When Alaska became the 49th state in 1959, the Army was there. Only the indigenous peoples of Alaska have been here longer. Today, the Army thrives here: training in unforgiving arctic conditions, actively participating in community affairs and providing assistance during natural disasters.
The U.S. Army’s long and important history in the Great Land began at the very moment Alaska became American soil, Oct. 18, 1867.
Elements of the 9th Infantry were on hand as the Russian Golden Eagle was lowered and the Stars and Stripes was raised in Sitka, which became headquarters for the U.S. Military District, Alaska. The Army has had a presence, even if small at times, ever since.
Charged with maintaining law and order in the new territory, Soldiers helped quell uprisings and built new forts at Wrangell, St. Paul Canal and Kodiak Island, as well as on the Kenai Peninsula.
They also enforced regulations regarding the killing of fur seals, whose population had been severely depleted during the Russian reign. At Fort Wrangell and Sitka, Army wives worked with the Soldiers to establish schools and introduce Christianity to Alaska Natives.
The Army relinquished control of Alaska to the Treasury Department in 1877 but did not entirely leave the territory. The Signal Corps operated weather stations, and officers led small geographic explorations to learn more about the territory. These expeditions into various parts of Alaska continued through the turn of the century as more roads and bridges were built and maps of the frontier became more detailed.
The Klondike Gold Rush in Yukon Territory, plus later gold rushes in Alaska, boosted that expansion as thousands of people poured into the territory.
Although the Royal Canadian Mounted Police maintained law in the Yukon during the Gold Rush, the U.S. government, after sending Capt. Patrick Henry Ray and 1st Lt. Wilds P. Richardson to study the situation, did not deem it necessary to send the Army into Alaska as peacekeepers.
As more and more people came into Alaska and northwestern Canada, better communication with the Lower 48 states became critical. The Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System connected all the forts in the territory with Seattle. By 1903, the line stretched from Seattle to southeastern Alaska, Valdez, the Interior and Nome. The project fell under the direction of Brig. Gen. Adolphus W. Greely. The four-year project was also aided by Lt. William “Billy” Mitchell, another officer who would later achieve military fame.
While Greely and his men struggled to complete the WAMCATS project, Richardson, on his third tour of duty in Alaska, headed the Alaska Road Commission, building garrisons and trails throughout the enormous territory.
The Army in Alaska saw a decline in activity from 1908 to 1940, with a brief surge during World War I. Work continued in building roads and bridges and improving trails during this period.
As the world prepared for another great war in 1940, military construction in Alaska accelerated. In 1940, Ladd Field, near Fairbanks, was built as a cold-weather test station, and Fort Richardson, named for Wilds P. Richardson, was built in 1940-41 near Anchorage.
Col. Simon Bolivar Buckner assumed command of the Alaska Defense Force in 1940. While at Fort Richardson, he achieved the ranks of brigadier and major general.
Through the Lend-Lease Program, the United States transferred nearly 8,000 aircraft to the Soviet Union at Ladd Field, which later became Fort Wainwright. The aircraft were flown from Great Falls, Montana, to Ladd Field by American crews. Then Russian crews flew the planes to Siberia and on to the Russian front.
The pilots leaving Great Falls followed a series of small airfields that became known as the Northwest Staging Route. The airfields were located at intervals along the one-lane supply road that became the Alaska Highway. One of those airfields, Big Delta Airfield, later became Fort Greely, providing ample acreage for Northern Warfare Training Center exercises and testing by the Cold Regions Test Center.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Army engineers began building airstrips in the Aleutian Islands to fight possible Japanese invasions there. The Army Corps of Engineers joined Canadian Forces in building the Alaska Highway in less than eight months. The 1,420-mile road was built as an overland supply route to get troops and supplies to Alaska. Officials in Washington, D.C., saw Alaska as a possible starting point for the Japanese forces to invade the United States and Canada, and took measures to prevent this.
In fact, Alaska was the only American soil other than Hawaii to see fighting during World War II, when Japanese forces bombed Dutch Harbor and seized Attu and Kiska islands in the Aleutian Chain.
The successful battle to retake Attu, in June 1943, was one of the bloodiest in the war. The Japanese pulled out of Kiska before the Americans stormed ashore a few months later.
At the end of the war, many of the small Army posts throughout the state closed permanently, and postwar emphasis turned to training.
