History Wars World War II

The Alaskan guardians of the North in World War II

In World War II, native peoples volunteered for a newly created Alaska Territorial Guard (ATG), also called the Eskimo Scouts.
Terry Lloyd Avatar
Ernest H. Gruening Papers, 1914-[1959–1969] 1974, Alaska & Polar Regions Collections, Archives, University of Alaska Fairbanks

Starting in World War II, through the Cold War, and right to the present day, Native Americans in Alaska and Arctic Canada have used their traditional skills to protect their countries from enemy activity in the high North. In addition, their extreme cold weather expertise has greatly contributed to military cold weather doctrine, operations, and survival training across the globe.

In the run-up to World War II, U.S. military planners failed to understand the serious threat to the Aleutian Islands and the Alaska mainland posed by Imperial Japan, and in August 1941, Alaska National Guard units were pulled out of Alaska and redeployed to Washington State, just four months prior to the Imperial Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. When Japanese armed forces invaded and occupied parts of Alaska’s Aleutians Islands in 1942, the Army called on native Alaskan volunteers to defend the northern territory. More than 6,300 of these Alaskans, from the native Aleut, Athabaskan, White, Inupiaq, Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian and Yupik peoples, volunteered for a newly created Alaska Territorial Guard (ATG), also called the Eskimo Scouts.

Alaska Territorial Guard map showing Alaska Territorial Guard unit locations, major military bases, and the Aleutian evacuation.

The ATG was charged with three main missions. Primary was safeguarding a mine that was the only source of a strategic metal, platinum, in the Western Hemisphere. Second was to secure the area underneath the vital Lend-Lease air route between the United States and the Soviet Union. Finally, they set up a system to place, monitor, and maintain survival caches along transportation corridors and coastal regions.

As with many volunteer and quasi-military organizations formed during the war, although these volunteers faced dangerous conditions and often direct contact with the enemy, they did not receive veteran status after the war. Finally, in 2000, President George W. Bush signed a bill into law that recognized the ATG for their service and provided them veteran status and issued honorable discharges to these Alaskan natives.

In addition to the ATG, native Aleuts and Eskimos also served in an elite, 65-man 1st Alaskan Combat Intelligence Platoon (Provisional), also known as Alaskan Scouts. The Scouts provided vital intelligence and recommendations during the operations to retake the Japanese-held Aleutian Islands. Later, during the Cold War, two Russian MiG 15s flying from Siberia shot down a U.S. Navy plane, flying a routine maritime patrol over the Bering Sea in 1955. It crash-landed on an ice shelf, and fourteen Guardsmen from the First Scout Battalion mounted a rescue mission, saving everyone on board. Once again, proper honor and recognition were delayed until 2022, when the Alaska State Office of Veterans Affairs presented medals to one veteran and thirteen family representatives of those Alaska Army National Guard’s First Scouts.

In Canada, First Nations people have a long, proud tradition of serving in Canada’s armed forces, as part of the British Commonwealth through World Wars I and II, the Korean War, and the Global War on Terror. In World War One, two First Nations warriors distinguished themselves in combat, becoming some of the very top snipers of the war. Francis Pegahmagabow was credited with over 375 kills, and Henry Norwest, of the Cree Nation with 115 official kills.

Starting in 1942, the Pacific Coast Militia Rangers, mostly comprised of First Nation members, were volunteers who patrolled, performed military surveillance, and provided local defense of the coastline of British Columbia and in Yukon against the threat of Japanese invasion. 

Plaque honoring the Alaska National Guard, Alaska Veterans Memorial.

Now called the Canadian Rangers, and a unit of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), they serve as forward observers and scouts in the Canadian Arctic. They perform local patrols, alert for unusual activities and events, contribute to domestic efforts led by the CAF, share local knowledge, and conduct search-and-rescue activities supporting military operations. In addition, the Canadian Rangers are mentors and coaches in the Junior Canadian Ranger Program, teaching local youth traditional survival and military skills and knowledge needed in the Arctic environment.

As a vivid example of the need to adapt to the harsh, unique Arctic conditions, since 1947, the Canadian Rangers were equipped with the venerable Lee-Enfield bolt action, the main battle rife of British forces going back to World War One. Starting in 2018, the Canadian Rangers have been issued a licensed variant of the Finnish Sako bolt action Tikka T3 rifle, designated the C19 by the Canadian military, and manufactured by Colt Canada. The rifle is chambered in NATO standard 7.62×51mm/ .308 Winchester ammunition. The Canadian Rangers are issued two hundred rounds of ammo per year and are authorized to use their weapon for personal hunting.

With the current intense international focus and aggressive military action by both Russia and China in the Arctic, the specialized U.S. & Canadian Native American military units which can operate in these regions as scouts and observers have never been more important to the defense of their country and their traditional lands.