Alaska Life

What should newcomers know about Alaska? Here’s what a 1956 pocket guide from the military says.

Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

An illustration from the 1956 Pocket Guide to Alaska

Today, the military seems like a fundamental part of the Alaska landscape. Yet, hard as it might be to imagine, this was not always the case, even in the past century. In the 1930s, the only permanent military presence in the territory was the roughly 300 soldiers at Fort Seward in Haines. World War II and the subsequent defense buildup in Alaska changed everything.

Those thousands of servicemen dispatched to the territory in the 1940s and 1950s shared little in common. They originated from all over the country. They had different economic circumstances and cultural contexts. Yet, they would have all been offered the same thing on arrival, a “Pocket Guide to Alaska.”

For many years, the Department of Defense published guides for the more distant deployments. There were pocket guides for Austria, Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Great Britain, Morocco, West Africa, Egypt, Turkey, the Middle East, South Korea, Japan, Okinawa, Taiwan, Philippines, Vietnam and Hawaii, among other destinations. These guides were regularly updated and widely available.

The “Pocket Guide to Alaska” was repeatedly updated. Old copies litter the corners of antique stores, eBay and libraries. While no longer a definitive authority, the “Pocket Guide to Alaska” does offer a particular window into the past. That is, what the Department of Defense chose to include — and exclude — is both interesting and illuminating. And there are cute cartoons.

An illustration from the 1956 Pocket Guide to Alaska

The 1956 “Pocket Guide to Alaska” is available online via HathiTrust, a collaborative and legal digital library, and is typical of the series. The guide’s intent is provided early on: “You are going to Alaska for duty. This does not mean that you will not have time to enjoy yourself. You will. But it does mean that you are going there to learn the country, the weather, how to take care of yourself and your equipment, and how to fight there if fighting becomes necessary.”

Many already well-established cliches are present, including the inaccurate “Seward’s Folly” and repeated mentions of a “last frontier.” The unnamed author spends more than two pages, out of 70, emphasizing the scale of Alaska. “It is easier to remember that Alaska is as large as Texas, California, and Montana put together than that it contains a total of 586,000 square miles.” Of course, there is a map of the Lower 48 with Alaska superimposed over it. One can hardly write about Alaska at this length without that image.

An illustration from the 1956 Pocket Guide to Alaska

Then there are the expected and brief summaries of Alaska history, demographics and government. The history begins with the arrival of the Russians and essentially acts as if nothing occurred before then. The government section stresses that Alaskans are citizens. While elections are mentioned, the guide does not note that Alaskans then could not vote for president.

The average Alaskan is “self-confident and aggressive.” Meanwhile, “Alaska is not so prim and proper as a drawing room in Boston.” This is an example of subtlety. The book expands on the personality of the Alaskan: “An Alaskan’s language may often be blunt, and he can swear like a Missouri mule skinner when a suitable occasion arises.” A mule skinner is a mule driver, usually using them as pack animals. Suffice to say, anyone who has spent any time trying to direct mules for a living knows a fair amount of colorful language.

The text includes a few essential warnings. Regarding the people, the best advice is to mind your business, especially regarding how things are done elsewhere. “Every person strongly believes he has the right to think, act, and do as he pleases as long as he does not interfere with the rights of others.” The idea Is familiar, though as difficult to keep then as now.

Otherwise, the guide focuses on more natural dangers, the risks raised by the weather and wildlife. The advice is generally timeless. Bring a friend on excursions. Pack wisely. Make noise when walking through woods. Wear clothing appropriate for the time of year, wind and elevation. Keep your boots and feet dry in winter.

An illustration from the 1956 Pocket Guide to Alaska

Bears are mentioned as threats, but insects receive far more emphasis. “Mosquitoes will stab your unprotected skin; gnats will burrow under your clothes; deer flies will buzz around you; no-see-ums, which are about as big as pin points, can bite worse than mosquitoes.” The guide adds that there are mosquitoes “so large they can kill bears. When you are stabbed by a northern mosquito, you may actually believe this one.”

More than half the book is devoted to the recreation opportunities in Alaska, which is hard to fault. Alaska is divided into six regions: Southeastern, Pacific Coast, Interior, Arctic, Western Approaches and the Southwestern. The Southeastern section, as per usual, describes the Panhandle. The author notes, “It is no colder here than in Maryland.” From there, the text focuses on Tlingit culture, “rugged mountains,” glaciers, fishing and the rainy weather. In other words, the guide is simple and accurate in as far as it goes.

Anchorage falls within the Pacific Coast section, with the Prince William Sound region, Kenai Peninsula, Cook Inlet, Matanuska Valley and as far north as Denali. The primary attractions are the Fur Rendezvous, winter sports, watersports and Denali National Park, where the “animals seem to sense that the use of firearms is prohibited.”

