Buber’s Basque Story: Part 21

“Like I said,” began Marina, “I was born in 1583, in a small village in Lapurdi called Sara — the French call it Sare. It’s just across the border from…”

“Zugarramurdi,” interrupted Kepa. “I’ve been there. It’s a cool little town.”

Maite just shook her head at him.

“Yes,” continued Marina. “My parents lived in a small baserri just a few kilometers from the center of the village. My ama, Clara, was known for her skills with herbs. People from the neighboring villages would come for poultices to cure wounds, for love potions, and, most of the time, for advice. She became quite well known in the area as a sendatzaile, a healer. My aita, Vicente, spent his time tending the gardens and gathering the ingredients that my ama needed for her work. I was an only child, very rare at that time, and I helped them as I could, slowly learning my ama’s craft, the secrets of which herbs and ingredients were needed to heal a cold versus the ones needed to mend a broken heart. My ama taught me the recipes while my aita showed me where to find the most prized mushrooms and how to raise the toads used in the most powerful potions. I soon became their apprentice. We had more work than we could handle, even with my help. There was always someone knocking on our door. We weren’t rich by any material measure, but we were comfortable and, most importantly, we were happy.

Buber’s Basque Story is a weekly serial. While it is a work of fiction, it has elements from both my own experiences and stories I’ve heard from various people. The characters, while in some cases inspired by real people, aren’t directly modeled on anyone in particular. I expect there will be inconsistencies and factual errors. I don’t know where it is going, and I’ll probably forget where it’s been. Why am I doing this? To give me an excuse and a deadline for some creative writing and because I thought people might enjoy it. Gozatu!

“One day, my ama sold a love potion to the wrong client. A young man in the neighboring village of Azkaine was infatuated with the girl next door and bought a love potion from my mother so that the young woman would return his affections. One evening, he stopped by his neighbor’s house on the pretence of delivering some extra bread that his ama had made. The etxekoandre, the young woman’s ama, invited him in for a glass of wine, as she also hoped that the two would find a spark. The young man, when the two women were busy in the kitchen, poured the potion into one of the wine glasses. Unfortunately, he chose the wrong one, and he watched in horror as the ama picked up the tainted glass and drank down the potion. As her eyes gazed upon the young man, her heart skipped a beat and immediately belonged to him. The young man was petrified as the ama sat next to him, her hand on his chest, her voice whispering in his ear. The daughter, who had also been secretly in love with the young man, fled the house in despair. The aita of the family returned home to find his wife in the protesting arms of the young man. As he confronted the two, his wife declared that she had stopped loving him and was now in love with the young man. Of course, the young man wanted no part of the woman’s advances and rejected her in the strongest possible terms. Shattered, the woman also fled the house. The aita tried to follow, but lost his wife in the woods. It was a few days later when the bodies of both women were found, the young woman at the bottom of a ravine and the ama, seemingly drowned by her own hand, floating in the river.

“The aita, besotted with grief, nearly killed the young man in his rage. As blow after blow fell on the young man, he revealed that he had slipped the aita’s wife a potion, claiming it was only meant to cause the woman to fall asleep so he could talk in private with the daughter, claiming he must have been given a love potion by mistake. He of course blamed my parents for the mistake. We soon found the aita, in the company of several of his neighbors, at our door, literal pitchforks in hand. I’ll spare you the details, but I escaped to a cave in the woods my aita had shown me as he held back the mob for a few moments.”

Marina’s voice cracked as she continued. “Unfortunately, my ama and aita were not so lucky.”

What are you waiting for? An Interview with Esther Ciganda

Esther Ciganda doesn’t wait. She doesn’t ask what if. Instead, she makes things happen. Whether that is being Team Leader for Team USA Basque Pelota or fulfilling life-long dreams of moving to the Basque Country and learning Euskara, Esther makes her dreams come true. And, now, she wants to help others do the same by making learning Euskara that much easier via her new online Euskara school. I sat down virtually with Esther to talk to her about fulfilling dreams.

Buber’s Basque Page: Your parents both immigrated to the United States from the Basque Country. How did growing up in such a strong Basque home impact you as a child? 

Esther Ciganda: As a child, I learned that I had to balance “two lives.” I had to be & act a certain way at home.  We used Spanish as the home language since both my parents know Spanish.  (Dad speaks Basque and mom doesn’t).  I learned different cultural mannerisms.  

For example, how you eat with both hands on the table (big no-no to have one hand under the table).   

Even the way we learned math at school was different from how my parents learned so I’d hear them say I’m doing it wrong but the teacher would tell me a different way.  (What mental confusion that I didn’t learn about until I was teaching Biology & Chemistry and I went to a summer training course where they talked to us about being aware that our students from different backgrounds may do math differently…WHAT? AH HA, what an AH HA moment that was to realize that’s what had happened to us at home.)

Esther was born in Washington State to immigrant parents from Navarra, Spain, where she grew up learning Spanish at home and English at school. She was driven to learn Basque because first it’d been forbidden to learn by her mom and because her dad along with all his family spoke Basque. Her biggest regret is not taking French in HS when her dad told her to.  She thought with so many science classes, she’d rather go after the easy grade in Spanish. Little did she know that 20+ years later she’d be living in France and learning French on her own.  

For 16 years, Esther was a high school teacher in the USA where she taught Biology, Chemistry, Health, Physical Science, Spanish, ASB Leadership, and Link Crew.  She also coached Science Olympiad, soccer, and track & field. In 2013, she was given the World Language Teacher of the Year in the state of Idaho. An amazing honor she says continues to push her to be the best teacher for her students! Since 2014, she’s been teaching English in Spain. This brought on a change of not only a new subject, English, but also teaching elementary students through adults.  After 22 years of classroom teaching, she decided to take on a new challenge in 2020 and take her skills to the online scene.  The adventure has just started for Esther and she’s excited to see where it goes. She’s also one of the leaders of the United States Federation of Pelota. She’s been fortunate to not only play in several World Cup tournaments, but also serve as the Team Leader for Pelota Vasca in two Pan American Games.

When not working hard to develop lessons, you can find Esther taking breaks to go Basque in the sun, to work-out or play sports, to read books, to go on hikes, and Face-timing her two nieces. Basically, she hardly ever stops to breathe except to meditate and practice gratitude.

What was also different from others was that we butchered lambs at home, utilized everything from the lamb (none of my “American” friends understood.) Also the staple garden vegetable…garlic, leeks, peppers every year they planted rows and rows.  🙂

Getting the opportunity to travel to the Basque Country so many times helped solidify who my family was.  It wasn’t just living the immigrant perspective away from the “Old County,” it was getting to go back and interact and see how I could easily relate to my whole family in the Basque Country. We may have been “the Americans,” but we were also raised as being from there as well.

