Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

6-06 WWII

MON, 6-6-05

IN THE PACIFIC � As we steam from Pearl Harbor toward Midway on our voyage to World War II battle sites of the Pacific, the enormity of the Hawaiian Islands becomes apparent.
In addition to Hawaii�s four popular tourist islands, there are thousands more reaching west and slightly north, 1,200 miles to Midway, where the decisive naval battle of World War II was fought. It takes over two days steaming at top speed in a modern cruise ship to get from one end of our 50th state to the other.
During this interim, we are being treated to lectures by a war history professor, an anthropologist, a retired admiral who saw action throughout the Pacific, a religious author, a lawyer, two National Park Service employees and an expert on Japanese culture.
There also are three staff members from the Smithsonian recording oral histories from the many World War II veterans onboard this 650-passenger ship. And who knows what else we�ll discover during this magnificent journey to out-of-the-way islands seldom visited by tourists.
A good friend of ours has a sister, who is married to a doctor on Guam. I called the sister to tell her of our visit. She said it will be a learning experience for her to show us her island.
She has no idea where cruise ships dock, because she has not heard of cruise ships coming to Guam. And she has no idea what to show us because she�s never entertained visitors since moving to Guam years ago. And yet this is the least out-of-the-way island we will be visiting.
The Pacific islands chosen by the U.S. and Japanese military for their major battles were selected for various strategic reasons, mostly related to location. Many turned out to be small coral atolls with a good harbor and just big enough for an air field. Many of these islands were almost completely uncharted.
Ironically, the only charts for some islands we invaded were drawn a century earlier by an ambitious and courageous American expedition, which for political reasons, was buried so deeply in a government black hole that few Americans have ever heard of it.
Until recently, that is. Much has been revealed in a 2003 book titled �Sea of Glory: The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842,� by Nathaniel Philbrick, published by Viking.
The expedition was planned during the administration of President Martin van Buren to help take America into the ranks of world powers. It would bring this nation international renown for its scientific endeavors and bravado. And it would further our expansionist efforts of the time.
It was one of the boldest expeditions ever undertaken, focused on finding the great white continent to the south that had been sighted by whaling expeditions, then exploring the Pacific, charting the Columbia River, and thence around the world to complete its voyage.
It was also one of the largest expeditions, comprised of six ships instead of the two used by most countries� explorers. The crew was young, led by Lt. Charles Wilkes.
On its return, the expedition boasted of having discovered and mapped vast stretches of the Antarctic coast, since named for Wilkes. It surveyed 280 Pacific islands and created 180 charts. It mapped 800 miles of Pacific Northwest coastline. And it brought back thousands of specimens and artifacts that became the foundation for the Smithsonian collection.
Obviously the expedition�s successful completion should have become an enduring source of national pride. So why have we never heard of it?
By the time Wilkes returned, the van Buren administration of Jacksonian Democrats had been replaced by that of John Tyler, a Whig. Tyler wasn�t about to recognize any achievement of the prior administration.
Also at the time, Secretary of State Daniel Webster was in delicate negotiations with England over the U.S.-Canadian border. Tyler didn�t want any reports calling attention to the importance of the region Wilkes had just mapped.
So all mention of America�s most ambitious exploration was officially blacked out.



Post a Comment

<< Home