The text you are about to read is part of an almost scientific archive on a very specific subject, Alaska during World War Two. Originally, this study traces the evolution of Alaska since its takeover by the USA. The document continues with very extensive research on the inhabitants of this part of the world and then devotes itself in a very professional way to the period of urbanization of the wilderness of this country. As I devote myself almost entirely to the fighting of WW2, it would have been difficult to ignore the evolution of this war after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the attempted invasion by the Japanese in the Aleutian Islands. However, it would also have been difficult to start the publication of this archive without retracing in a succinct way the establishment of the American forces in this country which was, in the 1900-1910, nothing else than a wild country where only trappers, gold diggers and grizzly bears had the right to quote. So I focused on the essential military part of Alaska’s history during WW2, retracing the establishment of the army from its beginning to its peak in the virgin territories of this country. This part of the text will be, it seems to me, a fantastic introduction to the fighting in the Aleutian Islands.


Document Source
World War II in Alaska
A Historic and Resources Management Plan
US Corps of Engineers


The role of Alaska in the conduct of World War II and the role of the War in the development of Alaska are not fully known or appreciated by the vast majority of Americans. Between 1940 and 1945 vast quantities of men and materials were sent to what would later become the Forty-ninth state. When the War ended the greater portion of the military installations which had been constructed were abandoned.

In 1974 as part of the Civil Works Omnibus Bill (P.L. 93-251), Congress authorized the Corps of Engineers (COE) to make a study of plans for the removal and disposal of debris and obsolete buildings remaining as a result of military construction in World War II at a number of Alaskan locations. In late 1976, the Alaska District of the Corps of Engineers issued its study for debris removal and cleanup in the Aleutian Islands and on the Lower Alaska Peninsula (COE-1977). That study noted the potential historic value of much of the abandoned military property in the region. In September 1979, the Corps issued an associated Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). That document, in summarizing the adverse effects of a cleanup project states:

The intent of the proposed action is to demolish, burn, and bury the physical remains of the Aleutian Campaign. Yet what might be cleaned up represents a significant chapter in American, Alaskan, and Japanese military history which has received little systematic study or published historical documentation and which was in many ways a secret operation guarded against publicity during the war years.

Thus, the obvious adverse impact on the existing World War II evidence would be the intentional destruction of the military historic record. However, the structures, artillery pieces, and smaller debris worthy of preservation are probably few compared to the total quality of typical or standard material within the project area, and the preservation of unique examples of military architecture, armament, aircraft, vehicles, and even painted murals is an integral part of the proposed action. A major problem lies in the fact that the spatial distribution of structures and objects may provide more historical insight than the actual characteristics of the remains themselves, especially with regard to topographic contents where a battleground is involved or Japanese occupation occurred, as at Attu and Kiska.

Furthermore, even if these wartime artifacts have no intrinsic value to the professional historian, the public appreciation of the conditions under which the two military forces lived and fought would be greatly enhanced by the original structures in their original positions, especially in the event of future National Historic Place (sic) or National Historic Landmark designation

A National Historic Landmark (NHL) theme study entitled World War II in the Pacific, which incorporated a number of Alaskan sites, was approved in Oct 1984, and subsequently extended to include additional sites. Earlier that year, Congress appropriated funds for cleanup work as part of the Defense Environmental Restoration Account (DERA). In Aug 1984, as part of its historic preservation compliance obligations relating to (DERA) in Alaska the Corps of Engineers entered into a Programmatic Memorandum of Agreement (PMOA) with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the Alaska State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO), and the Alaska Region of the National Park Service (NPS). A stipulation of the (PMOA) was that a Comprehensive Study and Plan (CSP) for World War II remains in Alaska be prepared.

In Oct 1984, the Corps of Engineers requested the National Park Service to contract for the preparation of a Comprehensive Study and Plan type document, and in Mar 1985, the contract in the amount of $242.973 was awarded to Envirosphere Company. The following sections of this report, which can serve as the Comprehensive Study and Plan, present the methods employed in, and results of, data collection (Section 3.0), data synthesis (Section 4.0), preservation management plan preparation (Section 5.0), and Defense Environmental Restoration Account mitigation plan preparation (Section 6.0). Some of these sections, and some of the appendices which follow the main body of the report, may be used by individuals who are not cultural resource specialists.

For this reason, they contain discussions of cultural resources preservation planning requirements and procedures, particularly those relating to the evaluation of significance, that would not otherwise have been included. Section 2.0, which follows, constitutes a historic overview of World War II and the Cold War period in Alaska. It was prepared using data collected throughout the course of the project as part of the data synthesis task. It is presented first here because it effectively sets the stage for understanding the whys and how of the entire project, and places subsequent sections of this report in proper perspective.


In Sept 1939, World War II began in Europe. Its effects were to have far-reaching consequences for Alaska’s role as part of the United States and ultimately alter its position in the world. The ensuing situation was far different from that of World War I which had resulted in the draining of population and resources from the Territory. Alaskan development, which had surged during the period of the Gold Rush (1897-1901), ebbed as population flowed out as a result of the war. Debate still exists over the significance of Alaska in military terms during the World War II era, as it did at the time.

In 1935, retired Gen William Billy Mitchell, the outspoken prophet of air power who had served in the Signal Corps in Alaska, testified before the House Military Affairs Committee regarding the strategic value of Alaska. Alaska is the most central place in the world for aircraft and that is true of Europe, Asia, and North America. I believe in the future, he who holds Alaska will hold the world, and I think it is the most important strategic place in the world. Mitchell added that: Japan represented the primary threat to the US in the Pacific and predicted that Imperial forces would attack Alaska rather than other potential targets of US concern. Furthermore, he stated that: Alaska should serve as the keystone of US Pacific defense and offense, the jumping-off place for any campaign against Japan.

