repaint it someday to her original colors,  to honor the men who actually flew her instead of someone who didn’t…

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Alaska Warbird Museum Posts

For those of you who would like to continue to follow what is happening with the hangar renovation and the Alaska Warbird Museum,  I’m separating that from the regular blog and it’ll have it’s own HomePage and blog.  Feel free to go to www.akwarbirds.org to stay in the loop with that.  You can easily subscribe to new blog posts and updates there.

In the meantime,  we are one week away from our 75th anniversary celebration and fly-in/air-show.  Commemorating the grand opening of the Yakutat Army Air Base.  They spent a year building it to be an advanced bomber base for a war we were not in and had their grand opening 3 months before Pearl Harbor…  What did we know and when did we know it…?

Tentatively scheduled to appear – Alaska Air National Guard,  a 1941 Navy Grumman Goose,  possibly 2 t-6’s giving rides and our Lt. Governor and weather depending,  we could see as many as 200+ aircraft flying into little ol’ Yakutat.  If that’s the case,  come see me completely melt down and collapse in a nervous breakdown!  If the weather is bad,  we could be having a quiet little family dinner in the hangar instead…

Events are scheduled to begin at noon Friday August 5th,  with hangar banquet dinner scheduled for 6pm.  Saturday morning starts early with Yakutat’s regular Fairweather Day celebration at Cannon Beach (home of our two 6″ Coastal Defense Guns).

Again,  new web site for the Alaska Warbird Museum is www.akwarbirds.org.

The 75th Anniversary fly-in/air show

75 years ago, war came to Alaska and Yakutat was at the leading edge of our defense of the territory.  The first Army Air Base completed in Alaska,  Yakutat for a time had the longest runway on the west coast and became the model for other early air bases throughout Alaska.

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P-38 Lightening with hangar in background – this plane crashed on Attu 3 months after the photo was taken

 

2016 holds many 75th anniversaries to major WWII events,  most notably for the country is December 7th,  when Imperial Japan attacked the Navy Base at Pearl Harbor.  In Alaska,  they knew what was coming and began a massive build-up to defend the territory from what was to come.  Oddly,  some of the self-made obstacles toward Alaska’s defense became a tremendous advantage.

In early ‘42, there was really nothing the US could do to slow the Japanese advance throughout the Pacific.  Our best effort turned out to be a strategic failure called the Doolittle Raid.  Lead by Jimmy Doolittle,  we launched a handful of twin-engine land bombers off the deck of the carrier Hornet.  These aircraft were being ferried to China for them to use,  however all but two ran out of fuel and crashed.  On their way by Tokyo,  they dropped a handful of bombs that did little damage.  In other words,  the mission was a complete failure – except for that it had done to the Japanese psyche.  They had told their people they were invincible – that no one could touch them.  Yet,  here comes a collection of land bombers.

The only information the Japanese could glean from the Doolittle Raid was that Jimmy Doolittle grew up in Nome. This little factoid had absolutely no bearing on the raid,  but it fed into Japan’s obsession with Alaska.  As the Battle of Midway approached,  Japan had twice the carriers available,  along with the more experienced piltos and technologically advanced aircraft.  They divided their forces and sent two of those carriers to the Aleutians,  giving us an even fight.  In other words,  because of their obsession with Alaska,  we had 3 carriers and one island to their four carriers,  found their fleet first and sank all four of their carriers at Midway,  allowing the US more time to rebuild our devastated fleet and train our men.

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SBD Dauntless dive bomber parked on the ramp between the control tower and hangar – SBD’s are credited with sinking all 4 Japanese carriers at Midway

 

Up here in Alaska, we were at war with Japan,  but a war had been raging for years (or a century) between the US Army and US Navy.  They didn’t share information,  they fought over funding and jurisdictional control,  etc.  Since the President was a Navy man,  the Navy usually won these battles.  General Buckner,  commander of the Army in Alaska was told not to set foot in the Aleutians because islands are ships and therefore the jurisdiction of the Navy.

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Yakutat Air Base circa 1947

 

Initially in 1940, Buckner was given authorization and money to build three projects in Alaska.  Yakutat,  Annette Island and the Cold-weather Research Station in Fairbanks.  The Yakutat Air Base was supposed to have three runways and we only have two.  General Buckner secretly embezzled money from his three projects,  put it into a private bank account,  set up a private for-profit corporation and set out to build two “canneries” in the Aleutians.  When these “canneries” were done,  we had two new air bases.  Air bases so “secret” that the Japanese spy network didn’t have a clue because even the US didn’t know we had them!

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Typical layout of runways on WWII airbases in the lower 48 – Yakutat’s 3rd runway would have aligned with our westerly winds

 

When the Japanese struck Unalaska and the Navy Base at Dutch Harbor, they had three times as many men to land as the US had to defend the entire territory.  Suddenly,  they were hit by a P-40 fighter response so much stronger than they expected that they decided to withdraw and land their people on Attu and Kiska – a thousand miles away.  Yakutat’s third runway on Umnak and Cold Bay saved Alaska from that eminent invasion.  Had these bases been financed in the open,  Japan would undoubtedly have been prepared and Alaska’s role in the war could have been far different.

 

Although the first bomber landed at the new air base on May 8th (that is our official “establishment date”),  the formal grand opening ceremony took place August 6th,  1941.  This year,  Fairweather Day falls on that date,  so we moved our official Grand Opening Anniversary celebration to Friday August 5th,  2016.  We are celebrating with a state-wide fly-in and air show,  complete with aircraft from the National Guard and possibly the Canadian Air Force.  There will be WWII aircraft from up in Anchorage that weather permitting will give rides for a fee.  The event will close with a 6pm hangar banquet dinner (for a $30 donation PP) and speeches from General Hummel and Lt. Governor Mallott.

