Friday, January 23, 2009

The Alaska Territorial Guard: A Debt of Honor Unpaid (Updated)


This article is the intellectual property of Jim Wright and Stonekettle Station, it is protected by copyright.

I explicitly do not give permission to quote this article solely in order to attack the President of the United States or to make any other rightwing political point. Period and no exceptions. And I explicitly do NOT give permission to use my words to praise former Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin in any way whatsoever.

Let's be honest here, not one of you conservative pundits gave a good Goddamn about these people either, none of you did a damn thing to bring this matter to the attention of the American people, and none of you actually care now - you're only using this to attack the current administration. So save your outrage and self-righteous indignation and leave my words out of it. You're welcome to your hypocrisy, but you can do it without quoting me. Clear?

You may quote me, providing you quote only a brief passage (one or two lines), give a link to this article, AND ACKNOWLEDGE THAT PRESIDENT OBAMA DID NOT CREATE THIS MESS.

While I absolutely DO NOT agree with Obama's current veto of this bill and I find it unacceptable, the plight of the ATG is the result of 70 years of bad policy by both republicans and democrats. I.e. There's plenty of blame to go around. Laying it at the feet of the current president or claiming that it's part of some greater anti-military liberal agenda only clouds the issue further. And it should be noted that one of the principle people leading the fight to restore full benefits to the members of the Alaskan Territorial Guard is Senator Mark Begich, a liberal, and a member of the Democratic Party.

Acknowledge the actual situation as it exists and don't use my words to further your agenda, and you may quote me in accordance with fair usage as defined by US copyright law. Otherwise, don't.

This applies to both liberals and conservatives and any damned body else. This means you.

If you feel that you should be granted some kind of exemption or you have questions regarding exactly what you can quote or not quote, you may email me at the address on the main page of Stonekettle Station and we'll discuss it.

- Jim Wright, Stonekettle Station.


In 1937, US Army Chief of Staff, General Malin Craig, said “The mainland of Alaska is so remote from the strategic areas of the Pacific that it is difficult to conceive of circumstances in which air operations from there would contribute materially to the national defense.”

Less than five years later, General Craig was proved rather obviously and painfully wrong.

General Craig retired in 1939, relieved by General George Marshal, and while Craig’s attitude towards the Alaskan territory was significantly shortsighted, he can be forgiven for it. Craig was by no means a fool, instead he was a highly decorated and experienced soldier who demonstrated commendable courage and leadership during the St. Mihiel and Argonne-Meuse Offensives in World War I . He was recalled to active duty in September of 1941 and served honorably until his death on July 25th, 1945. He was buried with honors in section 30 of Arlington National Cemetery where he rests to this day.

Craig’s military assessment of the Alaskan Territory was typical for his time, i.e. the intra war period of the 1930’s. The territory was remote and by and large inaccessible (there were no roads to Alaska then and damn few roads inside Alaska, and few ports - none of which were deep water). Alaska’s vast resources were mostly unknown then, the easy gold deposits were long gone and little else mattered except maybe a small amount of platinum and some silver. General Craig was also a product of the so called Mahan Doctrine – the military philosophy adopted by all major powers of the time and named for Naval Academy strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, which basically said that a nation’s ability to define its own destiny was vested in sea power, or more specifically in capital ships, i.e. Battlewagons. Nations of the time were embarked in a race to see who could build the biggest and most powerful fleet of battleships without going bankrupt. WWI had also taught men like General Craig that if you didn’t want to get bogged down in the trenches of France and Belgium, you’d better have a big, powerful mechanized army – i.e. tanks, and lots of them – and this also was part of the Mahan Doctrine, because in order to move those tanks and the rest of your troops and equipment and supplies, you needed a powerful fleet to protect the transport ships. If you’re paying attention, you should now understand why Germany built all those U-boats and why Craig himself was responsible for the single largest modernization effort in US Army history (which led in no small part to US military superiority during WWII).

However, what Craig and the other Western military men of the time didn’t know, was that the Mahan Doctrine was utterly obsolete – and had been since 11:02 on the morning of January 18, 1911. On that cold, crisp winter morning in San Francisco harbor, a tall skinny daredevil named Eugene Burton Ely, a pilot with the Curtiss Aircraft Company, landed a Curtis #2 Pusher on the deck of the heavy armored cruiser USS Pennsylvania AC-4. Fifty-four minutes later, he took off again (scared shitless - he wasn’t afraid of crashing, but rather of drowning - Ely couldn’t swim and was terrified of water) and changed the world. Naval aviation was born. It took thirty years of development, thirty years to train the pilots, build the planes, build the aircraft carriers, and to work out the techniques. During most of that time, General Craig’s time, aviation was regarded as a military support function by Western militaries and not a combat function – the term “Air Superiority” and the concept it embodies hadn’t been conceived of yet – in the West.

