When the U.S. government needed their help during World War II, Alaska’s Native population came out in droves. From the beaches of Bristol Bay to the far corners of Bethel, Kotzebue and Barrow, villagers didn’t hesitate to provide Alaska with a line of defense after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

U.S. Army Maj. Marvin R. Marston conceived the idea for an Alaska Native defense force after visiting St. Lawrence Island on a military morale-boosting trip with comedian Joe E. Brown. While on the island, Marston noted that all the white men, except for a schoolteacher, had left and that the 700 Natives living in the island’s two villages of Savoonga and Gambell were nervous about possible occupation by Japanese forces.

When Marston learned that a crew from a Japanese vessel had recently come ashore and spent several days on the island, he came up with the idea to form defense units made up of Alaska Natives throughout western Alaska. His military superiors found no merit in his idea, but Marston found staunch support from territorial Gov. Ernest Gruening.

Marston and Gruening knew how adept the Native people were as hunters, and that most were excellent shots. They decided to recruit Natives to join an Alaska Territorial Guard to be the eyes and ears of the U.S. Army.

Marston traveled along 5,200 miles of western Alaska coastline to personally address Native communities. Approximately 6,000 people were asked to join the Guard, and although there was no money to pay the force and little equipment available, 100 percent enlisted. These were the original “Eskimo Scouts.”

They learned the art of military reconnaissance along the shores of the Bering Sea and routinely patrolled the coastline, keeping a sharp eye out for intruders in a war that would eventually reach Alaska by way of the Aleutians.

Alaska disbanded the Territorial Guard in 1947, with no fanfare for the volunteers who proudly wore World War I-era uniforms bearing a blue patch with the stars of the Big Dipper.

It wasn’t until 2004 that the Alaska unit was officially recognized as military veterans. The U.S. Army finally granted formal military discharge certificates to former members of the Guard, only a few of whom are still alive. Those who qualify can also receive a headstone, a U.S. flag and burial in a national cemetery.