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 a 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 WW-2, it would have been difficult to ignore the evolution of this war after the attack on Pearl Harbor, 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 essentially 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

INTRODUCTION

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 material 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 from 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 mote 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 an 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.

ALASKA IN WORLD WAR II – HISTORIC CONTEXT AND OVERVIEW

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 either of Europe, Asia or 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 thant: 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, biggests, mosts and other accomplishments to 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 WomanThe 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 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 ChiefNaval authority continued until the passage of the Organic Act of 1884, which upgraded Alaska to a Civil and Judicial District but still denied it 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 a 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), whiLh 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.

Authorized in 1900, intra-state telegraphic communication was achieved by 1903, with undersea cable connections being completed to Seattle by 1904. The Signal Corps, which was to form the nucleus of the military presence in Alaska prior to World War II, operated the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS) which handled military and civilian messages and would later evolve into the Alaska Communications System (ACS). The distances and the harsh weather involved made maintenance of land lines infeasible, and advances in radio technology fortunately provided an alternative. A military communications network was proposed in 1907, with the Army establishing stations at Forts Gibbon, Egbert and Davis and at Fairbanks and Circle in 1908. The Navy had radio and weather stations at Sitka (1907) and Cordova (1908) and, by 1909, there were commercial stations at Katalla, Juneau and Ketchikan operated by United Wireless. The Army system was expanded with stations at Wrangell, Petersburg, Kotlik (1910), and Nulato (1912), with the Navy adding facilities at Kodiak (Woody Island), Dutch Harbor, St Paul (1911), Unalga (1912).

Inupiat Family from Noatak Alaska 1929 (Edward S. Curtis)Alaska finally achieved territorial status with the second Organic Act of 1912, however the restrictive terms of the act denied the legislature the power to regulate natural resource use, pass land laws, levy taxes and issue bonds, causing numerous headaches for civil authorities. The act did create the Alaska Railroad Commission to investigate the building of a railroad to the interior. The construction began in 1915, and although the 470 mile main line was not completed until 1923, the road represented the first federally-funded, owned and operated railroad in the US, showed a commitment to Alaska on the part of the federal government and opened the interior via relatively efficient transportation.
In 1912, exclusive of communications facilities, the Army maintained bases at Fort Davis, Nome area; at Fort St Michael, Norton Sound-Yukon Delta areas; at Fort Gibbon, Tanana area; at Fort Egbert, Eagle area; at Fort Liscum, Valdez area; and at Fort Seward (later Chilkoot Barracks, at Haines). In 1915, the Army had an authorized strength of a regiment (1900 men) in Alaska, although actual strength was only 958, consisting mainly of Signal Corps technicians who operated 53 offices and 10 radio stations. In 1912, the Navy closed its only noncomunications facility at Sitka. Previously, the Navy had surveyed the Aleutians for potential operating base sites and in 1902 had recommended Dutch Harbor as a coaling station. This recommendation was changed to favor a base at Kiska in 1903, with lands being withdrawn by Executive Order in 1904.

However, military thinking changed, and the Aleutian base was considered too limited to fit strategic needs. The plan for a facility at Kiska was withdrawn in 1915. Morgan reports that naval construction was actually begun at Kiska in 1916, but that it did not proceed beyond driving pilings for a dock.

For a number of reasons, World War I drained population and resources from Alaska. Prior to US entry into the war, numerous Alaskans enlisted in the Canadian armed forces, and after US involvement, others were drafted. While few made it overseas, many left the Territory and failed to return. There were few military projects in Alaska during the war, and most Army activity consisted of guarding the newly begun railroad and communications facilities, while the Navy’s role involved patrolling fishing grounds and suppressing labor unrest in the canneries. The Navy did initiate coal mining tests from 1918 through 1922 in the Chickaloon area to investigate the viability of producing a fuel reserve, but the deposits proved to be of insufficient quality and quantity to justify development. The shifts in technology from coal to oil for ships led to the designation by the Navy of the Petroleum Reserve N°4 in the Point Barrow area in 1923, but development did not begin until 1941. The Navy also maintained unused reserve lands at Biorka, Cold Bay, Cordova, Hawkins Island, Juneau, Kiska, Portage Bay, Port Graham, Wide Bay and Yakutat.