History of Fort Wainwright
Many political and military leaders advocated building military bases in Alaska several years prior to World War II. Finally, when war threatened in 1939, Congress granted $4 million to construct an Army cold-weather experiment station at Fairbanks.
The purpose of the station, named Ladd Field, was to test aircraft operations in arctic conditions. However, when war broke out with Japan in late 1941, Ladd Field became a critical link in the Alaska-Siberia Lend-Lease route. From 1942 until the fall of 1945, American crews flew almost 8,000 aircraft to Ladd Field, where the planes were turned over to Soviet air crews for the continued flight westward. The planes were eventually used by the Soviets against Germany.
Eielson Air Force Base, 26 miles southeast of Fairbanks, was built shortly after the Army Air Corps separated from the Army and became the U.S. Air Force by an act of Congress in 1947. At that time, Ladd Field was also under Air Force control.
Eielson today is home to the 354th Fighter Wing, which supports U.S. Army Alaska with close air support, theater airlift, reconnaissance missions and weather analysis.
On Jan. 1, 1961, the Army reassumed control of Ladd Field and renamed the installation Fort Wainwright, after Gen. Jonathan M. Wainwright. Wainwright and his men gallantly defended the Bataan Peninsula and Corregidor Island in the Philippines during the early months of World War II.
Fort Wainwright has been home to several units, including the 171st Infantry Brigade (Mechanized), a Nike-Hercules battalion, the 172nd Infantry Brigade and the 6th Infantry Division (Light). The 6th ID (L) was deactivated in July 1994 and replaced by U.S. Army Alaska, with headquarters moving to Fort Richardson.
The major units at Fort Wainwright today are the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division and U.S. Army Alaska Aviation Task Force.
The fort is also home to Medical Department Activity-Alaska, Dental Activity-Alaska and Bassett Army Community Hospital. The hospital is named for Capt. John Bassett, a doctor killed while trying to evacuate wounded Soldiers during the Battle of Attu in World War II.
Fort Wainwright has a commitment to excellence in efforts to make the post a better place to live and work. With the move of 6th ID (L) headquarters to Fort Wainwright in 1990, many new sets of family quarters were built, as well as a PX-commissary mall, a physical fitness center and maintenance facilities.
Older family quarters, barracks and offices were renovated. A new combined arms collective training facility provides state-of-the-art modern warfare training opportunities, and a new hospital opened in spring 2007. The revitalization of older quarters and construction of new quarters continues.
The fort has 6,900 Soldiers and approximately 8,360 family members. About 1,530 Army and DOD civilian employees work at Fort Wainwright.
History of Fort Greely
The post’s history began in 1942 when “doughboy” 1st Lt. William L. Brame, of the 138th Infantry Regiment, led an advance detail of 15 men to the Big Delta Area to establish an Army Air Corps base. Brame was post commander.
Brame was part of an organization activated in Seattle that consisted of an infantry platoon, a quartermaster and medical, finance and signal detachments.
These first Army units set up camp June 30, 1942, at what was to become Station 17, Alaskan Wing, Air Transport Command. Throughout World War II, the post was a rest-and-refueling spot for American pilots ferrying aircraft to Ladd Army Airfield (now Fort Wainwright) for the Lend-Lease Program.
Fort Greely continued as an Army Air Corps base until 1945, when it was put on inactive status. For the next two years, the Civil Aeronautics Authority and a skeleton crew of Army personnel maintained the installation.
In April 1947, the War Department designated the base as the site for the first postwar cold weather maneuver, “Exercise Yukon,” staged during winter 1947-48.
The installation was reactivated May 1, 1948, and was officially transferred to the Department of the Army and redesignated as an Army post. Under this directive, the post was to be called United States Troops, Big Delta, Alaska. The post was named as the site for the Arctic Training Center in 1948. It was chosen because it combined the extreme winter conditions of Alaska’s Interior with a great variety of terrain, including rivers, lakes, swamps and open plains.
Originally the center consisted of three subdivisions in addition to the post headquarters personnel: the Army Arctic Indoctrination School, the Army Training Company (School Troops), and the Test and Development Section. The school was established to teach living and movement under extreme arctic and subarctic conditions to personnel from all branches of the armed services.
The post was redesignated the Arctic Training Center July 1, 1949. Later that month the Arctic Test Branch was established by cadre at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and the transfer begun of personnel from each of the Army Field Forces Boards, located in the Zone of the Interior.
