Battle for Birdland

Trivia question: Name the town on American soil that the Japanese occupied for almost a year during World War II.

Yeah, I’d never heard of this one, either.

The answer isAttuMap Attu, Alaska, the western-most point of America, so far off the mainland that it’s hard to believe it’s really part of America. They have to seriously bend the International Date Line to keep this island on the same day as the rest of the state.

In June of 1942, there were less than fifty people living there, almost entirely indigenous Aleuts. The government had evacuated the natives from most of the other islands on this chain, but hadn’t gotten as far as little Attu by the time the Japanese raiders showed up.

And, man, did they invade. They sent over two thousand soldiers. Apparently, Japan was convinced that this was a strategic port, sitting as it does between us and Russia.

It’s hard to imagine how two thousand soldiers managed to live there for a year. Sure, it’s one of the largest islands (about 20 miles by 35 miles), but it’s a cold and desolate spot to live. The Japanese soldiers dug caves in the ground for housing, set about building landing strips, and waited for the US forces to show up.

We were a little busy, of course. And, to be honest, their stronghold on that little island didn’t inconvenience America all that much.

But when we did arrive in May of ’43, we didn’t mess around. America sent three battleships, carrying just shy of eleven thousand soldiers. You’d think simple math would have won it for us, but the Battle of Attu was a month-long bloodbath. In the end, America lost almost three thousand men, and the Japanese were left with only 29 men taken alive.

Photo by National Geographic

It’s a shame that neither side really wanted the land. We maintained a tiny Coast Guard base there until 2010, but the island is now deserted.

In fact, if you’ve even heard of it in your life, chances are it’s because you are really into birdwatching. Because it’s so close to Russia, the island became a favorite destination of Birders, as trade winds often blow in birds that are not native to North America.

Even the Birders can’t reach it anymore, since the US has closed the only air base. The only thing left is its footnote in history and the catchphrase that is too cute to forget. Because of that business with redrawing the International Date Line around the island, their slogan is, “From here you can see tomorrow!


Braving the Canyon

All world explorers have great stories to tell – of braving the unknown, facing incredible odds, possibly never to return. Even the preparation for these journeys amazes me; I simply can’t fathom how you even begin to pack for a trip that doesn’t allow for stopping at a Wal-Mart when you realize you’ve forgotten something critical. Complicate that further by limiting your provisions to only what you can stow in a very small space and it’s amazing that some of these people ever returned at all.


One story I’m fascinated with is John Wesley Powell, who chose to explore The Grand Canyon the hard way – by sailing four wooden rowboats down the Colorado River that cuts through it. He led nine men on a 99-day trek through these rapids in the summer of 1869. All they knew going in was the total distance of the canyon; the cuts and turns of the river were a complete unknown.

As Powell wrote in his journal, “We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not. Ah, well! We may conjecture many things.”

gcanyon2As gorgeous as the views were, the sailing was rarely pleasant. They often found flat banks for camping at night, but the narrower the path became, the higher the walls rose above them, making it certain that whenever they were in the most danger they were also without an escape route.

Every sharp bend of the river was sure to have large rocks jutting out, waiting to be smashed into. Where the rapids merged, eddies spun their boats around “like little toys.” And the waterfalls!

gcanyon3With the rock walls stretching a mile straight up on either side, currents too strong to fight pushing you onward, with nowhere to run, nowhere to even rest and get their bearings, they had but one choice. “Better to go over with the boat … than wait for her to be broken to pieces.” Yep, they rode over the waterfalls, doing what little they could to keep the boats level so they wouldn’t hit the bottom nose-first and be lost.

Naturally, when they heard the falls in the distance, they did everything they could to stop and scout the area first. Toward the end of the journey, they stopped just shy of the worst rapids they’d encountered yet. They could see a dam created by fallen boulders, creating “a broken fall of 18 or 20 feet; then there is a rapid, beset with rocks, for 200 or 300 yards, while on the other side, points of the wall project into the river. Below there is a second fall; how great, we cannot tell.” Beyond this laid another 200 yards of rapids and yet another waterfall.


Not wanting to lead his men into certain death, Powell spent the afternoon climbing the granite walls, trying desperately to find a vantage point that would show a peaceful stretch of river beyond the falls. He pushed too far, however, and found himself stuck, suspended 400 feet above the river. His men scrambled to the top of the gorge, lowering a rope for him, but he could not let go of the rock to grab it.

Why? Powell only had one arm. His other had been blown off by a cannon ball in the Civil War!

So there he dangled until his men devised a plan of wedging their oars into the crevices, thereby holding him against the wall until he was able to let go of the rock and be pulled up by the rope.