BBP: What struck you the most during those visits to the Basque Country? What made it feel like home?

Esther Ciganda: First, for me, how much family we had there to visit.  As a kid, I realized that in the States we didn’t have anyone from my dad’s side whereas my mom had several uncles that had come over as sheepherders and had stayed.  So when we’d go, it was nice to have cousins to connect with, and spend time with aunts, uncles and my amatxi (my grandma on my dad’s side, the other 3 passed away when I was too young to remember).  I made lots of friends and it was easy to connect with them since life experiences were similar in upbringing.  

I’m grateful that my parents did teach us Spanish at least.  Even though some cousins had to switch from Basque to Spanish, the majority were brought up with Spanish so we had no problem with language.  Having the language was the key to maintaining connections with everyone and feeling at home.  

The only odd thing was that even though we were ALWAYS welcome I did feel a disconnect since we weren’t around every year.  They made us feel very special!  But they also emphasized the Americans are here, but I was content with being introduced as Esther, our cousin, niece, etc., not being introduced as Esther the American, and then our cousin, friend, etc.   Just something that stood out to me.  

BBP: Has how you keep in touch with family different now from when you were younger? I mean, with new technologies like cell phones and the internet, how has that changed your relationship with your family, either in the Basque Country or, now that you live there, with your family back in the US?

Esther Ciganda: I remember, growing up, my mom and her sisters would write letters to each other. Basically they got news once a month.  My dad would phone his mom and his siblings for important dates.  

Technology… it’s what has helped solidify our relationship with our family.  First, it started with Facebook.  The cousins got on that and we connected with each other.  Then with everyone having cell phones it became the use of WhatsApp.  We have WhatsApp groups, one for each side of the family.  It’s a great way to keep in touch with the latest news, dates about things, pictures, etc.  Back when we were younger, it seemed we were the only ones who took pictures on our trips there.  Now, everyone has cell phones and shares pictures.  I also showed my uncles how they could do video calls to talk to my dad. I love it when they do WhatsApp video calls.  My dad will also say, send this song to tío Macario, his brother, anytime he hears an oldie but goodie country song.  

My presence there also helps to make sure that, in this fast-paced world that we all live in, we keep up our relationships.  

My uncle & aunt came with me to the US for Christmas a few years ago.  If they had to do it alone, I’m sure it would’ve never happened.  

My dad & mom also went to the Basque region two years ago to celebrate San Martin in Auza, Navarra.  It’s the festival in his town that I go to every year.  I love it there (it’s small) and I eat lunch with my uncle and all of my dad’s old friends.  With me going, they all kept asking him to go.  So since the corn harvest finished literally a week before the festival, they called me and said book them tickets.  

This past Christmas (2019), my brother & his family and my parents went to the Basque region.  We celebrated Christmas with my mom’s side and New Year’s Eve with my dad’s.  Amazing memories!

BBP: You’ve reversed the direction and have yourself moved to the Basque Country. What motivated your move? What has been the hardest part of adapting to a new home? What has been the biggest surprise?

Esther Ciganda: First, I was driven to learn Basque since I was a little girl.  I had heard my dad speak it on the phone to his mother.  We’d also go to Basque festivals and he would speak to different Basque guys in Basque.  I didn’t like being left out of the conversation. Then when we’d go visit my amatxi, my dad’s mom, she had mentioned several times to me, “it’s a shame that your dad didn’t teach you Basque.” 

It was engraved in my head, I wanted to learn Basque.  I tried on my own using resources I’d come across on your blog.  But learning on my own at home and being a 1st year teacher working on my master’s was difficult.  Then in 2007 I moved to Boise (not Euskal Herria but 2nd best choice).  I started playing Basque Pelota and in 2010 got to travel to Pau, France for the world championships as a sub.  I knew then… my two childhood dreams had been neglected… to move to the Basque Country and to learn Basque.  Immediately upon returning to Boise, I went to The Basque Museum and started taking Basque classes. I also made plans to go spend my summer in Lazkao, at Maizpide, and do an intensive summer program of 2 months.  I did that for several summers from 2011 to 2014, a total of only 6 months across those summers.  

While in Pau in 2010 and afterwards in Durango, Bizkaia for another tournament, I made a plan… I would move when I turned 40 (and if I had nothing holding me back like a relationship or kids).  So 2014 came and I had to make a big move… ask my school for a year off and tell my parents!

The hardest part… tell my parents, and the 2nd tell my school (my principal had always feared that I would leave Capital). 

That summer before moving was busy… spent the summer studying in Lazkao.  Looked for places to live… I wanted a coastal place since I’ve been on a farm for the majority of my life.  I didn’t find anything and had to return to Boise to pack.  Also in September headed to Toluca, Mexico for the World Championships of Pelota to play with my partner from Bakersfield.  

While in Boise and before Mexico, with our Basque connections, I found a place in Hendaia, France.  Now came the 3rd hardest thing, I didn’t know French!  Well, the place was affordable, I didn’t have other options I could afford especially to live on my own, so chose this place and still am in the same one 6 years later.  

Before leaving Lazkao in the summer of 2014 to return to Boise, I had also found a job teaching English there.  All the pieces were falling into place.

The hardest part was dealing with Spanish bureaucracy [Esther points to this video to get a sense of what she went through] to get all my paperwork in order even though I have Spanish citizenship.  I also didn’t know what to do the first 2 years since technically I was living in France and not in Spain where I was working.  Randomly ran into a guy at the beach who stopped to ask what time it was in Basque, we ended up chatting.  He was from Gipuzkoa and was living in Hendaia with his girlfriend.  He told me what I needed to do to be completely “legal” as a “transfronteriza” (border town worker in the EU). Again, the hardest part was the Spanish bureaucracy. Overall, it’s been interesting to just see how different governments do things and the pros and cons.  

Well, 6 years later, I’m still enjoying the ride.  There are things I miss in the states… my parents, the farm, my brother and his family, my friends in Moses Lake, Boise and college friends.  However, I like facing challenges and difficulties; then working hard to learn to solve any problems that arise.  I think that’s been one of my biggest surprises about myself that I didn’t realize.  As far as surprises in the Basque Country, the fact that for such a small region and that us American Basques tend to move about more within the Basque region than those that live there.  They also find it so different how as Americans we don’t fear moving far away from home.  

BBP: I’m always struck by the different perspectives of different people. When I told my dad I was going to the Basque Country to learn Basque, he asked why, when Spanish was so much more widely spoken. 

Esther Ciganda: Agree with what you said here.  As a kid, I remember asking my dad several times to teach me Basque and his answer would be, “In this country (the US) you only need to know 2 languages, English and Spanish.  With those two languages, you can go anywhere. With Basque, you can go to the Basque region and even there it was limited” (especially during the late 70s and early 80s).

