The Alaskan Eskimos in World War II
by Senator Ernest Gruening
This is a story of epic dimensions and significance.
It is an Iliad: the tale of a whole people, the Eskimos of Alaska — at war.
It is an Odyssey: the narrative of one man's adventurous journeyings across the Arctic and sub-Arctic of Alaska, a story of high purpose, unflinching courage, unwavering determination, brought through much travail to a successful and happy ending.
It is history — a new and vital chapter in that continuing saga of our New World, an episode whose geography placed it in America's farthest West and farthest North, in the outermost reaches of "the last frontier," and over an area of more than a quarter of a million square miles.
It is autobiography — a realistic account of struggle against natural and man-made obstacles, both of which were finally overcome.
It began when war clouds were gathering over the Pacific.
It began in a vast, little-known area over which floated the Stars and Stripes, but whose people had enjoyed, few of the benefits, rights and immunities associated with American citizenship. And the neglect and discrimination they had experienced could be judged by their total lack of defenses: despite their pleas, there was not a single up-to-date functioning Army or Navy base in Alaska at the beginning of this century's fifth decade.
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.
The neglect and discrimination which Alaskans had experienced could also be inferred by Alaska's sparse population. For the white man, Alaska was a place to which to go, from which to take, and from which to leave. In 1940, with war about to explode, the decennial census showed a scant 72,225. Half of those were comers from "down below," largely folk of temporary sojourn who would, sooner or later, return to whence they had come.
But there was that other half — little known, little understood, the original, authentic Alaskans, who had lived there since prehistory and had adapted themselves to climate, latitude, and environment.
Marvin R. Marston had worked as a miner in northern Ontario. He had served in World War I. When the Second World War loomed, he felt a patriotic desire to serve again. Next to nothing was known about Alaska in military circles, but Marston's "bush" experience seemed to authorities in the national capital to qualify him for that remote area. Early in 1941, commissioned as a major, he found himself in the newly authorized Fort Richardson-Elmendorf complex near Anchorage.
Accompanying Joe E. Brown, who was touring our new outposts to keep our lonely Gl's from homesickness with his friendly entertainment, Marston found himself on St. Lawrence Island. All white men, except for the Bureau of Indian Affairs school teacher, Frank Daugherty, had departed. The seven hundred Eskimos living in the Island's two villages of Gambell and Savoonga sensed that strange and threatening events were impending. A Japanese vessel had recently visited the Islands and its crew had been ashore for days for unrevealed purposes. Marston, who had taken an immediate liking to the friendly and cheerful Eskimos, conceived the idea of organizing them in defense units and to form similar organizations throughout western Alaska. But when he returned to his base, he found little receptiveness to his ideas.
As Governor of Alaska, I took office on December 5, 1939. There had never been a National Guard in Alaska, and I immediately took the necessary steps to organize it. I asked for five companies respectively in Ketchikan, Juneau, Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Nome. The Federal authorities authorized only the first four. Action by the Territorial Legislature was also required. It encountered the opposition of the lobby representing the absentee-owned fishery and mining interests which managed to defeat the efforts to secure armories, although ten out of sixteen House members and five out of eight Senators favored them. (This interesting episode was set forth in my 1941 "Message to the People of Alaska" which I found useful to issue after legislative sessions telling the people what had happened as I saw it. By the 1948 elections, these messages had helped rout the lobbies and vest the control of subsequent legislatures in legislators concerned with the public interest.)
However, House Bill 122, which became Chapter 60 of the Session Laws of 1941, which I signed on March 27, enabled us to go ahead. Before long, in the face of the growing emergency, our Alaska National Guard was federalized, becoming the 297th Infantry.
It should be recalled that at that time our Alaska defenses, long not in existence, were still wholly inadequate. The Naval air stations at Sitka, Kodiak, and Dutch Harbor were still under construction. So also was the Army Air Force Base (which Chief of Staff Malin Craig four years earlier had "pooh-poohed," but which was finally authorized — only after a request was turned down by the House of Representatives in March 1940 and reintroduced in the Senate in May after Hitler's invasion of Denmark and Norway). This was now in its early stages on the site near Anchorage I had recommended to General George Catlett Marshall, who by this time had become Army Chief of Staff. Moreover, these belated actions to make Alaska secure had come only as the result of proddings from Alaska officials, notably Delegate Dimond and myself. I had felt I could not rely on the wisdom, so far as Alaska was concerned, of the long-uninterested military chiefs in Washington. We had no assurance that they would be able to defend Alaska successfully in the event of invasion, and there had even been talk in military circles of abandoning Alaska — on the ground that it would be difficult to defend. Such thinking was nauseating.
