Page 2 of 2 Previous

Continued: Fearing Russian invasion of Alaska, US in '50s secretly trained locals as 'stay-behind' agents

  • Article by: ROBERT BURNS , Associated Press
  • Last update: September 1, 2014 - 3:30 AM

Among those listed as a stay-behind agent was Dyton Abb Gilliland of Cooper Landing, a community on the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage. A well-known bush pilot, Gilliland died in a plane crash on Montague Island in Prince William Sound in May 1955 at age 45. FBI records say he spent 12 days in Washington D.C., in June-July 1951 undergoing a range of specialized training, including in the use of parachutes.

The agents also got extensive training in coding and decoding messages, but this apparently did not always go well. Learning these techniques was "an almost impossible task for backwoodsmen to master in 15 hours of training," one document said. Details in the document were blacked out.

Many agent names in the OSI and FBI documents also were removed before being declassified.

None of the indigenous population was included. The program founders believed that agents from the "Eskimo, Indian and Aleut groups in the Territory should be avoided in view of their propensities to drink to excess and their fundamental indifference to constituted governments and political philosophies. It is pointed out that their prime concern is with survival and their allegiance would easily shift to any power in control."

Recruiters pitched patriotism and were to offer retainer fees of up to $3,000 a year (nearly $30,000 in 2014 dollars). That sum was to be doubled "after an invasion has commenced," according to one planning document. The records do not say how much was actually paid during the course of the program.

At least some recruits were fingerprinted and all were secretly screened by the FBI for signs of disloyalty.

The FBI linked one candidate, a resident of Stony River, to a list of names in a 1943 bureau file on "Communist Party activities, Alaska" that tracked U.S. subscribers to a magazine called "Soviet Russia Today."

Another candidate was flagged — falsely, it turned out — as a likely communist sympathizer based on an FBI informant's tip about membership in the "Tom Paine Club, Communist Party, Spokane, Washington."

One was described in a May 1952 OSI memo to the FBI office in Anchorage as the postmaster in Kiana, Alaska; another was manager of a hotel in Valdez. One agent candidate worked for a tin-mining company at Lost River on the Seward Peninsula, one of the higher-priority areas for placing "Washtub" stay-behind agents.

The peninsula is named after Secretary of State William H. Seward, the primary negotiator in the 1867 purchase of the Alaska territory for $7.2 million from czarist Russia.

The FBI tapped its local contacts, including federal judges, the head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage, an Anchorage physician and others for names of reliable Alaskans to be approached.

"Washtub' was crafted in painstaking detail. But just as the first trained agents were to be put in place in September 1951, Hoover pulled out, leaving it in OSI's hands, even though one month earlier his top lieutenants had advised him the FBI was "in these programs neck deep," with an "obvious and inescapable" duty to proceed.

Hoover worried that when the shooting in Alaska started the FBI would be "left holding the bag."

"If a crisis arose we would be in the midst of another 'Pearl Harbor' and get part of the blame," Hoover wrote in the margin of a Sept. 6, 1951, memo from an aide, to whom Hoover added one final order: "Get out at once."

Three years later, Hoover was pulled back in, briefly.

In October 1954, an envelope and a typewritten letter containing a coded message were turned over to the FBI by a woman in Anchorage. It had been misaddressed by the anonymous sender in Fairbanks. Espionage was suspected, triggering flurries of FBI internal memos. Hoover was informed that bureau code breakers were urgently trying to decipher the message.

They never broke the code but eventually declared the crisis over. The mystery message, they determined, was not from an enemy spy. It was a "practice message" sent errantly by one of the "Washtub" agents.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

ADVERTISEMENT

Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close