When Alaska became the 49th state in 1959, the Army was there. Only the indigenous peoples of Alaska have been here longer. Today, the Army thrives here: training in unforgiving arctic conditions, actively participating in community affairs and providing assistance during natural disasters.
The U.S. Army’s long and important history in the Great Land began at the very moment Alaska became American soil, Oct. 18, 1867.
Elements of the 9th Infantry were on hand as the Russian Golden Eagle was lowered and the Stars and Stripes was raised in Sitka, which became headquarters for the U.S. Military District, Alaska. The Army has had a presence, even if small at times, ever since.
Charged with maintaining law and order in the new territory, Soldiers helped quell uprisings and built new forts at Wrangell, St. Paul Canal and Kodiak Island, as well as on the Kenai Peninsula.
They also enforced regulations regarding the killing of fur seals, whose population had been severely depleted during the Russian reign. At Fort Wrangell and Sitka, Army wives worked with the Soldiers to establish schools and introduce Christianity to Alaska Natives.
The Army relinquished control of Alaska to the Treasury Department in 1877 but did not entirely leave the territory. The Signal Corps operated weather stations, and officers led small geographic explorations to learn more about the territory. These expeditions into various parts of Alaska continued through the turn of the century as more roads and bridges were built and maps of the frontier became more detailed.
The Klondike Gold Rush in Yukon Territory, plus later gold rushes in Alaska, boosted that expansion as thousands of people poured into the territory.
Although the Royal Canadian Mounted Police maintained law in the Yukon during the Gold Rush, the U.S. government, after sending Capt. Patrick Henry Ray and 1st Lt. Wilds P. Richardson to study the situation, did not deem it necessary to send the Army into Alaska as peacekeepers.
As more and more people came into Alaska and northwestern Canada, better communication with the Lower 48 states became critical. The Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System connected all the forts in the territory with Seattle. By 1903, the line stretched from Seattle to southeastern Alaska, Valdez, the Interior and Nome. The project fell under the direction of Brig. Gen. Adolphus W. Greely. The four-year project was also aided by Lt. William “Billy” Mitchell, another officer who would later achieve military fame.
While Greely and his men struggled to complete the WAMCATS project, Richardson, on his third tour of duty in Alaska, headed the Alaska Road Commission, building garrisons and trails throughout the enormous territory.
The Army in Alaska saw a decline in activity from 1908 to 1940, with a brief surge during World War I. Work continued in building roads and bridges and improving trails during this period.
As the world prepared for another great war in 1940, military construction in Alaska accelerated. In 1940, Ladd Field, near Fairbanks, was built as a cold-weather test station, and Fort Richardson, named for Wilds P. Richardson, was built in 1940-41 near Anchorage.
Col. Simon Bolivar Buckner assumed command of the Alaska Defense Force in 1940. While at Fort Richardson, he achieved the ranks of brigadier and major general.
Through the Lend-Lease Program, the United States transferred nearly 8,000 aircraft to the Soviet Union at Ladd Field, which later became Fort Wainwright. The aircraft were flown from Great Falls, Montana, to Ladd Field by American crews. Then Russian crews flew the planes to Siberia and on to the Russian front.
The pilots leaving Great Falls followed a series of small airfields that became known as the Northwest Staging Route. The airfields were located at intervals along the one-lane supply road that became the Alaska Highway. One of those airfields, Big Delta Airfield, later became Fort Greely, providing ample acreage for Northern Warfare Training Center exercises and testing by the Cold Regions Test Center.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Army engineers began building airstrips in the Aleutian Islands to fight possible Japanese invasions there. The Army Corps of Engineers joined Canadian Forces in building the Alaska Highway in less than eight months. The 1,420-mile road was built as an overland supply route to get troops and supplies to Alaska. Officials in Washington, D.C., saw Alaska as a possible starting point for the Japanese forces to invade the United States and Canada, and took measures to prevent this.
In fact, Alaska was the only American soil other than Hawaii to see fighting during World War II, when Japanese forces bombed Dutch Harbor and seized Attu and Kiska islands in the Aleutian Chain.
The successful battle to retake Attu, in June 1943, was one of the bloodiest in the war. The Japanese pulled out of Kiska before the Americans stormed ashore a few months later.
At the end of the war, many of the small Army posts throughout the state closed permanently, and postwar emphasis turned to training.