US Army, Alaska (USARAK)
The mission of the US Army Alaska (USARAK) is to train and equip forces to deploy rapidly in support of combat operations and other operations worldwide, as directed, and conduct operations in cold regions and mountainous terrain. It serves as the land force component command for joint operations, and provides installation support for Alaska. The USARAK's strategic location, unsurpassed training capabilities, long-term economic impact and partnership with Alaskan communities make it a significant national asset and world-class power projection platform for military operations anywhere in the world.
USARAK has 2 higher headquarters: US Army Pacific (USARPAC) and Alaska Command (ALCOM). USARPAC is the US Army service component to Pacific Command and ALCOM is a sub-unified command also subordinate to Pacific Command. The USARAK Commander wears 2 hats. As the USARAK Commander, he responds directly to the USARPAC Commander on service component issues. As the Deputy ALCOM Commander, he responds directly to the ALCOM Commander on Alaska-specific matters and joint responsibilities.
Alaska appears to be remote when examined using a standard global view. However, when viewed using a polar projection, the logic of US Army forces stationed in Alaska is apparent. Air routes from Alaska provide for rapid deployment throughout the Pacific Theater. Deployment times to other parts of the world such as Germany and Saudi Arabia are better than, or compare favorably with, other US Army units. Units in Alaska were firmly anchored in the North Pacific and strategically positioned for worldwide deployment. With the large, varied, tough training environment, USARAK developed a highly capable force which was combat ready.
USARAK emphasized training under conditions as close to actual combat as possible. Units trained as a team with emphasis on the basics at all levels. More importantly, leaders were trained to prepare, conduct and evaluate multi-echelon training using the most efficient and effective methods. USARAK trained to the same tasks and to the same standards as all other Army units, but the extreme conditions help produce tough soldiers and exceptional leaders.
Training opportunities in Alaska were limitless. Alaska provided the Army with a vast training environment and challenging climate. Training in Alaska was virtually unrestricted in land availability. The combined training lands available at the 3 main posts, Fort Richardson, Fort Wainwright, and Fort Greenly, totaled over 1.5 million acres. In comparison to the continental United States and Germany, Alaska clearly offered an excellent training environment. From airborne operations to glacier training, Arctic soldiers receive the most demanding, and rigorous training available.
The Army in Alaska participated in numerous Command Post Exercises, combat training center rotations, and Joint and Combined Exercises throughout the United States and overseas. USARAK combat units routinely conducted rotations to both the Joint Readiness Training Center and the National Training Center. Unique training opportunities in the Pacific Theater included deployments to Japan, Korea, Thailand and other locations.
The heart of US Army Alaska was the Arctic Soldier. Arctic Light and Arctic Support were not merely specialties, but involved a state of mind. From initial assignment to any unit in Alaska, USARAK soldiers experienced a training program full of new challenges. USARAK soldiers were trained to operate anywhere, but specialized in arctic operations.
The US Army's long and important history in the Great Land began at the very moment Alaska became American soil on 18 October 1867. Elements of the 9th Infantry were on hand as the Russian Golden Eagle was lowered and the Stars and Stripes were raised in Sitka, which became headquarters for the US Military District, Alaska. The first US Army units to serve in Alaska were Company F, 9th Infantry, and Battery H, 2nd Artillery.
Charged with maintaining law and order in the new territory, soldiers helped quell uprisings and built new forts at Wrangell, St. Paul Canal, Kodiak Island, and on the Kenai Peninsula. They also enforced regulations regarding the killing of fur seals, whose population had been severely depleted while the territory was under Russian rule.
The Army relinquished control of Alaska to the Treasury Department in 1877, but did not entirely leave the territory. The Signal Corps operated weather stations, and a number of officers led small geographic explorations to learn more about the territory. These expeditions into various parts of Alaska continued through the turn of the century, as map-making and road and bridge building expanded the frontier.
The Klondike Gold Rush in Yukon Territory, Canada and later gold rushes in Alaska helped that expansion, as thousands of people poured into the territory. Although the Royal Canadian Mounted Police maintained law and order in the Yukon during the Gold Rush, the US government, after sending Captain Patrick Henry Ray and 1st Lieutenant Wilds P. Richardson to study the situation, did not deem it necessary to send the Army into Alaska as peacekeepers. As more and more people came into Alaska and northwestern Canada, the need for better communications with the lower 48 states became critical. The Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS) connected all the forts in the territory with Seattle. By 1903, the line stretched from Seattle to southeastern Alaska, Valdez, the interior and Nome. The project fell under the direction of Brigadier General Adolphus W. Greely. Lieutenant William (Billy) Mitchell, another officer who would later achieve military fame, also worked on the 4-year project. While Greely and his men struggled to complete the WAMCATS project, Richardson, on his third tour of duty in Alaska, headed the Alaska Road Commission, building garrisons and trails throughout the enormous territory.
