'Eskimo Scouts' volunteer by thousands

Aunt Phil's Trunk

When the U.S. Government needed them, Alaska's Native population came out in droves. From the beaches of Bristol Bay to the far corners of Bethel, Kotzebue and Barrow, villagers didn't hesitate to provide Alaska with a line of defense after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Col. Marvin "Muktuk" Marston, who'd been put in charge of organizing the Alaska Territorial Guard, traveled along 5,200 miles of western Alaska coastline to personally address the Natives, including a stop in the Norton Sound village of King Island:

"Men and women of King Island, I am here representing the President of the United States and the Governor of Alaska [Ernest Gruening]. You know that we are at war with the Japanese.

"I have been to Kuskokwim, Point Barrow and up to Kobuk and the Noatak rivers to visit all of you. I have seen more Eskimos than any Eskimo, and everywhere I find them to be fine people and fine Americans. They are helping in this war 100 percent.

"We need you to be the eyes and ears of the Army. You know how to hunt the seal and the walrus. You're fine shots. I want every man who is willing to join the Alaska Territorial Guard."

As Marston and Capt. Carl Scheibner traveled by dogs and sleds with an interpreter along the coast and into the Interior, they recruited and organized the homeland defense. Approximately 6,000 Natives were asked to join the Guard, and although there was no money to pay the force and little equipment available, 100 percent enlisted.

These were the original "Eskimo Scouts."

The Scouts were accomplished shooters. And even though the government could only issue them outdated Enfield rifles, they made every shot count.

In his book, "Men of the Tundra," Marston recounts a ceremony that lasted hours because all 3,000 in attendance received medals for "expert marksman."

The Inupiat and the Yup'ik learned the art of military reconnaissance along the shores of the Bering Sea. Young men and women routinely patrolled the coastline, keeping a sharp eye out for intruders in a war that would eventually reach Alaska by way of the Aleutians. Many scouts earned commendations for shooting down Japanese air balloons carrying bombs, eavesdropping on radio transmissions, and rescuing downed airmen. 

Alaska disbanded the Territorial Guard in 1947, with no fanfare for the volunteers who proudly wore World War I-era uniforms bearing a blue patch with the stars of the Big Dipper.

It wasn't until 2004 that the Alaska unit was officially recognized as military veterans. In 2008, the U.S. Army finally granted formal military discharge certificates to former members of the Guard, which now only numbers a few. And those who qualify also can receive a headstone, a U.S. flag and burial in a national cemetery.

This column features tidbits found in Aunt Phil's Trunk, a five-book Alaska history series written by Laurel Downing Bill and her late aunt, Phyllis Downing Carlson. The books are available at bookstores and gift shops throughout Alaska, as well as online at http://www.auntphilstrunk.com.