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ANCHORAGE - Harold Bahr became a man at 11, when he joined a largely Native militia called up to protect the vast territory of Alaska from the threat of Japanese aggression during World War II.
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He was living in the old Gold Rush town of Nome in 1942 when his stepfather announced he had enlisted in the new Alaska Territorial Guard, activated after Japan's attack of Pearl Harbor and points along Alaska's Aleutian Islands. Members of the Alaska National Guard had already been called up for federal service and others had been drafted overseas, leaving the 586,000-square-mile territory vulnerable to further attack.
Despite his age, Bahr was eligible to sign up to defend his homeland. This was 17 years before statehood and older recruits would be armed with outmoded World War I Enfield rifles. Some of the younger members, including Bahr, would make do with nonshooting wooden replicas, but it didn't matter.
"I was all fired up. I wanted to fight the Japanese," Bahr said 65 years later, eyes sparking with the memory. "Every night a Japanese plane would fly over Nome and I would be in the attic with my stepfather's Enfield, hoping it would get low enough so I could take a shot at him."
Bahr, 76, is among an estimated 300 members still living from the original 6,600-member unit to be commemorated Thursday, Alaska Territorial Guard day. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the disbanding of the civilian force and just the third year since the Army formally recognized its members as U.S. military veterans.
"They were the forefathers of today's National Guard," said Jerry Beale of the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. "They were willing to step up when the call came and we still have a large number of rural Alaskans join the military."
Nicknamed Uncle Sam's Men, the territorial guards were organized by Army Air Corps Maj. Marvin "Muktuk" Marston. A charismatic orator, Marston traveled by dog sled across the frozen tundra, delivering impassioned speeches to recruit boys as young as Bahr or well into their 80s, as well as men of fighting age who were exempt from war duty. Some women who could outshoot the men also joined up.
Everyone was eager to serve and wear the blue patch embroidered with gold stars and the letters ATG, even though there was no pay attached to the job.
"We didn't care. We were just proud to be in that unit," said Bahr, who is part Yupik Eskimo and Athabascan. "We wanted to help the war effort. Our main concern was that the Japanese were coming and we were willing to fight."
The Nome unit would hold two-hour drills three times a week, practicing marches and shoulder arms exercises. The younger members drilled with their fake rifles, but practiced shooting real weapons at an Army firing range.
Even the youngest members were well familiar with guns, helping families with subsistence hunts. Many were sharpshooters like Bahr, who first picked up a rifle when he was 6 years old. If the need arose, Bahr said, the young guards would have been issued rifles or used their own.
Holden Apatiki was 13 when he joined the guard to protect the Siberian Yupik village of Gambell on Saint Lawrence Island, across Norton Sound from Nome. His father, brother and two uncles also signed on.
There was an urgency to the mission, heightened by reports of Japanese ships in the vicinity that fueled fears of enemy plans to bomb the island. Even youngsters like Apatiki were issued working Enfields in Gambell and assigned to drills, practice shooting and patrolling the countryside.
"I'm proud to be ATG to help my country," Apatiki, 78, said in a phone interview from Gambell. "We were guarding, always guarding, along the shore."
The territorial guards' duties varied, ranging from drills and scouting patrols to construction of military airstrips and other infrastructure.
They delivered supplies and equipment and repaired emergency shelter cabins. They forged hundreds of miles of wilderness trails and drove sled dogs over treacherous terrain to deliver weapons and ammunition to remote villages.
"They were all subsistence lifestyle people. They live, they follow the caribou, they follow the fish, they pick the berries, they live a very, very basic subsistence rural lifestyle," Beale said. "But when it came time to stand up and defend the territory of Alaska and defend their homeland, every man was willing to do that."
The guard was disbanded with little fanfare on March 31, 1947, almost two years after the war ended. Some members liked the camaraderie and protective stance so much they kept up their drills. A few units remained active right up to the reorganization of the Alaska National Guard in 1949.
The contribution of the territorial guard has long been recognized within the state. But federal recognition was slow in coming.
Finally in 2000, U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens succeeded in pushing legislation through Congress that qualified service in the territorial guard as active federal service. That led to the Army's agreement in 2004 to grant official military discharge certificates to former guard members or their survivors.