Love Co, 24th Infantry, marches down the '5th Avenue' in Skagway for American Independence Day (Source Yukon News)The economic boom set off by wartime demand hurt Alaska as many people moved out of state seeking higher-paying employment. While war-related prosperity failed to reach Alaska, the Territory’s economy was hampered by increased costs and lowered availability of labor, supplies and equipment due to surging demand elsewhere. While certain large operations, notably copper and coal mining and fish canning, experienced major growth, the effect was highly localized and many small firms were forced out of business. Despite the economic benefits from gains in natural resource exploitation and the stimulation offered by the construction of the railroad and the development of some 535 miles of vehicular roads, world market price slumps in the years after the Great War led even more people to leave the Territory in search of jobs.

This exodus was reflected in the military presence as well. The Army closed Fort Davis in 1921 and abandoned Fort Egbert, Fort St Michael, Fort Gibbon and Fort Liscum in 1925, leaving Fort Seward as the only active military facility in the Territory until 1940. In 1927, there were a total of only 255 Army personnel in Alaska. In 1929, Congress appropriated funds to remove military cemeteries from Alaska, indicating a lack of interest in any long-term presence there. The Navy began to retrench as well; it had expanded its communications presence during World War I by building the Cordova radio stations at Hanscom and Eyak and the one at Seward as well as confiscating the stations of the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America at Juneau and Ketchikan. The Juneau and Ketchikan stations were transferred to the Army in 1924, followed by the Seward station in 1927. The Cordova area stations were closed in 1930 and 1933, and the Kodiak and Sitka stations in 1931.

Aerial view focusing in on Fort William H. Seward barracks and parade grounds; river and mountains behind. (Source Alaska Digital Library)The Navy took possession of the Seward station again in 1932, but it burned in 1935 and was not reestablished until World War II. The St Paul station was turned over to the Bureau of Fisheries in 1937. The only new construction by the Navy consisted of the Cape Hinchinbrook and Soapstone Point direction finding/radiocompass navigation stations in the Gulf of Alaska, operated from 1921 through 1937 and 1938, repectively.

In 1940, the Navy radio station at Dutch Harbor was the only active Navy presence in Alaska. One area which was to have a major impact in Alaska was the development of air travel. The first flight in the Territory was in 1913, and the Signal Corps had an air wing authorized beginning in 1914, but development was slow. To promote military aviation after World War I, the Army sponsored a number of flights to Alaska. In 1920, the Black Wolf Squadron of four DeHavilard DH-4 biplanes flew from New York to Nome and back. In 1924, four two-wingeo Douglas World Cruisers flew from Seattle along the Alaskan coast and across the Aleutians to the Kuriles then across southern Asia in an around-the-world flight; one ran into a mountainside at Port Moller, becoming the first military aircraft to crash in Alaska. In 1929, Capt Ross G. Hoyt flew a solo mission in a modified Curtiss P-1C Hawk biplane fighter, duplicating the round trip route of the Black Wolf Squadron. The flight ended with a non-fatal crash in Canada on the return leg. Another demonstration of note was the 1934 flight of a squadron of ten Martin B-10 bombers led by Lt Col Henry “Hap” Arnold, who would lead the Army Air Corps in World War II, from Washington DC to Fairbanks and back. All of these flights were staged using civilian and/or ad hoc facilities, as there were no military airfields in the Territory.
Civilian aviation caught on more rapidly, with the first commercial aviation venture dating to 1922. Airmail contract runs were being flown by 1924, but civil aviation was also hampered by the lack of facilities. Despite these problems, Alaskans took to aviation to such an extent that by 1938, Alaskan planes carried more cargo than all planes in the rest of the USA.
While Alaska struggled along during the 1920s, the 1930s and the Depression paradoxically led to a minor boom in the North. Alaska benefitted from immigration as unemployment rose in the US, and the increase in the price of gold and the impetus this gave to mining in general provided jobs as did federal relief projects. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) sponsored the Matanuska Colonization Project, which for the first time established a permanent, stable agricultural community in Alaska. The Public Works Administration (PWA) constructed harbor facilities, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) improved infrastructure in national forests, the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) built other structures and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) ran various cultural projects. The negative aspects of the New Deal in Alaska involved an actual cutting back of road building and maintenance programs, while aviation-related projects never got off the ground even though authorized by the Air Commerce Act of 1926.

Personnel of the 1920 Alaskan Expedition (Capt Streett is not shown)Against the backdrop of the Depression, non-voting Territorial Delegate, Anthony J. Dimond, supported legislation in 1934 to construct airfields in Alaska. This attempt coincided with the report of the Drum Board (under Deputy Chief of Staff Maj Gen Hugh A. Drum), which recommended air bases for Alaska and the report of the Baker Board (headed by former Secretary of War Newton D. Baker) which specifically called for cold weather testing, both in 1934. In 1935, the Wilcox National Air Defense Act passed; it called for construction of air bases, but lacked a provision for funding. Given scarce resources, the Depression, competing military needs and the fact that Alaska could muster very little political clout, no funding was found for Alaskan projects. It was not until 1937 that a site for a facility was selected at Fairbanks and funding and construction were delayed even longer.

