HISTORY OF THE ALASKA TERRITORIAL GUARD
The Alaska Territorial Guard (ATG), more commonly the Eskimo Scouts, was a military reserve force component of the US Army, organized in 1942 in response to attacks on United States soil in Hawaii and occupation of parts of Alaska by Japan during World War II. The ATG operated until 1947. 6,368 volunteers who served without pay were enrolled from 107 communities throughout Alaska in addition to a paid staff of 21, according to an official roster. The ATG brought together for the first time into a joint effort members of these ethnic groups: Aleut, Athabaskan, White, Inupiaq, Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Yupik, and most likely others. In later years, all members of some native units scored expert sharpshooter rankings. Among the 27 or more women members were at least one whoseriflery skills exceeded the men. The ages of members at enrollment ranged from 80 years old to as young as twelve (both extremes occurring mostly in sparsely populated areas). As volunteers the Alaska Territorial Guard members were those that were too young or too old to be drafted during WWII.
One first-hand estimate states that around 20,000 Alaskans participated, officially or otherwise, in ATG reconnaissance or support activities.
The ATG served many vital strategic purposes to the entire Allied effort during World War II:
- They safeguarded the only source of the strategic metal platinum in the Western Hemisphere against Japanese attack.
- They secured the terrain around the vital Lend-Lease air route between the United States and Russia.
- they placed and maintained survival caches primarily along transportation cooridors and coastal regions.
In addition to official duties, ATG members are noted for actively and successfully promoting racial integration within US military forces, and racial equality within the communities they protected.
Several former members of the ATG were instrumental in achieving Alaska Statehood in 1959, as members of the Alaska Statehood Committee and/or delegates to the Alaska Constitutional Convention.
In 2000 all ATG members were granted US veteran status by law, acknowledging the contribution of the ATG, some of whose members are still living. But efforts to find the surviving ATG members and assist them through the application process are difficult due to lack of written records, oral cultures, lack of trained staff, passage of time, and unclear bureaucracies and advocates.
Conditions leading up to the ATG
Before World War II, Alaska was regarded by US military decision makers as too distant from the contiguous United States to effectively protect, and of little strategic importance.
"...the mainland of Alaska is so remote from the strategic areas of the Pacific that it is difficult to conceive of circumstances in which air operations therefrom would contribute materially to the national defense." - General Malin Craig, US Army Chief of Staff, November 1937
This stands in marked contrast to the attitudes of US military leaders during the Cold War immediately after World War II:
"...as I continue to correspond and to talk with people throughout the United States and the Department of Defense, they too can see clearly the importance of these two battalions which you make up. The real honest-to-God and real-world first line of defense in Alaska ... nearer our opponent, Communist Russia, than any other armed troops in the United States." - General James F Hollingsworth, Commanding General, United States Army Alaska (USARAL), February 1971
True to the earlier viewpoint, the US Army reassigned all Alaska National Guard units out of Alaska to Washington State in August 1941. Alaska was now without military reserves or any form of Home Guard. In the face of an encroaching enemy, the defense of nearly 34,000 miles (55,000 km) of US coastline was left to the best efforts of unorganized local citizens and already overworked seasonal laborers.
That enemy was demonstrating a definite interest in taking Alaska. In the early months of 1942, a Japanese Navy reconnaissance unit was caught on film making detailed surveys of Alaska coastline.
Enemy combatants strode unopposed onto American soil and made inquiries among the populace about the local economy. Enemy aircraft and submarine sightings were common, inspiring great fear among the locals, and culminating in the raid on Dutch Harbor and the occupation of the Aleutian Islands of Attu, Kiska and Adak that June.
Creation of the ATG
By the time of the Dutch Harbor bombing, a Major Marvin R Marston had submitted a new plan to defend the entire Alaska coast by enlisting the local citizens. He had conceived this plan while visiting Saint Lawrence Island and contemplating the fate of the locals he'd met. Marston's proposal finally met with favor when word of it got to Alaska territorial governor Ernest Gruening. Gruening had sought to organize a new guard for Alaska, including every able man and boy, since he got word that the US Army would reassign the Alaska National Guard.