All that and they still had to brave the impossible falls the next day. 

Inside walls of the Grand Canyon just above President Harding Rapids on Colorado River

They managed it, of course. After three months of sailing through what Powell called, “our granite prison,” they came at last to The Grand Wash, the end of their journey. Powell’s journal entry that night summed up the expedition:

“Ever before us has been an unknown danger, heavier than immediate peril. Every waking hour passed in the Grand Canyon has been one of toil … endured in those gloomy depths. … Now the danger is over, now the toil has ceased, now the gloom has disappeared. … The river rolls by us in silent majesty; the quiet of the camp is sweet; our joy is almost ecstasy.”

Pretty, sexy, and smart

One misstep of modern feminism is that we keep trying to make women choose between being smart and being pretty; we’ve all but stopped acknowledging that someone can be both.hedy1

I’d like to present a new role model for today’s young ladies: Hedy Lamarr. If you’re under 50, you’ve probably never heard of her, but back in her day all of America knew her name.

Hedy was a Hollywood starlet from the mid-30s through the 50s. She starred opposite some of the great actors of the time – Clark Gable, Charles Boyer, Spenser Tracy, Jimmy Stewart. She was also one of the early pin-up girls, and it’s not hard to see why her picture was found everywhere – she was voluptuous, beautiful, and fun.

One of her famous quotes was:

“Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”

hedy3You’ve got to love a girl who can be rich and famous and not take it all too seriously. But you’re probably wondering why any of this makes her a good role model.

Turns out, Hedy had an impressive brain, too.

At a dinner party in 1940, she met a composer, George Anthiel, who was talking about the German submarines. They were so difficult to hit that the Allies were working on radio-controlled torpedoes. But this was inherently flawed, as it proved to be just as easy for the enemy to block the radio signals as it was to send them in the first place.

Hedy had an idea, jotted it down on a cocktail napkin, and shared it with George.

Hedy, not Hedley

The concept was called “Secret Communication System” but is better known today as “frequency hopping.” Both the sender and the receiver would rapidly jump between dozens of random frequencies, thus ensuring their communication couldn’t be intercepted and interfered with.

By 1942, Hedy and George had secured a patent and granted the Navy rights to use it.

hedy-newsThe idea lived far beyond the German subs, though. Thought the military still uses this system for missile guidance, the biggest impact is that her concept is the basis of all wireless technology.

If you’re reading this on a smartphone or over a wi-fi internet connection, it’s all because of Hedy.

So what do you think? Did being beautiful and elegant detract from one of the bright engineering minds of the century?


Leap Months

Tonight we’re getting a leap second, though nobody will much notice it. Leap days are boring. But once upon a time there was a leap month …

hl-roman-calendarEngland clung to the Julian calendar until 1752, when George II finally realized it made no sense to be on a completely different time scheme than all its neighbors and trading partners (pay attention, Indiana!). Naturally they and all their colonies (including America) switched to the Gregorian calendar. But the way they did it was just short of mesmerizing.

No friend to Virgos, England decided to chop two weeks out of September to catch up to the rest of the world. So their calendar that year jumped right from September 1st to September 14th. I imagine that was a nasty shock to the tenants whose monthly rent was suddenly due two weeks after it had just been paid.

It’s just a jump to the left …

The idea of an entire country (one that spanned the globe, no less) doing this time warp together gives me a warm glow.

It gets weirder, though, because in the Julian calendar the year did not change on January 1st. No, they counted the new year as starting from the first day of spring, so the year changed on March 25th. How crazy is that?

So the day after March 24, 1751 was March 25, 1752. This makes my head hurt.

As part of the law that created the Leap Month, however, they also decided to change years like everyone else, on January 1st. This means that not only were the dates 9/2/1752 – 9/13/1752 excised from the calendar, the dates of 1/1/1752 to 3/24/1752 never existed! By the time England got to the January that they would have called 1572, they were lock-step with the (frankly, less mind-twisting) new calendar that called it 1753.

The reason all this is so amusing to me stems from a story one of my professors told about researching his doctoral paper. He had gone to London to personally sift through old letters and diaries from this time and wasted weeks trying to figure out why the post office hadn’t delivered a single letter in the month that he thought was critical to his research. It wasn’t until he returned, dejected, that his mentor explained the time switch. Thirty years later, he was still bitter about the mysteries of the Julian calendar.

betsy_rossFortunately, historians have always done the crazy math for us so we never had to learn all this in history classes. But now when you read that Betsy Ross was born on January 1st, 1752, you’ll know that’s a convenient lie.

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