All of that changed on the morning of December 7th, 1941, when the Japanese, striking from ships steaming hundreds of miles away, dealt a devastating blow to the US Pacific Fleet anchored in Pearl Harbor. In that single moment the military philosophies of Alfred Thayer Mahan and General Malin Craig were violently demonstrated to be long obsolete. The weapon of the modern age would be airpower, long range airpower – and suddenly, Alaska was was very, very important indeed. Not to just the US, but to the Japanese who invaded the Aleutians and began pushing toward the mainland.

The US military suddenly found itself fighting on a dozen fronts, the Marines and Navy in the Pacific, the Army in Europe, and the Navy and Coast Guard in the North Atlantic (it would be five years before the US Army Air Corps would become the new US Air Force). There was little to spare for Alaska, but the territory had to be defended. The Army Corps of Engineers began construction of the Alaskan Canadian Highway, a muddy rutted jeep track built by Buffalo Soldiers and other units of the USACE. A deepwater protected port, Whittier, was constructed on a shelf blasted out the solid granite mountains on the western edge of Prince William Sound and a 2.5 mile long tunnel was blasted straight through the base of the mountains to connect the new port to the growing military city of Anchorage. Island fortresses were built on Kodiak and on Adak and Shemya in the Aleutians. New airfields were blasted from the wilderness at Richardson Field, Greely, Delta, King Salmon, Cold Bay, and a hundred other places so remote that most Americans had never even heard of them. That vast effort and the heroism of that long ago time is part of the history of Alaska – it changed the very fabric of the territory and led directly to statehood in 1959. All of us Alaskans today benefit from those efforts, from the Alcan, and Whittier, and the railroads and airfields and the roads.

But it wasn’t enough, not back then.

See, despite all – there was still Alaska itself. It is a vast and powerful land, rugged and unforgiving. The troops who came to defend the territory in 1941 were in large part unprepared. Their equipment was ill-suited for the harsh environment, much of it failed or was simply overwhelmed by conditions that can freeze 80-weight differential oil solid as amber. Their training in cold weather survival was inadequate, many suffered serious cold related injuries. Veterans of the Bulge speak of that horrible winter in the black forests of the Ardennes, but the troops who braved Alaska’s brutal winters to fight in the Aleutians often had it far worse – though their tribulations are largely forgotten today.

And so the Army set out to find a solution – something to protect the vital Alaskan coastline and patrol the remote areas, something to give early warning in the event of a Japanese threat to the critical Lend/Lease corridor to Russia, something to train the troops in arctic survival and operations.

And they found it.

They found their solution in the remote and isolated villages of the Aleut, the Yupik, the Athabaskan, the Inupiaq, the Tlingit, the Haida, the Tsimshian, the Eyak, and the other native Alaskan peoples. Incorrectly called Eskimo Scouts, the Alaska Territorial Guard was formed from mostly native Alaskan volunteers. Both men and women, the oldest 80 and the youngest 12. From 1942 to 1947 these unpaid volunteers from 107 native communities patrolled Alaska. Officially there were 6,368 of them, unofficially it was more like 20,000. These men and woman rallied to a flag and a cause that was largely not their own. They learned to fight and to shoot and to operate Army equipment and they did it so well that battle hardened veterans from Outside were often left in awe of their abilities, dedication, and perseverance under some of the harshest conditions on Earth. The members of the Alaskan Territorial Guard, the ATG, managed weapons and ammunition stores for the Army, trained themselves in drill and firearms and tactics, managed communications and transported equipment under conditions that no others could function in, constructed buildings and support facilities including airstrips and ports, conducted coastal surveillance and long range extended patrols on foot, broke hundreds of miles of wilderness trails, cached emergency stores and ammunition for the Navy, performed land and sea search and rescue of downed airmen and shipwrecked sailors, and directly fought against the enemy in the Aleutians. The ATG was commended for shooting down a number of Japanese bomb balloons and remote surveillance radiosondes and for the difficult rescue of downed airmen from planes that crashed on the arduous journey to Siberia in the Russian Lend Lease program. Members of the ATG also performed medical care for wounded soldiers at a field hospital in remote Kotzebue. And above all, the ATG provided training to the regular army in cold weather operations – training that saved thousands of lives and who’s legacy continues to this day for the troops who guard Alaska and its vital resources.

