Remembering the Alaska Scouts
The word 'forgotten' applied to certain wars or veterans has become almost a clich in recent years. The Korean war and those who fought it come to mind in this regard.
Veteran's Day yesterday was a time to remember those who fall into this category, distant in time, place and memory; to recall to mind their service and sacrifice.
The Alaskan scouts of WW2 certainly fit the definition of 'forgotten' veterans. They were organized through the initiative of General Simon Bolivar Buckner's Alaskan Defense Command's intelligence officer, Colonel Lawrence V. Castner (West Point 1932). This relatively small unit was comprised of Aleuts, Eskimos, sourdough prospectors, miners, hunters, trappers and fishermen. They had nicknames such as 'Bad Whiskey Red,' Quicksilver,' 'Aleut Pete' and 'Waterbucket Ben.' From 1941 through 1943 under their official designation of 1st Combat Intelligence Platoon (Provisional) these rugged outdoorsmen conducted reconnaissance and intelligence gathering missions and spearheaded amphibious assaults during the campaign in the Aleutian Islands.
The commanding officer of these tough customers was a tough guy himself. Big, lantern—jawed Captain Robert H. Thompson hailed from Moccasin, Montana and was a track and football star at Montana State University. A strong bond of mutual trust and respect developed between Thompson and his men; between Thompson and Alaska. He was destined to live there as a guide, hunter and bush pilot until his accidental death in 1955. He was joined in early 1942 by LT Earl C. Acuff, a University of Idaho graduate who had faced Thompson across the line of scrimmage in their gridiron days. In charge of training, Acuff emphasized exercises that strengthened the legs of these men, who would have to carry everything they needed in Trapper Nelson packs for long—range patrols. In some cases, Scouts walked over 90 miles in three days over corrugated tundra.
Scout officers and enlisted men shared instructional duties and training was tailored to missions: camoflage, survival skills, security, small unit tactics and marksmanship. Scouts learned how to handle rubber boats so they could operate from PT boats, PBYs, destroyers and submarines When it came to weapons, personal preferences ruled, whether hunting rifles, pistols or knives. Al Brattain, a crack shot, preferred the M1 Garand because its reduced recoil didn't spoil his aim. On a normal mission, Scouts usually operated in 5—8 man teams.
The vital strategic value of the Aleutians was not realized fully by the U.S. until the 1930s. In 1935, even as Japanese ships were observed surveying the islands, military visionary Gen. Billy Mitchell was telling a House committee that 'he who holds Alaska holds the world. It is the jumping off place to smash Japan.' That country had its own plans for the Aleutians, and in June 1942 waves of Japanese bombers attacked Dutch Harbor on the island of Unalaska. It was a feint. 800 miles away to the southwest, Japanese troops landed on Kiska and Attu. Admiral Hosogaya's orders from Tokyo: 'Hold the western Aleutians at all cost.'
In their first missions, Scouts reconnoitered several islands, then traveled north to the Pribilofs to provide Gen. Buckner with early warning of enemy movements. When plans were finalized for recapturing the Aleutians, Scouts led the way — back to Attu and Kiska, on to Adak and Amchitka, to Semichi and Agattu, then on up to the far Pribilofs.
For the seizure of Attu, Scouts were landed from the submarines USS Narwhal, USS Nautilus and the destroyer USS Kane on May 11, 1943. Al Brattain was at Red Beach in a 25—man group under Capt. Thompson. He wrote me that
'We were sent in first to reconnoiter a suitable spot to land the main force. The fog was thick, visibility under 100 yards. Given a heading by the destroyer, we rowed to the beach. I was in the bow of the first boat to touch land. About 100 ft. inland was a low bank, maybe 2 ft. high. I reached it as fast as I could just in case there was a Japanese soldier waiting to dispute my right to be there. By the morning of the second day the fog had lifted, covering only the ridge tops where the enemy had dug in. They could see us; we couldn't see them. We were given the job of probing fog banks, working our way forward till we drew fire. On one of those trips I got a bullet in my collar.'
In another sector, Scout Cpl. Al Levorson from the South Dakota Badlands and former park ranger Theron Anderson were guiding a 50—man patrol from the 17th Infantry tasked with taking out an enemy machine gun position on the jagged slopes of Sarana Ridge. Having been informed by his scouts, who had crept forward, that the Japanese also had mortars, the patrol leader tried to radio his commander about the situation. The radio was dead, so he sent Anderson and Levorson back to the command post to relay the information. Through snow, over slick mossy rocks and down slippery ravines, the pair crept, crawled and skidded until the CP was in sight. Then the enemy opened fire. Soldiers at the CP returned it. The Scouts, hugging dirt, were pinned down for several hours until darkness allowed them to reach friendly lines.
The assault on Kiska in August 1943 was the Scouts' last mission. Ten thousand Japanese were reportedly on the island. Nobody really knew how many there were — if any. The Scouts led troops from the 1st Special Service Force 'Devil's Brigade' onto the island. Sgt. Clyde Petersen, who had fished the waters often, was first ashore. On the way in he whispered to his fellow Scouts 'Hear that? That's a kit fox bark, a good omen. If there were any Japs around, fox parents would kill their young.'
Petersen's squad, led by LT Acuff, took the point and led !st SSF soldiers up a sharp ridge that rose from King's Cove. A few miles to the north, Sgt. Ed Walker was in the lead boat taking a 16—man Force team ashore. Towed behind was a rubber boat loaded with dynamite. A thousand yards inland they encountered and overcame their first obstacle — barbed wire. They proceeded stealthily until they could see enemy machine gun nests in the cliffs commanding the seaward approaches. Luckily for them they had been abandoned. After destroying the positions, Sgt. Walker and the others returned to the beach where they used the dynamite to blast gaps in the reefs blocking access to the beach. Now the main landing could get underway. Though unopposed, booby traps and mines set by departing Japanese took their toll of incautious or unlucky soldiers.
After that last operation the Alaska Scouts returned to their Ft. Richardson base by way of Adak. Earl Acuff, promoted to captain, took over command from Bob Thompson, who was was forced to retire due to injuries. The Scouts remained active until 1946, during which time Capt. Acuff led 20 survey patrols that covered the Alaskan coast from Naknek all the way north to Point Barrow, then inland, south to Fairbanks and west to Unalakleet. In existence for some 5 years, the Alaska Scouts, never nore than 66 strong, carried out numerous important missions with skill and courage in the fogs, winds and snows of the mostly forgotten Aleutians campaign.
John B. Dwyer is a military historian.