What a lot of people don’t know about the National Guard is that, while today it is run entirely on a top-down basis, many units have their own histories and legends, and predate the National Guard. (Some units in the East track back directly to specific Colonial militia units, and predate the United States. The senior regiments in the Army are Guard regiments). But it’s doubtful that any Guard unit anywhere has a foundational story quite as unusual as Alaska’s.
In World War II, Alaska, purchased from a cash-hungry Russia in 1867, was still a Territory. For our foreign and I-hated-history readers, a Territory is an area that is not sufficiently mature in population or civilization to be a State (or to be set free as an independent nation). Most of the states west of the Original 13 Colonies spent times a Territories before being admitted to the Union as States. The last two Territories with statehood potential were Alaska and Hawaii, both of which got their star on the American flag within living memory — in 1959. The remaining Territories are various islands that are essentially welfare dependencies, uninterested in the responsibilities attendant on either Statehood or statehood.
But as a large, remote, resource-rich but population-poor area, Alaska was essentially undefended until the Second World War. There were no garrisons, no fortifications, no coast artillery. (There was so much coastline that the very idea of defending it overloads the military mind). Communications were poor, with many tiny hamlets connected only by seasonal transport like boats and dogsleds, or by spindly bush planes. There had never been a foreign power interested in seizing it — the Russians sold it willingly in part because they had their own resource-rich and population-poor area in Siberia, Canada was a Dominion of friendly England, and the other Pacific powers were too weak to be a threat — before the rise of Japan.
What Alaska did have was a population of indigenous natives who were as patriotic as any other American, and who needed only to be armed and subordinated to military authority to provide a skilled and gifted reconnaissance and presence patrol capability. What Alaska didn’t have was a military man who could see that. Prior to Pearl Harbor… let’s hear from Ernest Gruening, Territorial Governor during this period:
The Army and Navy high brass were as unimpressed by Billy Mitchell’s 1935 signallizing of the strategic importance of Alaska — in his last public appearance — as they were hostile to his previous forthright foresightedness concerning the value of air power in war.
As late as November 1937, General Malin Craig, Chief of Staff of the United States Army, rejected Alaska Delegate Anthony J. Dimond’s written plea for endorsement of an Army air base in Alaska “for the reason that 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 therefrom would contribute materially to the national defense.”
The same unimaginative mentality prevented the start of the Alaska Highway until Pearl Harbor had brought a rude awakening.
Even today, a lot of these villages are not accessible by year-round road. Dogsled, boat, airstrip are your choices, depending on season and weather (all of the small pictures here embiggen with a click).
Gruening organized an Alaska National Guard, led by white Army veterans, only to find it Federalized as the 297th Infantry Regiment and shipped out in August, 1941, leaving him, again, without home defense. This caused him to seek a Plan B.
The strategic importance of Alaska arose from its position on the Pacific Rim, its extractive industries, and its utility in the flow of Lend-Lease aircraft and air-delivered supplies to our Soviet allies. This caused the Army to, belatedly, send a lot of troops under the able Simon Bolivar Buckner to build a railroad and highway, and garrison the populated, by which the Army meant the white-populated, parts of the Territory. The Alaskan forts and air bases date originally from this period.
Along with bulldozers, graders, lots of rifles, and camp followers, the Army also brought its own culture. Heavy with officers from the Jim Crow South — Buckner was one — it was a segregated Army. To Buckner and men like him, men of great ability, there was one blind spot: they could see no merit in anyone who was not white, and as far as they were concerned, the difference between Eskimo and black man was a lot less than the difference between either and whites. A strict system of racial segregation operated on and off base. This applied to the Alaska natives as much as it did to the many black soldiers who had been brought in to labor on construction projects. The idea of arming and training Eskimos, to a man of Buckner’s generation, was at best a waste of arms, and more probably the creation of a dangerous rear area threat. You never gave firesticks to the Indians!
To be sure, Buckner did not always couch his objections in racialist terms. Frequently he had military objections to the idea of integrating the Alaskan natives in the military. He wasn’t a bad man, although Hollywood would certainly write him as one, if they were to make a movie of this: he was just a product of his own culture and caged by his own frame of reference.