Though heroic, the efforts of the ATG are long forgotten by history, just another footnote in a time of chaos and war. The bases they built molder on the shores and in the interior, I’ve walked through the ruins of many and marveled that men could carve such places from the wilderness. I’ve stood before the monument at Soldier Summit in the Yukon, the Military Memorial on the Parks Highway just south of Denali National Park, and before the monument on Attu at the far end of the Aleutians – and stood in awe of those who rallied to a banner not their own and swore to give their lives in defense of a desperate nation that barely even acknowledged their existence and called them Eskimos instead of by the true name of their peoples.

But because they were volunteers, and because they were natives and members of the ATG – the Army did not recognize them as true soldiers. After the war they were largely forgotten by the outside world, and many returned to their homes. But some, some continued to serve and they didn’t forget us, in 1959 many former members of the ATG were the driving force behind Alaskan Statehood. And former native members of the ATG were instrumental in the implementation of racial equality within the ranks of the army and within Alaskan communities.

In 2000, largely due to efforts by former Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens, a bill was signed into law ordering the Secretary of Defense to issue Honorable Discharges to all members of the Alaska Territorial Guard. The bill was intended to repay the debt of honor we as a nation owe these people, these Americans, and provided many of the surviving members (now in their 80’s and many living far below the poverty line) with retirement pay and survivor’s benefits and medial care. However history views Ted Stevens it must be noted that he was largely responsible for righting a dishonorable and inexcusable injustice. However, the story of the ATG doesn’t end there – most of the elderly surviving members of the ATG live in remote and inaccessible locations. Finding them was long and difficult. In 2003 Colonel Bob Goodman USA(ret), undertook the effort to find and assist the remaining members of the ATG, at first funded by the state and later out of his own pocket. So far he and his people have located over 150 former members of the ATG, and they estimate there are several hundred more – and they continue their efforts to this very day. Many of those located in the last five years have since died of old age. For those who remain, the benefits provided aren’t much, some medical care and a couple hundred dollars a month, but for folks who now live far below the poverty line in villages where gasoline costs more than $10 per gallon – those benefits mean the difference between life and death.

Those benefits, that mere pittance in retirement pay, would seem to be the least we can do for those forgotten veterans of that long ago conflict.

It would seem to be the very least we could do.

But it’s not.

It turns out we could actually do less.

It turns out that the Army could suddenly decide, say yesterday in fact, to reinterpret the law to read that these men and women of the Alaska Territorial Guard, these men and woman who came to defend our nation in its time of need, these men and women who fought bravely for a flag not even their own, who built the roads and the airfields and the hospitals and the bridges and who rescued downed airmen and stranded sailors and braved the cold and the isolation and the horror of war – these men and women – are not, in fact, entitled to even that small effort.

That’s right. The Army has decided to cut off retirement pay for the twenty-six surviving members of the ATG. Twenty-six, and applications from thirty-seven more identified by Colonel Bob Goodwin and his people have been suspended. Apparently we can not afford to take care of even this small handful of people, this small handful of veterans, this small handful of Alaskans, this small handful of Americans.

However, in a good hearted move, the Army will not seek to recoup past payments.

Big of them, wouldn’t you say?


Update: In response to some seriously bad publicity in the press and on the net, and following a visit by an Alaskan congressional delegation, Army Secretary Pete Geren has decided to do the honorable thing. Because that's just the kind of guy he is, apparently. Secretary Geren has ordered the Army to dip into emergency funds and issue a one time only payment, equal to two months retirement pay, to the ATG members who had their retirement pay cut off last week.

No mention of why it took a congressional demand, letters to the President, and a shitload of bad press to get the Army to behave in accordance with their professed core values of honor and duty. Funny how the funds were found to pay this debt only after it looked like it might negatively impact unpopular wartime recruiting efforts. Oopsy, should have seen that one coming. Also funny how this emergency payout costs less in total than the new furniture and carpeting the Secretary and Joint Chiefs get in their offices every two years, or the cost of those motivational posters they think are so fucking inspiring, or the gardening bill for one flower bed outside the Pentagon, or the cost of fuel to fly the Admiral's private Gulfstream III over to this year's Tail & Hookers convention, or one of those spiffy static displays in front of every Air Force Base in the world, or one paycheck to the average Haliburton contractor washing towels in Bagram, or...oh, fuck it, nevermind. I suppose I should be glad that it happened, even sullenly and under duress.

