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US trained covert Alaskan agents to thwart cold war Russian invasion, occupation

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 September, 2014, 9:06pm
UPDATED : Monday, 01 September, 2014, 9:06pm

Fearing a Russian invasion and occupation of Alaska, the US 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.

"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 former FBI official Joseph 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 US territory. The 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.

This account of the Washtub project is based on hundreds of pages of formerly secret documents. The heavily censored records were provided by the Government Attic, a website that publishes government documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

The Russians never invaded, of course.

So the covert cadre of so-called "stay-behind agents was never activated to collect and report wartime information from backwoods bunkers. It was an assignment that federal officials acknowledged was highly dangerous, given that the Soviet Union's military doctrine called for the elimination of local resistance in occupied territory.

To compensate for expected casualties, a reserve pool of agents was to be held outside Alaska and dropped in by air later as short-term replacements. This was seen as an easier sell to potential recruits because "some agents might not be too enthusiastic about being left behind in enemy-occupied areas for an indefinite period of time", one planning document noted dryly.

Washtub was not, however, a washout. It operated from 1951 to 1959, according to Deborah Kidwell, official historian of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, or OSI.

"While war with the Soviet Union did not come to Alaska, OSI trained 89 SBA [stay-behind agents], and the survival caches served peacetime purposes for many years to come," she wrote in an OSI magazine last year.

With the benefit of hindsight, it would be easy to dismiss Washtub as a harebrained scheme born of paranoia. In fact it reflected genuine worry about Soviet intentions and a sense of US vulnerability in a turbulent post-second world war period.

As the plan was being shaped, Soviet-backed North Korea invaded South Korea, triggering a war on the peninsula that some in the Pentagon saw as a deliberate move by Moscow to distract Washington before invading Europe. The previous summer the Soviets stunned the world by exploding their first atomic bomb.

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