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Alaska in the 40s


Tanana Valley
Tanana Valley

Alaska’s Natives also participated in the New Deal. In 1934 Congress, on the administration’s recommendation, passed the Wheeler-Howard Act, also called the Indian Reorganization Act. Two years later it was extended to Alaska. The act rejected forced assimilation to white culture and instead fostered preservation of the Natives’ cultural heritage. The act also allowed Native communities to incorporate and draft constitutions for self-government. Business loans extended to villages allowed them to set up canneries. Individual fishermen borrowed money to buy boats and gear. The most controversial aspect of the act contemplated the creation of reservations. Alaskans protested that applying this policy to Alaska would turn two-thirds of the state, and virtually all of Southeastern, into reservations. In the 1940s, in the face of adamant opposition, the federal government withdrew the reservation plan. The Natives, for the most part, wanted full political, economic, and social equality rather than separation on reservations. In the 1940s Tlingit and then Eskimo (see Inuit) began to be elected to the state legislature. The 1945 session of the legislature passed an act outlawing what racial discrimination there had been—such as “white only” restaurants and segregation in theaters. Natives were appointed to serve on major territorial boards. Native schools closed and the children were transferred to the general public schools. The question of Native land rights remained open, however, and would eventually have to be resolved.

World War II profoundly changed Alaska. On the eve of the war, Alaska’s only military establishment was Chilkoot Barracks in Haines.

The post had been established during the gold rush days and was situated where it could observe traffic bound inland over the Dalton Trail and over Chilkoot, Chilkat, and White passes. Eleven officers and 300 enlisted men manned the post.

Early in 1935 Congress had named six strategic areas for location of U.S. Army Air Corps bases. Alaska was one of these. The shortest distance between the United States and Asia was the great circle route, 3,200 km (2,000 mi) north of fortified Hawaii but only 444 km (276 mi) south of the Aleutians. Brigadier General Billy Mitchell, an advocate of air power, testified before Congress in 1935 that Japan was America’s most dangerous enemy in the Pacific: “They will come right here to Alaska.

Alaska is the most central place in the world for aircraft, and that is true either of Europe, Asia, or North America. I believe in the future he who holds Alaska will hold the world, and I think it is the most important strategic place in the world.

It took Congress several more years to respond; in 1940 it appropriated $4 million to construct a cold-weather testing station for airplanes near Fairbanks. The Navy built air stations at Sitka and Kodiak. The Army’s budget for fiscal year 1941 included a base near Anchorage to cost $12,734,000, but Congress eliminated the item on April 4, 1940. A few days later, on April 9, Germany’s armies invaded and occupied Norway and Denmark. For the first time many members of Congress realized that Norway and Denmark were just over the North Pole from Alaska and that the Germans might soon have bombers that could fly that far. Congress restored the money. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, devastating the U.S. Pacific fleet. Alaska was ill prepared. On June 3, 1942, the Japanese attacked Dutch Harbor and soon occupied the islands of Kiska and Attu in the Aleutians.

In the meantime, the Army and private contractors built the Alaska-Canada Military Highway in little more than nine months. It opened November 20, 1942, a major engineering achievement. The Alaska Highway, as it is now called, connected the landing fields on the air route to Alaska. It started at Dawson Creek, British Columbia, and ran 2,288 km (1,422 mi) to Delta Junction, Alaska. The highway was later extended to Fairbanks. Armed forces personnel in Alaska increased to 150,000. On May 11, 1943, U.S. troops landed on Attu and after a bitter battle retook the island on May 29. On August 14 a large invasion of Kiska was launched, but, unknown to the Americans, the Japanese had evacuated on July 23. The forces soon discovered that the enemy had left and the war in Alaska had ended. The war had a profound and lasting impact on the territory. It altered the pace of Alaskan life. Between 1941 and 1945 the federal government spent close to $2 billion in the north. The modernization of the Alaska railroad and the expansion of airfields and construction of roads benefited the war effort as well as the civilian population. Many of the docks, wharves, and breakwaters built along the coast for the use of the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, and Army Transport Service were turned over to the territory after the war. Most importantly, thousands of soldiers and construction workers had come north, and many decided to make Alaska their home. Between 1940 and 1950 the civilian population increased from 74,000 to 112,000. "USA" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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