Alaska's Heritage


International boundaries and waters affect Alaska

Alaska's nearness to two foreign countries, Canada and Russia, has caused Alaska to have more contact with foreign nations than many other states. This activity has been increased by the fact that Alaska has a long coastline and its thousands of miles of territorial waters border international waters. Because of this, Alaska has especially had much to do with the maritime nations of the world. These are the countries that depend on the oceans for much of their food and as highways over which goods are moved to and from their countries. They include, but are not limited to, Canada, Great Britain, Japan, and Russia.

World War II demonstrates the influence of international events on Alaska

While these countries have been participants in many historic events in Alaska such as the fur trade, sea mammal hunting, fishing, and boundary disputes, they were also participants in the inter-national event that has most dramatically affected Alaska. This was World War 11, a global conflict that lasted from 1939 to 1945. Awareness of Alaska's significance in a Pacific Ocean war had been realized even before the 1867 purchase. President Abraham Lincoln is said to have commented on the United States' need for North Pacific naval bases.

In the early days of American administration of Alaska, Alaska's military significance was seen only in terms of coaling stations for naval vessels on their way across the Pacific Ocean. This significance diminished in the early 1900s. One reason was that Alaskan coal reserves never proved economical for naval use. Another reason was that, although Aleutian ports were on the Great Circle route between naval bases on the United States west coast and the Far East, the navy decided that in the event of war it would refuel its warships from ships rather than from onshore coaling bases. Finally, in the early 1900s, navy ships began to use oil instead of coal as fuel. Although the navy recognized Alaska's potential strategic significance, in 1913, the General Board of the Navy recommended priority be given to facilities on a line drawn from Hawaii to Guam to Manila. These recommendations were made prior to World War I. That war (1914-1918) indicated that the outcome of future conflicts would be influenced by two new weapons. These were the airplane and the submarine. As a result, there were new thoughts about Alaska's strategic significance.

The first implementation of those thoughts was the 1920 flight of the U.S. Army's Black Wolf aircraft squadron from New York to Nome. The 9,000-mile flight proved that aircraft could reach Alaska from the United States and that the reverse was true. Another army flight stopped in Alaska on its way around the world from Seattle in 1924. It re-emphasized Alaska's central location on global air routes. Both flights had been ordered by Brigadier General William "Billy" Mitchell, assistant chief of the army's air service until 1925. After he left that position, Mitchell wrote:

It does not take much of a look into the future to see that he who holds Alaska holds the world, because a great expanding nation, if it becomes dominant in the air, can now achieve world domination.

The military importance of airplanes was not universally appreciated, however. The navy, responsible for overall defense of Alaska, still believed in the overriding importance of large battleships such as those which had determined the outcome of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 to 1905. As a result, in 1922 the navy bargained away the American right to build fortifications in the Aleutian Islands as one of its concessions in obtaining a limit on the size and number of warships Japan could construct. It seemed clear by this time that Japan would be the United States' opponent in a future Pacific Ocean war. Militarily, Japan was the only nation capable of contesting the interests of the United States in the Pacific Ocean area. Politically and economically, the United States and Japan were on a collision course as each nation sought to obtain resources from Asia and develop markets in Asian countries. Emotionally, many uninformed Americans viewed the Japanese as racially inferior and some were repelled by the 1937 Japanese invasion of China. In general, American sentiment favored China as a result of a long history of American missionary activity in that country. The Japanese, on the other hand, viewed Americans and Europeans as representatives of declining civilizations, which in any case had never equalled Japanese culture and achievement. In particular, they thought it unlikely that Americans would go to war in defense of their Pacific Ocean interests. These political, economic, and emotional factors all increased the likelihood of a Japanese-American war over Pacific Ocean interests.

In planning for such a war, the U.S. Army and the U.S. Navy agreed in 1928 that there should be a defensive line running from Panama to Hawaii to Alaska. Alaskan fortifications were assigned the lowest priority. Then, economic troubles, brought by the world-wide depression that began in 1929, meant that money was not available for low priority construction. Although the navy intensified its survey of the Aleutian Islands for possible naval base sites, nothing more happened until 1934. In that year, Japan announced its intention not to renew the 1922 limitations treaty. This cleared the way for construction of American bases in the Aleutians.

Two other events in 1934 also increased the likelihood that military bases would be developed in Alaska. Alaska's delegate to Congress, Anthony J. Dimond, introduced a bill to appropriate over $10 million for airbase construction at Fairbanks or another suitable Alaskan location. He pointed out that the shortest path between the United States and the Far East was the Great Circle route. This route was only 276 miles south of the Aleutian Islands, but 2,000 miles north of the Hawaiian Islands. A San Francisco to Hawaii to Japan route required over 6,000 miles of travel. A Great Circle route from San Francisco to Japan, paralleling the arc of the Aleutian Islands, required just over 5,000 miles of travel. "Is it not obvious," Dimond said, "that an enemy moving across the Pacific would rather first invade Alaska?" At the same time, another army expedition flew several bomber aircraft from Washington, D. C. to Fairbanks and back. A series of studies and recommendations for Alaskan airbases followed, but nothing happened until 1938.

