Alaska: Cold War's Strategic Frontier, 1945-1991

By Kolb, Richard K. | VFW Magazine, April 1998 | Go to article overview

Alaska: Cold War's Strategic Frontier, 1945-1991


Kolb, Richard K., VFW Magazine


The nation's largest state had the unique distinction of being the only one on the front lines of the global struggle between East and West. GIs stationed there served as the silent sentinels of North America's defense.

NBC-TV, in 1982, offered what many Americans believed to be pure fantasy. The network's movie-World War III-featured a conventional invasion of Alaska by the Soviet Union across the Bering Strait. But what seemed far-fetched by then was not considered beyond the pale 35 years earlier.

Many Alaskan officials and some military strategists saw such a threat as very real in the late 1940s. This was especially so after Soviet dictator Josef Stalin threw up a diplomatic barrier to passage across the Bering Strait in May 1948.

Fifty years ago an "ice curtain" descended across the aquatic frontier separating Soviet Siberia from Alaska. At that time, no Army combat units were stationed there. Pundits began calling "Seward's Icebox" America's "soft upper belly." At best, some felt, Alaska could only serve as an "alarm clock."

Stalin's quest to communize the world sparked fierce debate back then. In a 1949 interview, Alaska Gov. Ernest Gruening claimed two Soviet parachute divisions could take the territory.

Two years later, however, Father Bernard R. Hubbard, who had spent 25 years exploring the wilderness, said this was nonsense. "The Russians," he declared, "would be swallowed up by the wilderness as surely as Almighty God caused the Egyptian army to be swallowed up by the Red Sea."

CONTROLLING THE WORLD

America's last frontier-considered an "overseas theater" by the military-was also its most strategic during the Cold War. President Ronald Reagan dubbed Alaska "the first line of defense" for the nation. That characterization was no surprise.

Cape Prince of Wales (the westernmost edge of mainland North America) is only 54 miles from Siberia. From the Air Force station at Tin City, Siberia could be seen on a clear day. St. Lawrence Island is just 37 miles from the Siberian coast, and Little and Big Diomede islands are separated by a mere 2.5 miles.

By the time Alaska became a state, 20 permanent and 31 temporary Soviet airfields dotted eastern Siberia. Many housed aircraft armed with missiles capable of striking the continental U.S. Seven of the Kremlin's 35 airborne divisions were reportedly in the Far East, too.

Little wonder that aviation pioneer Billy Mitchell called Alaska the "world's most strategic place." In 1935, he declared: "Whoever holds Alaska, holds the world." No doubt, Stalin agreed the "lost colony of Russian America" was of vital importance.

In fact, the struggle between the U.S. and the Kremlin-in some respects-began where the two super powers faced off in the North Pacific.

Within a few days of the Pacific war's end in September 1945, 15 Soviet fighters were challenging U.S. photo recon missions over the Japanese-held Kurile Islands. They followed two B-24s for quite awhile, but the Communist P-63s finally broke off contact.

A portent of relations to come occurred during WWII when American pilots were held by the Communists as prisoners after crash-landing in Siberia.

RECONNING RUSSIA

Strategic Air Command (SAC) units began flying recon missions along the Soviet rim as early as June 1946 from Ladd Air Base in Fairbanks. They were flown by the famed 46th Recon Squadron (later designated the 72nd Strategic Recon).

That unit "successfully completed more dangerous operations, under the most hazardous and difficult conditions, than probably any other American air unit in peacetime," wrote Paul Lashmar in Spy Flights of the Cold War.

Yet the first recognition for the crews did not come for three years. In 1949, crew members were awarded Distinguished Flying Crosses and Air Medals for an especially risky mission. As veteran Fred Wack said, "This top-secret reconnaissance was very beneficial to the country and to the world.

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