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.
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. Although it was very difficult, it was very, very satisfying."
Paul R. Horton also flew out of Ladd AFB. In July 1949, he was an electronic countermeasures officer aboard an RB-29 of the 91st Strategic Recon Wing. "We were officially on `weather recon' missions," he recalls. "Tail numbers were removed, and no identifying logos were permitted to be painted on the fuselage. Our missions took us all up and down the Kamchatka Peninsula, up into the Bering Sea and down off Sapporo, Japan.
"We were careful to stay out of radar range, so we could record operating characteristics of the Soviet sites without being detected. These tactics were successful, because we were never intercepted by Soviet aircraft."
Secretive actions apparently occurred on the ground, too. One place was St. Lawrence Island, which is only 37 miles from Siberia. In the fall of 1949, Air Force Det. C-3 of the 625th Air Control and Warning Squadron was stationed at Gambell.
Donald P. Kay commanded the detachment-and recalls a strange experience. "Our mission was to monitor Soviet naval traffic through the Bering Strait and into their base at Cukotsku Point," he said. "One night, three shadowy figures were reported on the island. Next morning, we found boot prints (Eskimos did not wear boots) and cigarette butts. I sent a classified report to Alaskan Air Command HQ, but there was never any major follow-up."
'TOP COVER FOR AMERICA'
The Alaskan Air Command (AAC), at the "air crossroads of the world," provided air defense in the far North. It still does today as the 11 th Air Force. With the onset of the Korean War, it had to be even more alert. Keep in mind that Alaska is only 570 miles from Mys Schmidta (North Cape), once a major Soviet Arctic air base.
Assessing Soviet air force dispositions was a high priority. SAC's incursions from Eielson AFB in the 1950s were flown for just this purpose. This mission gave rise to the first presidentially approved Cold War overflight of Soviet territory.
Known as Project 52 AFR-18, on Oct. 15, 1952, the Chukotskiy Peninsula was overflown by two modified B-47B bombers, resulting in aerial photos of Siberian staging bases at Mys Schmidta and Provideniya. A 3,500-mile flight was made with more than 1,000 miles of Soviet territory covered. Some of the aircrew members received the Distinguished Flying Cross for this daring operation.
Though most recon flights went undetected, they nonetheless remained risky. March 15,1953, was a memorable day for the crew of a SAC WB-29 "weather" recon plane. Off Kamchatka, the crew was startled when a MiG- 15 opened fire on them. No casualties were sustained, but gunners aboard the craft returned fire.
Two years later, on April 18, 1955, an RB-47E assigned to the 4th SRS, 26th Recon Wing at Eielson AFB, was shot down by two Soviet MiGs near the same peninsula. Three crew members were killed in action. Search and rescue efforts were launched, but to no avail. The Russian pilots responsible were later recommended for the Order of the Red Banner.
Robert Emery was a co-pilot in an L20 Beaver de Havilland of the 5001 st Operations Squadron in 1955-56. "Based at Ladd AFB," he recalls, "we flew perimeter flights along the Russian coast. We also flew from staging bases at Gambell on St. Lawrence Island and Little Diomede.
"On occasion, we encountered Russian Yaks. At least once, my aircraft was fired upon, sustaining damage to the right wing tip. Flying over Alaska and along the shores of the Bering Sea was, in some ways, more perilous than my air duty in the Korean War."
AAC reached its peak strength four years after the Korean War. In 1957, 18,627 airmen were stationed in Alaska. They operated from three basesElmendorf, Eielson and Shemya. Fighters also flew from forward fields at King Salmon and Galena, the closest base on U.S. soil to the USSR. AAC could put up 200 planes from six fighter-interceptor squadrons at the height of the Cold War.
But actual intercepts began after AAC's strength declined. Soviet violations of Alaskan airspace were first detected on a radar screen in March 1958. In December 1961, two Soviet Badgers were actually intercepted over the Bering Sea. The biggest news, however, took place March 15, 1963, when two Soviet bombers overflew Nunivak Island due west of Bethel. Fighter-interceptors sent to catch the intruders failed to even see them-they were merely blips on a radar screen.
This prompted a panicked Anchorage Daily Times editorial to proclaim: "Simultaneously with a strike at the warning and communications systems, the Russians could capture Fairbanks and Anchorage military establishments with a few paratroopers." AAC was on guard, though.
