Florida woman retraces grandfather’s WWII service in the Aleutians

Karen Abel on Bunker Hill in Unalaska
Karen Abel atop Bunker Hill. (Photo courtesy Karen Abel)

For Karen Abel, what started as learning more about her grandfather has grown into sharing the story of World War II’s Aleutian Island campaign. And it’s brought her over 6,000 miles from her home in Florida to see firsthand where he served 74 years ago.

Growing up in Winnipeg, Abel never heard about her grandfather’s service in the Royal Canadian Air Force. She didn’t know about the year — from June of 1942 to June of 1943 — Robert W. Lynch was stationed in the Aleutians as a member of the 111F Squadron.

After the war, his medals were in their living room and his uniform hung in the closet, but it’s just something the family never talked about. When he died, in 1996, she discovered his flight logs and photographs and became inspired to create a blog.

“Once I started to tell his story to other people and talk about the war in Alaska, most people had never heard about what happened here,” Abel said. “And that broke my heart that so many people were up here fighting and so many lives were effected and nobody knew their story.”

The blog grew and she began sharing the stories of other veterans of the Aleutian campaign. As a single mom with her own business, Abel cannot write every day. But, the project has blossomed into a part time job.

“Any spare chance I get I will probably be writing,” Abel said. “I have said that if I could get paid for this I would do this full time. That’s how much I love it.”

For her second trip to Alaska, Karen choose a two-week WWII historical tour through Valor Tours. It brought her from Adak, to Attu and back to Unalaska with stops in Kiska, Umnak and Chernofski.

“It’s like a living museum to go there and to see how things were,” Abel said. “And to see the guns. You get to touch them and feel them and see where they were placed in action. It’s not in a museum. It’s not behind glass. It was exactly as it was then.”

She was the first family member of a veteran to go on the trip.

“A lot of people will know about battles, they knew a lot about guns, strategy maybe,” Abel said. “I’m more interested in the effect war had on people. How people lived. Who was fighting. Who were the ones going in this brutally harsh desolate island and living and fighting.”

And the trip inspires her to keep writing.

“You know that you think this big journey might be the ending. You know, ‘Oh, I reached my goal. Oh, I made it to the Aleutian Islands.’ But for me it doesn’t feel like an ending. It feels like a beginning.”

Abel thinks her grandfather would be proud of her work.

“And he deserves to feel like that,” Abel said. “And they all deserve it. That’s why I write. They all deserve to feel proud and they all deserve to be heard.”

Her next big project is working alongside the Smithsonian Museum — in Washington D.C. — to develop an exhibit that shares the history of the Aleutian campaign. The museum is off to a good start, they already display a plane her grandfather flew.

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