Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
In the 1950s, a network of civilian sleeper agents ran across Alaska, unbeknownst to the public. The neighbor could have been one of them, as could the local pilot or priest. Perhaps that hunting guide harbored some deep secrets. Or maybe that miner knew more about espionage than anyone would have imagined. Collectively, they bore a heavy burden. In the event Alaska was invaded by a foreign power, these Alaskans volunteered to stay behind, forgoing escape in order to provide intelligence on enemy activities. This was Operation Washtub, a program developed by the Air Force and FBI amid Cold War fears of Soviet aggression. Though conceived with the best intentions, the program collapsed within a decade, overcome by multiple farces and an inability to prove its worth.
Aspects of Operation Washtub circulated in shadowy military and intelligence corners for months, if not years, before implementation. Yet, if the plan had a specific date of birth, it was Jan. 27, 1950. On that day, U.S. Navy Captain Minor Heine, Director of Intelligence Alaskan Command, led a meeting in his Fort Richardson office. The audience consisted of key Air Force, Army, and FBI personnel, including the FBI’s Anchorage Special Agent in Charge, or SAC, John Williams.
With the backing of Lt. General Nathan Twining, Commander-in-Chief, Alaskan Command, Heine presented the broad details for what he described as “stay behind agents.” Given the vast geography of Alaska and insufficient resources to prevent a full-scale invasion, he proposed a network of strategically placed private citizens. The network would remain inactive unless Alaska was invaded. Instead of fleeing the territory, the stay-behind agents would, as their name suggests, remain in place, gathering and reporting intelligence on the invaders. They would also establish and maintain escape routes for stranded American military personnel.
At the time, Alaska was one of the likelier places where tensions between the United States and Soviet Union could have erupted into open conflict. In May 1948, Soviet forces on Big Diomede Island seized an Inupiaq party attempting to visit relatives on the other side of the Bering Sea, a traditional crossing made since time immemorial. The Alaskans were held and interrogated for 52 days before their release. One of them, Oscar Ahkinga, told The New York Times, “The Russians told us not to come back. If we did, they’d put us in the jailhouse, or worse.”
Before, during, and since the existence of the Soviet Union, some Russians have advocated reclaiming former portions of the Russian Empire, including Alaska. The 1960 Soviet propaganda film, “In the Year 2017,” imagined a future where Alaska was “liberated” from capitalism and connected to Siberia via nuclear-powered trains that crossed the Bering Sea atop a massive dam.
In March 1950, Heine passed the stay-behind-agent proposal up the chain to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. With their approval, it coalesced into a more coherent plan that summer, overseen by the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations, or OSI, with significant assistance from the FBI. The Air Force designated the plan as Operation Washtub. The FBI referred to it by the code name Stage.
Almost everything known about Operation Washtub originates from nearly 3,000 pages of declassified but heavily redacted Air Force and FBI files. From the beginning, FBI personnel were skeptical at best about Operation Washtub’s potential. After the initial meeting with Heine, Anchorage SAC Williams wrote to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, “The above plan, even if approved, does not appear to be feasible for a number of reasons.” In his October 1950 review of the operation, FBI Assistant Director Hugh Clegg declared, “Every phase of it I consider objectionable from an FBI standpoint.” He added, “Even if such a plan should be put into effect, the idea of 20-odd or even 50 such informants ... would seem to be grossly inadequate for such a large area of territory.” But in Hoover’s FBI, Hoover’s authority was absolute. And Hoover approved the plan and directly ordered Williams to “give this matter your personal attention.”
The FBI’s primary role was the recruitment, training, and equipping of stay-behind agents, “the development of individuals who could act as agents for the United States in the event that Alaska is occupied by a foreign power.” To produce a pool of candidates, the Anchorage office approached several of their closest contacts for suggestions without revealing any aspect of Operation Washtub. The contacts included Benjamin Stewart of Valdez, Judge Anthony Dimond — the high school and boulevard namesake — of Anchorage, Judge George Folta of Juneau, Judge Harry Pratt of Fairbanks, U.S. Attorney J. Earl Cooper of Anchorage, and Dr. Howard Romig of Anchorage. Howard Romig was the son of Dr. Joseph Romig, the middle school namesake and a former Anchorage mayor.
From there, the FBI proceeded to investigate the reliability of the agent candidates. In October 1950, Hoover suggested a ratio of roughly one agent per 1,000 residents, which would have called for 130 agents across Alaska and eight agents in Anchorage. Towns and villages with populations less than 1,000 would still have an agent, and an urban center like Anchorage would have multiple cells of agents firewalled from one another for safety. The agents were paid a stand-by rate “not to exceed $3,000 per annum,” payments given in cash to limit the paper trail.
Per an October 1950 Air Force version of the proposal, “The stay behind agents should be selected with consideration given to their cover, area knowledge, stamina, adaptability, motivation and trustworthiness.” The candidate pool grew to include a wide range of occupations, including ministers, postmasters, prospectors, bartenders, dockworkers, tugboat operators, farmers, hunters, trappers, and bush pilots. They were drawn from across the territory with survival skills learned from years in Alaska.
