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Posts Tagged ‘N.C. Archives’

Brynn Hoffman is a summer intern with the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources in the Office of Archives and History.  As a member of the Military Archives team, she is researching the story of Rev. Elmer P. Gibson, an African American chaplain during World War II and the Korean War, through the study of his papers and war documents. Hoffman is a graduate student in the Public History program at N.C. State University.  Her internship is made possible through a generous gift from Rusty Edmister.         

During most of World War II, Elmer Gibson was stationed as a chaplain in the Aleutian Islands.  After learning this fairly early in my exploration of his papers, I had to answer two simple questions for myself  in order to better understand Gibson’s service: Where are the Aleutian Islands?  And why was it important for troops to be there during World War II?  Admittedly, my knowledge of any geography outside the continental United States is below average for most people my age, so I had to do some research to really be able to answer these questions. 

Here’s a quick summary for those of you as geographically challenged as I am:  The Aleutian Islands are a chain of small volcanic islands off the coast of Alaska that form an arch stretching westward from the Alaskan Peninsula.  Most of the islands are part of Alaska, with only a few of the western-most islands belonging to Russia.  The Aleutian Islands are usually considered to be the most untouched part of the Alaskan wilderness and contain 57 volcanoes in total, making the islands the northern edge of the Pacific Ring of Fire.   Click here for more about the Aleutians. 

The fight for control over the Aleutian Islands was part of the Pacific Campaign during World War II, and started in June of 1942.  Japanese troops occupied two of the islands, Attu and Kiska, and due to the remoteness of the islands and the difficulty that extreme weather created, it took the United States nearly a year to force the Japanese out.  The Aleutian Islands were very valuable to both sides because whoever occupied the islands controlled most of the Pacific transportation routes.  In addition, the United States feared that if the Japanese had stayed on the islands they would have had an easier time launching aerial assaults against the west coast of the United States. 

The battle for control over the Aleutian Islands is often forgotten by historians because of the simultaneous campaign taking place at Guadalcanal in the Pacific.  There seems to be a constant debate over the significance of the Aleutian Islands campaign amongst professional historians, some claiming it was a diversionary tactic used by the Japanese to draw U.S.troops out of Pearl Harbor, while others believing the Japanese were truly concerned with protecting the northern edge of their empire.  Regardless of the reasoning, the battle on the Aleutian Islands was hard on Allied troops and many lives were lost.  Besides just the threat of war, soldiers had to deal to with a rocky and barren landscape covered by snow that made traveling difficult and supplies scarce.  The conflict on the Aleutian Islands lasted only a year, but soldiers were stationed there for the entirety of World War II.

Gibson spent the majority of World War II on the islands as a chaplain for the troops.  Many of the pictures he took while in the Aleutian Islands show only snow covered mountains surrounded by rocky terrain.  Often times Gibson and the other chaplains had to hold religious services outside on the snow and ice because the tents were not big enough to hold a large group at once.  Imagine spending such a long period of time stationed on a small island that is covered in a dense fog for the majority of the time and has an average of 250 rainy days a year!  How miserable!

Often times the Aleutian Islands campaign is forgotten in the midst of other more dramatic conflicts during World War II.  Working on the Elmer Gibson Collection has helped me become more aware of the situation that many Allied troops found themselves in throughout World War II, even if they were not stationed in areas more commonly recognized as war zones during this time period.

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Brynn Hoffman is a summer intern with the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources in the Office of Archives and History.  As a member of the Military Archives team, she is researching the story of Rev. Elmer P. Gibson, an African American chaplain during World War II and the Korean War, through the study of his papers and war documents. Hoffman is a graduate student in the Public History program at N.C. State University.  Her internship is made possible through a generous gift from Rusty Edmister. 

My latest find in working the Elmer P. Gibson collection concerns the correspondence regarding his Legion of Merit Award in 1945.  It delighted me, and it is wonderful to know that I have to opportunity to work with the papers of such an incredible man. I get more excited each time I sit down with his collection because I feel like I am getting the opportunity to know a man who still has so much to teach us. He worked hard and always seemed to go above and beyond his assigned duties and made himself useful wherever possible. Rev. Gibson felt that it was his duty to serve all people, not just certain groups, and that is a lesson still worth learning today.

The Legion of Merit Award, first awarded in 1942, is very prestigious and usually awarded to members of the armed services that display exceptionally meritorious conduct in their roles and go above and beyond in the performance of their daily duties and achievements.

He was awarded the Legion of Merit for his service between Jan. 25, 1944 and Oct. 17, 1945. During this time, he was Regimental Chaplain of the 364th Infantry Regiment stationed in theAleutian Islands. He mentions in a biographical note he wrote that, at the time he was awarded the Legion of Merit Award he was one of only two living African-American chaplains to receive the decoration. From what can be found in his collection, he was recommended for the award by several of his peers and superiors, highlighting the fact that he must have been a truly deserving recipient. In one such letter of recommendation from a peer, Chaplain William E. Austill, Rev. Gibson was described as such:

“He has constantly maintained a high quality of work, in spite of the fact that there were no promotions available for him in his Regiment nor in the Department. He had the best interests of the men of his Regiment in mind at all times. He sent pictures of them to home-town papers, whenever the men were given recognition in any event…I felt it my duty to call his superior achievements to your attention. If there would have been any opportunity whatsoever, we would have promoted him to the rank of Major, but he suffered the same fate as several others in the Department who had been in grade a long time, but for whom there were no openings.”

Rev. Gibson was also praised by many for performing services not only for the black troops for which he was assigned, but also offering religious services for the white troops as well. He believed strongly in bringing white and black men together as often as possible in order to teach each group tolerance for the other. From the letters that I have found in his collection, his peers found this to be an especially praiseworthy quality.

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