Enter Major Marvin R. Marston. A lanky man who looked a bit like John Wayne would look if he had a more prominent nose, Marston was an embarrassment to the Army: someone had made him a Major in the Air Corps based on his World War I service and postwar education and experience. “He’s no damn good!” was a commonly-expressed opinion from his superiors. The Army and the Air Corps violently expelled him from the lower 48 and sent him to the rude camp that would one day be Elmendorf Air Force Base, where he was given a do-nothing job — until Gruening, himself an eccentric’s eccentric, asked the Army for a couple of military aides. Seeing an opportunity to get rid of the major they had doing a corporal’s job, they foisted him, and another disliked officer, Captain Carl Scheibner, off on the governor, and called it a good day’s work.
Marston had come to love and admire the Eskimos, and when modern Army trucks and planes failed him, he found that their millennia of adaptation to the tundra gave him a way to get around. He and his guide, Eskimo Sammy Mogg, made one 680-mile dogsled trip to recruit Eskimo men. He earned the name “Muktuk” by besting an Eskimo champion in an eating contest, and while they may not have made an Eskimo out of him, they knew they had made a friend. For all that the Army hated Marston, Gruening formed a different opinion, as Marston brought one village after the next’s Territorial Guard online.
I had already gathered that Marston’s offense was that he wanted action, that he was not an apple-polisher, and that in cutting corners to achieve desirable objectives, such as building a Kashim, or enlisted men’s clubhouse, on the base, he had found it necessary to cut red tape and occasionally step on a few toes.
Gruening knew the Eskimo citizens and knew what they could do, and Marston and Scheibner became the men who made it happen — especially Marston, who dealt with the western area of Alaska, the area where the threat was greatest. They raised an Alaska Territorial Guard, ATG, of patriotic Eskimos that would later become the fabled Eskimo Scouts. Buckner and the conventional Army officers did everything they could to undermine the mission. When they were finally ordered to provide weapons — Gruening had connections, too, and was not shy about going over Buckner’s head — they went out of their way to find old 1917 Enfields, stored since 1918.
This famous painting hangs in the Pentagon, showing Marston issuing arms to recruits in a remote village.
With different lettering, the same poster was used to sell war bonds. Note the M1917s. One man is Eskimo, one white, and one Alaskan Indian. (It embiggens).
The Eskimo guardsmen didn’t care. They cherished and loved those Enfields, and learned to shoot them. (It was an excellent weapon; the Springfield was preferred solely because it was the product of the Ordnance Department’s own arsenals). The Enfield was featured on a famous ATG poster, painted by an ATG officer himself.
The Territorial Guard was the first time that members of many different Eskimo tribes had worked together — the Guard comprised 6,000-plus men, and a few women, of every tribe and race in the Territory. They provided defense, reconnaissance, countered Japanese reconnaissance and the quixotic Japanese balloon-bomb operation, rescue and recovery of downed airmen and of lost ground parties.
The scouts of the Alaska Territorial Guard were mostly too young, too old, or medically disqualified from the draft, which applied to Eskimos as much as it did to the men in the lower 48. The Territorial Guard were all-volunteer in the truest sense of the word: apart from a couple dozen full-time staffers, they drew no pay, and the Government didn’t even recognize them as veterans until 2000.
These rifles, too, are M1917 Enfields.
After the war, Marston was a delegate to the state’s Constitutional Convention, and a businessman and developer, and he did his part to ensure that Alaska’s natives got proper credit for being the first-class citizens he had always known them to be.
Territorial Guards at rifle practice.
It would be nice to write that the Army recognized him for his achievement, but they didn’t. He left the service as he came in — a major. Buckner seems to have been sufficiently irritated by the white man who treated natives as equals that he blackballed Marston’s promotion.
Marston may be one of the most interesting characters of World War II to have never had a full biography, even though he left extensive papers (as did Gruening and Buckner).
And how does this tie in to the Alaska National Guard? Well, that regiment that went off in 1941 was filled with draftees and lost its Alaskan character. When a new National Guard stood up in the 1950s, the cadre included quite a number of former ATG soldiers — and the Alaska Guardsmen today recognize the civilian irregulars that Marston organized as among their founders.
The Gruening quotes are from his introduction to Marston’s postwar book, Men of the Tundra: Alaska Eskimos at War, and are among the excerpts available at this link:
History of the Alaska Territorial Guard