ANCHORAGE — A dedication ceremony is set to take place Tuesday evening in the western Alaska town of Bethel for a memorial park honoring those who served in the 6,400-member Alaska Territorial Guard during World War II.
The largely Alaska Native guard was formed to defend the vast territory from the threat of Japanese invasion, but its members were formally recognized by the Army as U.S. military veterans just eight years ago. Only a few hundred members are believed to still be alive.
Sixty-five years after the unpaid guard was disbanded, at least 200 volunteers donated their time, muscle and equipment working on the Alaska Territory Guard Memorial Park, which is taking shape adjacent to the regional veterans cemetery there.
“When a community gets together and works on something as a community, it’s amazing what we can get done with people helping people,” said Vietnam veteran Fritz Grenfell, a member of a grassroots Bethel planning committee established for the effort to honor the guard with the park and 7 p.m. dedication.
Grenfell said it was raining steadily in Bethel, so the event will probably be held at the town’s cultural center, where an afternoon community feast will be held along with an evening territorial guard remembrance attended by area residents and local leaders as well as representatives of the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.
The centerpiece of the developing park is a bronze statue of a territorial guardsman that has been mounted on a tall steel pedestal. The statue, one of eight identical statues around the state, faces west just as the territorial guard did scanning the horizon. Plans are under way to surround the monument with placards naming 1,353 ATG members from the 56-village, largely Yup’ik Eskimo region. Locals have donated flowerboxes and paths are being carved out, with plans to add a carpet of woodchips bordered with rocks.
The state has provided a $140,000 grant for the project and the city donated the site and is supplying labor and equipment such as a wood chipper. Bethel city manager Lee Foley calls the park a work in progress that could take a couple years to complete.
“Everybody’s sort of volunteering their time and efforts on this thing, which is what really makes rural Alaska so unique,” he said. “You couldn’t survive without volunteers.”
The territorial guard was formed in 1942 — 17 years before statehood. The unit was activated after Japan’s attack of Pearl Harbor and points along Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. The volunteer members of the new militia stepped in to watch over the 586,000-square-mile territory, which was vulnerable to further attack with the Alaska National Guard already called into federal service
The territorial guards, nicknamed Uncle Sam’s Men, had a variety of duties such as supply deliveries, scouting patrols, repairs of emergency shelter cabins and construction of military airstrips and other infrastructure.
The ATG was disbanded with little fanfare in March 1947, almost two years after the war ended.
Federal recognition may have been decades in coming, but the unit’s contribution has long been appreciated within Alaska. Now there will be a park to further honor its members in a big way.
“It has been a long time coming, and I think that is part of the community support behind it,” said planning committee member Tim Oosterman. “It’s time a little-known facet of World War II in Alaska history got the recognition they deserved.”