In 1938, military authorities testifying before Congress stressed the need for Alaskan bases. General Henry H. Arnold, a senior Army Air Corps officer, stated that Alaska flanked the Great Circle route to the Far East. It therefore bordered a possible route for invasion forces approaching the United States from the Far East. Alaska also formed the apex of the Panama-Hawaii-Alaska defense triangle. Alaskan air-bases were needed from which North Pacific Ocean air patrols could be conducted and naval stations at Sitka, Kodiak, and Dutch Harbor could be defended.

Japan had allowed the 1922 armament limitations treaty to end without renewal in 1936. Then, Japanese aircraft sank the United States Navy gunboat Panay on the Yangtze River in China in December of 1937. This persuaded President Franklin D. Roosevelt to support a 20 per cent increase in naval ship building and naval base construction in the Pacific. As a result, the Naval Act of May 17, 1938, authorized construction of several new warships and created a board under former director of naval intelligence, Admiral Arthur J. Hepburn, to study naval base locations.

The Hepburn board submitted its report in December of 1938. Naval air, destroyer, and submarine bases were recommended for Sitka, Kodiak, and Dutch Harbor. As were the recommended army air bases, the naval stations were seen as important defenses against a Japanese attack on the continental United States using an Aleutians-Alaska route. Congress made initial appropriations and work began on the Sitka and Kodiak bases in 1939. Work began at Dutch Harbor in 1940. A joint Army-Navy survey team arrived in Alaska to select future base sites on the mainland and in the Aleutian Islands. Interest in defense of Alaska also increased when Russia, now known as the Soviet Union, allied itself with Nazi Germany in the war that had broken out in Europe in 1939.

The military activity that followed these decisions changed Alaska forever. As other chapters document, the impact on civilian Alaskans was long-term. The events can be put in perspective by realizing that in 1940 there were about 1,000 military personnel and 76,000 civilians in Alaska. This population was scattered over an area of 586,000 square miles.

Although work began almost simultaneously on army, army air, and navy bases in Alaska, the army and the navy did not agree on how to best defend Alaska. The navy took the position that if it could control the North Pacific Ocean, it could protect Alaska. The way to do this was to watch for Japanese activity in the North Pacific with aerial patrols flying from the three Alaskan bases. Destroyers, patrol boats, and seaplane tenders might be stationed in Alaska to support and supplement the aerial surveillance. Only if Japanese naval forces appeared in Alaskan waters would the navy send warships such as aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers, and submarines to Alaska.

The army position, on the other hand, was that fighters and bombers flying from airbases in Alaska were needed to defend Alaska. The army immediately began to prepare for this. In July of 1940, Colonel Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., took charge of the Alaska Defense Force. Shortly after this, the army promoted Buckner to Brigadier General. Advance parties from army fighter and bomber units began to arrive at the newly-constructed Elmendorf Field outside Anchorage and army engineers began construction of a chain of air fields along Alaska's coastline. The first combat-ready fighter and bomber squadrons followed in February and March of 1941.

The build-up continued with the army's Alaska Defense Command strength increasing from just over 7,000 personnel at the end of June 1941 to over 21,500 at the end of September of that year. The number of navy personnel in Alaska also grew. The navy had nearly 2,000 at Sitka, 6,000 at Kodiak, and 5,500 at Dutch Harbor. The army's effective fighting forces, however, consisted of only a few obsolete B-18 bombers and P-36 fighters. The navy had only a few patrol boats and aircraft.

Onset of war changes Alaska

By late 1941, Alaska was preparing, but not yet ready, for war. In addition to expansion of the active duty army and navy forces in Alaska the Alaska National Guard was increased in strength. In September of 1941, the guard was called up and integrated with the active duty army. Numbers of individual Alaskans, both Native and non-Native, also left the territory either as individual draftees or volunteers for full-time active duty with the army and other services.

When the Alaska National Guard was called to active duty, Governor Ernest Gruening was given permission to organize an Alaska Territorial Guard to replace it. The army detailed two officers, Major M.R. "Muktuk" Marston and Captain Carl Schreibner, to assist Gruenong in organization of the territorial guard, whose mission was to watch the coastline, pass warnings, and resist parachute invasion. Schreibner organized the guard in Southeast Alaska, while Marston focused on central and western Alaska. Eventually some 3,000 strong, the territorial guard included many Alaska Aleuts, Eskimos, and Indians.

