As World War II in the Pacific put fear in the hearts of those prepared to defend Hawaii and our west coast, it was commonly believed that the Japanese would have no military interest in far off and frozen Alaska, the unlikely defense of which was casually assigned to the Governor of Washington. If anyone important had been listening, General Billy Mitchell had warned the country years before that “anyone who controls Alaska controls the world”. He was thinking in terms of a future war and the importance of preserving access to the United States and the northern air and sea routes across the North Pacific.
Reality finally dawned on the U.S. War Department when, six months into the war, on June 2-4 1942 a Japanese naval force launched an air attack on Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island in the Aleutians followed by an invasion of the islands of Attu and Kiska by submarine-borne landing forces. Timed to coincide with the Midway Campaign it would be a thorn in America’s side for much of the year to come.
Considering the nature of the terrain, weather and distance from logistical support, the deployment of any kind of U.S. ground force seemed impossible any time soon, while air strikes under the same conditions against an enemy already dug in were equally problematical. At the same time intelligence of the enemy’s position, strength and movements was of immediate and ongoing importance.
The answer to the quandary came in the person of Colonel Lawrence Varsi Castner (1903 – 1949) who was given broad authority in creating a unique Reconnaissance unit known officially as the 1st Alaskan Combat Intelligence Platoon or Alaska Scouts. Consisting of 65 very mobile and highly-experienced men drawn from the very kind of environment they would be working in, they tended to be native Eskimos, Aleuts, fishermen, hunters and trappers who knew how to live off the land and take care of themselves in rough and dangerous circumstances. Those characteristics plus their ability to fight and maneuver in wild country most often “lost” in freezing fogs and chilling temperatures with just the equipment which would fit in their very small packs made them some of the most dangerous guerilla fighters in the world. Inevitably they became known as “Castner’s Cutthroats”. They carried mostly .22 caliber side arms for shooting small game, plus at least one sniper rifle; of course they were all proficient in the use of knives which they preferred. They lived happily on fish, King crab, shell fish, ptarmigan and water fowl. With a surplus of salmon, they would dry and smoke enough to carry with them. (From personal experience I would say that fare was better than C-rations any day!)
In the months to follow they shadowed enemy activities, noting the arrival of supplies and additional troops by submarines while traveling silently from island to island in their light-weight native canoes, reporting on enemy sites on Attu, Agattu, and Kiska. When building up for future action the Army tasked Castner and his men with finding a place where a landing field might be scratched out for fighter operations. With mountains of lava rock and the surf-bound shorelines of the Aleutians, that proved impossible at the moment so the “Cutthroats” dammed a lagoon and then drained it to the point they could build a landing strip on the sandy bottom.
A handful of “Kastner’s Cutthroats” of whose number only Billy Buck is still alive at last count.
Like “irregular” fighters worldwide, Castner’s men were a freedom-loving lot not given to any reverence for rank and “authority”, a fighting phenomenon shared by their leader and welcomed by men known as “Aleut Pete”, “Bad Whiskey Red” and “Waterbucket Ben who were given the latitude necessary to carry out their unusual mission. But when the Army arrived and the fighting which would eventually drive the Japanese back to their home Islands began, it was those rugged warriors who led them, carried messages, provided them with food and then fought beside them who more than anyone or anything else saved the Aleutians from occupation and Seattle from attack.
The message they left for all of us who remember was DON’T MESS WITH AMERICA!