The post was renamed the Army Arctic Center Sept. 1, 1952. Construction began on the permanent buildings 1 mile from the airfield in 1953. These buildings are referred to as “main post” today, while the original temporary buildings near the airfield are called “old post.” During that same year, the U.S. Army Chemical Corps-Arctic Test Team was established at the post. A major construction program for permanent-type buildings was initiated in 1954. The program included post headquarters, post engineer facilities, an auditorium, a fire station, a power plant, warehouses, a photographic laboratory, maintenance shops, and the Cold Weather and Mountain School facilities. In addition, 96 sets of quarters, three 200-man barracks, a post office, a provost marshal facility, a dispensary, a library and personnel offices were constructed. Barracks space was converted to what is now known as the Composite Building, Building 663.
The post was designated Fort Greely Aug. 6, 1955, in honor of Maj. Gen. Adolphus Washington Greely, Arctic explorer and founder of the Alaska Communications System. Greely was responsible for the construction of thousands of miles of telegraph lines throughout the United States, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. More than 45,000 miles of telegraph lines were completed in Alaska alone.
Congress awarded Greely the Medal of Honor in 1935 for “his life of splendid public service.” During 1955, a combined post exchange-theater building, service club and gymnasium were built.
The Chemical Corps Arctic Test Team was redesignated a Class II activity in 1956 and in 1957 was renamed the U.S. Army Chemical Corps-Arctic Test Activity. An Officers’ Open Mess and Noncommissioned Officers’ Mess, along with 72 more sets of quarters, were constructed. The Arctic Test Group was renamed the Arctic Test Board, and the Arctic Indoctrination School became the Army Cold Weather and Mountain School when the Mountain Training Center at Fort Carson, Colorado, was deactivated. A major landscaping program was initiated in 1958, and in 1959 a recreation building and an addition to the PX were constructed.
During the 1960s, 93 additional sets of family quarters, a new chapel, another 200-man barracks and maintenance buildings were built. The Department of the Army redesignated the Cold Weather and Mountain School as the Northern Warfare Training Center (NWTC) in April 1963.
NWTC was then given the mission of training units in the conduct of warfare in northern areas of operation. A year later the Arctic Test Board was renamed the Arctic Test Center.
Fort Greely became part of the 172nd Infantry Brigade in 1974, after the disestablishment of United States Army, Alaska. The post was under the command of Forces Command at Fort McPherson, Georgia.
With activation of the 6th Infantry Division (Light) and U.S. Army Garrison, Alaska, on March 23, 1986, Fort Greely became one of the three posts of the division’s one-installation concept.
Fort Greely celebrated its 50th anniversary (in conjunction with the annual Midnight Sun Festival) with a three-day festival in June 1992. The 6th Infantry Division (Light) was deactivated in a formal ceremony July 6, 1994, at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. The actual effective date for the deactivation occurred July 26, 1994, with it becoming part of U.S. Army Alaska.
In 1995, the installation underwent Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) and was essentially warm-based. In 2001, it was partially removed from the BRAC list to support the national objective of missile defense. It was reduced to its current size of 7,200 acres, and the surrounding ranges and training lands were transferred to Fort Wainwright.
Today, Fort Greely proudly serves as an integral part of the nation’s Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) and is a national security asset.
Fort Greely’s installation mission is midcourse missile defense (destroying threat missiles in their midcourse phase). Fort Greely is also host to the military missions of the Cold Regions Test Center, and by Intra-Service Support Agreement, the Northern Warfare Training Center.
Fort Greely Garrison’s mission can be compared to an isolated city that provides government and myriad public services, including transportation and police and fire protection. With our remote location, there is special emphasis on workforce morale, welfare and recreation; housing; health services; child development; religious services; and support to the local school system. At Fort Greely, housing is provided primarily for the Soldiers and for Department of Defense civilians and contractors as authorized.
Fort Greely Garrison’s supported tenants include: Ground-Based Midcourse Missile Defense; 49th Missile Defense Battalion; 59th Signal Battalion; Cold Regions Test Center; U.S. Army Alaska; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; Army and Air Force Exchange Service; Defense Commissary Agency; Delta/Greely School District; the U.S. Postal Service; and ISSA, the Northern Warfare Training Center.
The installation and garrison commander at Fort Greely is dual-hatted and reports to both the Installation Management Command (IMCOM) through the Pacific Area Region Office in Honolulu and the senior mission commander through Space Missile Defense Command (SMDC) in Colorado Springs, Colorado.