Motivated by the recent Dutch Harbor attack, the Alaska Command> assigned Major Marston and Captain Carl Schreibner within days to serve as military aides to Governor Gruening. Shortly after, Gruening and Marston flew a chartered plane to begin setting up units of the new Alaska Territorial Guard. This included one of the most strategically important sites in all Alaska, a tiny mining town called Platinum—the only source of that strategic metal in all the Western Hemisphere.
The enrollment drive continued into early 1943, the organizers travelling in all kinds of weather and by every available mode of transport, including airplane, boat, snowmobile, foot, and the most reliable means in the region, dogsled. When a promised plane failed to arrive after a week, Major Marston set out by dogsled on an epic 680-mile (1,090 km) trip around the Seward Peninsula, during the coldest winter in 25 years. He survived by foregoing standard military survival training in favor of the native methods of his Eskimo/Scout and OSS member guide, Sammy Mogg.
Thanks to Marston and Mogg's heroic effort, the ATG stood as a first line of defense for the terrain around the Lend-Lease route from America to Russia, against attack by Japan and the Axis Powers. This vital lifeline allowed the US to supply its Russian ally with essential military aircraft. This lifeline had proven to be crucial to Russia's survival during Hitler's Operation Barbarossa.
Organization of the ATG
The Alaska Territorial Guard was organized in June 1942 under the authority of the office of the territorial governor, Ernest Gruening, who served as Commander-In-Chief. All members took an oath to obey the Governor's orders. The governor was directly supported by the ATG Adjutant General, J. P. Williams. Headquarters was in the territorial capital, Juneau.
The mission of the ATG was to play a defensive role for the entire coast of Alaska. Offensive action was the responsibility of the Pacific Theatre commanders, operating from large bases at Dutch Harbor, Cold Bay and Anchorage.
Explicit within the ATG mission was that of protecting the terrain around the American terminus of the Lend-Lease air route to Russia on which warplanes were flown from Great Falls, Montana to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada, then to Ladd Field, Alaska (now Fort Wainwright) and on to Nome. Here, Russian pilots flew the planes on to their intended use, combat against Hitler's Third Reich.
The Alaska Territorial Guard operated from its inception in June 1942 until it was officially disbanded on 31 March 1947.
By Geographic Area
The Territory of Alaska was divided vertically by the 156th Parallel into Eastern and Western Areas. To the Eastern Area was added Southwest Alaska, including the Aleutian Islands, which had been evacuated of non-combatants.
The Western Area had a Field Headquarters in Nome, with the offices of the Commander, Quartermaster, Instructors, Public Relations Officer and Chaplains. Other field staff were located in Anchorage, Koyuk, Selawik and Gambell on Saint Lawrence Island, where Major Marston first conceived his plan).
The Eastern Area was headquartered in Juneau and held the offices of Property Officer (a role filled by the Adjutant General) and Instructors. Field staff were assigned to Glacier Highway, Douglas, Ketchikan, Palmer, Hoonah and Sitka.
By Ethnic Group
The Alaska Territorial Guard was drawn from 107 communities and from these ethnic groups: Aleut, Athabascan, White, Inupiaq, Haida, Tlingit,Tsimshian, Yup'ik, and probably more.
The ATG, being organized by US Army officers, made use of the same US Army rank structure, with these exceptions:
- Throughout the duration of the ATG, no member rose above the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, including the Adjutant "General".
- The designation "Private" appears to have been little used, though most members were in fact of Private rank.
By Workload and Pay
The 21 staff officers were all full-time, paid positions (except for the governor, whose ATG duties were in addition to his regular office and without added salary). All other positions were strictly part-time volunteer, without pay.
That total includes at least 27 ATG members who were women. Most women served as nurses at the field hospital in Kotzebue, although at least one woman served the ATG's primary mission alongside the men. Laura Beltz Wright of Haycock is also noted for being the best sharpshooter in her company, scoring 98% bulls-eyes.
The age of ATG members at enrollment ranged from 80 years old to as young as twelve, even though official regulations put the minimum age at sixteen.
All told, there were 6,389 members of the Alaska Territorial Guard, according to an official roster.