So even before the four companies of Alaska National Guard were federalized and therefore removed from the role of possible local defense, I determined that every able-bodied male otherwise not in military or essential-to-war service would be enrolled in a territorial guard and kept at home for our defense if needed. At my request, the Alaska Command assigned me, as military aides, Captain Carl Scheibner and Major Marvin R. Marston.
We were at war after December 7, 1941. Early in 1942, Marston and I set out in a small float plane from Elmendorf for the Kuskokwim to organize our Territorial Guard units. Morgan Davies, a skilled aviator, was our pilot.
At that time, I knew relatively little about the Eskimos — indeed almost nothing through personal contact. My reading had informed me that they had suffered at the hands of the white man throughout the past. Their food supply — whales and walrus — had been depleted; they had endured starvation, and their numbers had been reduced by diseases to which they were not resistant; they had at times been unfairly taken advantage of by the strangers who had come into their midst. I wondered whether deep-seated resentments might not lurk behind their outwardly friendly appearances.
My doubts were soon set at rest. Everywhere I found only the heartiest response to my pleas for organization in self-defense. In every Eskimo village, I would call a meeting. Everyone came: men, women, children, infants. I would tell the story simply. Out there across the Pacific was the enemy. He had attacked us without warning in Hawaii. Soon he would be coming to Alaska. Indeed, shortly thereafter, Japanese navy and aircraft had attacked Dutch Harbor. On June 7, they seized Attu and Kiska. Presumably they would come on and occupy more Alaskan terrain. In each village I said that I was asking its people to organize to repel the Japs if and when they came. Our government would supply rifles and ammunition. Everywhere in the Eskimo villages, there was a whole-hearted patriotic response by the Eskimos. In various communities white men asked how much they would be paid. My reply was that they would be paid nothing. They would have the privilege of defending their homes and their families if the enemy should come. No Eskimos ever raised that question.
One meeting, typical of many, took place at Cape Prince of Wales on the westernmost tip of the Seward Peninsula. It so happened that the King Islanders had come to trade their ivory carvings and fox skins with the Prince of Wales villagers — the folk of both communities crowded into the school house. After outlining the program, I proceeded:
"Now who is qualified to serve?" I asked. "Out here a boy of sixteen is a man. If he can handle a rifle, he will be enlisted." At my feet listening intently was a handsome, well-built "skookum" youngster who looked to be about eighteen.
"How old are you, son?" I asked.
"I'm fourt — " he replied and quickly corrected himself. "I'm sixteen."
"Well," I said, "I'm proud of you. Even if you are only fourteen, if your father here says you can join, I'll enroll you." He was enrolled.
Actually, not a few of his age or younger were enrolled. I remember a five-foot eleven youngster whom I encountered strolling across the tundra, near Koyuk. He had a rifle slung over his shoulder, from which were dangling four ptarmigans. He had brought them down with that rifle — not with a shotgun. He proved to be only twelve years old. He was enrolled.
After several joint sorties, Major Marston continued the organization alone. His territory was all western Alaska. Captain Scheibner had the eastern half, which provided its quotas readily, although, because of its location, it was not so susceptible to attack. In a few months we had organized 111 units.
"From Metlakatla to Barrow — the Territorial Guard," a handsome painting by "Rusty" Heurlein, who accompanied us on one of the jaunts to the Far North, proclaimed. This superb depiction, showing an Eskimo, a White, and an Indian, rifle in hand, against a backdrop of Stars and Stripes and the Alaska flag in the sky, was later used nationwide as one of the War-Bond-drive posters.
When I returned from my first trip with Marston, I dined one night with the lieutenant colonel who had assigned him. After a few martinis, be waxed loquacious and confidential: "Governor, you don't want Marston," he said.
"Why don't I?" I asked.
"Because he's no damn good," was the reply.
"Why did you assign him to me, then?" I asked.
In the current phrase the officer "hung his head."
