Today's D Brief: Firefighting on Maui; Kim’s arms factories; Army’s peacetime awards; Nearly 100 Navy leaders on hold; And a bit more.
Editor's note: This report was updated at 1:53 p.m.
The Hawaii National Guard has been activated to help with wildfire recovery efforts on the island of Maui, where flames fueled by the winds of Hurricane Dora destroyed the historic town of Lahaina on Tuesday. Lahaina is “the Hawaiian kingdom’s original seat of power and home to King Kamehameha’s palace,” but now is "in ruins,” the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported Thursday.
Thirty soldiers arrived on Maui on Wednesday night, when the Sheraton resort in Ka’anapali was evacuated. Government officials have been forced to communicate via radio since fires knocked out cellular and landline phone service on parts of Maui.
At least 36 people have died as a result of the wildfires, and more than 2,000 are living in temporary shelters, Maui County officials said Thursday. More than 270 structures in the area have been damaged or destroyed by the fires so far, according to the Star-Advertiser. Bus evacuations are ongoing Thursday, and local transportation companies are helping out in those efforts as well. Wildfires are also burning on the island of Hawaii, known as the Big Island.
White House: “I have ordered all available Federal assets on the Islands to help with response,” President Joe Biden said in a statement Wednesday evening. “The U.S. Coast Guard and Navy Third Fleets are supporting response and rescue efforts,” he said. “The Army is providing Black Hawk Helicopters to fight the fires on the Big Island. The Department of Transportation is working with commercial airlines to evacuate tourists from Maui, and the Department of the Interior and the United States Department of Agriculture stand ready to support post fire recovery efforts.”
The U.S. Army’s Oahu-based 25th Infantry Division sent two UH-60 Black Hawks and one CH-47 Chinook to assist with the fires on the Big Island. The Blackhawks each have a “Bambi Bucket” that allows them to pick up water and dump it on the flames, and the Chinook can use a Bambi Bucket as well, or transport cargo or people, an Army spokesman told Defense One’s Hawaii-based Jennifer Hlad.
Three helicopters from the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Navy are also conducting search and rescue operations along the West Maui coastline, and have rescued at least 14 people at sea, including two children, the Star-Advertiser and the Associated Press report.
For what it’s worth: “Fires in Hawaii are unlike many of those burning in the U.S. West,” AP notes. “They tend to break out in large grasslands on the dry sides of the islands and are generally much smaller than mainland fires.”
Some 11,000 visitors were able to fly out of Maui on Wednesday, and another 1,500 are expected to depart Thursday, according to Hawaii’s transportation director Ed Sniffen.
Keep up with the latest at Maui County’s Facebook page, here.
Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Bradley Peniston and Jennifer Hlad. If you haven’t subscribed to this newsletter yet, you can do that here. On this day in 1961, the U.S. Army carried out the first of many devastating flights designed to spray and kill crops and vegetation in Vietnam; the work was part of what would later be known as Operation Ranch Hand. Eventually, some 20 million gallons of defoliants and herbicides were sprayed over rural areas of South Vietnam, which exposed almost five million Vietnamese to Agent Orange and led to the deaths of an estimated 400,000 people due to cancers and other related illnesses.
North Korea is posturing for war ahead of the 75th anniversary of the Communist country’s origin, known as the Day of the Foundation of the Republic, on September 9. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un just fired his highest-ranking general, Chief of the General Staff Pak Su Il, state-run media KCNA reported Thursday. He’d been on the job for just seven months, according to Reuters.
A man named Gen. Ri Yong Gil will take over for the newly sacked Pak. Ri was fired from his job as army chief back in 2016; his “subsequent absence from official events [at the time] sparked reports in South Korea that he had been executed,” Reuters reminds us. But he reappeared months later.
Kim visited several cruise missile and drone factories just last week, as Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute for Strategic Studies pointed out on social media. He also visited a tractor factory that “has never, ever made a tractor,” according to Lewis.
During those visits, Kim ordered a boost in missile engines and artillery shells, as Reuters reported at the time. He also unveiled another man many observers thought had died years ago, Hong Yong Chil. He was one of the vice directors of the Munitions Industry Department, and he hadn’t been seen publicly since July 2019.
Lewis’s big-picture takeaway: “Every time North Korea conducts a missile launch, my phone won’t stop ringing even when there’s nothing left to say,” he wrote Wednesday. “But when Kim Jong Un makes a rare public tour of arms plants in Jagang…crickets. Our priorities are wrong.”