Intercepts grew gradually over the years, peaking in the 1980s. The largest number-33-of Soviet aircraft were intercepted in 1987. On June 16, 1988, two fighter pilots became the first to intercept three Soviet flights in one day. Capt. Richard Von Berckefeldt was the first pilot in Alaska to intercept 10 Soviet aircraft, earning him the Sustained Air Activity Medal (10 intercepts rated the medal). In the last year, 1991, of the Cold War, 15 Soviet planes were found in U.S. airspace.
Between 1961 and 1991,306 intercepts of Soviet intruders were made. (The last occurred Sept. 20,1991, by two F-15s out of Galena Airport. ) Altogether, nearly 300 airmen took part in the flights. In the '60s, the 317th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron and rotating units of the Air Defense Command did the honors. Over succeeding decades, the 43rd,18th and 54th Tactical Fighter squadrons boosted the tally.
When the manned-bomber threat diminished with the advent of inter-continental ballistic missiles, the need for large air formations in the far north decreased accordingly. The last SAC unit-4158th Strategic Wing-left Alaska in 1966.
The need for intelligence, though, never faded. The 6th Strategic Wing supplied crews for aerial reconnaissance missions flown from Alaska. Even without being shot at, they were dangerous flights. Four RC- 135s accidentally crashed while conducting operations. They went down at Eielson and over the Bering Strait (1969),Shemya (1981) and Valdez (1985), killing at least 25 airmen.
SHE BLACK PEARL'
An intelligence specialist once described Alaska as a "great, big, fat listening post." Indeed, about a dozen Air Force stations featuring long-range radars at one time scanned the radio waves originating in Siberia. "Mount Doom," or Tin City, was the closest to Siberia.
The biggest post was at AAC HQ: the 3rd Radio Squadron Mobile was based at Elmendorf as early as 1950. In the mid'50s, the tiny Air Force radar site at Naknek at the foot of the Aleutians was among the most secret.
But it was Shemya Island in the Aleutian chain that gained the most fame. Known as "The Black Pearl" or simply "The Rock," the air base there hosted both the U.S. Air Force Security Service and Army Security Agency (ASA). The base could intercept, track, monitor and gather intelligence on Soviet actions.
Its strategic location-just 400 miles from the Kamchatka Peninsula-made it ideal for monitoring Russian communications. Tom Tollefsen, with the ASA Field Station there in 1969, explained why: "On one occasion, while on an outing, two Soviet MiGs flew low over our heads and buzzed the island. This incident served as a reminder that we were only a few hundred miles from Siberia and 1,500 miles from Anchorage."
ASA (the outfit for awhile was designated the 79th Special Operations Unit) strength on Shemya peaked at 231 in 1971. Though ASA was gone within four years, Air Force intelligence ops there remained brisk throughout the 1980s.
In fact, Det. 1, 24th SRS, 6th Strategic Wing, had flown from Shemya since 1970. On March 15,1981, two U.S. Air Force Security Service crewmen were killed in a plane crash on the island. The limelight was cast on Shemya AFB (now Eareckson) in 1983 when the Soviets shot down KAL 007. Because spy flights were being conducted simultaneously from there, a media connection was drawn between the island and that incident.
Incidentally, the Soviet officer who gave the order to shoot down the airliner was named commander-in-chief of the Russian air force in January 1998. The unrepentant Anatoly M. Kornukov said, "I will always be convinced that I gave the right order." He believes the 269 civilians killed were not innocents.
A secret, six-story radar on Shemya known as Cobra Dane detected the reentry trajectories and impact areas of Soviet missiles by collecting telemetry. Operation Cobra Ball missions-to snoop around intended Soviet missile test impact areas-continued from Shemya right up until the end of the Cold War. In 1987, 700 Air Force personnel were still on the island.
The U.S. also had to be prepared for a Soviet ground probe into "The Frontier State." So beginning in 1949, infantry units were rotated to Alaska-th Infantry Regiment, 196th Regimental Combat Team, 71st Infantry Division, 2nd Infantry Division, 1st Battle Groups of the 9th and 23rd regiments, 171 st and 172nd Infantry brigades and finally the 6th Infantry Division ("Snow Soldiers").
As it turned out, the elements were a far greater threat than the Reds. For every degree below zero, the efficiency of a soldier decreased by 2%. "At 50 below," wrote a Time correspondent, a soldier is only 10% efficient. At minus 52, he behaves like a battle shock case: his eyes glaze and he wanders in aimless circles."
Of course, ground air defense was vital, too. The 4th Battalion, 43rd Artillery; 2nd Battalion, 562nd Artillery; and 87th Artillery Group were stationed around Alaskan air bases during most of the Cold War. In the early years, anti-aircraft guns were manned 24 hours a day by men living nearby in small huts.
