Wednesday, April 29, 2020

This is Chance by Jon Mooallem

This is Chance by Jon Mooallem is an interesting book about the 1964 Good Friday earthquake in Anchorage, AK, with focus on Genie Chance, a part-time local news reporter who valiantly served as the the focal point for reporting, coordination, and communication in the period right after the quake.

Chance had moved to Alaska from Texas with her husband and three children five years prior and was downtown on March 27 with her thirteen-year-old son when the quake struck at 5:36PM, lasting four and a half minutes. It had a magnitude of 9.2 on the Richter scale, the most powerful quake recorded at the time and still the second most powerful. Felt far outside of the Alaskan epicenter, it shook water in wells around the world and triggered a tsunami that killed eleven in Crescent City, OR.

Chance was near the Fourth Avenue Theatre headquarters of her KENI station when the quake struck and saw the devastation that occurred, taking down the year-old JCPenny department store and causing a large section of road to drop some ten feet. She then took her son back home, saw her family safe, and went back downtown and worked. Chance started broadcasting from a VHF shortwave radio while in the Public Safety Building, as she later said, talking pretty much constantly for the next thirty hours. The power was out, but KENI able to put out a radio broadcast and Fire and Police Chiefs turned down her offer for them to speak directly via the airwaves, rather they had her serve as the voice to the people.

She served as a hub of both recovery efforts and connection, letting people know when and here help needed, and giving notice of people that were safe. Additionally, phones were out in Anchorage, but the broadcast was going to Fairbanks, and people there communicating with the lower 48 to pass along word that the city did need help, but hadn't been completely destroyed. A big part of the book was also the tales of how just like Chance did, many people stepped up with kindness and heroism, getting things done. The latter third of Mooallem's effort covers some different territory, including a local production of the play Our Town, the remainder of Chance's life, and disaster experts who visited Anchorage in the aftermath of the quake and saw the brave and orderly behavior of people that they'd witness after disasters elsewhere.

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson was an excellent read about Winston Churchill and focuses on his opening year as U.K. Prime Minister. Hitler invaded Holland on Churchill's first day in office, May 10, 1940, and the Dunkirk evacuation ordered May 26.

The book provided a view into how Churchill during this crucial year both held the country together and convinced Franklin Roosevelt to offer much needed aid to the United Kingdom while it unclear if the United States would play a role in the war. Churchill had to manage a fine line with Roosevelt as well as the American public, showing that Britain needed help, but also that the aid wouldn’t be in vain and they could overcome the German bombing campaign. The first air raid on London was September 7, 1940 and last May 10, 1941, with that final attack killing 1,436 people. Over the course of this period, there was a stretch that bombing went on for 57 straight nights, and the Blitz killed some 45,000 British people, 29,000 in London.

Churchill was demanding of the people who worked for him, both in terms of hours required and mandating an economy of words in reports, people having brevity and getting directly to the point. He also understand gestures, having anti-aircraft guns positioned in London and firing skyward during raids. Even though the chance of doing damage were minimal, it showed Brits that they were fighting back. 1940 was a US Presidential election year and Roosevelt won reelection with his opponent Wendell Willkie in the months just prior to the election running as an isolationist. The Lend-Lease Act was proposed by Roosevelt in December 1940 and in early 1941, he sent the first of two emissaries to the U.K. to assess Churchill and the state of things against the Nazis. Churchill would later describe Harry Hopkins and then Averell Harriman as key allies in making his case to Roosevelt.

It’s detailed in the book how a reason the feared ground invasion of the U.K. never came was that Germany never took control of the air, with the British Air Force fighting back valiantly against the Luftwaffe headed by Hermann Goring. Germany then diverted attention to invading the Soviet Union, fighting the two-front war that Hitler had said shouldn’t be done, and in December 1941 Russia was getting bogged down with its Russia invasion, and then came Pearl Harbor on December 7. The US declared war on Japan the next day and on December 11, Germany declared war on the US. The war in Europe ended May 8, 1945, a week after Hitler committed suicide, and the two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan in August 1945.