Replied NPR’s science editor Geoff Brumfiel: “Nobody will pay attention until they figure out how to put that arms plant on a lofted trajectory over [Japan’s second-largest island of] Hokkaido.”
Update: Nearly 100 Navy officers affected by GOP senator’s hold. The service will become the third without a Senate-confirmed leader when CNO Adm. Mike Gilday steps down Aug. 14. D1’s Caitlin Kenney has more, here.
Today is the one-year anniversary of President Biden signing the PACT Act, which dramatically expanded benefits for toxic-exposed U.S. veterans from wars such as Vietnam and Iraq. Biden has planned remarks on the topic later Thursday in Salt Lake City.
About PACT Act benefits: “Although there’s no deadline to apply, anyone who files a claim or simply signals the intent to do so by Monday could collect payments retroactive to last year if the claim is approved,” the Associated Press reports from Utah. “The original cutoff date was Wednesday, but officials extended it because of technical difficulties with the VA website.” Read more on the topic from the VA, here.
The FBI shot and killed an elderly man who said this week that he would assassinate President Biden shortly before Biden’s visit to Utah. The man wrote online that he was “cleaning the dust off the M24 sniper rifle,” which came less than a year after he wrote online, “The time is right for a presidential assassination or two. First Joe then Kamala!!!” The agents were visiting the man’s home in Provo to serve a search warrant Wednesday morning when neighbors say they heard a loud boom followed by gunshots.
His name was Craig Deleeuw Robertson, and he’s believed to have been in his mid-70s. He described himself on social media as a “MAGA Trumper,” and had previously been under investigation for making violent threats on Trump’s Truth Social platform. The Associated Press runs down several of his prior run-ins with law enforcement, here.
By the way: “America is grappling with the biggest and most sustained increase in political violence since the 1970s,” Reuters reported in a special feature published Wednesday. But in contrast to that decade, “much of today's political violence is aimed at people instead of property—and most of the recent deadly outbursts tracked by Reuters have come from the right,” Reuters notes.
What’s going on? “Explanations for today’s violence vary, ranging from widespread financial anxiety and the upheaval of the COVID-19 pandemic to unease at America’s changing racial and ethnic demographics and a coarsening of political rhetoric in the Trump era,” Reuters writes. However, “Threats of violence and intimidating rhetoric soared after Trump lost the 2020 election and falsely claimed the vote was stolen.” Read the rest of that unfortunate yet vital report, here.
Two Army soldiers recently received the nation’s highest peacetime award for heroism, and both episodes occurred this past October. In the first instance, Spc. Rene Rodriguez was merely driving home from work one afternoon when he saw a man punching a woman in front of a crowd of about 10 people who were not intervening. Rodriguez, who is a member of the 25th Infantry Division, told CNN he stopped and turned his car around because that’s what he thought his dad might do in similar circumstances.
“Rodriguez ultimately stopped the violent attack on the woman, after the man in question repeatedly came back for her,” CNN reported about three weeks ago.
Also in October, Chief Warrant Officer 5 Nigel Huebscher intervened after seeing a house on fire while driving home from the beach with his family near Bonifay, Florida.
According to the Army’s narrative: “Huebscher’s wife Devi quickly called 911. Heubscher jumped a locked gate and made his way to the house. He noticed a large pile of rags burning on the wooden porch. An elderly woman came to the door and seemed confused; Huebscher directed her away from the house toward a safe area. He entered the house to determine if people were inside and discovered an elderly gentleman asleep in a bed. He woke the gentleman, who was confused to have a stranger in his home, and repeatedly told him the house was on fire. Huebscher led him to the door. By this point, the smoke was thick black inside the home, and the exterior was engulfed in flames.” Read the rest of his story, here.
And lastly: We say a belated goodbye to U.S. Army veteran Vincent Speranza, who passed away last Wednesday at the admirable age of 98. Vince was a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division and was a veteran of the Battle of Bastogne. That conflict is where Speranza inadvertently made a name for himself while tending to his wounded comrades; a beer was even created in his name to commemorate his actions on December 17, 1944, in Bastogne.
He shared his story with the 101st Airborne Museum about a decade ago, and you can hear him tell it on YouTube, here. You can also hear him brief cadets at the Modern War Institute back in 2019, here. He even penned a memoir back in 2014, which you can find on Amazon, here.