“And all at once, summer collapsed into fall.”
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The U.S. destroyer, Abner Read, struck a Japanese mine off the coast of Kiska Island on the 18 August 1943 during the Battle of Kiska. The explosion tore off the ship’s stern. There were over 300 men on board the Abner Read that day, many were in their bunks in the stern when the mine blew at approximately 1:50am. 71 sailors died, but 20 were hauled out of the frigid Bering Sea waters.
The crew was able to keep the destroyer afloat. The ship was shored up as best they could, the main compartment was kept water tight, and a homemade rudder was attached. Two U.S. Navy ships then towed the Abner Read to port.
Within months, the Abner Read had its stern repaired, and the destroyer rejoined the war.
In July of this year, a research team funded by NOAA, discovered the Abner Read’s stern off the coast of Kiska Island. It’s general location has been known, and the team of scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego and the University of Delaware used multi beam sonar to locate the wreckage. They then sent a remote operated submersible down to the stern, which was in 290 feet of water.
The stern section measures 75 feet long and 18 feet high, and is now covered in marine life.
Daryl Weathers was a 19 year old seaman on the Abner Read. He is the last known survivor from the destroyer on that August day in 1943. Weathers is 94 now, and lives in Seal Beach, California. When told that the stern section had been found, Weathers expressed surprise saying, “That’s the end of the world up there.”
For its wartime service, the Abner Read received four battle stars from the Pacific Theater. In November of 1944, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Japanese launched a kamikaze attack. A Japanese dive bomber (VAL) made it through the anti aircraft fire, although it had been hit. The bomber was able to drop one of its bombs down the destroyer’s smokestack, blowing up the engine room. The VAL then crashed across the main deck, setting it in flames. The Abner Read sank within hours.
In 1927, when Alaska was still a U.S. Territory, Territorial Governor George Parks persuaded the Alaska American Legion to hold a competition. The Governor thought it would help the statehood movement by having a state flag, so the Legion held a contest, open to all Alaskan children, to design Alaska’s new flag.
142 designs were sent to Juneau from all over the state. A thirteen year old living in Seward, John Ben “Benny” Benson won the contest with a simple, yet elegant design.
Benny Benson was born in the fishing village of Chignik. His father was a Swedish fisherman, his mother an Aleut-Russian. Benny’s mother died when he was just three, and the family home burned to the ground shortly afterwards. His father, John Ben Benson Sr, could not take care of his three children alone, so they were divided up. Benny and his brother were put into an orphanage in Unalaska; his sister Elsie was sent to a school in Oregon.
The Jesse Lee Home in Unalaska was home to hundreds of Aleut orphans. It eventually moved from Unalaska in the Aleutian Chain, to the town of Seward on the mainland. It was from here that Benny Benson sent his design for the Alaska flag, as a seventh grader.
Benson described his design to the judges this way: “The blue field is for the Alaska sky and the forget-me-not, an Alaska flower. The North Star is for the future of the state of Alaska, the most northerly in the Union. The dipper is for the Great Bear – symbolizing strength.”
The Territorial Legislature approved the new flag in May of 1927, and Alaska officially flew its new flag for the first time on 9 July 1927. Benny Benson received a watch, with the flag design etched on it, as well as a $1000 educational scholarship, which he eventually used to become a diesel mechanic.
Benson Boulevard in Anchorage, which is a major east-west thoroughfare, is named after Benny.
A Benny Benson Memorial is located at milepost 1.4 of the Seward Highway in Seward.
The airport in Kodiak was renamed the Kodiak Benny Benson State Airport in 2013.
A school in Anchorage on Campbell Airstrip Road has been named the Benny Benson School.
Benny Benson died of a heart attack in 1972. He was 58.
The black & white photos courtesy of The Alaska State Library Archives
Jim Thorpe, PA
Jim Thorpe is considered one of the most versatile athletes of modern times. After winning gold in both the decathlon and pentathlon in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, King Gustav V of Sweden said to Thorpe, “You sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.”
Thorpe was a collegiate All-American, NFL All-Pro & charter member of the Professional Football Hall of Fame, and played baseball with three different MLB teams. He also played for a traveling professional basketball team.
When in Pennsylvania for hockey, we traveled through Jim Thorpe, PA. Originally founded as Mauch Chunk, the community made a deal with Jim Thorpe’s widow in 1953. After Thorpe’s funeral in Shawnee, OK, city officials of Mauch Chunk bought his remains from his third wife, and Thorpe’s body was shipped to Pennsylvania without the rest of the family’s knowledge.
