Alaska remembers World War II militia

By Rachel D’Oro
Anchorage, Alaska (AP) 10-07

Harold Bahr was just 11 years old when he joined a largely Native militia formed to defend Alaska from the threat of a Japanese attack during World War II.

That was 17 years before Alaska became a U.S. state, and older recruits would be armed with outmoded World War I Enfield rifles. Some of the younger members, including Bahr, would make do with non-shooting wooden replicas, but it didn’t matter.

“I was all fired up. I wanted to fight the Japanese,” said Bahr, who is part Yupik Eskimo and Athabascan and was living in the old Gold Rush town of Nome in 1942.
“Every night a Japanese plane would fly over Nome and I would be in the attic with my stepfather’s Enfield, hoping it would get low enough so I could take a shot at him,” he said 65 years later, eyes sparking with the memory.

Bahr, 76, is among an estimated 300 members still living from the original 6,600-member unit to be commemorated during October, Alaska Territorial Guard day. The day was also Alaska Day, which commemorates the 1867 transfer from Russia to the U.S. of what is now the 49th state.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the disbanding of the civilian force and just the third year since the Army formally recognized its members as U.S. military veterans.

Nicknamed Uncle Sam’s Men, the territorial guards – who stepped in after the Alaska National Guard was called overseas – were organized by Army Air Corps Maj. Marvin “Muktuk” Marston.

A charismatic orator, Marston traveled by dog sled across the frozen tundra, delivering impassioned speeches to recruit boys as young as Bahr or well into their 80s, as well as men of fighting age who were exempt from war duty.

Everyone was eager to serve and wear the blue patch embroidered with gold stars and the letters ATG, even though there was no pay attached to the job.

“We didn’t care. We were just proud to be in that unit,” Bahr said. “We wanted to help the war effort. Our main concern was that the Japanese were coming and we were willing to fight.”

The Nome unit would hold two-hour drills three times a week, practicing marches and shoulder arms exercises. The younger members drilled with their fake rifles, but practiced shooting real weapons at an Army firing range.

The territorial guards’ duties varied, ranging from drills and scouting patrols to construction of military airstrips and other infrastructure.

They delivered supplies and equipment and repaired emergency shelter cabins. They forged hundreds of miles of wilderness trails and drove sled dogs over treacherous terrain to deliver weapons and ammunition to remote villages.

Holden Apatiki was 13 when he joined the guard to protect the Siberian Yupik village of Gambell on Saint Lawrence Island. His father, brother and two uncles also signed on.

There was an urgency to the mission, heightened by reports of Japanese ships in the vicinity that fueled fears of enemy plans to bomb the island.

“I’m proud to be ATG to help my country,” Apatiki, 78, said in a phone interview from Gambell. “We were guarding, always guarding, along the shore.”

The guard was disbanded with little fanfare on March 31, 1947, almost two years after the war ended.

But it was not until 2000 that legislation was passed recognizing service in the territorial guard as active federal service. That led to the Army’s agreement in 2004 to grant official military discharge certificates to former guard members or their survivors.