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Veterans of the Tundra: Territorial Guard helped reduce Alaska racism

  • Author: Paul Ongtooguk
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published November 11, 2011

"Men of the Tundra: Alaska Eskimos at War" by Muktuk Marston was first published in 1969 and has been out of print for some time. While not great literature, it reads like a campfire recollection of a memorable but distant chapter in Alaska history. The book is a tale told by Marston who, during World War II, organized the Alaska Territorial Guard (ATG) along Western Alaska into a formation of Alaska Natives who served as coast watchers, scouts, and armed detachments. While the heroism and sacrifice of these veterans is well known, less examined is the story of the role of the guard in moving Alaska forward on the issue of race during World War II.

In fact, the Alaska Territorial Guard became an opportunity for Alaska Natives to demonstrate that the racism exhibited in Alaska at that time was unmerited. Ironically, race relations in the United States and Alaska during the 1940s undermined the moral plank of World War II as a fight against Japanese and German ideologies of racial superiority.

Regarding the establishment of the Territorial Guard, there was concern in some quarters of the white community in 1942 about arming Alaska Natives. This fear was based on the imagination of possible consequences, given that Natives received lower pay than whites for the same work and that racial segregation existed in many public places, including schools and housing. Muktuk Marston relates how Alberta Skenk, our Rosa Parks in Nome, defied the white-only seating of the Nome movie house by writing a clear letter about racial discrimination that was published by the Nome newspaper in 1944.

The concerns were unfounded. Alaska Natives volunteered overwhelmingly volunteered to serve in a professional and patriotic fashion in the Alaska Territorial Guard. This included quite a few Native women. Laura Beltz Wright is noted as one of the volunteers who scored well in her rifle qualifications, as in 49 out 50 bull's-eyes.

In telling the story of the formation, organization and training of the guard, Marston frames that history in the social relations that existed in Alaska at the time. The episodes he relates move history from the abstract to the personal. For example, General Simon Bolivar Buckner, son of a Confederate general, banned the participation of Alaska Native women as volunteers for the USO in order to reduce cross-race fraternization. The Alaska Native Sisterhood and the Alaska Territorial Gov. Ernest Gruening had to go to the White House to obtain an executive order to overturn the general's order.

This same general also moved and relocated black engineering soldiers from popluated to remote areas, again, to reduce cross race relations. He was no friend of the guard, but Gov. Gruening was an active supporter and this, combined with the fact that territorial guard soldiers were volunteers located far away, favored their formation.

The unintended consequences of the formation of the Alaska Territorial Guard and the impact of service for Alaska Natives has also been related to me through conversations with my father, Tommy Ongtooguk. He and my grandfather, Charley Crowley, are both listed in the 1st and 2nd Scout Battalion rolls in the appendix of Marston's book. My father talked about how important it was for Alaska Native communities to have a chance to prove we could serve just as well as any person in defending a country, even one that did not socially or legally consider Alaska Natives as equals.

Guard members were proud to have those powerful 30-06 bolt action rifles for training and to learn the elements of formation marching. They eagerly learned how to take and pass orders and wore the Alaska Territorial Guard patch sewn onto the shoulder of the white cloth covered fur hunting parka as professionals. From a military standpoint it is clear that it would have been impossible to place regular soldiers up and down the western coast of Alaska as the conditions, local food, knowledge of the areas and safe movement could not have been taught at military speed. In fact, the winter mountains of Italy and the Battle of the Bulge demonstrate that the U.S. had little understanding during WWII about how to manufacture, train and distribute proper winter clothing suitable for movement and warmth. Alaska Natives brought their winter equipment, clothing and survival skills informed by generations of insight and development.

My family continued to be connected to the military, as my dad went on to volunteer for the Army Air Corp and then served in the Air Force. He liked to point out that President Truman in 1948 ordered the racial desegregation of the Armed Forces. While it did not end discrimination in the services with the stroke of a pen, it did set the United States on a path which it continues to sort out to this day. Alaska Native veterans, often returning to conditions of racial discrimination, realized they were fighting racism in two wars -- one overseas and one at home. My dad always said, however, that his training and service had taught him that they were second to none. These are stories that I was told.

Tommy Ongtooguk is buried at the Joint Base Elemendorf-Richardson Military Cemetery. It is my understanding that his was the first headstone to display both his Air Force and his Alaska Territorial Guard service. He had acculmulated multiple awards during his service, but the only one he wanted to be buried with was the last one he received -- his belated and valued Alaska Territorial Guard Medal.

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