I had mixed feelings about the monument to Thorpe in Penn. On one hand, the tribute, if a bit dated and weather-worn, was well done and seemed sincere. On the other hand, it was hard to get past the fact that Thorpe has become a road side attraction. Of all the turn-offs I’ve taken traveling, this one was as surreal as any.
Upon receiving Thorpe’s body, the communities of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk merged and were renamed Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. His tomb was built on a mound of dirt from his native Oklahoma and from the Stockholm Olympic Stadium, where he earned international fame.
In 2010, son Jack Thorpe sued in Federal Court to have his father’s remains returned to Oklahoma. After several court rulings favoring both sides, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 refused to hear the case, effectively ending the suit and leaving Thorpe’s remains in Pennsylvania. Jack Thorpe died in 2011.
I will be starting my 24th year in Alaska on the first day of May. I drove up in a copper-colored ’74 Ford Bronco, with my yellow lab in the back of the truck, along with my camping gear, a box of books and my typewriter. I didn’t really have a plan, just a desire to check out the Last Frontier. Much to my father’s dismay, I fell in love with the state immediately. It isn’t a stretch to say, that I realized that I had found my way home, on that original first day of May.
There are Two Truths about Alaska that I learned very quickly upon my arrival, and they are diametrically opposed. That does not make either one, any less true.
Truth One is the definition of a sourdough: Someone who has soured on Alaska, but doesn’t have enough dough to get out. Truth Two, is that Alaska ruins you from being able to live anywhere else. I fall into the latter category. I’m not just an Alaskan, but an Interior Alaskan to boot. I had a buddy from Anchorage who came up to visit one summer, and stayed at my cabin near Fairbanks for a whole week. He lamented to mutual friends after the visit, that “Mike has ‘gone Fairbanks’ on us. He has gone over to the ‘Dark Side’.” I took it as a compliment, even though he did not mean it as one. It was true, I had gone all in on my life at the end of the road.
Alaska isn’t for everyone; it does take a certain personality to thrive here. I’ve known people who could not leave the state fast enough after their first winter. But I’ve also met many retired military members who served in Alaska, eventually transferring out, but returning to build a life here after their service was done. There is something about Alaska that burrows into your bones, and soaks into your soul. For those of us who choose to live here, Alaska becomes a part of us, and we take a little bit of the state with us everywhere we go.
“When you first arrive in Alaska, you notice that even the towns on the road system maintain a rugged uniqueness. Alaska is still a destination that beckons the adventurer, the individualist, and the free spirit… Home to 15 species of whales, and healthy populations of caribou, grizzlies, and moose, plus one of the last remaining strongholds of wild salmon, Alaska is still a place to behold.”
— Dave Atcheson, “Hidden Alaska: Bristol Bay and Beyond”
There is an ability here to immerse yourself in the natural world which is unique. Not because it can not be done elsewhere, but because there is still wilderness in Alaska. True wilderness. I do not know how long we will be able to hold onto that wilderness, but for now, we still have it, and it lies outside our back door.
On one or two occasions, I have been called a “free spirit”. I’m not 100% sure what that means, but I do follow my own trail some of the time. Heading into Year 24, I’m as thrilled to be here today, as I ever have. We all have our roller coaster rides, and I’ve lived through my fair share. I’m excited to be returning to The Ridge full time, and that should happen this summer. There are several trips planned over the next several months that will allow me to explore additional areas of this amazing corner of our planet, and I can’t tell you how thrilled I am about that.
I state all of this with caution. I tend not to plan out too far, because that is when the universe decides to throw you a wicked curve ball. I send out hope to the fates, that they will allow me to think out as far as September, if only for a change of pace.
I’ve been up in Alaska for a while now, and I know that each day is a blessing. After some revisions, I hope to immerse myself in this natural wonder for a while longer yet. At some point, I realize that I may have to move on from here. All one can do is make the most out of life wherever you are. That holds true for everyone/everywhere.
I will be heading Outside shortly. It is time to travel, and I’m excited to be heading Out. Some new places to explore, and some old friends and family to visit. As much as I am looking forward to it, I know I will be just as excited to return to Alaska when the time comes. As much as I do love to travel, I am always anxious to get back home in the end. I’ve seen Alaska recently described as a drug, and I think that is as accurate a description as any.
Alaska is a drug, and I’m addicted to her, just like many other very special people.