Despite the preparations, the onset of war came as a shock to Alaskans. Japanese authorities decided in late 1941 that they could strike first, destroy the American fleet in the Pacific, and occupy American and European protectorates and colonies in the Pacific Ocean area. The Americans, they thought, would probably try to arrange a peace. The Europeans, they knew, were too busy fighting Nazi Germany in Europe to successfully oppose them in the Pacific. Following this reasoning on December 7 1941, Japanese forces attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Attacks on United States bases on Guam Wake and the Philippine islands followed as did attacks on British, Dutch, and French forces in the Pacific Ocean.

News of the attacks reached Alaska by way of Fairbanks radio station KFAR. Radio engineer Augie Hiebert heard the news on short-wave radio. He relayed it to military authorities. Orders went out putting Alaska on a war footing. Lights were blacked out to prevent their aiding in anticipated Japanese bombing raids. Ships were ordered to remain in port. Some train schedules were cancelled. Civilian flying was temporarily halted. Communication facilities were closed down or taken over by the military. Sabotage warnings were issued. Military families and the families of military contractors were evacuated. Some civilian families packed supplies and prepared to flee into the wilderness in case the Japanese invaded Alaska.

Japanese citizens in Alaska and Alaskans of Japanese descent were arrested and eventually sent to camps in the lower 48 states for the duration of the war. A news ban made Alaskans particularly susceptible to rumors about war dangers.

Military control of Alaskan life tightened and military forces in Alaska expanded as the war went on. As in the rest of the United States, civilians had to compete with military personnel for space on buses, planes, ships, and trains. The military also controlled travel to and from Alaska.

War comes to Alaska

It was only six months after the Pearl Harbor attack that war came to Alaska. Early in the spring of 1942, intercepted radio messages indicated that the Japanese planned to attack American bases in the Aleutian Islands. In late May the navy sent a battle squadron of 5 cruisers, 11 destroyers, and 36 smaller craft to defend the Aleutians against the anticipated invasion. Army fighters and bombers were moved forward to hastily-constructed Aleutian airfields. During the first week in June, Japanese carrier-based aircraft bombed Dutch Harbor while Japanese troops occupied Attu and Kiska islands in the westernmost Aleutians. Although U.S. Army aircraft opposed the Japanese assault on Dutch Harbor by attacking Japanese aircraft and bombing Japanese ships, the navy's warships searched unsuccessfully for the Japanese ships at Attu and Kiska. Later, army and navy bombers attempted unsuccessfully to keep the Japanese from consolidating their footholds on Attu and Kiska.

Military installations in Alaska, 1940-1942 (first half).
A small American navy party of weather observers on Kiska and Attu Island villagers were taken to Japan. They were held there until the end of the war. Of the 42 Aleuts and two non-Natives removed from Kiska by the Japanese, 17 died while in captivity. The Japanese invasion also led to American evacuation of Aleuts from the Aleutian and Pribilof islands. Since their home islands had become a battle field, the Aleuts were evacuated by ship to abandoned canneries, old mining camps, and other locations, mostly in Southeast Alaska. Many of the homes they left behind were burned to prevent the Japanese from using them. Many of the more than 800 evacuees suffered greatly. Quite a few were not able to return to their homes for several years. They found that all they left behind had been destroyed.

Efforts begin to drive the Japanese from the Aleutian Islands

Japanese attacks on Alaska.
The Japanese invasion of Attu and Kiska islands marked the first time since the War of 1812 that American territory had been occupied by an invading army. Efforts to drive the Japanese out began immediately. In part this was for a psychological reason, to get the enemy off American soil. In part this was also for military reasons. The two islands are about 2,400 miles from Tokyo and about 1,300 miles from Seattle. The Americans believed that if the Japanese could base bombers in the Aleutians, they would only have a 12-hour flight to bomb the aircraft plants and navy yards around Seattle. The Japanese, however, wanted the two islands for bases for long-range sea planes. Such planes could patrol the 1,500 miles of ocean between Midway Island and the Aleutians to detect any American activity in the area. They also believed that the Attu and Kiska bases would block any American attack on the islands of Japan via the Aleutian Islands.

American efforts to retake Attu and Kiska began with bombing raids on the islands carried out by navy flying boats, or large sea planes, and army air force bombers flying from Umnak Island. Increasing numbers of American fighter aircraft arrived at forward bases in the Aleutians and engaged Japanese aircraft flying from the occupied islands. Japanese losses were high. The last air-to-air fight between American and Japanese planes over the Aleutian Islands took place in February 1943. Later, it was discovered that the terrible Aleutian Islands flying weather and heavy surf at Kiska had accounted for 60 per cent of the Japanese planes lost, while the remaining 40 per cent were destroyed on the ground or in the air by American attacks. American losses were also heavy. Of 31 pilots of the 54th Fighter Squadron sent to Alaska, only 10 survived a year of duty in the Aleutians. While the air attacks were going on, American submarines attacked Japanese ships carrying arms and supplies to Attu and Kiska.