Also, how many Basques around the world?  Thousands, think in all of the Americas.  What must have all these people been thinking?  What was their WHY?

BBP: Clearly, you have a passion for the Basque language, and that has taken real form with the online Basque course you are developing. You also have an obvious passion for teaching. How did they converge into creating this course? 

Esther Ciganda: Yeah…teaching!  I remember as a little kid grabbing my parents English grammar books that they had to learn English. I used those on my brother and I would play teacher with him a lot.  I had been teaching in one form or another through HS and at WSU, I was even asked to be a Chemistry Lab TA to teach at WSU (a position usually reserved for grad students).  What an honor and recognition from my professors, but I didn’t realize I wanted to teach.  I wanted to be a doctor ’til literally a month before graduating from WSU in Biology that I decided that I wanted to teach.  

Fast forward through this next part… became a multi-disciplinary teacher: a science teacher, a Spanish teacher and leadership.  Then only a Spanish teacher, which reinforced more my love for languages, but still using what I knew by relating language learning to a formula for those science-minded students like me.  

When I started learning Basque, I never thought I’d be able to teach it.  So in 2015, when the NABO Basque coordinator asked if I’d be interested I was shocked and honored.  

Then, while living in the Basque region and teaching English I’ve had time to explore the online world while talking to many of my English teacher colleagues.  They want to learn Basque and they talk about not having the time or also it being difficult since they don’t have the best understanding of Spanish either.  They’ve asked me about resources with English explanations, etc.  That got me thinking about a new opportunity for me… continuing to teach, helping bring Basque to immigrants/Expats in the Basque region and to all the English-speaking Basques or language lovers in the World.  

But what a mind-shift for me, the teaching part is not difficult but how to create digital courses that will benefit people, that they will want to finish them, continue to learn and eventually travel there to use the language.  I’ve had to learn about the business aspect of what I’m trying to do.  Yes, I build relationships with students and people daily, but how to find people like me that have wanted to learn Basque their whole life, but not just with a book.  

That’s what I’m trying to create… self-study, with a group component for people to talk to each other and provide office hours weekly where we can connect and I can help to answer their questions or practice with them.  

BBP: Where do you hope your course will go? Where do you see it in five or ten years?

Esther Ciganda: I hope it will be something that grows with time and continues to help out people stay connected to their roots or people who love learning languages come to learn this isolate language.  I also see possibly a membership program where people can enroll monthly and be part of the ongoing course and all the resources can be found in one spot.

BBP: Starting a digital course to teach English speakers Basques seems like a daunting undertaking that, as you mention, involves not only the language, but more mundane aspects like developing websites and business aspects of creating something new like this. What has been the most surprising aspect of this endeavor? Where do you hope it will all lead?

Esther Ciganda: Great questions Blas! The most surprising aspect is enjoying all the things not related to teaching. Teaching is my love and I love helping others.  However, the business aspect was where I was clueless. I enjoyed making my website; no actually I loved it!  I feel the sense that I may create something in the future to help teachers to create their own website.  I still have to learn a lot, but to get something simple and classy ready I can now do. 

My brain is also spinning because I love teaching languages.  I want to teach Basque and make it accessible to as many people as possible in the world.  I also want to help teachers learn Spanish, I did that before as an after school gig while teaching in Moses Lake.  Then I enjoy teaching English to non-English speakers as well.  So, down the road I hope to create courses in these areas.  

But what I’m also thinking about is the lack of resources for eduprenuers/teacherpreneurs in Spanish or Basque.  In English, ohhh many different courses and summits, but not as many in other languages.  That is an area that is silently tugging at me as well.  How can I help other educators in other countries to create side hustles? 

I’m a dreamer and a go-getter with a lot of patience. I will continue to see where all this new learning will take me.  For the moment though, my focus is on building courses to learn Basque.

BBP: How do you think a science background changes how you think about learning and teaching language?

Esther Ciganda: In the classroom, we were taught to focus on the different learning styles. I’m scientific and logical in my thinking with a creative brain that’s usually buried and hidden.  I have to branch out of my comfort zone at times to relate to the students who think differently than me. I get to know my students so I know which ones like certain styles and which prefer something different. 

So when I teach languages I use the approaches that will help my students.  For some, I explain things in very simple terms and possibly use pictures or diagrams.  With those who like math and science, I tend to relate grammar topics that pop up as formulas.  Many times it’s these students who like to do grammar and hate to do writings.  (Yup, just like me.)  Yet, I know the importance of being able to use the language and not fill in grammar worksheets. 

I’ll emphasize  how listening to music and or watching shows will help develop their listening skills and build vocabulary.  I see my young students in Donostia/San Sebastian and they usually “know” and “can” sing the songs to what’s popular in the US.  How do they do that without studying?  Repetition!  Experimentation… do, say, listen, repeat, etc.

BBP: As a chemistry major, I guess you know that the element tungsten was discovered by a pair of Basque brothers, the Elhuyars. I always wonder what they might have named the element if elements had been named by the discoverers, as they are now.

Esther Ciganda: Yes, I remember and when I use the Elhuyar dictionary I’ve wondered if it’s connected to them. I wonder what they would have named it and what would have been its chemical symbol. Basques and their connection to earth and some lifting heavy stones; quite appropriate that Tungsten means heavy stone or something like that, but the symbol W always confused me and then my students.  I wondered why they called it Wolfram instead of a Basque name.

BBP: Do you have a favorite Basque word? What is something that you find particularly interesting about the language?

Esther Ciganda: Not one specifically that I can think of, but I have a phrase that I love. I heard it from my friend in Iparralde. When someone sneezes you say, “Ehun urtez!” and they should respond, “eta zu kontalari.”

I find it interesting how in such a small geographical area that you can find such variation in the way you pronounce words. For example, how is it that ukan, its conjugations, can vary so much?  In Gipuzkoa you’ll hear dut pronounced as det.  In Bizkaia, they’ll say dot.  For izan, the form for “I am” is naiz but in Zuberoa they’ll say niz and in Bizkaia naz.  Even the days of the week: Saturday in Bizkaia is Zapatua and in Zuberoa it’s Neskenegüna.

BBP: You mentioned pelota and I’ve seen you’ve had a successful career as a pilotari. How did you get into pelota? Was there something about the sport that was particularly interesting to you?

Esther Ciganda: As a little girl, I fell in love with all sports and can go on and on. My dad would talk about how they played handball in the old country and then we’d hear about a match in the Basque Country and a family friend of ours living near us, also Basque, would catch games via his satellite or something.  I don’t quite remember.  So, I always had it set in my mind that if I had a chance I wanted to play.