Alongside those who served in the ATG, many others worked to support them, including food service, providing equipment and supplies to the Quartermaster, repair work, etc. Major Marston put the estimate at 20,000 Alaskans who materially participated in ATG activities, in his Western Area alone.
All ATG members except the 21 staff officers served without pay, and had to perform their new ATG duties in addition to the often difficult challenges of subsisting in Arctic and extreme marine environments.
The ATG trained for and/or actively carried out the following:
- Issuing of weapons and ammunition
- Instruction, drill and target practice
- Transport of equipment and supplies
- Construction of ATG buildings and facilities
- Construction of airstrips and support facilities for other military agencies as needed
- Coastal and inland scouting patrols
- Breaking hundreds of miles of wilderness trails
- Setup and repair of dozens of emergency shelter cabins
- Distribution of emergency food and ammunition containers for the US Navy
- Land and sea rescue
- Enemy combat
The ATG received commendations for:
- Shooting down Japanese air balloons carrying bombs and eavesdropping radios
- Rescue of a downed airman
In addition, some ATG members performed the following:
- Medical care at the field hospital in Kotzebue
During the 1930s, as part of FDR's New Deal programs to ease the country out of Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) hired many noted American artists. On the US entry into World War II, several WPA artists took work with the War Department>. A few of these artists made their way to Alaska to help document the Aleutian Campaign and other Alaskan military operations, including the new Alaska Territorial Guard. Some of their work was featured nationwide on a number of wartime posters. The artists included:
- Magnus Colcord "Rusty" Heurlin - An ATG lieutenant, his painting was reproduced as the posters "Back the Attack" and "From Metlakatla to Barrow - The Territorial Guard".
- Joe Jones
- >Henry Varnum Poor - His "Major Muktuk Marston Signs Up Soldiers" now hangs in the Pentagon's Hall of Fame.
Other artists, born in Alaska and already well-known, gained further exposure through contact with ATG members and artists:
- Florence Nupok Melewotkuk - a Siberian Yupik from Saint Lawrence Island. Her work was promoted in the 1920s by Otto Geist, later an ATG major.
- George Aden Ahgupuk (also known by the indigenous name Twok) - a Shishmaref artist since boyhood and later the village's postmaster, he was befriended by Major Marston, who wrote and spoke of his artistry within and outside the ATG.
Several former members of the ATG were instrumental in achieving Alaska Statehood. In 1958 three of the eleven members of the Alaska Statehood Committee were former ATG members. Seven delegates to the Alaska Constitutional Committee had served with the ATG. Both are listed below under Noted ATG Members.
The ATG actively and successfully promoted racial integration in the by proving the worth of native Americans as soldiers within US military forces much as the Navajo, Commanche and Choctaw Code talkers did elsewhere during World War II.
ATG members were also active in promoting racial equality in their communities, insisting on equal treatment for natives and whites alike at movie theaters, restaurants and other public facilities.
In 2000 Alaska's senior US Senator, Ted Stevens, sponsored a bill ordering the Secretary of Defense to issue Honorable Discharges to all Americans who served in the Alaska Territorial Guard (ATG). Stevens was himself a World War II veteran, flying with the Army Air Corps in China.
The bill was signed into law by President Bush that August.
Because of disagreement as to whose responsibility it was to seek the ATG veterans out to inform them of the new law, and because of the advanced age and geographic isolation of many of the veterans, a temporary position, filled by retired colonel Robert A "Bob" Goodman, was created in the Alaska Department of Military & Veterans' Affairs (DMVA) in 2003, to find and assist as many former ATG members as possible. After the position ended that October, Bob continued the work, on his own and funded out of his own pocket. In support of this effort, he founded the Alaska Territorial Guard Organization (ATGO), a 501(c)(3) non-profit, in April 2006. He continues the work with the help of a small paid and volunteer ATGO staff. To date, they have found and helped obtain an honorable discharge for about 150 ATG members. They estimate there are several hundred more yet to be found.
Bob Goodman and the ATGO have pled the case of the ATG members and spouses with US senators, two Alaskan governors, most of the state legislature, the Anchorage Assembly, as well as numerous Alaska Native Regional Corporations and other corporations and foundations.