Renewed isolationism following World War I had led to a slashing of military budgets and a decline in facilities, equipment and manpower. The closings of bases in Alaska was symptomatic of the deeper problems nationwide in a military establishment where promotion was slow and the atmosphere clubby and stagnant. In 1941, the four top field commanders of the Army, including Gen John L. DeWitt who was responsible for Alaska, were veterans of the Spanish-American War. Prerogatives were jealously guarded, and intra-service and inter-service rivalries were often the most serious concerns of the leadership.

John Lesesne DeWitt (Jan 9, 1880 – Jun 20, 1962) was a general officer in the US Army, best known for his vocal support of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War IIThe Navy, under the influence of nineteenth century theoretician Adm Alfred Thayer Mahan, was dedicated to large battleships, to the exclusion of other weapons. Neither service took air power seriously from the 1910s into the 1930s, although proselytizing by Billy Mitchell of the Army and RAdm William A. Moffett of the Navy finally resulted in a reluctant support of military aviation. Traditional military thinking within the Army stated that the Navy existed to protect the Army while en route to engage the enemy in continental land wars, while that within the Navy held that the Army existed to defend Navy shore installations with capital ships providing the first line of defense and the real projection of power.
The Joint Army/Navy Planning Board, charged with developing a plan for a possible war in the Pacific, was established in 1903. The Joint Board’s first rudimentary plan was completed in 1907. Further planning led to the first War Plan Orange (plans were devised for a single nation-state enemy and color-coded) in 1924. This plan for war with Japan called for the Army to hold the Philippines while the Navy steamed from the West Coast of the US to engage the Japanese fleet in a decisive battle. Numerous revisions of War Plan Orange followed with the concept of a defensive triangle with Hawaii at the center and Alaska and Panama at the extremes forming a defensive perimeter being introduced in 1935.
Alaska’s strategic flank position developed during the period leading up to World War II. However, the Washington Naval Armaments Limitation Treaty (or Five-Power Treaty) of 1922, in addition to limiting the naval tonnage of the US, Britain and Japan, prohibited the US from fortifying bases in the Aleutians. Between the provisions of the treaty and budgetary constraints, Alaska was not fortified. By 1938, the military had invested around $225 million in facilities in Hawaii but only $1.5 million for work in Alaska, most of that for civilian relief projects. As Conn drily put it, Army planners found it hard to shake their long held conviction that Alaska was not a critical area.

Japanese troops landing at Namp'o, Korea (now in North Korea), during the Russo-Japanese War, March 1904

Russo-Japanese-War-1904-1905Japan had developed a war plan for a conflict with the US as early as 1907, when tensions over US treatment of Japanese immigrants and the feeling that US mediation had deprived Japan of victories won on the battlefield in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) led to consideration of the US as a potential enemy. The Japanese plan was remarkably like that of the 1907 War Plan Orange. It involved luring the US fleet out to do battle in the area of the Philippines, relying on superior Japanese maneuver, ability, strategy, and psychological toughness to carry the day. However, the US was a minor consideration of the Japanese, who saw China and Russia as the main threats. In fact, the Japanese military establishment was primarily focused on cold weather warfare, ill-prepared for a tropical war and woefully ignorant of the potential US enemy, though Japanese forces rapidly developed expertise in tropical warfare.

Suffering the dislocations of rapid modernization and population growth, Japan was hard hit by the worldwide economic collapse in the early 1930s. Following what was seen as a surrender of national sovereignty at the London Naval Conference in 1930, which led to more limitations on naval construction, hardliners gained greater ascendency in the factionalized government and maneuvered Japan into an invasion of Manchuria as a means of expanding out of the Depression. In 1934, Japan unilaterally withdrew from the 1922 Five-Power Treaty two years before it was scheduled to expire. By 1936, the military had acquired veto power over civilian ministry-level policy decisions and issued a paper entitled Fundamental Principles of National Policy, calling for expansion into Asia and the Pacific, which would bring Japan into conflict with the USSR, China, Britain and ultimately the US.

