The news out of Afghanistan last week about the terrorist bombing at the airport in Kabul brought fresh heartache — and old memories — to Iowa.
A native of Red Oak, Marine Cpl. Daegan Page, 23, was among 13 members of the U.S. military who died in the blast. Page and the others were screening U.S. citizens and Afghanistan civilians heading to evacuation flights — among 120,000 people the United States and its allies have airlifted out of Afghanistan after its government collapsed following more than 20 years of civil war.
Not surprisingly, there have been many questions since President Joe Biden announced in April that American forces would be gone by the end of August. Questions are nothing new about the U.S. presence in Afghanistan — or about our handling of other wars and conflicts.
There were questions when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001 after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and again in 2003 when we invaded Iraq. More questions came last year when President Donald Trump released 5,000 Taliban prisoners and said the U.S. military would be out by May 2021.
There have been plenty of questions about why, after trillions of dollars in U.S. tax money (yes, trillions, with a T) being spent on the war and military equipment, Afghanistan was no closer to having a stable government capable of providing for its own security. But in and around Red Oak last week, those questions were pushed aside, at least temporarily, by news of the death of Daegan Page and by recollections of another war, another example of war’s horrific toll and another instance of wartime chaos.
In 1943, the news that shocked Iowa was from a place in North Africa called Kasserine Pass. Seventy-eight years later, it still is hard to grasp the magnitude of what occurred there.
American soldiers met the German military in February 1943 in their first major battle. The U.S. suffered an embarrassing defeat underscoring how poorly prepared for combat our forces were.
But it was not until three weeks later, on the evening of March 6, 1943, that the magnitude of the defeat became clear in Red Oak. Telegrams began arriving at the Western Union office informing someone in town that the secretary of war regretted to inform them their son or their husband was missing in action in North Africa.
Within days, the toll of those missing or killed in action spread across southwest Iowa: In Red Oak, it was 45 men. In Atlantic, 46; Clarinda, 41; Council Bluffs, 36; Glenwood, 39; Shenandoah, 23; and Villisca, 9.
Mae Stifle received two telegrams within 15 minutes. One said her son, Frank, was missing in action. Then another said her, son Dean, was missing, too. The next morning, a third telegram arrived with news her son-in-law, Darrell Wolfe, also was missing.
Telegrams arrived for Vern Bierbaum, informing him his sons, Cleo and Harold, were missing. His son-in-law and his son-in-law’s brother also were MIA.
Red Oak’s casualties in one battle were among the highest of any community during World War II, measured as a proportion of the city’s population. If New York City were to suffer losses in the same proportion as Red Oak did, New York’s list would have 17,000 names, a reporter calculated.
It was not all bad news, however. Iowans’ prayers were answered, and many of the soldiers first listed as missing later were found in German POW camps. Another early miracle also occurred in February in North Africa and involved southwest Iowa soldiers.
Lt. Col. Robert Moore was a druggist from Villisca before the town’s National Guard unit was mobilized. He was given command of an infantry battalion in Tunisia in the fight for control of North Africa. Better trained Germans encircled the U.S. soldiers and were intent on starving the Americans into submission.
But under the cover of darkness, Moore directed his men through German lines, sometimes inching along on their bellies, until they reached U.S. troops.
Later that year, when Moore arrived back in Villisca to visit his family, the town’s fire bells rang, streets were lined with American flags and hundreds of people turned out to greet the hero who led 500 men to safety.
Communities in southwest Iowa were hit hard in the early months of the war because they had been home to National Guard units that were called to active duty to be part of the 34th Infantry Division. The 34th was the first American division sent to Europe after Pearl Harbor.
But its soldiers did not get the intensive training later units received before deploying to the war zone. The result: The 34th was badly disorganized in North Africa.
While debate over the Afghanistan pullout has been heated, there were no pointed public debates in 1943 over the U.S. military’s tactics or training.
Moore made an observation in historian Rick Atkinson’s book, “An Army at Dawn,” that has been proven true this month in Afghanistan: “Battlefields are inherently chaotic,” Moore said. “Every moment held risk, and every man was mortal.”
Atkinson wrote of the people back home in Iowa in 1943 after the terrible news from North Africa, “Everyone soldiered on.”
Randy Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and a former opinion page editor at The Des Moines Register. He can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com.