An illustration from the 1956 Pocket Guide to Alaska

The Interior and Arctic are as you would roughly conceptualize them today. The Western Approaches, a unique division of Alaska, includes the Bering Sea islands, Seward Peninsula, Norton Sound area, Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and Bristol Bay. Gold panning is the only listed activity in the Western Approaches. Lastly, the Southwestern region includes the Aleutian Islands, Alaska Peninsula and Kodiak Island vicinity. The guide highlights fog and volcanoes here. As the book moves away from the Southeast and Southcentral regions, the descriptions become vaguer and vaguer, and there are fewer and fewer activities listed. The author or authors likely had less experience in these regions.

The main text of the guide ends with an extended plea for servicemen to be polite and open-minded towards Alaskans, especially Alaska Natives. “You should accept your new fellow citizens — just as they are — and they will accept you.” Regarding Alaska Natives, employ the correct term for individual Indigenous populations and never cheat them. As the guide says, “Some Alaskan natives serve in the Armed Forces. Maybe a few will be in your outfit. Get to know them.” However, when the guide says not to call Alaska Natives derogatory names, it includes several examples.

A two-page appendix of “A Few Alaska Expressions” follows the main text. Naturally, there are entries for “cheechako” and “sourdough.” Alaskans have been teaching those words to newcomers for over a century. A few Alaska Native terms are explained, including “ulu” and “umiak.” And most of the other terms offer definitions for words with different meanings in other contexts, like “dust” and “outside,” to mean fine gold and the Lower 48 states, respectively.

An illustration from the 1956 Pocket Guide to Alaska

An entry for “curling” stands out, “a game in which round stones are slid across ice to a mark; rules of the game are similar to those of shuffleboard.” Curling has a long history in Alaska, a consistent presence marked by waxing, waning and waxing again. In the earliest years of the 20th century, curling outcomes were front-page news in some Alaska towns. But curling did not originate here, so it is interesting to see it spotlighted in an Alaska-focused publication.

In general, the 1956 “Pocket Guide to Alaska” leaves out some of the grittier realities experienced by servicemen in Alaska. Important details left out of the pocket guide included the impact of the isolation from family and the price shock (e.g., groceries). Perhaps foremost, it does not mention the ongoing housing shortage that directly impacted many military families. Alaska grew from a population of 73,000 in 1940 to 226,000 in 1960, a demographic boom largely incited by increased federal spending in Alaska, including the greatly expanded military presence.

The time it takes to build that much new housing was complicated by shortages and the eternal logistical issues with transporting materials to Alaska. The lucky military family in 1940s and 1950s Alaska found a spot in one of the new apartment buildings or a trailer home. Others did what they needed to survive.

In 1949 Anchorage, a serviceman paid $30 (about $370 today) a month for his family of three to live in a converted beer van. The 6-foot-by-9-foot room had no plumbing; the only feature was a small cook stove. Tar-paper walled shacks were suddenly in high demand only due to the lack of options. That same year, a two-room tar paper shack with no insulation or plumbing cost $60 a month (about $730 today). Owners typically required months, if not a full year, of rent in advance. And many soldiers cited the inadequate housing as why they declined to reenlist.

An illustration from the 1956 Pocket Guide to Alaska

Another unmentioned aspect was the comparatively lawless nature of Alaska compared to most Lower 48 postings. Cops and Territorial Police, the predecessors of the State Troopers, existed but were stretched thin. As a result, red-light districts operated openly with broad public acceptance. To be fair, details like this would have been awkward for the book to discuss.

Military leadership responded to this reality in different ways in different places. In Anchorage, Eastchester Flats, the southern part of modern-day Fairview, was quickly made off-limits to soldiers, and signs were posted around the border. In Fairbanks, military commanders also banned soldiers from the Line, the city’s red-light district on Second and Third avenues. As in most places, the ban was ineffective. Prostitutes there reportedly doubled their rates on soldier’s paydays. After a threat to ban servicemen from Fairbanks entirely, the city closed the Line in 1952.

While it is amusing to imagine fresh shipments of soldiers, sailors and airmen all carefully reading their “Pocket Guide to Alaska,” few probably ever made the effort. Most servicemen likely tossed their copy aside. Better lessons were learned either the hard way or via more experienced compatriots. Still, it is interesting to see precisely what the military thought newcomers should know about Alaska all those years ago.

An illustration from the 1956 Pocket Guide to Alaska

Key Sources:

Hearing on Additional Deputy United States Marshals for Alaska. 82nd Congress, Committee on Appropriations, February 18, 1952.

Morgan, Lael. Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush. Fairbanks: Epicenter Press, 1998.

Office of Armed Forces Information and Education, Department of Defense. A Pocket Guide to Alaska. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1956.

Worden, William l. “The Town That Can’t Wait for Tomorrow.” Saturday Evening Post, September 19, 1959, 41, 100, 103-106.


David Reamer

David Reamer is a historian who writes about Anchorage. His peer-reviewed articles include topics as diverse as baseball, housing discrimination, Alaska Jewish history and the English gin craze. He’s a UAA graduate and nerd for research who loves helping people with history questions. He also posts daily Alaska history on Twitter @ANC_Historian.

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