In 1937, Japan invaded China. Britain’s Far Eastern colonial interests led her to protest, and the US supported the British position. The feeling is often expressed that the US in general, and the Navy in particular, ignored the Japanese threat even after the abrogation of the Five-Power Treaty. This is mainly due to the fact that the once-proposed base at Kiska was not revived. Given the political situation and budgetary realities, it is difficult to see how it could have been at the time. Actually, the Navy had an awareness of the potential problem posed by the need to defend the Northern Pacific.
Beginning in 1922, it had begun studies on basing, with recon in the Gulf of Alaska area being undertaken from 1933 to 1937 and Kodiak established as the site for a base in 1938.

Shown in a row formation (left side) is the 6-inch gun battery on North Head, KiskaBetween 1933 and 1935, the Navy conducted aerial reconnaissance of the Aleutians to survey potential base sites, Unalaska and Adak being considered the best locations. A weather station was also established at Kiska in 1934-1935. The 1935 Fleet Problem XVI was held in Aleutian waters. It was shadowed by a Japanese trawler escort, and residents of various islands reported the presence of an unusual number of Japanese fishing boats and scientific and cartographic expeditions. The State Department was informed, but it was decided that no protest should be filed to avoid creating an incident with Japan.

Increasing tensions with Japan during the 1930s and the development of new military technology, especially aircraft, brought Alaska to the attention of planners. There was concern that long-range bombers could reach Alaska and, from bases in Alaska, the West Coast. The consensus was that the key to Alaska’s defense lay in denying to the enemy actual or potential bases from which air or naval operations could be conducted. Still using War Plan Orange as the basis for decisions, the Navy convened the Hepburn Board (headed by Adm Arthur J. Hepburn) to study Naval aviation and readiness. In 1938, the Hepburn Report recommended that the Navy expand the seaplane base designated at Sitka in 1937, and build air facilities at Kodiak and Dutch Harbor as well. These recommendations made it through Congress, and appropriations were voted for FY 1940.
The Navy received priority since its mobility and ability to operate in Alaska was considered superior to that of the Army, though the fact that Franklin Roosevelt as a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy had a certain bias towards the Navy may have influenced the acceptance of the Navy’s viewpoint. The Hepburn Report’s conclusions were also supported by Gen Henry Arnold, Chief of the Army Air Corps and leader of the Alaska Flight of 1934, who insisted that Army bases were necessary to protect the naval facilities, though Arnold’s espousal may have represented a ploy to both assure a role for the Army and to gain recognition for his Air Corps.
Traditional military planning had been confined to calculations of how to meet an attack on American territory by individual nations, but by 1938 the need for a new hemisphere-wide defense was clear. The Joint Army/Navy Board undertook to reassess defense plans under the most unfavorable forseeable developments in World Affairs. The result was the series of Rainbow Plans, of which the final iteration was R5. The 1939 plan mandated the development of Alaskan defenses. In any Pacific engagement, the Navy would be expected to play the primary role both offensively and defensively at least in the early stages, as the Army lacked troops on the ground and the means to project power in that theater.

US planes above Kiska Island during Allied invasion to retake the island, Aleutian Islands, Alaska, August 15, 1943Tactically, the plan declared that the Army would be given responsibility, along with the Marines (who were to play a minor role in Alaska), for the defense of Navy shore installations. The two services agreed that duplication of facilities should be avoided and that most could be shared. It was further agreed that Army facilities at such bases would be constructed through existing Navy contracts with civilian firms.

When war broke out in Europe in September 1939, there were about 200 Signal Corps personnel and an additional 300 Army troops at Chilkoot Barracks plus a handful of Navy personnel overseeing various construction projects at Dutch Harbor and other locations. The 286 enlisted men and 11 officers at Chilkoot were armed with 1903 Springfield rifles and used their Russian cannon, the only artillery piece in Alaska, as a flowerpot. There were no roads into the base and the only transportation link with the outside was a tugboat unable to make headway against a 15 knot wind.

As Territorial Governor Ernest Gruening observed with considerable overstatement, a handful of enemy parachutists could capture Alaska overnight.

Alaska Air Command - Army Air ForceAdolf & Josef WeddingWorld War II in Alaska
(1939-1946)

Buildup (1939-1942)

In Aug 1939, Germany and the USSR signed a nonaggression pact which led to the partition of Poland after the German attack in September. In Dec, there were reports of a Soviet military buildup in Siberia, leading to strident calls for the defense of Alaska. However, it was the end of the phony war in Europe and the fall of the Low Countries and France in spring of 1940, which finally galvanized the country.
In Jun 1940, Gen George V. Strong of the Army’s War Plans Division argued that the US should look to hemispheric defense and take an essentially defensive posture in the Pacific. This argument was reiterated in November by Adm Harold Stark, Chief of Naval Operations, in a document known as Plan Dog, which was to set broad Allied strategy for the war, an active offensive stance in the primary European sector and a reactive defensive stance in the Pacific.
As regards Alaska by early 1940, the War Department had agreed on a long range program having five major objectives, to augment the Alaska garrison; to establish a major base for Army operations near Anchorage; to develop a network of air bases and operating fields within Alaska; to garrison the airfields with combat forces; and to provide troops to protect the naval installations at Sitka, Kodiak, and Dutch Harbor.

