New book preserves diaries, reminiscences of 'Forgotten Front'

Author Grainger still lives in Ketchikan

Posted: Sunday, May 02, 2004

The soldiers of the 297th Infantry Battalion (Separate) comprised a singular unit which served on the Alaska mainland, at Carcross in the Yukon Territory, and in the Aleutians and Pribilof Islands in defense of Alaska during the Pacific Campaign. Gov. Gruening began to organize an Alaskan National Guard in 1940, but many of the men inducted were not of draft age or in deferred categories. As war became more of a certainty, these men became part of the 297th, assigned to active military service in September 1941.

Company C, Fairbanks, and Company D, Anchorage, reported to Ft. Richardson. Company A, Juneau, and Company B, Ketchikan, were ordered to report to Chilkoot Barracks near Haines. When troops arrived at Chilkoot Barracks, they were initially issued Springfield rifles shipped in crates marked "Marne, France." In other words, the rifles had been sitting in a warehouse since 1918. It was a relief, writes Robert Wikstrom of Company B, when they received a wire that the shipment was a mistake, and M1 Garands would soon arrive.

The commanding officer of the 297th Infantry was Lt. Col. William C. Walther (1904-1984) who came to Alaska in 1930 to work as an engineer at the Alaska-Juneau Gold Mine. He joined the Army National Guard while residing in Juneau.

Interviewed in the Alaska Historical Society's film, "Alaska at War" (1993), Walther states, "The 297th Infantry saw more of Alaska than any other group of soldiers during World War II. When the 297th was not being used for guard duty, it unloaded ships, helped build military bases, fished for the Army, operated boats, tested equipment and trained soldiers. It performed search and rescue missions and carried out hundreds of other vital military assignments. The men of the 197th were especially talented, self-reliant and innovative, able to do anything required of them. Outstanding personalities and characters? The battalion was full of them."

Keeping service diaries when the nation was at war was illegal, but many men disobeyed that regulation. John H. Grainger was one who disobeyed, and he has been in contact with other veterans of like mind. However, in many instances it's hard to tell if the paragraphs from Raymond Laramie and Alfred Zenger Jr. of Company A, Bob Wikstrom and Alfred Hagevig of Company B, Mark Bussanich and Donald McDonald of Company B, and Charles Middleton and Gordon Korsmo of Company D are actual quotes from period diaries, re-written passages from diaries or modern reminiscences. This undermines the credibility of the information somewhat. However, it is still enlightening to hear these lively voices from one of the lesser-known fronts of the war.

The 297th was given a lot of "odd jobs," such as building a post at Valdez and guarding the railway at Skagway. If troops were needed in some remote part of Alaska, General Bucker was already ready to volunteer the 297th. Should someone object, "There are no quarters there," Buckner invariably replied, "That's all right; they will build their own."

There are encounters with severe weather, frostbite, isolation, with blue foxes in the Pribilofs, with hunger and bravery. It seems odd to read of a machine gun squad's being ordered to harvest the St. George seal crop, but it happened. Selections from Middleton's diaries give the day-to-day difficulties of eight weeks of maneuvers in 1943 to test winter warfare equipment in rough terrain.

John Grainger came to Ketchikan from California on an army transport in 1940 to work on the airfield on Annette Island. He was drafted in October 1941 to serve in the Infantry, and served as company clerk until the Battalion was deactivated in May 1945. He demonstrates the geographical naiveté of most Americans when he hears of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor while on guard duty at Chilkoot Barracks. "I thought it was located close to Dutch Harbor," he writes.

Zenger writes, "One of the most distasteful duties performed by the 197th was the rounding up of Japanese American families living in Alaska. Private Vince Anderson, Company A, a tugboat owner/skipper in civilian life, took part in this operation. Some of the Japanese-Americans from Juneau were held for a time at the Haines military post. Anderson had to march the interned at gunpoint to a café in Haines for meals. The Juneau soldiers knew a number of the detainees as personal friends...and some of us were raised and educated with their children."

Grainger - who still lives in Ketchikan - is to be complimented for assembling this scattered material and arranging it in chronological order. His Index helps to locate particular events or individuals, but it is incomplete. Under "alcohol," for example, there is only one page referenced. There is no reference to "food" or "rations," although those commodities are often in short supply. Overall, however, Grainger has performed a valuable service to the historical record by creating this book.

In fact, he has followed in the pen strokes of his great uncle, Gervis D. Grainger, author of "Four Years with the Boys in Gray," the story of his experiences during the Civil War. Gervis' company was named the "Buckner Grays" in honor of General Simon Bolivar Buckner. Buckner's son, General S. B. Buckner Jr., was commanding general of the Alaska Defense Command during World War II.

"Alaska National Guard, 297th Infantry Battalion, A History"

By John H. Grainger. Tongass Publishing Co. 386 pages. $25.

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