How Native Americans Protected Alaska During World War II

In early June 1942, six months after Pearl Harbor had officially pushed the United States into World War II, the Japanese staged another surprise bombing, this time on Dutch Harbor in Alaska’s remote Aleutian Islands. . In the brief invasion that followed, Japanese naval forces occupied the islands of Attu and Kiska, the first occupation by foreign forces of the United States since the War of 1812.

After American forces drove the Japanese out, it became clear to military leaders that the vast and forbidden 6,640-mile coastline of northwest Alaska had to be patrolled for the duration of the war. Turning to native communities for help, they soon found volunteers from local villages willing to join the new Alaska Home Guard (ATG), also known as the “Eskimo Scouts”. (Ed. Remark(Many people in arctic communities view “Eskimo” as 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 peoples living along the Bering Sea and from the arctic coast. The all-volunteer corps knew the terrain and was accustomed to surviving harsh winter conditions.

More than 6,300 Native men and women, ages 12 to 80, joined the Alaska Home Guard. They received a single rifle each, an army uniform and training manual, as well as snowshoes and other equipment. These unpaid sentries were taught military drills and how to operate communication systems. They became the eyes and ears of the US military in western Alaska.

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Protect resources and supply routes

Japanese attack on Dutch Harbor, Alaska, June 3, 1942

The Alaska Home Guard proved vital in securing areas around the Lend-Lease Transport Route, which the United States used to move planes to Russia, its wartime ally. They also protected the village of Platinum, home to a mine that provided the only source of this strategic metal in the Western Hemisphere. Guardsmen also cached survival supplies along critical transportation routes for allied U.S. forces. Senior officers took the lead from the Alaskan natives, using local dog sleds to travel between military installations.

Their duties expanded to include transporting equipment and supplies, constructing buildings and ATG facilities, and developing airstrips and support facilities for other military agencies. They also dug hundreds of miles of wilderness trails, set up and repaired dozens of emergency shelter cabins, and distributed containers of emergency food and ammunition for the US 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 organize 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 as a reindeer herder for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and commanded a whaling ship from Utqiaġvik. Jorgensen, who represented Alaskan veterans and also spoke on behalf of Alaska Natives, later participated in events for elders and youth. David Ungrudruk Leavitt, Sr., also Inupiaq, grew up as a subsistence hunter and joined the ATG as a teenager. Several years later, he attended the Honor Flight in Washington, D.C. to meet other ATG veterans who knew their commanding officer, Marvin “Muktuk” Marston.

While some Alaskans stood proudly in defense of their homeland, others were sent to work in factories or forcibly expelled. Following the attack on Dutch Harbor, the US military evacuated Alaska’s Pribilof Islands, located in the Bering Sea between the United States and Russia. Native families were placed in crowded transport ships and taken to Southeast Alaska. There they were resettled in fish canneries, abandoned mining structures and other unsafe and unsanitary buildings. About 100 of the 881 inmates died by the end of the war.

Members of the Alaska Home Guard remained on duty even as World War II action focused on Europe and the South Pacific. But during the final months of the war, the Japanese launched a last-ditch effort to terrorize the Americans by sending 9,000 incendiary explosive balloons which were carried by the jet stream to the mainland. Members of the Alaska Home Guard, trained to identify enemy ships and aircraft, spotted the balloons and helped shoot them down and demobilize them.

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Recognition took more than six decades

Former member of the Alaska Home and National Guard, Staff Sgt.  1st Class Samuel Jackson displays his Home Guard medal during an interview recalling his time on duty in Kwethluk, Alaska, Sept. 22, 2017. The ATG stood guard on the shores of western Alaska during World War II in response to the Japanese occupation of the Aleutian Islands.

Former member of the Alaska Home and National Guard, Staff Sgt. 1st Class Samuel Jackson displays his Home Guard medal during an interview recalling his time on duty in Kwethluk, Alaska, Sept. 22, 2017. The ATG stood guard on the shores of western Alaska during World War II in response to the Japanese occupation of the Aleutian Islands.

After the war, Alaska Home Guard veterans and their supporters petitioned the U.S. government and succeeded in passing Alaska’s first anti-discrimination law aimed at ending the segregation of its Indigenous Peoples. In 2010, the US government finally recognized veterans for their service and granted them official veteran status when President George W. Bush signed a bill directing the Secretary of Defense to issue honorable discharges. to the natives of Alaska. The Alaska Department of Military Affairs and Veterans Affairs then set up a task force to inform and assist former members, their families and dependents on how to obtain the benefits to which they are entitled.

“Our goal is to locate 100% of ATG members, begin to correct surveillance of the past, and allow future generations access to their ancestors’ service records,” the department said on its website.

Federal funding was then allocated to ensure that 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 American veterans in Bethel, Alaska used some of the funds to build a memorial park to dedicate Alaska Home Guard veterans.

Nohemi M. Moore