This week we give thanks to all the U.S. military folks who served, are serving and will serve in the future. And Alaskans give our gratitude to the brave soldiers who came north in 1943 and forced the Japanese to leave the Aleutian Islands. Some people don’t know this, but the enemy landed on Alaska’s shores in June 1942 and occupied two of our islands, Attu and Kiska, for 11 months. That was the first time since the War of 1812 that foreign enemies were on American soil.
Alaska military history dates back to the purchase of of Alaska from Russia in 1867. The Department of War was put in charge of American’s new possession. But by the beginning of World War II there were only about 100 GIs in Alaska – all in the Southeast region. However, six years before the war broke out, Anthony J. Dimond, Alaska’s delegate to Congress, started asking for military planes, airfields, army garrisons and a highway to link Alaska to the Lower 48.
When the war actually began in September 1939, rumors ran rampant around Anchorage that his pleas had been heard and military bases soon would be built to protect the northern front.
Congress finally appropriated funds for Alaska in 1940, and the military started making plans for the construction of U.S. Navy and Army bases, ranging from Anchorage to Sitka and Kodiak to Unalaska. On June 27, Anchorage’s 4,000 residents greeted the first troops.
Under the command of Maj. B.B. Talley, engineers started construction of Fort Richardson, in honor of Brig. Gen. Wilds P. Richardson, who’d served as the first president of the Alaska Board of Road Commissioners from 1905 to 1917. The engineers also worked on an airfield, named to honor Capt. Hugh M. Elmendorf who’d died in an aircraft accident at Wright Field in Ohio in 1933.
Fort Richardson later became a U.S. Air Force base and took the name Elmendorf. The U.S. Army built a new Fort Richardson seven miles away, near the foothills of the Chugach Mountains.
Brig. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner arrived in Anchorage in July 1940 and took charge of all military operations in the territory.
With the building of the military facilities stretching out over several years, serious housing shortages developed as the city’s population swelled to about 9,000 by mid-summer 1941.
However, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the population dropped as the government evacuated Army families. By April 1942, Anchorage had an estimated 3,200 men, 1,500 women and 1,300 children under the age of 18. Only about 75 of the 6,000 who remained in the city were Alaska Native.
The U.S. military increased its presence in Alaska, however, from 1942 until the end of the war in 1945. Then the numbers dwindled from 152,000 members to 19,000 by 1946.
Thank you again to all the veterans who fought, and still are fighting, to keep America free (more than 77,000 veterans live in Alaska)!
By Laurel Bill