For all the thought given to produce a diverse group of sleeper agents, the results were anything but. The average potential stay-behind agent was around 50 years old, white, and male. Women were not considered, nor was anyone who might be of particular interest to the invaders, whether by their labor skills or social status. In this way, professors, teachers, bankers, politicians, mechanics, and federal employees were unlikely to be selected as agents. As per one memo, “Agents should be chosen from those persons who will not be logical internees or victims of the enemy.”
Another memo offers an example of a preferred agent candidate: “a professional photographer in Anchorage; he has only one arm and it is felt that he would not benefit the enemy in any labor battalion; he is an amateur radio operator; he is a professional photographer; he is licensed as a hunting or fishing guide, and well versed in the art of survival; he is a pilot of a small aircraft; he is reasonably intelligent, particularly crafty, and possessed of sufficient physical courage.”
Alaska Natives were the most striking exclusion from agent consideration. Despite years of meritorious service in the Alaska Territorial Guard and other armed forces, Alaska Natives were excluded from Operation Washtub, and for blatantly racist reasons. From the declassified records, “The selection of agents from the Eskimo, Indian, and Aleut groups in the Territory should be avoided in view of their propensities to drink to excess and their fundamental indifference to constituted governments and political philosophies.” In addition, “The Eskimo would probably not resist an invasion and would readily accept foreign rule if the Eskimo is provided the necessities for sustaining life. The Eskimo ... just cannot comprehend the feeling of loyalty to the Government.” One memo flatly states, “The use of natives in any phase of the plan is not desirable.”
Whether hampered by Alaska geography or Anchorage office apathy, the FBI was slow in producing agent candidates. As of Sept. 6, 1951, more than a year after beginning their search, the FBI had identified 69 potential agents. Of those, only 18 had reported for training, far short of the goal. A June 1951 handwritten note by Alan Belmont, the FBI’s assistant director in charge of domestic intelligence, says, “It seems obvious that the stay-behind agent program is not being properly administered or supervised.”
In the early days of Operation Washtub, training was conducted in Washington, D.C. There, the prospective agents endured a series of crash courses on the basics of espionage, Soviet methodologies, Russian-English translation, radio communication, codes and decoding, equipment training, crafting cover stories, and self-defense.
The Air Force established a series of emergency caches that included food, fuel, radios, clothing, and medicine. In 1951, the FBI estimated it would cost at least $2,500 to prepare, stock, and install each cache, about $29,000 in 2022 dollars after accounting for inflation. Later caches included weapons, gold and silver coins for bartering, skis, climbing equipment, and other cold-weather gear.
Historian Deborah Kidwell claims 89 Alaskan stay-behind agents were trained. In the operation records, the far majority of candidate names are redacted. However, the identity of some can be surmised from other details. For example, one background check request identified an individual as the general manager of Reeve Aleutian Airlines. Only one man, founder Bob Reeve, ever held that position. The legendary aviator would have been around 50 at the time, and it is unknown whether he became a sleeper agent. According to his son, Reeve never spoke or left any record of such service.
On Sept. 8, 1951, the FBI summarily withdrew from the program. Hoover feared the operation was a potential embarrassment for the Bureau with little hope of achieving its goals. In the margins of one memo, he wrote, “If a crisis arose we would be in the midst of another ‘Pearl Harbor’ and get part of the blame.” OSI was left with sole control of the operation though the FBI continued to offer background checks.
Many of the agents also left much to be desired. To the dismay of their instructors, most of the recruits struggled to grasp even basic elements of spycraft, especially the need for secrecy. Several recruits simply did not show up for their scheduled training. In one case, the would-be agent claimed he had been preoccupied with a bear hunt. Another recruit lied about his health. When his active tuberculosis was identified at the training, he was eliminated from the program. Another candidate successfully lied about his identity. The truth came out three years later when the man’s burdened conscience drove him to confess.
In 1959, OSI disbanded Operation Washtub, which was too expensive to maintain for its uncertain value. The 89 stay-behind agents lost some income but gained the satisfaction of having played a role in the defense of Alaska. If there had been a real invasion, the Air Force did not expect all or even most of their sleeper agents to survive: “Because of the recognized policy the Soviets use to immobilize and/or liquidate large masses of populated areas, a ‘saturation’ of agents under this plan is required.” The caches were converted into other uses and eventually just looted by locals. Like the eight Nike missile sites built in Alaska, the caches and the operation itself were thankfully never needed, eventually stripped and abandoned as relics of our Cold War past.
Iseman, Peter A. “Lifting the Ice Curtain.” New York Times, October 23, 1988, 48.
Person, Daniel. “The FBI’s Top Secret Plan to Defend Alaska from Communists.” Outside, February 3, 2015.
Strauss, Mark. “Declassified Documents Reveal US Plan for Alaska in a Russian Invasion.” Gizmodo, September 12, 2014.