In early June of 1942, six months after Pearl Harbor formally jolted the U.S. into World War II, the Japanese mounted another surprise bombing attack—this time, on Dutch Harbor in the remote Aleutian Islands of Alaska. In the brief ensuing invasion, Japanese naval forces occupied the islands of Attu and Kiska, the first occupation by foreign forces in the United States since the War of 1812.
After U.S. forces drove out the Japanese, it became clear to military leadership that the vast and forbidding 6,640-mile coastline of northwest Alaska needed to be patrolled for the duration of the war. Turning to the Indigenous communities for help, they soon found volunteers from local villages willing to join the newly formed Alaska Territorial Guard (ATG), also known as the “Eskimo Scouts.” (Ed. note: Many people in Arctic communities consider “Eskimo” a pejorative name steeped in racism and colonialism.)
In addition to a number of Euro-Americans, these recruits came largely from the Tlingit, Aleut, Tsimshian, Haida and Athabascan communities, and particularly, from the Yup’ik and Inupiaq people living along the Bering Sea and Arctic coastline. The all-volunteer corps knew the land and were accustomed to surviving in harsh winter conditions.
More than 6,300 Indigenous men and women, ages 12 to 80, joined the Alaska Territorial Guard. They were given a single rifle each, a uniform and army training manual, as well as snowshoes and other gear. These unpaid sentries learned military drills and how to operate communications systems. They became the eyes and ears of the U.S. military in western Alaska.
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Protecting Resources and Supply Routes
The Alaska Territorial Guard proved vital in securing areas around the lend-lease transport route, which the U.S. used to move aircraft to Russia, its wartime ally. They also safeguarded the village of Platinum, home to a mine that provided the sole source of this strategic metal in the Western Hemisphere. The Guardsmen and women also cached survival supplies along transportation routes essential for allied American forces. Superior officers took the lead from Alaska natives, using local dogsleds to move between military installations.
Their duties expanded to include transport of equipment and supplies, construction of ATG buildings and facilities and the development of airstrips and support facilities for other military agencies. They also broke hundreds of miles of wilderness trails, set up and repaired of dozens of emergency shelter cabins and distributed emergency food and ammunition containers for the U.S. Navy. ATG members learned to fight fires, conduct land and sea rescues and engage in enemy combat.
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Notable members of the ATG include Holger “Jorgy” Jorgensen, (-Norwegian), an intrepid bush pilot and former Morse Code operator who later helped staged a sit-in to racially integrate Nome’s Dream Theater. There was also Wesley Ugiaqtaq, who before joining the ATG in Utqiaġvik (formerly Barrow), worked herding reindeer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and captained a whaling ship out of Utqiaġvik. Jorgensen, who represented Alaska veterans and spoke also for Alaska Native people, in later years participated at elder and youth events. David Ungrudruk Leavitt, Sr., also Inupiaq, grew up as a subsistence hunter and joined the ATG as a teenager. Many years later, he attended the Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. to meet other ATG veterans who knew their commander, Marvin “Muktuk” Marston.
While some Alaskans stood proudly in defense of their homelands, others were sent to work in factories, or forcibly removed. Following the attack on Dutch Harbor, the U.S. military evacuated Alaska’s Pribilof Islands, located in the Bering Sea between the United States and Russia. Indigenous families were put into crowded transport ships and removed to southeastern Alaska. There they were resettled in fish canneries, abandoned mining structures and other unsafe and unsanitary buildings. About 100 of the 881 detainees died by war’s end.
Alaska Territorial Guard members stayed on watch even as the action of World War II became focused in Europe and the South Pacific. But during the last months of the war, the Japanese launched a last-ditch effort to terrorize Americans by sending 9,000 incendiary balloon bombs that were carried on the jet stream onto the mainland. The Alaska Territorial Guard members, trained to identify enemy ships and aircraft, spotted the balloons and helped to shoot them down and demobilize them.
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Recognition Took More Than Six Decades
After the war, Alaska Territorial Guard veterans and their supporters petitioned the U.S. government and succeeded in passing Alaska’s first anti-discrimination law aimed at ending segregation of its Indigenous people. In 2010, the U.S. government finally recognized the veterans for their service and gave them formal veteran status when President George W. Bush signed a bill into law that ordered the defense secretary to issue honorable discharges to the Alaskan natives. Alaska’s Department of Military and Veterans Affairs then set up a task force to notify and assist former members, their families and dependents on how to obtain the benefits entitled to them.
“Our goal is to locate 100 percent of the ATG members, begin correcting the oversight of the past, and allow future generations access to their ancestors’ service records,” the department stated on its website.
Federal funding was then allocated to ensure the actions of the thousands of members who had volunteered to protect the territory and the United States would not be forgotten. In 2012, a group of U.S. military veterans in Bethel, Alaska used a portion of the funds to build a memorial park to enshrine the Alaskan Territorial Guard veterans.