Alaska Territorial Guard memorial park dedicated

Rachel D'Oro | Associated Press
RACHEL D'ORO / Associated Press

Bethel has dedicated a memorial park honoring those who served in the 6,400-member Alaska Territorial Guard during World War II.

Rain prompted organizers to move the Tuesday evening dedication to the town's cultural center, Bethel City Manager Lee Foley said. A crowd of more than 100 gathered for the event, as well as an earlier reception and potluck meal, he said.

The largely Alaska Native guard was formed to defend the vast territory from the threat of Japanese invasion, but its members were formally recognized by the Army as U.S. military veterans just eight years ago. Only a few hundred members are believed to still be alive.

Sixty-five years after the guard was disbanded, at least 200 volunteers donated their time, muscle and equipment working on the Alaska Territory Guard Memorial Park, which is taking shape adjacent to the regional veterans cemetery.

"When a community gets together and works on something as a community, it's amazing what we can get done with people helping people," said Vietnam veteran Fritz Grenfell, a member of a grassroots Bethel planning committee established for the effort to honor the guard with the park.

Representatives of the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs were invited to the event, along with area residents and local leaders.

The centerpiece of the developing park is a bronze statue of a territorial guardsman that has been mounted on a tall steel pedestal. The statue, one of eight identical statues around the state, faces west just as the territorial guard did scanning the horizon. Plans are under way to surround the monument with placards naming 1,353 ATG members from the 56-village, largely Yup'ik Eskimo region. Locals have donated flowerboxes and paths are being carved out, with plans to add a carpet of woodchips bordered with rocks.

The state has provided a $140,000 grant for the project and the city donated the site and is supplying labor and equipment such as a wood chipper. Foley calls the park a work in progress that could take a couple years to complete.

"Everybody's sort of volunteering their time and efforts on this thing, which is what really makes rural Alaska so unique," he said. "You couldn't survive without volunteers."

The territorial guard was formed 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 volunteer members of the new militia stepped in to watch over the 586,000-square-mile territory, which was vulnerable to further attack with the Alaska National Guard already called into federal service.

The territorial guards, nicknamed Uncle Sam's Men, had a variety of duties such as supply deliveries, scouting patrols, repairs of emergency shelter cabins and construction of military airstrips and other infrastructure.

The ATG was disbanded with little fanfare in March 1947, almost two years after the war ended.

Federal recognition may have been decades in coming, but the unit's contribution has long been appreciated within Alaska. Now there will be a park to further honor its members in a big way.

"It has been a long time coming, and I think that is part of the community support behind it," said planning committee member Tim Oosterman. "It's time a little-known facet of World War II in Alaska history got the recognition they deserved."

Associated Press