Gen George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff at the outbreak of World War II, however, believed that while Alaska appeared strategically important on the map, the problems of isolation and weather, which made it a logistic nightmare effectively eliminated it as an area of major military operations for both US and enemy forces. Mainstream historians have tended to follow the view that none of the operations accomplished anything of great importance or had any appreciable effect on the outcome of the war. Both sides would have done well to have left the Aleutians to the Aleuts for the course of the war.

This low opinion of the value of Alaska in general for military operations coincides with that generally expressed by the troops who served in the area, experiencing the hardships of the Territory and the low priority of a peripheral sector. Popular historians such as Garfield and Cohen, have, however, argued for the importance of Alaska in World War II and have listed an impressive series of firsts, biggest, most, and other accomplishments of Alaskan operations during the war.

While the significance of Alaska to the war in the Pacific may have been relatively minor, the importance of the war to Alaska cannot be overemphasized. During World War II, tens of thousands of American military personnel and civilian workers flocked to Alaska. Between 1941 and 1945, the federal government spent over $1.25 billion in Alaska. In effect, World War II transformed Alaska from an ignored, underdeveloped, isolated region into the modern state and segment of an international defense network that it is today.

The Pillar of the Country in the 40s and way far before, one beautiful Inuit Alaska Woman

The Pre-World War II Period (1912-1939)

The consensus view among historians holds that since the US purchase of Alaska from Czarist Russia in 1867, neglect on the part of the federal government has characterized the relationship between Alaska and the rest of the nation. The argument contends that only when compelled by economic advantage or military necessity has Washington taken any active interest in the Far North. There are several reasons for such an outlook. Alaska’s frontier was unique in the history of US expansion in that it had to be settled largely by sea rather than by land routes. Also in contrast to the majority of the US, settlers predominantly came to exploit natural resources on a temporary basis rather than to develop a permanent, self-supporting base.

Profits from Alaska’s resources flowed to Seattle, San Francisco, and other non-contiguous areas, limiting local investment. Alaska’s isolation prevented effective exploitation and incorporation, especially when viewed in the context of the focus on developing contiguous areas within the continental US. In fact, it may be argued that Russia elected to sell to the US with the expectation that a weak buyer, such as the US, would not develop the area and thus become a threat, as might happen if a stronger power, such as Britain, were to become established there.

The Russian presence since European discovery by Vitus Bering in 1741 had been limited, restricted generally to coastal trading. The US Navy had made clandestine surveys of Alaskan and Aleutian waters between 1852 and 1863, with the resulting charts providing the only documentation available for some areas until World War II, but overall US interest was minor. The US military presence began formally with the purchase and the transfer of sovereignty at Sitka in 1867. Two Army companies were assigned to take possession and patrol the 586.400 square miles of the purchase. Unlike the precedent established in the continental US, Alaska was organized as a Military District and a Customs District, rather than as a Territory.

In the absence of legislative authority and without clear legal jurisdiction, the Army provided de facto the only semblance of civil authority. The Army withdrew from Alaska in 1877, turning all governmental functions over to the Treasury Department. Following incidents involving alcohol-related crimes and Indian unrest, the Navy assumed jurisdiction from the Treasury Department in 1879, under the plausible theory that since the settlement was spread over large distances and essentially coastal in nature, a mobile, sea-going police force could maintain order better than a series of undermanned, low-mobility fixed land stations.

Tanana, Alaska, Indian Chief

Naval authority continued until the passage of the Organic Act of 1884, which upgraded Alaska to a Civil and Judicial District but still denied its status as a Territory. Alaska lacked a legislature, a congressional delegate, or land laws, but the military was relieved of its direct responsibilities for civil functions.

During the 1870s-1890s, the Army and Navy sponsored a series of small-scale exploration expeditions throughout Alaska, but maintained no formal presence except for a small Marine detachment at Sitka. The Army returned to Alaska in 1897 to enforce a border dispute with Canada, and stayed to maintain order during the Gold Rush years (1897-1901). A series of small, often impermanent, posts were established by the Army during this period to monitor routes into the mining districts: Fort St Michael, (1833-1867) (1874-1886) (1897-1923), (aka Redoubt St Michael, or Mikhailovski Redoubt); Fort Seward (1925-1940) (aka Chilkoot Barracks or Haines Mission) (named for M. William H. Seward, US Secretary of State); One garrison was located at Camp Skagway (1898-1904), one at Camp Rampart (1899-1901), and another one at Camp Circle City (1898-1900); Fort Egbert, (1898) (named for Gen Henry Clay Egbert); Fort Gibbon (1899-1923) (named for Gen John Gibbon); Fort Davis (named for Gen Jefferson C. Davis) and Fort Liscum (1900-1922), (named for Col Emerson H. Liscum)

The Army posts had no national security or strategic mission. The Navy, which as early as 1892 had joined with the Coast Guard to patrol the sealing grounds around the Pribilofs, took a somewhat more long-term strategic view in building a coaling station at Sitka in 1899 to support its Northern Pacific activities. Both this facility and the Marine detachment there were abandoned in 1912.

After the Gold Rush, military exploration continued and other functions took on greater importance. The Army built a trail from Valdez to the upper Yukon Valley in 1901. The semi-military Alaska Road Commission was formed in 1905, and its first task was to improve this trail into a horse-drawn sled and wagon road (Richardson Highway), which was accomplished between 1907 and 1910. Of even greater significance were the communications projects originally designed to link the far-flung military posts together and later to provide communications with the rest of the US.

Inupiat Family from Noatak Alaska 1929 (Edward S. Curtis)

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