While static defense was essential, even more critical was the need for ground reconnaissance. This is where the specialized units came in: Company O (Arctic Rangers), 75th Infantry; and later the Long-Range Surveillance Detachment (41 men) of the 106th Military Intelligence Battalion, for example.
None of the regular Army outfits, however, captured the popular imagination as did the famed Alaskan Scouts of the Army National Guard Scout Battalions, 297th Infantry Scout Group. Eskimos of its five battalions were based at remote outposts such as St. Lawrence Island and Little Diomede Island in the Bering Strait.
If any U.S. unit was at the tip of the spear along the Ice Curtain, it was the 14man Scout detachment on Little Diomede. Just across the Strait on Big Diomede Island was a Soviet radar station complete with a jamming device protected by a 57mm radar-controlled anti-aircraft gun. Two helicopter pads allowed the 45 to 65 Soviet personnel there to be resupplied.
Deemed Public Enemy No. in Alaska was the infamous Spetsnaz-the Soviet Special Forces trained to carry out sabotage behind enemy lines. Rumors about their alleged periodic incursions abounded in 1988. But in his book, Inside Spetsnaz, William H. Burgess III labelled the far-fetched stories ""preposterous," equating them with the "UFO mania."
Queried about Spetsnaz in 1990, Alaska National Guard Adj. Gen. John W. Schaeffer said: "We've never caught any. But we've had peculiar sightings and peculiar equipment found in peculiar places that might lead one to believe they were on St. Lawrence Island."
'BiRTHDPLACE OF THE WINDS'
No one doubted the Soviet presence on the North Pacific Ocean. To counter it, the Alaskan Sea Frontier Command based at Kodiak operated until 1972. Patrol Squadron 9 members could testify firsthand to the Russian menace.
On June 22, 1955, a P-2V Neptune was attacked by two MiG-15s over the Bering Strait 40 miles southwest of St. Lawrence Island and shot down. "Almost immediately it swept in from the northwest from directly aft, spraying the aircraft with machine gun fire," reported VP-Niner, the unit's newsletter. Three crewmen were wounded and four later burned. The P2V, aflame, crash-landed on St. Lawrence Island and burned almost completely.
What many Navy veterans remember most "fondly" about Alaska, however, is Adak at the center of the Aleutian chain. Assignment to the barren island became a standing joke. When ordered there, sailors were told it was plush duty because there was supposedly a woman behind every nonexistent tree. Adak is known as the "Birthplace of the Winds."
Being 860 miles from Soviet Petropavlovsk made it key to surface and antisubmarine operations in the region. Fleet Air Wing 4 began operating there in 1948. Various patrol squadrons (1, 2, 3, 4, 6) served on the island over the years.
When relations with Moscow grew tense in the early 1980s, activity at the naval station picked up. Some 4,000 sailors were stationed there in 1983. P-3 crews flew 12-hour night patrols in search of Russian intelligence ships masquerading as trawlers. Capt. George G. Allender, then commander of Adak Naval Station, declared: "The P-3 crew comes in more contact with the Soviet Union than any other part of the Navy."
The Navy, in the fall of 1982, had sent two separate carrier task forces-the largest since WWII-to the North Pacific. By January 1984, U.S. Third Fleet sailors were in a precarious position. "For a few tense weeks," wrote Newsweek correspondent Angus Deming, "they came face to face with Soviet ships, submarines and bombers from Moscow's enlarged Pacific Fleet."
During the crisis, Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens called his home state "sort of a tinderbox of the world." It seemed that way for a few years.
The Bering Strait was the scene of large-scale maneuvers in the fall of 1986 and winter 1987. A carrier battle group of the Third Fleet and a Marine brigade rehearsed mock assaults on Shemya.
Perhaps the notion of a Soviet blitzkrieg across the North Pacific was taken more seriously than the producers of the movie World War III ever realized.
Alaska's strategic frontiers remained potentially hostile for much of the Cold War. The Americans who served along this frozen front-at sea, in the air and on the ground-waged a silent, but successful struggle. They kept the Soviets in check in the harshest of the globe's environments. 0…
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Publication information: Article title: Alaska: Cold War's Strategic Frontier, 1945-1991. Contributors: Kolb, Richard K. - Author. Magazine title: VFW Magazine. Volume: 85. Issue: 8 Publication date: April 1998. Page number: 26+. © Not available. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.