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Pearl Harbor Day: Tragedy in Hawaii shaped Alaska’s place in history

From the economy to infrastructure and even Statehood, WWII changed the way the world viewed Alaska.
Published: Dec. 7, 2020 at 5:08 PM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - Every December 7, Americans are called to remember Pearl Harbor, when over 3,000 U.S. Sailors and Marines lost their lives in the surprise attack by the Empire of Japan. While the attack may have happened thousands of miles from Alaska, historian Philip Wight said, “It directly lead to the invasion of Alaska and the transformation of the territory as we know it today. So Pearl Harbor was a really pivotal event in Alaskan history.”

Wight is an assistant professor of history and arctic and northern studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He said that without Pearl Harbor and the following U.S. entry into the war, Alaska would look much different today.

Immediately after Pearl Harbor, money started flowing into the state. “As soon as Pearl Harbor happened, that really necessitated a torrent of federal dollars, men and material, and the influx of that into Alaska overshadowed every past resource rush in the territory’s history,” Wight said.

He went on to explain that by 1943 there were over 152,000 military men and women in the state, and 60% of people in Alaska worked for the Federal Government. The war also lead to the building of the Alaska Highway that connected Alaska to the rest of the country. This brought prosperity into the state. During WWII, the Navy searched for and found oil on the North Slope. In 1944 they did the first pipeline survey, and this later became the Trans-Alaska Pipeline that is in operation today.

Alaska also saw the only fighting on U.S. soil in WWII. This came as a result of the U.S. entering the war and Japan wanting to cripple U.S. air and naval capabilities. Wight said that Alaska’s role in WWII often is overlooked, but that it helped the Allied Armies defeat Japan and win the war.

“Alaska is often forgotten in histories of World War Two, but it is absolutely pivotal to American victory and the transformation of the far north,” Wight said.

The war also helped Alaska become a state. Wight told us, “The effect of World War Two in general on Alaska is it really developed the region’s territory, and all of these men and women came to Alaska after the war. Because of that build-up of the economy and the build-up in population, it put Alaska on the road to statehood,” Wight said.

Fourteen years after the war ended, Alaska had become a state. Wight explained that Pearl Harbor precipitated the rise of what is known as Military Alaska. During WWII, and then into the Cold War, Alaska was considered a strategic place on the world map. Because of Alaska’s military importance and the sacrifices that Alaskans made, Wight said that the ‘Lower-48′ recognized the importance of the territory and it helped sway public opinion toward Alaska becoming a state.

Wight told us that Military Alaska exists to this day, which can be seen with the arrivals of F-35s to Fairbanks this year. Looking forward, Wight said that with the Arctic Ocean becoming more open, Alaska will continue the trend of military importance that started after Pearl Harbor.

Wight said that as we look around, we can still see and use the infrastructure that started with WWII and the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

“Fort Wainwright, Eielson, the ALCAN Highway, the Glenn Highway was constructed during World War Two, the exploration of petroleum on the North Slope which led directly to the discovery of Prudhoe Bay - all of these enduring legacies stem directly from Pearl Harbor,” Wight said.

He said on Pearl Harbor National Remembrance Day, it is a good day to remember all of those that fought and worked in Alaska to help make sure we won the Second World War.

“Pearl Harbor should be a moment of reflection about the widespread sacrifice that took place during World War Two,” Wight said.

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