The Army in Alaska saw a decline in activity from 1908 to 1940, with a brief surge during World War I. Work continued on building roads and bridges and improving trails during this period. Military construction in Alaska accelerated in 1940 as the world prepared for another great war. Ladd Field, near Fairbanks, was built as a cold-weather test station and Fort Richardson, named for Wilds P. Richardson, was built near Anchorage. Colonel Simon Bolivar Buckner assumed command of the Alaska Defense Force in 1940, achieving the rank of major general during his tenure there.
Through the Lend-Lease Program, the United States transferred nearly 8,000 aircraft to the Soviet Union at Ladd Field, which later became Fort Wainwright. The aircraft were flown from Great Falls, Montana, to Ladd Field by American crews. Russian crews then flew the planes to Siberia and on to the Russian front. The pilots leaving Great Falls followed a series of small airfields that became known as the Northwest Staging Route. The airfields were located at intervals along the one-lane supply road that became the Alaska Highway. One of those airfields, Big Delta Airfield, later became Fort Greely, providing ample acreage for Northern Warfare Training Center exercises and testing by the Cold Regions Test Center.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Army engineers began building airstrips in the Aleutian Islands to defend against possible Japanese invasions there. The Army Corps of Engineers joined Canadian Forces in building the Alaska Highway in less than 8 months. The 1,420-mile road was built as an overland supply route to get troops and supplies to Alaska. Officials in Washington, DC saw Alaska as a possible starting point for the Japanese forces to invade the United States and Canada and took measures to prevent this.
Alaska was the only American soil other than Hawaii to see fighting during World War II, when the Japanese forces bombed Dutch Harbor on 3 June 1942 and seized Attu and Kiska islands in the Aleutian chain. The successful battle to retake Attu by the 7th Infantry Division in June 1943 was one of the bloodiest in the war. The battle, begun with the 7th Infantry Division's assault on 11 May 1943, cost the Japanese 2,321 soldiers (98 percent of their force at Attu) and lasted 19 days at a cost of 432 American lives. The Japanese pulled out of Kiska before the Americans stormed ashore a few months later on 15 August 1943. The Japanese had withdrawn on submarines 17 days prior.
At the end of the war, many of the small Army posts throughout the state closed permanently as the postwar emphasis turned to training. The Alaskan Command (ALCOM) was created in January 1947. The first of the unified commands under the Department of Defense, ALCOM was head-quartered at Elmendorf Air force Base near Anchorage and was in control of all military forces in Alaska.
The Alaskan Department also changed its name again in 1947. The new name for the headquarters for all Army personnel in Alaska became US Army Alaska (then abbreviated as USARAL). Military missions assigned to USARAL included the ground and air defense of Alaska (with priority to the Anchorage and Fairbanks areas), development of cold-weather and mountain-warfare doctrines, conducting a cold-weather and mountain school at Fort Greely, providing logistical support to Air Force and Navy elements in Alaska, conducting National Guard and US Army Reserve training, supervising Reserve Officer Training Corps activities, and providing for internal security (including plans for recovery from nuclear attack). By 1959, several Nike Hercules missile battalions were activated in the Anchorage and Fairbanks areas.
July 1953 saw USARAL's combat units officially reorganized into the 172nd Infantry Brigade (Mechanized) at Fort Richardson and the 171st Infantry Brigade (Mechanized) at Fort Wainwright. The 2 brigades were redesignated as light-infantry brigades in 1969. The Army had also assumed control of Ladd Field from the US Air Force on 1 January 1961. The base was renamed Fort Wainwright in honor of General Jonathan M. Wainwright, World War II hero and Medal of Honor recipient.
USARAL was discontinued as a major subordinate command on 31 December 1974. At that time the 172nd Infantry Brigade (Alaska), headquartered at Fort Richardson, assumed command and control, reporting to Forces Command at Fort McPherson, Georgia. The 171st Infantry Brigade was inactivated in 1973. The last Nike Hercules battalion was inactivated in 1979.
The 6th Infantry Division (Light) was activated in 1986 headquartered at Fort Richardson, replacing the 172nd Infantry Brigade. The Division headquarters moved to Fort Wainwright in 1990. The 6th Infantry Division (Light) was actively involved in training exercises in Japan and Thailand, at the Joint Readiness Training Center in Arkansas and Louisiana, and throughout Alaska until its inactivation in July 1994.
