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History of the U.S. Army in Alaska

             
 

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 in 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 were raised in Sitka, which became headquarters for the U.S. Military District, Alaska.

The Army has had a presence 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, Kodiak Island and on the Kenai Peninsula.

They also enforced regulations regarding the killing of fur seals, whose population had been severely depleted during the Russian reign. As For Wrangell and Sitka, Army wives worked with the Soldiers to establish schools and introduce Christianity to Alaska's 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 a number of 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 mapmaking and road and bridge building expanded the frontier.

The Klondike Gold Rush in Yukon Territory, Canada and later gold rushes in Alaska helped that expansion, as thousands of people poured into the territory.

Although the Royal Canadian Mounted Police maintained law and order 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, the need for better communications 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. Lt. William (Billy) Mitchell, another officer who would later achieve military fame, also worked on the four-year project.

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 on building roads and bridges and improving trails during this period.

Military construction in Alaska accelerated in 1940 as the world prepared for another great war. Ladd Field, near Fairbanks, was built as a cold-weather test station and Fort Richardson, named for Wilds P. Richardson, was built near Anchorage. Col. Simon Bolivar Buckner assumed command of the Alaska Defense Force in 1940, achieving the rank of major general during his tenure there.

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, Mt., to Ladd Field by American crews. Russian crews then 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 defend against 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.

Alaska was the only American soil other than Hawaii to see fighting during World War II, when the 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. Postwar emphasis turned to training.

The Alaskan Command was created in January 1947. The first of the unified commands under the Department of Defense, ALCOM was head-quartered at Elmendorf Air force Base near Anchorage and was in control of all military forces in Alaska.
 

 

The Alaskan Department changed its name again in 1947. The new name for the headquarters for all Army personnel in Alaska became U.S. Army Alaska, or USARAL.

Military missions assigned to USARAL included ground and air defense of Alaska. with priority to the Anchorage and Fairbanks areas; development of cold-weather and mountain-warfare doctrines; Conducting a cold-weather and mountain school at Fort Greely; providing logistical support to Air Force and Navy elements in Alaska; conducting National Guard and U.S. Army Reserve training; supervising Reserve Officer Training Corps activities; and providing for internal security, including plans for recovery from nuclear attack.
By 1959, several Nike Hercules missile battalions were activated in the Anchorage and Fairbanks areas. The last Nike Hercules battalion was deactivated in 1979.

July 1953 saw USARAL's combat units officially reorganized into the 172nd Infantry Brigade (Mechanized) at Fort Richardson and the 171st Infantry Brigade (Mechanized) at Fort Wainwright. The two brigades were re-designated as light-infantry brigades in 1969.

USARAL was discontinued as a major subordinate command on Dec. 31. 1974. and the 172nd Infantry Brigade (Alaska). headquartered at Fort Richardson. assumed command and control, reporting to Forces Command at Fort McPherson. Ga.

The 171st Infantry Brigade was deactivated in 1973. The 6th Infantry Division (Light), headquartered at Fort Richardson, was activated in 1986, replacing the 172nd Infantry Brigade. Division headquarters moved to Fort Wainwright in 1990. The 6th 10 (L) was actively involved in training exercises in Japan and Thailand, at the Joint Readiness Training Center in Arkansas and Louisiana, and throughout Alaska until its deactivation in July 1994.

U.S. Army Alaska, now known as USARAK, became an active headquarters at Fort Richardson. The major units under USARAK are the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team. 25th Infantry Division and the USARAK Aviation Task Force at Fort Wainwright and the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and Fort Wainwright host USARAK units and various tenant units and organizations.

Fort Greely continues to provide valuable training and testing land, but is now primarily a support facility for the Space and Missile Defense Agency.