The Army has served in Alaska since 1867, when Soldiers of the United States Army, 9th Infantry Regiment, took part in the ceremonies that raised the Stars and Stripes over Sitka and transferred Russian lands to the United States. Senator Charles Sumner is usually credited with selecting the native word “Alaska” to name the newly acquired territory.
Brevet Major General Jefferson C. Davis assumed command of the territory, which remained an Army responsibility for the next 10 years. During that decade, a garrison of 500 officers and men were assigned to Alaska.
The troops were withdrawn from Alaska in 1877, and for the next 2 years, Alaska was controlled by treasury officials. During this time, natives and lawless adventurers proved to be more than the officials could handle. In the spring of 1879, Navy vessels were diverted to Alaska to restore order.
The Navy formed a quasi-military government and directed Alaskan affairs until 1884 when Congress organized a civil government.
Between 1869 and the Gold Rush era, pioneering Army expeditions evicted the Hudson’s Bay Company from Fort Yukon, operated weather stations, opened up the approaches to the Klondike, and explored the major river systems of the interior. United States Army officers Raymond, Schwatka, Abercrombie, Glenn, Allen, Ray, Randall, Brigadier General Wilds P. Richardson, and others were commemorated on the map of Alaska for these accomplishments.
The lawless days of 1898 initiated the Alaska-Canada boundary dispute and the need for law enforcement and aid to destitute prospectors. The military Department of Alaska bolstered the stand of the United States on the boundary question, which was later settled by convention in London. The Army brought law and order and fed the starving miners.
Meanwhile, the United States Army Signal Corps established telegraph, wireless, and cable links between far-flung forts and camps in Alaska and connected the system to the United States by submarine cable.
The Richardson Highway parallels much of the old Richardson Trail, which served the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System from Fort Liscum (Valdez) to Fort Egbert (Eagle). It is a monument to Army builders in Alaska.
Military forces in Alaska were never large until World WarII. Even World WarI bypassed Alaska. As late as 1939, merely 11 officers and 286 enlisted men manned one active military establishment.
Construction of another Army post six miles northeast of Anchorage began on 8 June 1940. The War Department General Order Number 9, dated 12 December 1940, designated the military reservation as Fort Richardson and the flying field at Fort Richardson was designated Elmendorf Field. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, there were only token ground forces and 32 military aircraft in the territory. When World War II began, the War Department authorized a buildup in Alaska to meet the threat presented by the Axis. The Army Air Corps recommended that airfields be built at Fairbanks and Anchorage. Those sites were selected in 1934 on the basis of a study done by Lieutenant Colonel Henry H. (Hap) Arnold, who had led an Alaska map and survey mission. Colonel Arnold went on to command the Army Air Forces in World War II and achieved the five-star rank of General of the Army.
The Japanese invasion of Kiska and Attu in the Aleutians emphasized the strategic importance of Alaska. United States Forces from Alaska retaliated rapidly by air and sea, and on 11 May 1943, Army troops operating under Navy cover landed on Attu and regained control of the island after 19 days of bitter fighting. The Japanese abandoned Kiska after Attu was reclaimed.
Highlighting the war period was the epic task performed by the United States Army Corps of Engineers in building the Alaska Highway. It gave the territory its only overland link with the rest of the Western Hemisphere.
The Nation’s first unified command was established as the Alaskan Command on 1 January 1947 to exercise joint operational control over assigned Army ground forces, Army air forces, and certain Navy forces. Later that year, Army troops, until then under the direct control of the Army’s Alaska Department, were redesignated as the United States Army Alaska (USARAL), the Army component of the Alaskan Command.
When the Air Force was organized from the Army Air Corps in 1947, steps were taken to convert Fort Richardson and Elmendorf Field into separate installations. On 15 October 1950, the Army released to the Air Force the land that is now Elmendorf Air Force Base and began construction of new facilities at its present Fort Richardson site, eight miles from Anchorage. USARAL headquarters moved to its new location on 3 January 1953.
During and shortly after the war years, several posts were established in Alaska. Some were inactivated and several became Air Force bases. The Navy assumed control of still others, and the remainder were retained by the Army. The Army installation known as Fort Greely (near Big Delta, Alaska) was initially occupied by Army Forces in 1941 and became the site for Army cold weather maneuvers. The forerunner of today’s United States Army Cold Region Test Center and the United States Army Northern Warfare Training Center were stationed there. This location became an established Army post called “Big Delta, Alaska” on 6 May 1947. On 21 June 1953, the name was changed to “Fort Greely, Alaska.” On 1 January 1961, Ladd Air Force Base (near Fairbanks) was transferred to Army jurisdiction and was named “Fort Jonathan M. Wainwright.”
Following World War II, troops of both the 71st and 2d Infantry Divisions served in Alaska. In 1963, a re-organization established the 171st Infantry Brigade (Mechanized) at Fort Wainwright and the 172d Infantry Brigade (Mechanized) at Fort Richardson as major subordinate commands of USARAL. In 1969, both brigades were converted to light infantry. At the end of 1972, the 171st stood down according to a policy of troop reduction. The 172d absorbed the remaining units of the departing brigade.
In 1974, restructuring of overseas elements (Project ROSE) implemented a worldwide program to increase the utilization of military personnel in combat rather than support functions. On 1 July 1974, USARAL lost its status as a separate major command and became subordinate to the United States Army Forces Command, headquartered at Fort McPherson, Georgia. The USARAL designation remained until the end of the year and on 1 January 1975, USARAL was replaced by the 172d Infantry Brigade, Alaska. The 6th Infantry Division (Light) was activated on 23 March 1986 at Fort Wainwright, Alaska and during a follow-up ceremony at Fort Richardson, Alaska, on 24 March 1986. 6ID was inactivated 6 July 1994, and US Army Alaska was activated.