The strategic confrontation between the United States and China evokes memories of an earlier conflict between America and Japan — a conflict that began 79 years ago today and changed the lives of Americans from every corner of the country — and has rekindled understanding of the strategic importance of the Pacific region for the United States.
The war against Japan flung the sons and daughters of small-town America across the vast reaches of the western ocean. Memories of the Pacific conflict call to mind the service and sacrifice of the citizens of my hometown, Faribault, on the southern plains of Minnesota.
Today, few Faribault residents are likely to remember the exploits of Brig. Gen. Lewis C. Beebe, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for heroism under fire during World War I and the Army Distinguished Service Medal for his World War II service in the Philippines during the siege of Bataan and Corregidor.
Following the U.S. surrender in the Philippines, Beebe became a Japanese POW. He survived imprisonment in Taiwan and later near Shenyang, China. At the conclusion of hostilities, Gen. Beebe was bestowed the honor of observing the Japanese surrender on the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay.
Following his retirement from the Army, Beebe returned to live in Faribault.
Likewise, few Faribault residents may recall the service of the five Boosalis boys, born to Greek immigrants who owned and operated the Olympia — a beloved American diner. While on an anti-submarine patrol from the escort carrier USS Suwannee on Feb. 27, 1943, Radioman John Boosalis’s TBM Avenger crashed in the South Pacific.
He and the other two crew members were declared missing and presumed dead, only to later be rescued from the remote Pacific island of Erromango (part of the Vanuatu archipelago) with the aid of the island’s inhabitants and an Australian rancher. John’s parents learned he was alive three weeks after holding his funeral.
The Burkhartzmeyer family, whose descendants still own a shoe store in Faribault, sent three sons to war. Among them, Alvin was one of two miraculous survivors of what has been described as the U.S. Navy’s worst-ever aircraft accident. On Aug. 9, 1944, Al and 10 other members of a Navy PB4Y-1 (B-24), fully armed and fueled, crashed shortly after aborting a takeoff from Stickell Airfield on Eniwetok Atoll, located in the Marshall Islands.
The crash resulted in the destruction of 84 aircraft and damaged scores of others on the packed airfield. The inferno took nearly two hours of heroic efforts to control. When Al returned from war and recovered from his terrible burns, he made a point of visiting the families of his deceased crewmates.
These are but a few examples of service and sacrifice in the Pacific by residents of this one Minnesota town. Since the Vietnam War, the United States has had nearly 50 years of peace with countries in the Pacific region, and the sacrifices of these service members and many others have faded from people’s memories.
Yet, as this brief snapshot of the service of just one Minnesota town shows, America has core interests and values to defend in the Asia Pacific region that were consecrated with American blood over the course of the 20th century. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would do well to remember this fact.
As America confronts the CCP for dominance in the Asia Pacific region, the new Biden administration would be wise to double down on efforts to strengthen U.S. relations with Pacific island nations. These are the islands that John and Al, along with so many other American sailors, soldiers and marines, fought and died for during World War II.
The August 2019 visit of the U.S. secretary of state to the Federated States of Micronesia and the August 2020 visit of the secretary of defense to Palau highlight ongoing efforts to give the U.S. military strategic depth outside of the first island chain and to counter China’s influence and reported designs to establish People’s Liberation Army (PLA) bases in these geographically diverse islands. Providing ample assistance, whether for climate change or economic development and tourism, should make a positive difference in the lives of the residents of these island nations and strengthen U.S. relations with them.
If deterrence should fail and a military conflict ensue, the United States may be able to use these islands again as expeditionary forward operating bases to “shoot and scoot” in order to destroy PLA assets.
The names of these Pacific islands were scarred into the consciousness of America’s greatest generation. If America’s current generation of policymakers is successful, then most Americans in their day-to-day lives will have no reason to know about these islands, except perhaps as exotic tourist locations.
Ensuring these islands are available for American forces to use in wartime while at the same time denying the development of PLA bases on them is a high-priority security issue that will help promote deterrence in the Asia Pacific theater. The past sacrifices of the residents of Faribault and small-town America demand no less.
David Sauer, of Faribault, is a retired senior CIA officer who served as chief of station and deputy chief of station in multiple overseas command positions in East Asia and South Asia.