AP National Security Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) -- 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.
This was not civil defense of the sort that became common later in the Cold War as Americans built their own bomb shelters. This was an extraordinary enlistment of civilians as intelligence operatives on U.S. soil.
This account of the "Washtub" project is based on hundreds of pages of formerly secret documents. The heavily censored records were provided to The Associated Press by the Government Attic, a website that publishes government documents it obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
The Russians never invaded, of course.
So the covert cadre of "stay-behind agents," as they were known, was never activated to collect and report wartime information from backwoods bunkers. It was an assignment that federal officials acknowledged (to each other, if not to the new agents) 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 of Alaska and inserted by air later as short-term replacements. This assignment 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 1951-59, 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 U.S. vulnerability in a turbulent post-World War II period.
As the plan was being shaped in 1950, 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. Also in 1949, the U.S. locked arms with Western Europe to form the NATO alliance, and Mao Zedong's revolutionaries declared victory in China, adding to American fear that communism was on the march.
"Washtub" was known inside the government by several other codenames, including Corpuscle, Stigmatic and Catboat, according to an official Air Force history of the OSI, which called it one of OSI's "most extensive and long-running Cold War projects." The FBI had its own code word for the project: STAGE.
"Washtub" had two phases.
The first and more urgent was the stay-behind agent program. The second was a parallel effort to create a standby pool of civilian operatives in Alaska trained to clandestinely arrange for the evacuation of downed military air crews in danger of being captured by Soviet forces. This "evasion and escape" plan was coordinated with the CIA.
Among those listed as a stay-behind agent was Dyton Abb Gilliland of Cooper Landing, a community on the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage. A well-known bush pilot, Gilliland died in a plane crash on Montague Island in Prince William Sound in May 1955 at age 45. FBI records say he spent 12 days in Washington D.C., in June-July 1951 undergoing a range of specialized training, including in the use of parachutes.