When I moved to Boise, what was one of my first questions?  How can I get started playing?  I started playing on the B-league with guys using the bigger/heavier pala which many girls also use to play in the Basque Country.  We also had a meeting to use scholarship money from the Cenarrusa Foundation to buy equipment either for kids or for women. 

We had so many women interested that it was an easy vote.  The women’s program was re-started in 2007, and we ended up one year with over 40 ladies playing.  I still played with the guys and a few other ladies also started playing in the B-league and I played in the women’s league, where we used paddles from Argentina and the variation of this sport is known as Paleta Argentina or Baleen.  I would train during the week in the evenings and then play games twice a week.  Like I said, I love sports, but what appealed to me was that it was a sport directly tied to my culture.

I’m fortunate to have moved to Boise because that one decision allowed me to play the sport locally, then in national N.A.B.O. tournaments and World Tournaments.  I’ve had amazing experiences due to the sport including being the Team Leader for Team USA Basque Pelota at the PanAm Games in Guadalajara, Mexico and Lima, Peru.  I will continue to help out with the US Federation of Pelota to grow our numbers and especially focus on getting our women competitive enough to qualify for the World Championships and the PanAmerican Games.

BBP: Last question! What would you say to all of those who dream of learning Basque someday?

Esther Ciganda: I’d ask, what are you waiting for?  Don’t listen to those who say “it’s too hard.”  I always had heard it was so hard, but when I started learning the language I realized you just needed to have a different mindset for Euskara than for English or Spanish.  Grammatically yes, it’s different, but not impossible.  If you are passionate about learning Basque, go for it. If you’ve been wanting to learn it, don’t let anything stop you from doing it.  

Basque Fact of the Week: The Gernika Battalion

In collaboration with Pedro Oiarzabal and the Sancho de Beurko Association, I’ve been translating some of their articles in the Fighting Basques series. These articles summarize their research into the contributions of Basques during World War II, often focusing on the role of Basque-Americans. One of the most distinguished contributions came from the Gernika Battalion, a collection of Basque veterans and new comers that fought near the end of the war on the front lines who played a key role in the Battle of Pointe de Grave.

April 19, 1945, after conquering the Arros battery, the gudaris rest on the beach, the ikurrina prominently displayed. Image from Fighting Basques.
  • There had been an attempt to create a Basque combat unit earlier in the war. In 1941, the National Council of Euskadi, formed at the break up of the Basque government-in-exile, tried to create the 3rd Battalion of the Basque Naval Fusiliers. However, a lack of volunteers and opposition from the British government — a consequence of pressure from Spanish authorities — led to the almost immediate dissolution of the 3rd Battalion in 1942.
  • By the end of 1944, the situation was different. The Germans had been defeated at Normandy and retreated from most parts of France. The time was ripe for a new attempt at a Basque combat unit and, in 1945, the Gernika Battalion was born. With connections to Kepa Ordoki‘s Basque Brigade, it consisted of veterans of the Spanish Civil War and previous battles with the Nazis as well as new recruits.
  • The first action the Gernika Battalion saw was in the Battle of Pointe de Grave. Joining with Libertad battalion, they formed the 1st Battalion of the Foreign and Moroccan Mixed Regiment. On April 14, 1945, they attacked the German front, with the Gernika Battalion attacking hill 40. However, a heavy carpet of machine gun and rocket fire led to their retreat. What started off as 80 men was reduced to 52.
  • A few days later, after the Gernika Battalion saw their kitchen blown up and had to dig trenches to spend the night on the beach, the Gernika Battalion, taking advantage of the German troops being distracted by Allied tanks, stormed the German trenches, providing a pivotal role in expelling the Germans from Montalivet. When General Charles De Gaulle arrived on the 22nd, he told Kepa Ordoki: “Commander, France will never forget all the efforts and sacrifices made by the Basques in the fight to free our country”
  • On April 26, the anniversary of the bombing of Gernika, the Battalion marched through Bordeaux, the ikurrina displayed prominently in their formation. The Battalion received a total of ten war crosses for their “high moral and military value.” The Battalion was disbanded in September, 1945.
  • Of about 80 men, 5 died and about 30 were wounded. They had walked nearly 20 kilometers, primarily along train tracks to avoid mine fields, but which led to exposure to German artillery. They captured between 200-300 prisoners during their efforts to take the Arros battery during the Battle of Pointe de Grave.

Primary source: Fighting Basques: Batallon Gernika.

Buber’s Basque Story: Part 20

Kepa and Maite helped Ainhoa to her feet and guided her to a nearby rock where she sat shivering. 

“Zer… Nola… Nor…?” stuttered Kepa.

“What the hell just happened?” interrupted Maite. 

“We walked through that mountain,” added Kepa. “That’s not possible.”

“And that room?” added Maite. “How did it just disappear like that? Who was that man? What was he doing here? Where did he go?”

Buber’s Basque Story is a weekly serial. While it is a work of fiction, it has elements from both my own experiences and stories I’ve heard from various people. The characters, while in some cases inspired by real people, aren’t directly modeled on anyone in particular. I expect there will be inconsistencies and factual errors. I don’t know where it is going, and I’ll probably forget where it’s been. Why am I doing this? To give me an excuse and a deadline for some creative writing and because I thought people might enjoy it. Gozatu!

“Ainhoa, please explain what just happened,” pleaded Kepa.

Ainhoa looked up at him and tried to speak, but her voice caught in her throat. “Ura?” she asked. “Water?”

“Of course,” replied Kepa as he dove into his backpack and pulled out his water bottle. He handed it to Ainhoa who immediately downed several large gulps of water. Kepa then handed her one of the sandwiches they had packed. 

“Mil esker,” she said as she took a bite.

“Feeling better?” asked Maite. Ainhoa nodded. “Good, then can you now tell us what just happened, Ainhoa?”

Ainhoa shook her head. “I’m not Ainhoa, at least, not right now.” 

“None of this makes sense!” exclaimed Maite, getting to her feet. “What is going on?”

Ainhoa took another drink. “My name is Marina. I was born in 1583 and died in 1609, at the hands of that man you saw in the cave. I’m currently inhabiting Ainhoa’s body, trying to stop that man from fulfilling his plans.”

Maite looked at Ainhoa, or Marina. “Seriously?” she said incredulously. “You expect us to believe this nonsense?”

Marina shook her head. “I know it is hard to grasp, especially for one from your time that is so used to science and logic. But, know this: there is magic and it can do wonderful things, in the right hands.” Her face clouded over as she continued. “But, in the wrong hands…”

“Let’s start from the beginning,” interrupted Kepa. “Who was that man and how are you here?” 