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The KWAAN BT-13 Valiant where it crashed near the mouth of the Situk – notice the train tracks in the background

 

This will be a busy weekend, with the new Sandy Beach Park dedication Friday at noon,  our events begin an hour later at 1pm with a paper airplane contest (we’re going for distance across the hangar bay floor when launched from the 2nd floor balcony),  short-field landing contest at 2pm and flour drop (the pilot flies over the target and tries to drop his baggy of flour as close to the mark as possible out the window) at 4pm.  Aircraft static displays will be on the ramp for visitors to explore.  Yes,  we need volunteers to help with logistics,  airport security and set-up.  Contact me at the fly shop if you want to lend a hand.

OK, here is my disclaimer…  We are obviously still a long way from being the museum we hope to become.  We just couldn’t let this particular 75th anniversary pass by without marking it in some way.  My grand hope right now is just to have a few toilets that flush and the hangar bay relatively clean for the event.  If it rains,  we’ll probably have no one from outside Yakutat show up,  but a beautiful day could bring in dozens – if not hundreds of aircraft from around the state.  As our first event,  our learning curve has been steep,  but we’ll get better over the years as we have more and more air shows under our belt.  Ultimately,  this event is about honoring those who serve our country,  not just the Greatest Generation,  but all the vets and active servicemen and women who protect our freedom.  Freedom doesn’t come from the promises of politicians,  or the words on old dusty documents.  It comes from the people who stand with their bodies as our shields,  to protect us from those who wish us harm.

Tentative Schedule of Events:

1200hrs Rasmuson Sandy Beach Park dedication

1300hrs Paper Airplane Contest

1400hrs Short-field Landing Contest

1600hrs Flour Drop

1800hrs Hangar Banquet

1900hrs Speeches

2000hrs Wrap/clean-up

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1942 original propaganda poster from our collection (hopefully will be displayed for the event…)

Another Passing

Long-time Situk Steelheader Logan Ricketts passed away a month ago.  Tomorrow (Saturday March 12th) is his celebration up in Fairbanks.  Logan was an avid outdoorsman and fly fisherman.  I didn’t meet him till I opened the fly shop,  which was a year after he had already been diagnosed with ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and never had a chance to fish with him.  In the first couple years of the shop,  I couldn’t have been more clueless about what I was doing,  but Logan was one of those guys who figuratively held my hand and gave me support and encouragement as I learned the ropes of this industry.  I owe him a great deal.

Through his battle with ALS,  he was an example of strength and dignity.  He kept coming back down here every season,  pulling that old piece of crap white van out of hangar storage and heading out to 9 Mile to camp for another week.  He missed a couple years recently as it was getting harder and harder for him to make the trip.  He came down one last time a year and a half ago in mid-summer with a gaggle of family and friends.  You don’t expect it to be the last time you’ll see someone,  but this was.

His family and friends will be gathering tomorrow  up in Fairbanks to celebrate his life.  Chris and I will be celebrating Logan out on the water he loved so much.  I wish there was more I could do for him and his family,  but I also can’t think of a better way of remembering the healthy and vital Logan,  than to be out chasing after Situk Steelhead.

Goodbye Logan.  You have left behind a good legacy.  Thank you.

His obit:

Logan Garth Ricketts(1967 – 2016)

Logan Garth Ricketts passed away Feb. 10, 2016.  Logan was born in Medford, Oregon, on April 26, 1967, to Ronald and Beverly Ricketts. Logan moved with  his family to Fairbanks in 1968, where he remained a lifelong resident. His early years were preoccupied  with eating candy, listening to KISS and learning how to play guitar. Logan was also active in alpine ski  racing throughout his life, as both a competitor and a coach.

He graduated from Lathrop High School, and attended college at Southern Oregon State College and  UAF. After college, his entrepreneurial spirit led him to form Interior AK Adventures, which specialized in  guided fishing trips throughout the state. An accomplished guide, Logan was known by his clients for his strict  adherence to maintaining pristine Alaskan lands, as well as his culinary and mixologist skills.

What will be remembered most, however, was his engaging personality and exceptional skill as a fisherman. He had few  equals on the water, and was quick to offer advice to anyone in need. In addition to his guide business, Logan formed  an alliance with Mok Kumagai, and together they built the Aurora Borealis Lodge which continues to host visitors from  around the world. In 2007, Logan was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

For the remainder of his life, Logan persevered with great strength and courage, always planning for the future and  never losing sight of having a good time with others. Friends and family accompanied him on trips to Whistler, Cancun,  Hawaii, Cabo San Lucas, and of course, numerous fishing trips throughout Alaska. The family is forever grateful to the  many friends who accompanied him on those trips. The family would especially like to acknowledge the unwavering love  and support from Mok and Akiko Kumagai, for which our thanks cannot be adequately expressed.

Logan is survived by his mother, Beverly; five brothers, Mike, Kevin and Matt Ricketts, and Jay and Craig Stuart; three sisters, Mary Seifert, Clare Jaramillo and Samantha Watnes; and his loyal 4-legged companion, Sitka.

A celebration of life is scheduled from 6 p.m. to midnight March 12 at the Fairbanks Curling Club.

Please visit http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/newsminer to sign an online guest book.