For the past few months the Alaska State Archives has teamed up with the Alaska State Library Historical Collections to curate an exhibit featuring historical records from our collections to tell the story of Alaska during the Great War. We’re excited to announce the exhibit has been fully installed and ready for you to visit! Located on the second floor of the Andrew P. Kashevaroff building in downtown Juneau, this exhibit features historical photographs and documents which provide a window into a critical time in the history of the early 20th century: a time when global war transformed the world and impacted Alaska.
The exhibit is divided into four main sections: Alaska Goes to War, The Front, The Home Front, and Armistice and After the War. Each section examines the way in which the war was impacting Alaska and how Alaskans met and worked through these challenges.
Of the more than 10,000 men in Alaska who enlisted to serve between 1917 and 1918, 2,200 were inducted into service. However not all men (and certainly no women) were allowed to enlist, regardless of how much they wanted to serve their country. While Alaska Natives were turned away from registration offices¹, 12,000 American Indians from the Lower 48 volunteered to serve in the armed forces during World War I².
Many women eager to help with the war effort signed up with the American Red Cross and were sent overseas to care for wounded soldiers in field hospitals. One such nurse was Mollie B. Smith of Valdez, Alaska. In a letter to her sister, published in the November 6, 1918 issue of the Cordova Daily Herald, she describes her experiences on the front:
“Everyone wants to go to the front; then when one gets in to the front line hospital, she is not satisfied until she gets into the dressing station or first aid station. In fact, I do not think the American over here will ever be satisfied until they can march into Berlin.”
“About dusk we reached the French hospital called Ambulance 5-11. Madame Tancenf turned her large estate over to the military department at the beginning of the war. The chateau contained an operating room, dressing rooms, a kitchen, and five wards. Besides these were five tents, capacity in all about 250 beds.”
“…after many questions, we learned the few orders which were necessary for our night’s work. Four delirious men, all the rest terribly ill. Someone was always getting out of bed, or raving for water. The few who slept had nightmares, and talked incessantly about going over the top.”
“I fear the American nurses near the front may become spoiled by the admiration bestowed upon them by the American soldiers. But hardly, for these little things are what make life endurable, for no one can paint the tragedy or strenuousness of a front line hospital. And I’m sure, at least, most of the nurses would be glad to change places with the soldiers and have the opportunity of going over the top.”
Like Mollie’s letter, news from the front was reported in local papers as letters made their way to loved ones at home.
At home Alaskans were supporting the war effort through the purchase of Victory Loans, fundraisers and charity events, and pulling more than their weight in the work force.
Home defense was also on the minds of Americans and Home Guard organizations began to pop up in larger towns throughout Alaska. By 1918 there were units in Anchorage, Seward, Fairbanks, Ketchikan, Sitka, Cordova, Juneau, and Eagle. As far as daily duties were concerned it varied from town to town depending on population and resources. While Fairbanks organized watch shifts for Guard members, a note in a report from Sitka speaks to the operation of a smaller Guard (89 members compared to 168 in Fairbanks according to a 1918 report):
“Company under organization. During summer months majority of company absent, engaged in fish and other industries. Plan for active drill during coming fall and winter, and to be available to guard Government property, water frontage at Sitka, or other duty for which available.”
The fear of foreigners, especially those of German descent, was becoming an issue so much so that in 1917 Governor J.F.A. Strong issued a proclamation reminding Alaskans that “no word or deed on the part of American citizens should operate to incite racial feeling or create prejudice against those who have come to the Territory for the purposes of bettering their condition and enjoying the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness“.
During this time the Spanish Flu, a dangerous and sometimes fatal pandemic, spread across the world. Thousands in Alaska died, as well as Alaskans serving in the war effort outside of the Territory.
When the war ended many Alaskans were eager to come home and take up their old jobs. Among those wishing for a speedy discharge were fisherman and prospectors, whose yearly salaries were dependent on specific seasonal work. Despite the governor’s efforts to secure discharges for Alaskan soldiers, release from the armed forces was slow and many continued to serve after the war.
After the war Alaskans wanted to honor and document those that served in the war. In 1923 the Alaskan Territorial Legislature passed an Act that asked the Secretary of Alaska to document veterans inducted into service in Alaska. A few years later the Alphabetical List of Alaska World War Ex-Service Persons was generated. Although this record did not list Alaskans that enlisted in Canada and fought with the British Expeditionary Forces or women that served in the Red Cross, it provided a comprehensive record of the nearly 2,200 Alaskan soldiers that were inducted into service during World War I.
Interested in learning more about Alaska during World War I? Come check out the exhibit for yourself! Like what you see? Learn more about this topic through your research at our Research Center which houses both the Alaska State Archives and Alaska State Library Historical Collections, we’re free and open to the public from 10am-4pm Monday-Friday. For those of you who can’t travel to Juneau physically, don’t worry, we’re working on a digital exhibit that will include even MORE historical documents that we weren’t able to fit into our physical exhibit space (no matter how hard we tried). Stay tuned!
- Alaska Natives were allowed to register in late October of 1918, less than two weeks before the end of the war, according to an October 21, 1918 article published in the Alaska Daily Empire.
- “1917: American Indians volunteer for WWI”, Native Voices. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/nativevoices/timeline/650.html