Maite gave him a searing look. “You are seriously going to entertain this txorakeria, this rubbish?” 

Kepa just shrugged as Marina began her tale.

Basque Fact of the Week: Native Basque Words for the Elements

There are currently 118 elements on the periodic table. Maybe 10 were known to the ancients: copper, lead, gold, silver, iron, carbon, tin, sulfur, mercury, and zinc. Given the importance of these elements to metal working, it isn’t surprising to find that several of these have native words in Basque. As noted by linguist Larry Trask, perhaps more surprising is that some of them seemingly do not.

Images taken from Wikipedia.
  • Lead. The modern Basque word for lead is berun. Lead has likely been smelted for at least 9,000 years and is used today in a wide range of technologies, from plumbing and batteries to paints and radiation shielding. However, lead is also toxic, leading to a push to develop technologies that use less lead. Beraun is an alternative spelling for lead in Bizkaia. Berun-zuri — white lead — is another word for tin.
  • Iron. There are a number of spellings for the word for iron, which makes some sense given the overwhelming importance of iron to the history of the Basque Country. The most common spelling is burdina, but in Zuberoa, you can also find bürdü(i)ña. Other versions include burnia, burrina, burduina, and burine. By mass, iron is the most abundant element on Earth, but most of it is tied up in minerals, requiring high temperature (nearly 3000 °F) furnaces to extract. Burdingorri, or red iron, is another name for copper. Burdinori, literally meaning yellow iron, is sometimes used in Bizkaia for bronze. Some have speculated that the word burdin is related to urdin, today meaning blue. Trask finds this an interesting idea, but there is little direct support for this.
  • Gold is urre, though urhe and ürhe have also been documented. Of course, humans have always had a fascination with gold, not only because of its properties but because of its luster. We have about 190,000 metric tons of gold, about half of which is used in jewelry and 10% is used in industry.
  • Silver is an interesting case. The Basque word for silver is zilar, though zidar, zirar, zildar, and ziler, amongst other spellings, are also found. The words silver and zilar are similar enough that some have speculated a common origin, but no definitive link has been established. Silver has a number of uses, including in photographs and as a disinfectant. Another word for silver is urre zuri, or white gold. The more archaic Basque word for mercury is zilarbizi, or living silver, similar in spirit to quicksilver.
  • Carbon is one of the most important elements to life on Earth, the basis for all organic chemistry and the element comprising both diamonds and charcoal. Thus, carbon has been critical in refining metals and has a long history of human use. The modern Basque word for carbon is karbono, and that is what you would find on the Basque periodic table. However, there seems to be a more ancient Basque word for carbon, or at least charcoal: ikazkai, or ikazki. At least the Elhuyar Hiztegiak defines ikazkai as carbon.
  • Copper is maybe the most interesting item on this list. Humans have been using copper for over 10,000 years, longer than any other metal, since it is found in a form that can be used almost directly, without smelting or refining. However, despite this long history, Basque doesn’t seem to have a native word for copper. The modern word is kobre, clearly taken from a Romance language. However, Pushkariova argues that there are older, native words in Basque that have been displaced by kobre. These are okain and tupiki. Tupiki is listed in the Orotariko Euskal Hiztegia, along with the Bizkaian variant topinki, as a word for copper. But, they say that okain actually means “to charge” and the association with copper was a mistake. Ok. But then Pushkariova gives a word for malachite, a copper-based mineral: okain berde. I can’t find any other mention of okain berde anywhere, so not sure what to make of this one…
  • Basque doesn’t seem to have native words for sulfur or zinc, despite their long history with humans.
  • And, I can’t leave this alone without noting again that the element tungsten was discovered by the Basque Elhuyar brothers. I always wonder what they might have named their element if had the chance.

Buber’s Basque Story: Part 19

Kepa and Maite, huddled with Ainhoa, watched from the shadows as the man entered the cave. He was dressed in a running suit typical of the 1990s — the bright blue nylon jacket and pants were decorated with square patterns of white, pink and grey. To Kepa, he looked like a parody of all of the photos he saw of his aunts and uncles when they were younger. The man’s hair fell down in long wet locks that drooped past his shoulders. He sported a goatee that was immaculately groomed and formed into a point beneath his chin. He was older, maybe in his mid-forties, though Kepa was horrible at guessing ages. Everyone always seemed either much older or much younger than himself.

As the man entered the cave, he almost nonchalantly waived his hand. Instantly, the cave entrance disappeared and the cave itself transformed. The rocks Maite and Kepa had been sitting on earlier became stools and chairs. The walls of the cave became brick and a desk emerged out of one of the walls. The desk was covered in books and papers. Above it was a shelf with seemingly hundreds of cubby holes, each filled with some object, most of which Kepa didn’t recognize.

Buber’s Basque Story is a weekly serial. While it is a work of fiction, it has elements from both my own experiences and stories I’ve heard from various people. The characters, while in some cases inspired by real people, aren’t directly modeled on anyone in particular. I expect there will be inconsistencies and factual errors. I don’t know where it is going, and I’ll probably forget where it’s been. Why am I doing this? To give me an excuse and a deadline for some creative writing and because I thought people might enjoy it. Gozatu!

The man himself changed as well. The running suit disappeared, replaced with an outfit that looked like it came out of some French historical movie. He now wore a tight black jacket that was fastened down the middle with gold buttons and loose fitting black pantaloons that matched his jacket. His black boots, polished to a lustrous shine, reached up to his knees. On his hands, he wore several rings set with large jewels that sparkled red, blue, and green. Most striking, from Kepa’s perspective, was the white frill that encircled his neck. His hair had dried instantly and was now filled with curls. On top of his head he wore a large-brimmed black hat with a large white feather sticking out of the band.

Maite and Kepa watched as the man strode to the desk, opened a drawer, and pulled out a box. The box was made of wood but the edges were adorned with polished silver. The clasp, which the man opened, was also made of silver. The man took something out of a pocket on the side of his jacket. He smiled as he held it up to the light of a candle that had also appeared on the desk. He placed the small object into the box, which he then returned to its spot inside the desk. 

Ainhoa grabbed Kepa and Maite’s hands. “Be still and don’t panic!” she whispered in a voice filled with urgency. The man turned his head toward the shadow, as if he had heard them. But a moment later, he shrugged. He then picked up something off of the desk — what Kepa couldn’t see. Holding it between his finger tips, the man waved his hand through the air and the room began to disappear, only to be filled with solid stone. Maite and Kepa gasped as the stone surrounded them.