Supposedly this one time payment, gives Congress time to fix the law permanently. We'll see.

Meanwhile? Meanwhile there's still 300 hundred surviving members of the ATG out there.

Army honor does't seem to extend that far though.

Forgive me if I'm somewhat less than impressed.


* Alaskan Senators Lisa Murkowski (R) and Mark Begich (D) are preparing legislation to restore full retirement pay to the surviving members of the ATG who qualify, and they have sent a letter to President Obama asking him to directly intervene. The fact that this should be necessary is a disgusting travesty. The nation, and the Army in particular, owe a debt of personal honor to these men and women – and an apology. I strongly urge you to write to your congressional representative and demand that Congress clearly amend the law and require the Army to repay this debt

Update: Additionally, I think the CINC should order the Army to search out and contact every surviving member of the ATG and inform them of their rights in person. There's plenty of Army in Alaska, plenty of helicopters and plenty of uniformed bean counters. Cost? Sure it'll cost, look's like the Generals don't get new carpet this year. Too fucking bad, maybe we should cut off the heat in their offices too.

** The Army is legally correct in its actions, so far as I can tell. Once the discrepancy was identified, HRC is required to take action and suspend payments. Morally, however, well I'll leave that up to you. Personally, in my military opinion, honor demands that this debt be paid.

Update: while legally correct, it is obvious at this point that the Army does have the discretion to pay these men. Secretary Geran's action proves that. It should have been the Army who went to Congress about this matter and demanded that Congress fix the law and plus up the retirement account. Again, Army honor seems to be in short supply these days.

*** Where is our Governor in all this you ask? Busy, apparently, signing a $3 million book deal, and preparing for her run at the White House in 2012.

Update: Correction, apparently, Palin also signed the letter to President Obama. One wonders where she found the time, at least she didn't blame this failure on Tina Fey.

- CWO Jim Wright, USN(ret)


  1. Thanks Jim. I've been seething over this since the story broke.

    And do a quick fix. You left the "h" out of Whittier.

  2. Thanks, Jim.

    The e:mails to my reps are on their way.

    Christ - what is wrong with us?

  3. Tania, thanks - even though I've been there several times, for some reason I have a mental block when it comes to spelling Whittier.

    This whole situation just plain chaps my ass. In a nation that claims to revere its veterans, this is a fucking travesty.

    Perhaps if the ATG worked for Haliburton...

  4. Can I also suggest sending a note to Michelle Obama's Office. Supporting Military Families is one of her professed causes.

  5. Excellent suggestion, Nathan. Let me look up the address and I'll update the post. Thanks.

    Right now, though, I'm enjoying Nathan and Seth and the Great HoJo/HoIn battle.

  6. You have a block because you're a fella that's wittier than most?

    No? That's not it?

    I think we all have words like that. Whittier is an interesting place to visit. VISIT being the key word.

  7. Tania, I think Whittier is an interesting place from an engineering standpoint, i.e. the tunnel, the city in a building, the shear scale of the blasting and digging they had to do to build it.

    Of course the view is pretty damned spectacular.

    But then there's the endless rain. And the fact that the place is the size of a shoe box. What's the population? Something like 400 and they all live in that one building, the former officer's quarters. Every time a cruise ship docks, the town population quadruples at least.

    Live there? Um, not so much - though it is supposedly better now that you can drive in and out, even if that's only once a day. Frankly I liked it when you could only take the train - kept the riff raff out.

  8. Wait -- I thought we had an election and an inauguration and a new commander-in-chief going on. Does the Army brass know something we don't know? Or is this mid-level functionary nonsense?

    Clearly what we need is a big war movie of the Alaskan campaign to document the story and shame those who'd even think of screwing these people.

    Dr. Phil

  9. WTF? What the hell is going on with the pencil pushers? At one time they understood commitment, honor, duty. Now it seems like all they know are the MBA classes and Greenbelt training.

    And just as a general thing, not all the generals coming out of WWI had the Mahan Doctrine mindset. General Billy Mitchell and Project B. Granted, he's a hero of that other service, the Air Force, not so much of the Navy.

  10. I second the big war movie idea, WWII epics of little known historical events are BIG right now.


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