A few days before this column was written, news broke that North Korea had developed a nuclear warhead that could be attached to its long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles. Those missiles could reach Alaska.
That was followed by angry exchanges from both President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, who threatened to use the deadly weapon. Worry over a potential nuclear conflict is reflected around the world. Most likely before this appears in print, there will be a peaceful outcome.
A nuclear war would have consequences of horrific proportions. Two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan to end World War II.
Two entire cities were devastated. In Hiroshima, 140,000 persons lost their lives and three days later in Nagasaki 80,000 died. Tens of thousands more were burned severely or were mangled by the powerful blast. Radiation caused tens of thousands more to suffer terribly and die before their time.
In the intervening 72 years, nuclear weapons have been made infinitely more powerful.
This writer is not an expert on military matters but has lived through tense times. He was 11 years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japanese aircraft. A soldier assigned to the Army’s Alaska Communication System, he was stationed on Shemya, near the end of the Aleutian Chain, in June of 1950 when the Korean conflict broke out. He watched anxiously the Russian threat during the Cold War, causing defensive missiles to fly over Eagle River.
Alaskans were involved as individuals in the first World War—called the “war to end all wars”—but only from a distance. That conflict on the other side of the globe was waged between July 28, 1914, and Nov. 11, 1918.
Rather than end war, WWI contributed to another and even more deadly struggle—one that brought enemy forces onto U.S. soil. Provisions in the 1918 treaty placed strict limitations on Germany’s military, took away captured land and imposed severe financial penalties. The resulting poverty and loss of stature helped usher Adolf Hitler into power in 1933. Over the next six years, he built up an army and plotted to regain the land. He also envisioned an “Aryan race” that would become supreme throughout the world. Although in violation of the Armistice treaty, European leaders chose not to interfere as they considered Germany to be a buffer between them and the growing Communist movement.
Hitler’s blitzkrieg in two years’ time overran Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Yugoslavia, Greece, and portions of North Africa. He planned to invade Britain and launched an aerial bombardment in June of 1940. Britain and France jointly declared war on Germany, but their combined forces were unable to stop the Nazis.
The United States did not join in the conflict in a direct way. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected in 1932, had promised to never again send Americans into combat. Polls showed 80% of Americans were opposed to the war. Just coming out of the Great Depression of 1929, they were still mourning the loss of 116,516 servicemen killed and nearly twice that many wounded a decade earlier.
Even so, the Nazi aggression could not be ignored, and the United States began to strengthen its military. Congress instituted a military conscription on Sept. 16, 1940, requiring all men age 21 to 45 to register, subject to being drafted for one year of service. Construction of facilities at Ft. Richardson, Ft. Wainwright, and other locales was begun.
When Pearl Harbor was attacked without warning by Japanese bombers on Sunday morning, Dec 7, 1941, Americans’ attitude changed instantly. Roosevelt called it “a day that will go down in infamy.” Congress without hesitation declared war against Japan.
In 1941, Maj. Marvin R. Marston was assigned as an aide to Gov. Ernest Gruening to organize Alaskans as unpaid coastwatchers and scouts to aid in the defense of rural locations. Hundreds responded and were issued rifles and ammunition.
Anti-aircraft batteries were set up to defend against aerial attacks. Gun emplacements at Campbell Point and other Cook Inlet locations guarded against naval invaders.
With the war coming to the Pacific, Alaska became a center of attention.
The Territory was vulnerable by sea and air, something that was proven in June of 1942 when Japanese forces occupied Attu and Kiska. The enemy was defeated at Attu when Allied forces retook the island a year later. The Japanese abandoned Kiska without a fight, slipping away in the fog.
Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, after six years of bloody fighting. The Pacific war continued, with President Harry S. Truman warning the Japanese of terrible consequences if they continued fighting. On August 6, the world’s first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, killing 140,000 people. Three days later, a second bomb fell on Nagasaki, with 80,000 people dying. Japan signed a peace treaty on Sept. 2.
At the end of WWII, the Korean Peninsula was divided between north and south when the victorious side divvied up their conquests. In June of 1950, soldiers from North Korea invaded the south, seeking to reunite the former country. The United States came to the aid of the south. That conflict continued for three years and saw 36,516 American servicemen killed and 92,134 wounded. China, from whose country the Korean Peninsula descends, sided with the North, sending hundreds of thousands of troops into the fray. Driving the invaders back, the United States decided not to cross the Yalu River into China.
The conflict ended in a stalemate, with an armistice that left the dividing line about as it was when the war started.
While Russia was allied with the United States and Britain in WWII, the Communists continued their spread and gathered several neighboring nations into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Heightened tensions caused the “Cold War,” bringing the threat of nuclear war after the Soviets acquired those weapons. In June of 1987, President Ronald Reagan visited Berlin. Standing beside the 12-foot wall dividing East and West Germany, he spoke loudly and passionately to the Russian leader, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Dissent was already building within the various Soviet republics, and by December of 1991, the Soviet Union was no more. Russia stood alone, but relations continued to be strained.
During the Cold War, fear of nuclear war spread. Even in Alaska, people built fallout shelters to protect themselves from radiation. The DEW Line (Distant Early Warning) network of tracking stations was built across northern Alaska and Canada to warn of potential aerial threats. Three Nike missile batteries were erected in the Anchorage area. Most prominent was the Site Summit battery nestled in the Chugach Mountains above Arctic Valley. Those were capable of bringing down enemy bombers. Now obsolete, the missiles have been removed.
Subsequent conflicts in the Middle East have claimed the lives of Alaskans, but those battlefields were “over there.” They did, however, spawn attacks on U.S. soil by terrorists who use our presence there as an excuse to kill Americans.
The threat from North Korea’s young and impetuous leader cannot be ignored. Should he carry out his threat to send us a “gift,” it would be disastrous for the United States and the Korean Peninsula. The devastation and loss of life would be tremendous. Russia, China, and Iran are powerful nations who at times are our adversaries, adding to diplomatic challenges and keep us on guard.
Alaska defenses now include facilities at Ft. Greely and Kodiak where missile-destroying rockets are stationed. Additional such facilities are planned. American technology is unsurpassed. Aerial surveillance aircraft, satellites, and electronic systems keep watch on trouble spots around the globe. America’s defensive posture is much stronger than that of any other nation. We will not be caught by surprise again.
While we expect to be victorious, the human and financial toll of nuclear war is unthinkable. Surely, the world’s leaders will choose to remain at peace.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: email@example.com.