“Hold on and hold your breath!” they heard Ainhoa hiss. She squeezed their hands as they became completely entombed in the stone and all light and sound disappeared. Kepa could feel a tug on his hand and then his body felt like it was being dragged through the rock. It was almost like walking through water in a pool, except the rock was infinitely more dense and he couldn’t see or hear anything. After what seemed like forever, he could feel the movement of air on his hand as it slipped free of the stone. Soon his head also peaked free. He took a gasp of air as he turned to see Maite’s head also appear out of the stone face of the mountain, a look of terror mixed with wonder etched in her face. Ainhoa led them out onto the muddy path, pulling them out of the rock, until they were completely free. Trembling, Maite and Kepa watched as Ainhoa collapsed to the ground.

Basque Fact of the Week: Trainera Rowing Regattas, or Estropadak

As one might suspect for a people so intimately connected to the sea, the Basques have a special relationship with the ocean. From a long history of fishing and whaling, to exploring distant lands, the Basques have taken to the seas like literal fish to water. Combined with a competitive spirit, it was only natural for Basques to extend their competitions to the water. The estropadak, or regattas of traineras, is the epitome of the mixing of these elements.

The 2011 Kontxako Bandera. Photo by José Juan Gurrutxaga.
  • The trainera is a long thin boat, typical of the Cantabrian coast. These boats grew out of the whaling and fishing industries. Speed was of essence in whaling, as the first to a sighted whale was able to claim it. Similar, the first boats back to the docks with fish got the best price. Thus, speed was crucial and the trainera, consisting of 13 crew and 1 cox (helmsman), evolved to be fast.
  • The oldest mention of trainera regattas comes from the early 1700s. According to an anecdote recalled by José Luis Muñoyerro, the towns of Mundaka and Bermeo had an ongoing dispute over the island of Izaro, close to Mundaka, but controlled by Bermeo. They decided to have a race to determine which town it should belong to. On July 22, 1719, two teams raced for the island, with the team from Bermeo reaching it first, claiming the island for their town.
  • The same boats used for fishing were used for racing until 1916, when Vicente Olazabal build the Golondrina, a special boat for the racing crew of Getaria. In the following years, Eusebio Lazcano, a carpenter from Getaria, continued to build custom boats. As these were never destined to be used for fishing, their form evolved, with the width and weight decreasing to maximize speed.
  • While the oldest trainera regatta is from Santander, started in 1859, the most famous is the Kontxako Estropadak, Kontxako Bandera, or Regattas of San Sebastián, which began in 1879. The course raced today is 3 miles, a distance set in 1898. Orio has won the race the most, a total of 32 times, while the fastest time belongs to Castro Urdiales, with a time of 18:59.94, set in 2006.
  • The latest edition of the Kontxako Bandera was held earlier today. On the men’s side, Hondarribia won their third consecutive Bandera with a combined time for the two races of the final of 39:26.52 (the final consists of two races amongst the eight finalists) while Orio won the women’s race with a combined time of 21:59.80. (The women’s course is 1.5 nautical miles, or half that of the men’s.)
  • It is only recently that women began officially racing in the regattas, but there is evidence that women participated in rowing teams. Female rowers were called batelerak, a name taken from the batel, a smaller boat with 4 rowers. The batelera dantza, performed by women using oars, also points to this history.

Primary sources: Wikipedia: Kontxako Bandera; Wikipedia: Trainera; Auñamendi Entziklopedia. Regatas de Traineras. Enciclopedia Auñamendi. Available at: http://aunamendi.eusko-ikaskuntza.eus/es/regatas-de-traineras/ar-102442/

Buber’s Basque Story: Part 18

Staring out of the mouth of the cave, Kepa watched the rain come down. “I think it is starting to pass,” he said. 

Maite came up to stand beside him. Water dropped from the leaves of every tree, splashing in a multitude of puddles on the ground. “We might be able to leave soon,” she said, “though it is going to be messy.”

“Look!” said Kepa suddenly, pointing down the path. “Someone’s coming!”

Maite could see a shadowy figure many meters down the path slowly making its way up toward where they waited in the cave.

Buber’s Basque Story is a weekly serial. While it is a work of fiction, it has elements from both my own experiences and stories I’ve heard from various people. The characters, while in some cases inspired by real people, aren’t directly modeled on anyone in particular. I expect there will be inconsistencies and factual errors. I don’t know where it is going, and I’ll probably forget where it’s been. Why am I doing this? To give me an excuse and a deadline for some creative writing and because I thought people might enjoy it. Gozatu!

“We should call out to him, let him know there is shelter up here,” she said. 

She was about to call out when something clamped her mouth shut. Startled, her eyes nearly popping out of their sockets, she reached up to rip off whatever had covered her mouth. She mumbled, trying to scream through the gag while she clawed at it. Kepa, hearing Maite’s sounds of struggle, turned to her, and his eyes also widened. A strange glowing strip was covering Maite’s mouth. He reached up to help her, about to yell out for help, when a similar gag covered his mouth. 

“Back here!” they heard a voice say from the back of the cave. “Get over here quick!”

Maite and Kepa looked toward the back and saw something move in the shadows. As panic began to rise in their chests, they both looked out of the cave and then each other. In a silent nod, they both bolted towards the mouth of the cave.

“Madarikatu!” yelled the voice. “Stop! I won’t hurt you.” There was a sudden flash of light at the mouth of the cave and Maite and Kepa were frozen in their steps, their feet rooted to the ground. They looked at one another in terror before turning their gaze toward the back of the cave. They watched as a figure emerged from the shadows, waving its hands in the air in a complex pattern. The gags disappeared from their mouths as the figure entered the light.

“Ainhoa?” gasped Maite. “What the hell?”

“Bai ta ez. Yes and no. I’ll explain later, but first, you need to get away from the entrance, before he sees you.”

Maite looked at Kepa in confusion. “The man coming up the path?”

“Yes!” exclaimed Ainhoa in clear frustration. “Get back here now!”

Reluctantly, Maite and Kepa, their feet freed from whatever trap had held them, slowly made their way toward the back of the cave. Kepa, still rattled from whatever it was Ainhoa had done to them, looked at her warily. “What did you do to us?”

“I will explain everything in a moment, but right now, we need to be quiet. Isilik!”

The three of them huddled in the shadows in the back of the cave, Kepa and Maite’s arms wrapped around one another while Ainhoa crouched in front of them, facing the entrance to the cave. Her stance reminded Maite of a cat ready to pounce on its prey. Maite could sense her tensing as the shadowy figure of the man appeared at the mouth of the cave.

Fighting Basques: Basques on the Forgotten Front of America — The Aleutian Islands of Alaska, 1942-1943

This article originally appeared in Spanish at El Diario. You can find all of the English versions of the Fighting Basques series here.

