Alaska Territorial Guard

More than 6,300 Alaska Natives from 107 communities volunteered to serve in the Alaska Territorial Guard (ATG) during World War II. Assembled to defend against potential Japanese invasion, the “Eskimo Scouts” were the U.S. military’s eyes and ears along the territory’s 6,640-mile coastline.

Three guardsmen, one standing, one kneeling, and one laying on his stomach, holding guns and looking out from a grassy hill

University of Alaska Museum of the North, UA1969-007-001. Photographer Karinna Gomez.

Magnus Colcord “Rusty” Heurlin (1895–1986), Alaska Territorial Guard poster, ca. 1942.

This artwork was used nationwide as a war-bond-drive poster.

Alaska Natives were well prepared for the task. Equipped with unsurpassed knowledge of the territory’s challenging terrain and acclimated to its unforgiving weather, both men and women were veteran hunters and trackers who knew how to shoot a rifle.

Four Alaska Territorial Guardsmen raising their right hand and being sworn in by a military officer in Alaska

Ernest H. Gruening Papers, 1914-[1959–1969] 1974, Alaska & Polar Regions Collections, Archives, University of Alaska Fairbanks

A military officer swearing in four Alaska Territorial Guardsmen at noon for an assignment in Barrow, Alaska, on the shore of the Arctic Ocean.

Men as old as eighty and as young as twelve volunteered, as did more than twenty-seven women. All were instructed in military drill and communications systems and how to identify enemy ships and aircraft. Among other achievements, they were instrumental in spotting and shooting down Japanese incendiary balloon bombs that traveled the jet stream.

A group of men, women and children aboard the USS Delarok ship looking outward from Alaska’s Pribilof Islands

National Archives photo no. DHBR-9041

Residents of Alaska’s Pribilof Islands, located in the Bering Sea between the United States and Russia, gaze at their homes as the USS Delarof pulls away from the dock at Saint Paul Island in 1942. In response to Japanese attacks on the Aleutian Islands, including the seizure of Attu and Kiska, U.S. authorities evacuated the islands’ Aleut people. Ushered aboard cramped transport ships, the displaced families were transported to southeastern Alaska, where they were resettled in fish canneries, abandoned mine buildings, and other substandard and unsanitary quarters. Approximately 100 of the 881 interned evacuees died by war’s end.

After their wartime service, ATG veterans organized a campaign to end the segregation of Alaska’s Indigenous people. The veterans and their supporters successfully persuaded the territorial legislature to approve Alaska’s first antidiscrimination law.

A group of about fifty people in heavy jackets posing for a photograph in winter in Barrow, Alaska

Ernest H. Gruening Papers, 1914-[1959–1969] 1974, Alaska & Polar Regions Collections, Archives, University of Alaska Fairbanks

A group of about fifty people, possibly the ATG, posing for a winter photograph in Barrow. The military men appear to be from the United States Navy.