OPINION: 150 years of the Army in Alaska

By Captain Richard Parker

SITKA, Alaska – I recently attended the 150-year commemoration of the transfer of Alaska, previously known as Russian America, from tsarist Russia to the United States. The original ceremony occurred in Sitka (New Archangel while under Russian rule) on October 18, 1867, and just like the modern ceremony, the U.S. Army was present for the first ceremony.

Seeing modern-day Paratroopers mingling with Sitka residents dressed as Civil War-era Soldiers impressed upon me just how prominently our Army has influenced the birth, growth and development of the Last Frontier. I was struck with the legacy of service represented by two uniforms side-by-side, yet separated by 15 decades of hardship and exploration, combat and sacrifice. 

The Army originally headquartered in Sitka maintained law and order in the Alaska Military District from 1867-1877. Initially, the Army built forts along Alaska’s southern coastline and as far out into the Bering Sea as the Pribilof Islands. However, these posts were expensive to maintain and supply and were all closed by 1870, leaving Sitka as the only active garrison.

In 1877 the U.S. Army relinquished control of the region to the U.S. Treasury Department and took a back seat in Alaska’s governance. Though not responsible for administering Alaska, the Army still dedicated talent and resources to exploration and developing the Last Frontier’s infrastructure over the next six decades.

In 1900, the U.S. Congress dedicated $450,000 to establish a communications system connecting Army forts and meteorological stations, gold rush camps and other communities throughout known Alaska. Between 1900 and 1905, the U.S. Army Signal Corps’ Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System laid 2,100 miles of undersea cable, 1,400 miles of landlines and reached 107 miles across Norton Sound with a wireless system. The Army operated WAMCATS, renamed the Alaska Communication System in 1936, until the Air Force took over in 1962.

In 1905, Congress directed the Army, through the U.S. War Department, to establish the Board of Road Commissioners for Alaska, generally referred to as the Alaska Road Commission. By the time responsibility for Alaska’s roads was transferred to the Department of the Interior in 1932, ARC had built and maintained 1,231 miles of road, 74 miles of tram road, 1,495 miles of sled road, 4,732 miles of trail, 329 miles of temporary trail and 26 airfields. The Richardson, Steese, Elliot and Edgerton highways are all named for Army ARC officers who were instrumental in their construction.

World War II almost perfectly bisects the 150 years of our Army’s service in Alaska. Just this summer, veterans and evacuees held a commemoration to mark the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Dutch Harbor by Imperial Japan in early June 1942.

The Battle of Dutch Harbor and the associated enemy landings at Attu and Kiska islands were a hard blow for the U.S. military and America’s national pride. So, in true American fashion, we threw a lot of resources and manpower at the problem. World War II was a catalyst for a boom in Alaskan infrastructure development which we continue to enjoy the benefits of today.

Shortly after the attacks in the Aleutians, airports in Anchorage and Fairbanks were rapidly enlarged, smaller airports throughout Alaska were federally supported, enlarged and made more useful, and the Alaskan-Canadian Highway and petroleum pipelines were proposed and completed in record time. These efforts played a major role in Allied war strategy as Alaska’s airports were used to deliver nearly 8,000 Lend-Lease planes and materiel for the Soviet Union to use in the defeat of Axis forces on the Eastern Front.

Army Engineers surveyed, built, improved and defended Alaska from the beginning. They have built and maintained military facilities and the Alaska Railroad, improved navigation and moorage for Alaskan communities, constructed flood control facilities to protect population centers, developed hydroelectric facilities, built roads and pipelines, assisted in disaster recovery efforts and many more invaluable contributions over the past 150 years. Anyone interested in detailed reading on how Army Engineers built Alaska can visit the history page of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Alaska District at http://www.poa.usace.army.mil/About/History/.

Today the Army’s direct contributions are more focused on the defense of Alaska and the strategic defense of the United States. Soldiers at Fort Greely provide nuclear strategic air defense against enemy attack. Our aviators fight fires and rescue people lost and injured in the Alaska wilderness. The Alaska Army National Guard responds to scores of disasters and emergencies across the state each year.

The history of our Army and Alaska are inseparably intertwined. Alaska’s economy is built on the foundation of roads, rails, pipelines, bridges, tunnels and communication systems built by the Army. Soldiers today protect the investment in treasure, time and lives the Army has paid into the Great Land over the past 150 years. I believe all those who’ve been privileged to live and serve in Alaska owe a debt of gratitude to the legacy of U.S. Army Soldiers who laid the foundation for Alaska’s modern prosperity.

By:  Captain Richard Parker
Source: Defense Video Imagery Distribution System