Alaska Gov. Bill Walker’s proposal to create a military museum is potentially a good idea.
Several museums now in place attest to the widespread interest in preserving the history of the military’s vital part in developing and protecting this American spot at the “Top of the World.”
How to go about creating a major museum, however, is yet to be determined. Whether and in what manner the existing museums will be included is of concern to these all-volunteer organizations.
Many institutions have been established to commemorate various segments related to the military. Among them are the Aviation Museum at Lake Hood, the Alaska Veterans Museum located in downtown Anchorage, the Transportation Museum in Wasilla, the Veterans Wall at Wasilla, Nike Site Summit and a group dedicated to recovering and preserving noteworthy airplanes that have crashed. In addition, there are government-operated museums at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and elsewhere. The National Park Service recognizes the historic importance of various military installations at Attu and other places around Alaska.
Each of these has a cadre of ardent supporters who jealously guard their facilities. They all share a common problem: They need money, they need space to store their precious artifacts, and more knowledgeable people to classify, safely preserve and catalog the exhibits.
The State can take care of some of those needs. But what happens to the existing facilities?
The Army is helping to create a National Museum for that branch of the service. They set up a foundation to raise money for the project and have selected a design and set aside a large tract of land. Perhaps Gov. Walker can use something similar to that as his plan for Alaska’s military museum. Hopefully, representatives of the existing museums can be a part of the plan in order to protect their individual interests. The value of their input cannot be discounted and their pride of ownership should never be ignored.
As a reminder of the military’s importance to Alaska’s past—and future—history, let’s remember a few things.
Not many people realize that the last shots of the Civil War were fired in the Bering Sea a couple of years before Alaska became an American possession. The Confederate Steamship Shenandoah sailed around the horn of Africa, sent to devastate the Yankee whaling fleet. Not knowing the war had ended, her crew sank several vessels and captured many sailors. Learning that the war was over, the Shenandoah sailed to England and surrendered there.
Russian Army Capt. Aleksei Alekseyvich Poshchura, representing Czar Alexander II, handed over Russian America to U.S. Army Gen. Lovell Rousseau in Sitka on Oct. 18, 1867. The newly purchased land officially became the Department of Alaska, operated first by the Army, then briefly the Treasury Dept. and later the Navy. It was placed under civilian control in 1912 when Congress passed the Organic Act, making Alaska a District, later to be designated a Territory. We became the 49th State in 1959.
From the beginning, the military played an essential role. Revenue Cutters patrolled the waters, looking out for the safety of mariners and doing what it could to enforce liquor regulations.
During the Gold Rush period of 1886-1910, the Army in some cases enforced peace and backed up federal marshals. The Army and Revenue Cutter Service came to the rescue of starving prospectors. The Signal Corps in 1900 was charged with providing telegraph service between settlements and the Outside—and did so until well into the second half of the century when civilian long-distance communication functions were sold to private enterprise.
During the First World War, Alaska was not especially threatened by the conflict in Europe, but many of its residents joined in the fight. Some did not return.
The strategic importance of Alaska’s polar position was recognized when Pearl Harbor was bombed in a surprise attack on Dec. 7, 1941. A buildup of defensive forces had already begun and fortifications were intensified. A coast watch was initiated when the Alaska Scouts were formed. When Japanese forces invaded the Aleutian islands of Attu and Kiska in June of 1942, Allied forces were marshaled to recapture those spots at the western end of the Chain. Alaska became the transfer point for airplanes sent to Russia under a lend-lease program with our wartime allies. Coastal defenses were established and many remnants of those remain scattered along the country’s longest coastline. Some of those can be found around Cook Inlet.
During the Cold War, Nike missiles were set up atop the Chugach Mountains to bring down any enemy missiles sent our way.
Alaska became an important listening-post and her waters saw increased patrols above and below the surface. Some residents even resorted to installing underground bunkers in hopes of surviving an attack, although most Alaskans did not fall victim to hysteria.
As weapons of war have become more sophisticated, and thence more deadly, Alaska’s strategic location has become even more apparent. As the “air crossroads of the world,” all parts of the upper half of the globe are within reach of airplanes taking off from here. Conversely, of course, we are within their reach.
Recent news that North Korea had successfully fired rockets that could reach American soil brought new concern that Alaska could be in jeopardy. Upcoming talks between our leaders bring optimism that those concerns will be eased.
Reassurance that America’s defenses are adequate to ward off an attack comes from the current national administration’s reinforcement of troops and equipment in Alaska. Defensive missiles are on location and testing is ongoing.
Americans need to remember the heroic struggles of the past in order to strengthen their desire to avoid again going to war.
Visible exhibits of the implements of war are one way to impress people of their deadly capabilities. Oral histories of veterans who recount their wartime experiences help others understand both the fear and the pride of service, while also revealing the horror of going through a battle. Pictures, recordings and the ability to actually see and touch some of the things from the past serves to bring reality home.
(Note: In the interest of full disclosure, this writer was a member of the board of directors of Alaska Veterans Museum during its early days in an Eagle River location. He served for six years, two months and four days in the Army Signal Corps’ Alaska Communication System and was stationed at Shemya when the Korean conflict broke out. He does not boast of being a veteran because he was never shot at and has the utmost respect for those who were; he sincerely reveres those who did not survive.)
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.