Canadian Armed ForcesRoyal Canadian Air ForceThe defense of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the US and of the Western Hemisphere in general became a more pressing concern, as did the issue of Canada’s participation. Canada had declared war in support of Great Britain and had only limited military supplies available due to massive shipments of its reserves to Europe. Rainbow Plan 4 (R4) had recognized Canada as an ally and recommended cooperation.

The framework for this cooperation was found in the Joint Basic Defense Plan of 1940, and the more definitive Joint Canadian-United States Pacific Coastal Frontier Defense Plan N°2 (ABC-Pacific-22) of 1941. Joint Task Four, the defense of Alaska, gave the Canadian Army no specific responsibilities and assigned the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) a secondary, supporting role. The mainstay of cooperation was the exchange of information and intelligence, the integration of communications and air warning systems, and the coordination of harbor and coast defenses.

Construction of the Alcan RoadThe most important collaboration lay in the development of the Northwest Staging Route, a string of airfields between Great Falls MT and Fairbanks AK, for the support of air traffic to and from Alaska. This interior route, which would later be augmented by the Alaska Highway (generally known as the ALCAN Highway) land route, was considered important as an alternative supply link should enemy surface and/or submarine activity interdict ship traffic along the coast, the Inside Passage, or in the Gulf of Alaska.

The slowness of the buildup reflected the hesitancy with which the nation and its leadership moved from a position of neutral isolationism to one of belligerency from the mid-1930s to 1941. The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and the Sino-Japanese War from 1937 on, plus such events as the sinking of the US Gunboat Panay in 1937, and the annexation of Austria, the Munich Conference and the cession of the Sudetenland in 1938, not to mention the outbreak of hostilities in Europe in 1939, pointed to an impending conflict of supra local scope and intensity, but the US remained immersed in domestic concerns.
Only gradually did public sentiment and Executive and Congressional interest shift towards the exercise of an international leadership role. Roosevelt’s reelection to an unprecedented third term by a wide margin gave him the leeway necessary to change course from recovery and restructuring at home to a foreign policy focus. The Strong Memo prior to the election had little effect, but the Stark Memo (Plan Dog) was readily embraced after it.

Roosevelt had already appointed two prominent Republicans and internationalists, Henry L. Stimson and Frank Knox, as Secretaries of War and the Navy to underscore national unity and a new outward-looking emphasis. Policy goals were to oppose aggression, defend the US and develop the capability to actively enter the fighting if necessary. The necessity appeared more likely as, following successes in Europe, Germany, Italy and Japan signed a mutual-assistance pact in September 1940, forming the Axis Alliance. The US enacted the first draft law since World War I. Before the Alaska garrison could be augmented according to plan, facilities would have to be constructed, largely from scratch. Following the uphill battle waged by Alaskans and defense advocates, the first modern military construction in the Territory began in 1939. The FY 1940 budget contained $4 million for a military cold weather testing facility to be built at Fairbanks plus about $15 million for the recommended naval construction at Sitka, Kodiak and Dutch Harbor. With the beginning of these projects, defense spending became the mainstay of Alaska’s economy, a situation which would continue for the next 20 years.

Ladd Army Airfield, Alaska, testing facilities, ca. 1942The facility at Fairbanks, to be known as Ladd Field after Army aviator Maj Arthur K. Ladd, had been in the works since 1936, when the site was selected; it was set aside by executive order in 1937. The official Draft History state that surveying and clearing began in 1938, which would make it the first actual buildup-related construction in Alaska, though serious construction is generally considered to have begun in 1939, after the appropriation of funds.
The facility was not finally authorized until February 1940. Ladd Field was dedicated in September 1940, after around-the-clock shift work over the winter using QM Corps personnel and some civilian contract labor (Cory & Joslyn Co of San Fransisco built the heating plant). The runway reportedly used more concrete than was present at the time in all of Alaska’s roads and sidewalks, and the facility possessed some of the few permanent structures (including some of reinforced concrete) to be built in Alaska during the war. In addition to the construction involved with the actual field and support facilities, it was found that flood control was necessary to protect the site, and a 3 mile dike was constructed along Chena Slough in 1941.


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