Sergeant Matthew Etcheverry Saragüeta participated in the Aleutian military campaign. He was later wounded in combat in Leyte, Philippines, and received two bronze stars and a purple heart. He passed away at the age of 86 in his hometown of Fresno, California. (Courtesy of the Etcheverry family).

Even more than the devastating attacks by German U-boats against the Allied merchant navy on the Atlantic coast, in the Gulf of Mexico, or in the Caribbean, or the failed espionage attempts by Abwehr military intelligence agents on US soil, the greatest military challenge during World War II (WWII) to the integrity of the United States came from Japan. Not only did Japan cause the United States to enter the armed conflict with the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, but it also brought the tragedy of the war to the Aleutian Islands of the Alaska Territory (in American hands since 1867) six months later, symbolically putting American society “in check.”

The Aleutian Islands are a chain of volcanic islands with a length of 1,900 kilometers (1,180 miles) between the Bering Sea and the northern Pacific Ocean that extend between the peninsulas of Alaska and Kamchatka, in Russia. Characterized by a hostile climate and inhospitable terrain – with high mountains and thick tundra – they were inhabited by a few thousand people of the Unangan ethnic group (also known as Aleutians). Sadly, they became unwitting witnesses to the atrocities of a war on an isolated front whose strategic value is still questioned today. Was the Japanese invasion of the Aleutians a diversion from the attempt to storm Midway Atoll in the central Pacific? Or was it an attempt to protect the northern flank of its military expansionism? Or was it the beginning of a potential air assault on the west coast of North America?

Map of the Aleutian Islands Campaign, 1942-1943. (National Park Service, US Department of Interior; https://www.nps.gov/aleu/planyourvisit/maps.htm).

“Echoes of two wars, 1936-1945” aims to disseminate the stories of those Basques and Navarrese who participated in two of the warfare events that defined the future of much of the 20th century. With this blog, the intention of the Sancho de Beurko Association is to rescue from anonymity the thousands of people who constitute the backbone of the historical memory of the Basque and Navarre communities, on both sides of the Pyrenees, and their diasporas of emigrants and descendants, with a primary emphasis on the United States, during the period from 1936 to 1945.

THE AUTHORS
Guillermo Tabernilla
is a researcher and founder of the Sancho de Beurko Association, a non-profit organization that studies the history of the Basques and Navarrese from both sides of the Pyrenees in the Spanish Civil War and in World War II. He is currently their secretary and community manager. He is also editor of the digital magazine Saibigain. Between 2008 and 2016 he directed the catalog of the “Iron Belt” for the Heritage Directorate of the Basque Government and is, together with Pedro J. Oiarzabal, principal investigator of the Fighting Basques Project, a memory project on the Basques and Navarrese in the Second World War in collaboration with the federation of Basque Organizations of North America.

Pedro J. Oiarzabal is a Doctor in Political Science-Basque Studies, granted by the University of Nevada, Reno (USA). For two decades, his work has focused on research and consulting on public policies (citizenship abroad and return), diasporas and new technologies, and social and historical memory (oral history, migration and exile), with special emphasis on the Basque case. He is the author of more than twenty publications. He has authored the blog “Basque Identity 2.0” by EITB and “Diaspora Bizia” by EuskalKultura.eus. On Twitter @Oiarzabal.

Josu M. Aguirregabiria is a researcher and founder of the Sancho de Beurko Association and is currently its president. A specialist in the Civil War in Álava, he is the author of several publications related to this topic, among which “La batalla de Villarreal de Álava” (2015) y “Seis días de guerra en el frente de Álava. Comienza la ofensiva de Mola” (2018) stand out.

On June 3, 1942, the Japanese Imperial Navy launched a first air attack against the naval base and Fort Mears of the US Army in the city of Unalaska, in Dutch Harbor (Amaknak Island, the most populated of the Aleutians). They would repeat the attack on the 4th, coinciding with the beginning of the naval Battle of Midway (June 4-7, 1942), whose objective was to widen the defensive perimeter of Japan. The airstrikes on Dutch Harbor – the first in history against the American mainland – claimed the lives of about forty Americans. This pyrrhic victory paled before the American victory at Midway and from whose defeat the Japanese navy would not recover, since it prevented not only the final blow to the American fleet, but ensured the impossibility of their own fleet exercising dominion over the entire Pacific. On the 6th, 600 Japanese marines invaded Kiska Island, completely uninhabited except for 12 researchers from the US Department of Aerology. This was the first time that an American territory fell into foreign hands since its independence, which was a severe blow to American morale, increasing panic among the civilian population of the west coast due to the fear of air attacks. Throughout its occupation, the Japanese detachment had more than 5,000 soldiers who strove to build all kinds of defensive infrastructure, reaching the highest proportion of antiaircraft batteries of any other enclave in the Pacific. On the 7th, some 1,100 Japanese infantrymen stormed Attu Island, the furthest from the Alaskan mainland (about 1,800 km away) and which was populated by about fifty Unangans. After three months, some 47 survivors were taken as prisoners to the port city of Otaru, on the island of Hokkaido, in Japan, of whom almost half died of starvation. (After their release in 1945, they never returned to Attu.) Faced with an escalation of invasions and a scorched earth policy (infrastructure, houses and churches were burned), the American authorities ordered the forced evacuation of about 900 Unangans (about 500 from the islands of Atka, on June 12, and from Saint Paul and Saint George, on the 14th) to southeast Alaska where they were held in internment camps in inhumane conditions for another two years (1).

On August 7, 1942, the United States began Operation Watchtower, giving rise to the Battle of Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands, and the victory of which marked the beginning of the great allied offensive in the Pacific. In its shadow, on August 30, the United States launched a counteroffensive to recover the two Aleutian islands from Japanese hands, which reached 144,000 American and Canadian soldiers against a Japanese force of about 8,500 Japanese, of whom more than half perished. Military operations in the Aleutians became a true combat laboratory, where the tactics developed would be employed throughout the Pacific campaign. Among the US contingent we have been able to identify a good number of soldiers of Basque origin. The first Allied objective was to secure the Island of Adak, in which the submarine USS S-33 (S-138) took part. Among the crew we find the veteran Chief Electrical Officer Joseph Peter Tabar, of Navarrese origin, who had been born in 1904 in Los Angeles, California. Of the eight patrols the submarine carried out during the war, six were carried out in the Aleutians from July to December 1942, including protecting the convoy that occupied Adak (400 kilometers from Kiska and about 720 kilometers from Attu). After the island was secured by some 4,500 US military personnel, an air base was established – with an airport built in record time – in which Sergeant Gene Acaiturri of the 515th Combat Engineer Company quite possibly participated. Acaiturri was born in Mountain Home, Idaho, in 1919 to Biscayan parents. The ultimate goal was to bombard the Japanese positions at Kiska and Attu. The bombing campaign was carried out both from Adak and Amchitka (occupied by American troops on January 12, 1943; at a distance of 117 kilometers from Kiska and about 445 kilometers from Attu) in the summer and fall of 1942 and throughout much of 1943.