Eventually the Japanese moved most of their troops from Attu to Kiska and reinforced the Kiska garrison with additional soldiers from the home islands. The Americans, in turn, established new bases in the western Aleutians and built up strength to retake Attu and Kiska.

In March of 1943, U.S. Navy ships intercepted Japanese ships attempting to take more troops to Kiska. The resulting "Battle of the Commander Islands" resulted in a Japanese retreat. Thereafter, the Japanese on Attu and Kiska were isolated, although destroyers and submarines occasionally were able to sneak supplies to them.

American military officials authorized the retaking of Attu in March of 1943. In late April of 1943 the invasion force arrived in Alaska from West Coast ports. The force consisted of the 7th Infantry Division on five transports and a naval force of three battleships, six cruisers, 19 destroyers, and one small aircraft carrier. After gathering at Cold Bay, the invasion force headed west and attacked Attu on May 11. The battle lasted until May 29. 0f the 15,000 American troops sent ashore, 549 were killed and 1,148 wounded by fierce Japanese resistance. Over 2,000 more became casualties from frostbite and exposure, due to inadequate training and equipment. The 7th Infantry, which had been training in California for desert warfare, had not been prepared to fight on a snowy, wet, mountainous island. Despite these handicaps, the Americans overcame the much smaller Japanese force. Only 29 of the approximately 2,400 Japanese on Attu survived.

Once Attu was retaken, the Americans began planning the re-capture of Kiska. American engineers built runways on Attu and near-by Shemya Island, while an invasion force of over 34,000 troops was assembled. Bombing raids on Kiska were intensified. While the Americans prepared to (and on Kiska, the Japanese attempted to remove their troops by submarine. More than 800 of the over 5,000 Japanese on Kiska left this way before the effort was abandoned because too many submarines were being sunk by American forces. On July 28,1943, however, the Japanese managed a brilliant escape. Mysterious radar contacts reported 200 miles to the southwest of Kiska drew off American naval forces picketing the island. Two Japanese cruisers and six destroyers rushed into Kiska harbor and carried away the remaining Japanese garrison.

American air attacks on Kiska continued, and although pilots reported either "light opposition" or a belief that the Japanese were gone, American authorities decided to continue with invasion plans. They believed that the Japanese might just have withdrawn into the interior of the island. A combined American and Canadian invasion force of nearly 100 ships and 144,000 troops assembled at Adak. On August 15, the invasion force went ashore on Kiska to find that the Japanese were gone. Nearly 100 Allied troops were killed by each others' fire, booby traps, a naval mine that damaged the destroyer Abner Read, and accidents. The estimated cost of the Kiska recapture was between $150 million and $170 million.

Alaska becomes the "forgotten front"

Much of the American military force in Alaska left after the re-capture of Attu and Kiska. For the troops who were left, Alaska seemed to be the "forgotten front." American planes took off from Aleutian Island bases to bomb the northern Japanese home island of Paramushiro in July of 1943. Those flights continued after the recapture of Attu and Kiska, until the end of the war in 1945, as did patrol flights over the North Pacific Ocean.

Wartime activities continue in other parts of Alaska

The campaign to retake Attu and Kiska had required a huge build-up and construction of a number of military bases on the Alaska mainland and throughout the Aleutian Islands. At the height of World War II military activity in Alaska, the military population of 144,000 outnumbered the civilian population of 81,000. After Attu and Kiska were retaken, many of these bases were either closed or reduced in size. Combat troops were replaced by garrison troops, and the first army women soldiers were sent to Alaska. In August of 1944, all bases east of Adak, except for Ladd Field at Fairbanks and Fort Richardson, including Elmendorf Field, at Anchorage, were put in a caretaker status. Fort Richardson served as the military head-quarters of Alaska. Ladd Field at Fairbanks, Marks Field at Nome, and intermediate fields supported an aircraft ferrying system in which planes were delivered to Russian pilots at Ladd Field and flown back to Russia. The planes eventually ended up on European battlefields fighting against Germany and its allied Axis Powers. The first aircraft were transferred in the fall of 1942 and by the time the war was over in 1945, nearly 8,000 aircraft had been delivered to the Russians.

World war II has lasting impact on Alaska

World war II activities in the territory had a lasting impact on Alaska. The War Department spent over a billion dollars on military construction and operations in Alaska during the war. It shipped military personnel numbering nearly twice the civilian population to Alaska. Many soldiers returned to make Alaska their home after the war.

The war also gave Alaska a new internal road system and its first road link to the rest of the United States. It resulted in many improved airports, harbors, and communications facilities. Finally, the war demonstrated Alaska's strategic position and assured a military presence that continued after 1945.