Wed, December 04, 2013

“Someday…ask the boys from the Aleutians”

by Jeff Dickrell
As an avid eBay troller, I have developed a skill for scanning the multitude of item titles, looking for anything out of the ordinary ( I am looking for, mainly, old maps, prints, images and anything to do with Unangan iqyak (kayaks). I have been pretty successful, picking up the odd print, the old postcard, lots of stuff where I am the only bidder, because I seem to be the only one interested. Who needs a 1909 French Illustrated Newspaper showing the Revenue Cutter Service battling Japanese poachers on the Pribilof Islands? I do….my high school students think I am insane.

So when the title, “Someday…ask the boys from the Aleutians” crossed my screen, I was intrigued. I clicked on the item description and was pleasantly surprised. Instead of a DVD collection of old WWII public domain movies, this was a wartime (January 1943) advertisement in ‘Popular Mechanics’ magazine for Evinrude Outboard Motors. “The storm-swept roadsteads of the Aleutians were never made for ‘happy landings’.” It goes on to describe the conditions their motors operated in and then subtly shifts to “When the war need is past…and you’re thinking of buying a new motor again…” This was in 1943, far from the end of the war. So I bought the ad, thinking it would be a cool addition to my growing collection. Little did I know a new obsession was born: a search for advertisements with Aleutian references.
The next one was seriously un-dramatic, for KEN-RAD radio tubes. It featured a vacuum tube dressed in a fur-trimmed parka, with a frightening harpoon, next to an Aleutian Quonset hut. Then came a Bell and Howell movie projector ad, “…cold Aleutian fog is almost forgotten and fighting hearts look home again.” Patterns began to emerge: the Aleutians as a metaphor for tough conditions, “NOT FIT for man or beast” (Fafnir ball bearings), distant duty stations, “From Kiska to Kisses in One Easy Lesson” (Vaseline Hair Tonic), and one point in spanning the world, “From Guatemala to Attu; water-cooling does the job” (Gardner-Denver air compressors).
Most of the ads featured airplanes, PBY’s or other navy patrol planes, fighter planes like the P-40’s, P-38’s or bombers. The planes were ads for their builders, Martin, Curtis-Wright, Lockheed and North American or for their components like Hayes aircraft wheels and brakes. Many others featured boats and corresponding components, mainly the landing craft used on Attu and Kiska. The final category is construction equipment, dump trucks, survey equipment and steel fittings for telephone poles (Oliver Iron and Steel).
There is a tie for my favorite. The first, a tug at the heartstrings, a 1943 ad for the Hodgman Rubber Co.’s raingear with the headline, “Thanks Mother,” with a picture of dear old mom superimposed over an Aleutian storm scene. The second is for Caterpillar tractors. A large format drawing of a tractor heading off a cliff with the caption, “CRASH LANDING” is explained by a long write up of U.S. Army engineers driving six tractors off a cliff on Attu, hoping one would be operable at the bottom. “The drivers started them over the brink and jumped for their lives.”

I use this collection of twenty-five ads (so far) in my high school Alaska history class to show stereotypes, and how the rest of the world got the images of Alaska that fuel today’s reality shows. Jack London had nothing on these wartime ad men.