Photograph of the USS Louisville, the ship on which Floyd “Ike” Cortabitarte Lecertua sailed, as it left Kulak Bay, on Adak Island, with the aim of joining the rest of the fleet at the beginning of operations against the Japanese base on Attu, April 25, 1943. (US National Archives).

The Basque-American aviation support equipment technician Floyd “Ike” Cortabitarte, born in Jordan Valley, Oregon, in 1917, was aboard the USS Louisville in the Aleutians when Japan launched the attack in June 1942. At the same time, aboard the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis was sailing Assistant Electrician First Class Anthony Lizoain. Lizoain was born in 1911 in Santa Barbara, California. During 1942, both the Louisville and Indianapolis escorted convoys and bombed Japanese ships and facilities in Kiska Bay.

The US Navy imposed an iron blockade on the islands of Attu and Kiska in order to prevent them from being resupplied. In February 1943, the USS Indianapolis intercepted a Japanese cargo ship, loaded with troops, ammunition, and supplies, destined for the bases on Attu and Kiska. On March 26, a Japanese supply transport convoy, escorted by several destroyers, was intercepted near the Russian Komandorski Islands, with the light cruiser USS Richmond taking part. On board was engineer assistant Michael Errecart. Errecart was born to a Laburdine father and a Navarrese mother in 1919, in the Californian county of Fresno. After an intense battle, the Japanese fleet was forced to give up its objective. From then on, the Attu and Kiska bases only received supplies sporadically from submarines.

Ike Cortabitarte with two buddies on Caspan at Agution Iscamos, 1942. Left to right: Elmer Just, Wood Lake Minn.; Ike; Byno Irwin, Falls City Neb.

The cruisers USS Louisville, Indianapolis, and Richmond, joined by the battleship USS Idaho, among others, provided covering fire to amphibious assaults, both at Attu and later at Kiska. An old acquaintance was traveling on the Idaho, the Basque-Californian Ralph Irigoyen – Artillery Assistant First Class – who, like many of his companions that served in the Aleutians, would continue his journey throughout the Pacific. Irigoyen participated in the D-Day of the Pacific Theater with the invasion of Saipan.

On May 11, 1943, 77 years ago, some 12,000 American soldiers, mainly from the 7th Infantry Division, began the invasion of Attu Island. It was the first US offensive in the Pacific, two months before the famous Guadalcanal landing. The soldiers, without specialized training or adequate equipment for the harsh climate, without sufficient provisions and with great difficulty in maneuvering their vehicles on the tundra, also had to face a motivated, acclimatized enemy with perfect knowledge of the island.

Anthony Lizoain, a sailor on the USS Indianapolis, poses in military uniform with his parents, Eduardo Lizoain and Ignacia Yturri, natives of the Navarran towns of Urdaniz and Idoieta, respectively. (Courtesy of the Lizoain family).

In the invasion of Attu we find several Basque-Americans, for example, Captain Leon Etchemendy (born in Gardnerville, Nevada, in 1918) and Sergeant Matthew Etcheverry (Fresno, California, 1916). Both would be seriously injured during the campaign to liberate the Philippines. Serving in the 184th National Guard Combat Regiment were Corporal Donald Urain (Marysville, California, 1922) and Sergeant Joseph Urriolabeitia (Boise, Idaho, 1919). The 184th was the only National Guard regiment that participated in the recovery of American soil lost to a foreign enemy during WWII. Urriolabeitia was also wounded in Leyte, Philippines, and was killed in Okinawa at age 25. He received a bronze star and a purple heart. We also have another Basque-Californian, Sergeant John Errea Etchenique, born in 1918 in Bakersfield.

As his sister Helen Errea tells us, “as soon as they discovered that he was Basque, they made John a chef for the company.” The photo shows how harsh the weather was in the Aleutians. (Courtesy of the Errea family).

After 18 days of small-scale attacks and ambushes by Japanese snipers, the balance turned to the American side. Desperation prompted the surviving Japanese, led by their colonel, Yasuyo Yamasaki, to launch a suicide charge, banzai, against the US positions on May 29. It was one of the largest suicide attacks to occur at the Pacific Theater. An estimated 1,400 Japanese soldiers lost their lives in just a few hours. Only 28 men survived. The island was returned to American hands at a cost of 549 Americans killed and about 3,300 wounded (most as a result of extreme cold, illness, accidents and psychotic crises) and 2,351 Japanese killed, almost 100% of the enemy troops. Despite being one of the most unknown battles today, the Battle of Attu became one of the bloodiest in the Pacific, second only to Iwo Jima. After Attu was liberated, on August 15, 1943, approximately 35,000 US and Canadian troops landed at Kiska. They expected the worst. However, to their surprise, the Japanese troops, some 5,200 soldiers, had left the island two weeks earlier. The Aleutian Campaign was ending.

US soldiers unload supplies from landing craft on the beach at Massacre Bay, Attu Island, May 13, 1943. (US National Archives).

The military operation in the Aleutian Islands will be remembered for being a year-long campaign fought amidst snow, frozen mud, thick fog, freezing temperatures, constant rains, and intense gusts of wind; a place whose waters were and continue to be considered some of the coldest and stormiest of the world. The lives of American soldiers were perfectly reflected in a short war propaganda documentary, “Report from the Auletians,” shot by John Huston in 1943, in which the silence and monotony that made such a dent the morale of the troops could be felt (2). The landings at Attu and Kiska were the only invasions the US suffered during WWII, while the offensive for the liberation of Attu was the first land battle fought on US soil since the War of 1812. For the Unangans, life was never again the same. Many were unable to return home to rebuild their lives. The US government did not provide them with the means to rebuild their towns, nor did it compensate them in any way for their internment or for the material losses suffered during their forced evacuation. The Aleut Restitution Act of 1988 (and its 1993 extension) was an attempt by Congress to compensate survivors. Seventy-five years later, in 2017, the US government formally apologized for the internment of the Unangan people and their appalling treatment during captivity.

(1) Chandonnet, Fern. (2007). Alaska at War, 1941-1945: The Forgotten War Remembered. Fairbanks, AK: University of Alaska Press.

(2) Huston, John. (1943). Report from the Auletians. US Signals Corps.

If you want to collaborate with “Echoes of Two Wars,” send us an original article on any aspect of the WWII or the Spanish Civil War and the Basque or Navarre participation to the following email: sanchobeurko@gmail.com

Articles selected for publication will receive a signed copy of “Basque Combatants in World War II”.

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