WASHINGTON —Fearing a Russian invasion and occupation of Alaska,the U.S. government in the early Cold War years recruited and trained fishermen,bush pilots,trappers and other private citizens across Alaska for a covert network to feed wartime intelligence to the military,newly declassified Air Force and FBI documents show.
Invasion of Alaska?Yes. It seemed like a real possibility in 1950.
"The military believes that it would be an airborne invasion involving bombing and the dropping of paratroopers," one FBI memo said. The most likely targets were thought to be Nome,Fairbanks,Anchorage and Seward.
So FBI director J. Edgar Hoover teamed up on a highly classified project,code-named "Washtub," with the newly created Air Force Office of Special Investigations,headed by Hoover protege and former FBI official Joseph F. Carroll.
The secret plan was to have citizen-agents in key locations in Alaska ready to hide from the invaders of what was then only a U.S. territory. The citizen-agents would find their way to survival caches of food, cold-weather gear,message-coding material and radios. In hiding they would transmit word of enemy movements
The first coastwatching organisation was established in 1919 by Captain J G Clare, RAN, who believed there was a need to develop a network of observers to monitor the islands to Australia’s north. The Coastwatchers on the northern and north-western coasts of Australia were usually cattle-station managers or missionaries and in Papua and New Guinea, usually plantation mangers who had lived in the islands for some years and so had local contacts and local knowledge. By the mid-1920s their area included the Bismarck Archipelago.
In 1935, Commander R B M Long, Director of Naval Intelligence (DNI) in Melbourne worked to close the gaps in the coastwatching service. He sent Eric Feldt – a retired Royal Australian Naval officer with many years’ experience of the civil service in New Guinea – to be in charge of intelligence there. Feldt, himself an Islander, knew the other islanders, the planters and the government officials and was trusted by them.
With Japan’s entry into the war this island screen became the front-line. The Coastwatchers communicated by radio through existing radio stations or by teleradios that had been loaned by the Naval Board. They were given some instruction and a code with which to make their reports on any hostile movements and to report any item of intelligence value. It was a lonely and precarious existence.
The Coastwatchers were supported by all three services. Aircraft dropped their supplies and submarines and PT boats landed them and removed them. The assistance and loyalty of the local population was essential: they performed a vital role in guerrilla operations and intelligence gathering.