"So you wanted to get rid of him?" I asked, "Is that it?"
My dinner companion admitted it.
"Well, it may interest you to know," I said, "that I do want him. He's first class in every way."
"Oh, that's fine," said the lieutenant colonel, "if you like him."
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.
Knowing that this hostility to him existed at headquarters, I made a point the next day of thanking Major General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., the Alaska commander, for assigning him to me.
"He's a very good man," I said.
"Of course, he is," General Buckner replied. "You don't suppose I would have assigned him to you if I hadn't thought so."
Six months later my request for a promotion for Marston to a lieutenant colonelcy was turned down by General Buckner. I flew out to Adak, where the General was preparing his campaign to expel the Japanese from the Aleutians, to ask why.
"Because he's no damn good," said General Buckner, forgetting his previous endorsement.
"Let me tell you, General," I said, "he's the only man in Alaska who could do the job he's doing. Your officers wouldn't and couldn't do it."
The fact was that most of the military at that time, including General Buckner, with his southern background, shared a prejudice against any darker races. In the early days of the war, "Native" girls were excluded from the Alaska U.S.O.'s. I could not get General Buckner to change this inexcusable discrimination and had to fly to Washington, where I had no difficulty in persuading President Roosevelt to overrule this general's mistaken policy.
The rest of the story is Marston's. His continuing difficulty with the military he has clearly set forth. When they put obstacles in his way in supplying the rifles and ammunition to remote outposts, he drove them there himself by dog team under conditions that few, if any, of the regulars could have faced.
The "tundra army" proved so efficient that, at war's conclusion, I felt they should be included in our Alaska National Guard. I encountered considerable resistance at National Guard Headquarters, based on lack of flexibility and lack of understanding of Alaska's special conditions. The National Command found it difficult, at first, to visualize units other than of conventional size, drilling on the same night of the week, 48 out of 52 weeks in the year. I persisted, and so our Eskimos were enrolled in the Alaska National Guard as "scout battalions."
It was in February 1952 that the National Guard held an encampment at Fort Richardson. The weather was unusually cold even for the Anchorage area, with a strong wind. The target practice was held out of doors. But the next day — because of the continuous low temperatures — the ceremonies were held in the theatre on the base. All the Alaska commanders were there, Lt. General William E. Kepner, the overall commander, the Admiral who had flown in from Kodiak, the Army and Air Force chiefs, and their staffs.
In front of us in their seats were the 300 Eskimo scouts from the far westward. Capt. Frank Clayton proceeded to call out their names, and as each would come to the platform I would confer his award: "Marksman, sharpshooter, expert." As the roll call continued, I was increasingly surprised by the large proportion of recipients. Two-thirds, three-quarters, four-fifths. . . .
Capt. Clayton stepped to the microphone and said: "That's all, Governor."
I took over the mike and said, "I want to congratulate you men of the 2nd battalion. It's a wonderful showing. As for those few who did not make it, I'm sure you will, the next time."
At this point, Capt. Clayton interrupted me: "Every one of these men got an award, Governor."
I turned to General Julian Cunningham, Alaska Army Commander, and asked, "Isn't this an unusual showing?"
"Unusual," be replied, "it's unprecedented. I've never known of a unit with a 100-percent marksmanship record."
General Kepner took up the "mike." "I wish there were forty thousand of you," he said, with real feeling in his voice.
Those were the Alaskans who served and continued to serve Uncle Sam, loyally, cheerfully, patriotically, efficiently, modestly. Had the parachutists come, or would they tomorrow, the deadly accuracy of these Eskimo marksmen would bring them down.
They continue to serve — not merely in the Alaska National Guard. They serve in the Alaska legislature; and it is one of my proudest accomplishments that I persuaded the first Eskimo to run (Percy lpalook) and to start the inclusion in our Territorial and, later, State legislatures of Eskimos to represent areas which are almost wholly inhabited by Eskimos.
So "Muktuk," as he is now widely known, rendered not only a substantial military service by his high purpose and devotion but a no less notable civic service. He helped integrate an ethnic minority, a great people with qualities that are admirable and precious, into our society — to which they contribute at the very least as much as they receive.
That's why Marston's story of the "tundra army" which, incidentally, is good reading, is an epic.
[signed] ERNEST GRUENING, United States Senator (Alaska)