Federal validation took decades for Harold Bahr and other members of a largely Native militia that was created to defend the immense territory of Alaska from the threat of Japanese aggression during World War II.
All the more reason for the Western Alaska town of Bethel to push quickly forward with its plans for a memorial park honoring those who served in the 6,400-member Alaska Territorial Guard. The guard members were formally recognized by the Army as U.S. military veterans just eight years ago. For Bahr, a memorial park dedicated to the terrotprial guard has been a long time coming. "I'm just happy that they're doing it, finally," he said.
The crowning focus at the site will be a bronze statue of a territorial guardsman surrounded by placards naming 1,130 guard members from the 56-village, largely Yup'ik Eskimo region. But planners say the spirit of the statue and the project extends to all members, including Bahr, who lives in Anchorage 400 miles to the east. Bahr, an energetic 80-year-old with a hearty laugh, is among an estimated few hundred guard veterans still living.
Funding for the whole project is uncertain, although the state is providing a $140,000-grant to build a monument incorporating the statue. A Bethel planning committee is also asking for rocks from around the state to construct borders for walking trails around the park, which would be adjacent to the regional veterans cemetery there. With at least 200 volunteers involved, one of the committee members, Vietnam veteran Fritz Grenfell, has no doubt the park will become a reality, full funding or no.
"It doesn't make any difference," he said. "Us vets will get it done."
Bahr, who is part Eskimo and Athabascan, was living in the old coastal Gold Rush town of Nome when at age 11 he joined the unit in 1942 -- 17 years before statehood.
The unit was activated after Japan's attack of Pearl Harbor and points along Alaska's Aleutian Islands. The unpaid members of the new militia stepped in to watch over the 586,000-square-mile territory, which was vulnerable to further attack because the Alaska National Guard already had been called into federal service.
The possibility of more attacks by the Japanese was very real for the territorial guards, who took their roles with utmost seriousness, Bahr said.
"We were the first line of defense," he recalled during an interview in Anchorage.
Bahr and some other younger guard members used non-shooting wooden replicas during their military drills, but practiced with real weapons at an Army firing range. Some of the guns used were WWI-era Enfield rifles.
At night, Bahr would climb into the attic with his stepfather's Enfield, hoping in his young mind to see some action.
"We expected the Japanese to land," he said.
The territorial guards, nicknamed Uncle Sam's Men, were organized by Army Air Corps Maj. Marvin "Muktuk" Marston.
Marston traveled by dog sled across the frozen tundra.
A charismatic speaker, he recruited boys as well as men of fighting age who were exempt from war duty.
People were happy to serve, even though there was no pay. Their duties ranged from supply deliveries and scouting patrols to repairs of emergency shelter cabins and construction of military airstrips and other infrastructure.
The guard was disbanded with little fanfare in March 1947, almost two years after the war ended.
Federal recognition may have been slow, but within Alaska the guard's contribution has long been recognized. In fact, volunteers in Bethel are hoping a formal dedication ceremony scheduled at the memorial park site July 3 will draw a large crowd from across the region.
The Bethel project is unusual in that so many in the community are involved in seeing it through, said Verdie Bowen, director of the state Division of Veterans Affairs. He said its $140,000 grant for the project will be administered by the city for the work involving the statue, one of eight identical statues around the state.
"I believe that whatever dollar that is spent in that area over there will be more than honored and the product will be better than what you or I could ever imagine," he said.
As it did with the veterans cemetery, the city donated the memorial park site, said city manager Lee Foley. The city will help anyway it can with the building of the park, but the project itself is driven by volunteers, he said.