US Army Alaska (with the current abbreviation USARAK) became an active headquarters at Fort Richardson in 1996 following the inactivation of the 6th Infantry Division (Light). It was designated as a subordinate element of US Army Pacific, headquartered at Fort Shafter, Hawaii. The new organization, commanded by a major general, was a result of a Department of the Army decision in March 1993 to downsize the 6th Infantry Division (Light) to a brigade task force. The 1st Brigade, 6th Infantry Division (Light) was reflagged as the 172nd Infantry Brigade (Separate), which reactivated in 1998 at Fort Wainwright as the primary maneuver unit of USARAK.
At that time, US Army Alaska was home to two brigade-equivalent headquarters, a separate infantry brigade and the United States Army Garrison, as well as tenant organizations and Reserve Component units. The 172nd Infantry Brigade (Separate) was headquartered at Fort Wainwright and consisted of 3 infantry battalions, an artillery battalion, a support battalion, and 4 separate supporting companies.
The 172nd Infantry Brigade (Separate) was trained and ready to have units enroute to a contingency location on short notice, or within 18 hours of notification while serving as the Pacific Theater's Ready Army Brigade. The 172nd Infantry Brigade (Separate) location was important not only because of Alaska's strategic location, but also because there were 5 airfields capable of supporting strategic airlift. The primary departure airfields were Eielson Air Force Base and Elmendorf Air Force Base. The alternate airfields were Fort Wainwright, Fairbanks International Airport and Anchorage International Airport. All 5 were capable of accommodating the Air Force's largest aircraft, and most importantly, could be used simultaneously.
Headquartered at Fort Richardson were the Special Troops battalion, USARAK; a Theater Army Aviation battalion, and detachments of the personnel and finance battalions. The US Army Garrison was also headquartered at Fort Richardson, and included a Headquarters company at each installation, the Law Enforcement Command and the Non-Commissioned Officer's Academy.
Tenant organizations were located at each USARAK installation and included the USA Medical Department Activity, Alaska; USA Dental Activity, Alaska; a signal battalion, the Cold Regions Test Activity, the Bureau of Land Management, Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, and the Northern Warfare Training Center.
The Reserve Component units located throughout the state included a National Guard Infantry Group (Scout) consisting of 3 Infantry Battalions, a Support Battalion, an Aviation Battalion, and an Army Reserve Engineer Battalion and a Reserve Hospital. At that time there were 3 Army installations in Alaska utilized actively by USARAK: Fort Richardson, Fort Wainwright and Fort Greely. As time went on, Fort Greely continued to provide valuable training and testing land, but became primarily a support facility for the Space and Missile Defense Agency.
In 2005, US Army Alaska began to experience a transformation as part of a major reorganization of the US Army as a whole. USARAK began to expand first with the addition of an additional brigade. The 4th Airborne Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division was activated in 2005 at Fort Richardson, Alaska. A provisional aviation element for USARAK was also activated in 2005 as Task Force 49. In 2006, what had become the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team was inactivated and reflagged as the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division. The 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team was reactivated in Germany as an element of V Corps. The Alaskan Support Brigade was also inactivated and the 3rd Maneuver Enhancement Brigade stood up to provide support services for USARAK.
In 2009, Task Force 49 was inactivated and its Headquarters and Headquarters Company reflagged as Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 16th Combat Aviation Brigade. 16th Combat Aviation Brigade was subsequently activated at Fort Wainwright as the avaition element of USARAK.
In March 2011, the Department of Defense announced the movement of 16th Combat Aviation Brigade headquarters from Fort Wainwright, Alaska, to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. This would realign the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade with I Corps, though the 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation and 6th Squadron, 17th Cavalry would remain in Alaska to support USARAK. On 16 September 2011, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 3rd Maneuver Enhancement Brigade was inactivated and was reflagged as Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Engineer Brigade. 2nd Engineer Brigade was subsequently activated at Joint Base Elemendorf-Richardson. The Northern Warfare Training Center, previously assigned to 3rd Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, was reassigned directly to USARAK.
On 15 June 2011, the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade cased their colors at Fort Wainwright, Alaska and moved the Headquarters and Headquarters Company to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. On 1 August 2011, the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade completed its move to Joint Base Lewis-McChord during a ceremony at Gray Army Airfield in which it uncased its colors. At that time it formally became part of I Corps.
On 1 August 2011, the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade completed its move to Joint Base Lewis-McChord from Fort Wainwright, Alaska. Established in in 2009 to control aviation operations in Alaska, a function previously performed by Task Force 49, 16th Combat Aviation Brigade had subsequently evolved into a command for various aviation assets within I Corps, resulting in the decision to move the command. It was subsequently determined, however, that 16th Combat Aviation Brigade could not effectively control the aviation assets in Alaska that remained and a new command, the US Army Alaska Aviation Task Force was subsequently established to provide command and control for 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment and 6th Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment.
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