ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Alaska wasn't even a state yet when thousands of Alaska Natives volunteered for a citizens militia to protect the vast U.S. territory from Japanese invasion during World War II.
Yet most of the gravesites of the Alaska Territorial Guard members are marked with aging, rotting wooden markers. Now U.S. Rep. Don Young is urging federal officials to replace the markers with permanent headstones.
The Alaska Republican wants the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to make a policy change that would provide headstones made of materials like marble or granite to the families of territorial guard members. Young made the request in a letter Tuesday to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald.
Young says such headstones are made available to veterans who died after November 1990. However, the government will only provide such headstones at unmarked gravesites of veterans who died before then.
Young is seeking an exemption for guard members, whose graves are marked with deteriorating wooden markers.
"However, since the Civil War, wooden markers have not been considered adequate permanent markers for the graves of Veterans," Young wrote. "Therefore, I urge you to update this policy to recognize the impermanence and inadequate nature of these current wooden markers, and to ensure those who willingly stepped forward to defend the United States are appropriately recognized with true, permanent VA-provided headstones."
The VA did not immediately respond for comment Thursday. Young spokesman Matt Shuckerow said there has been no response to the letter so far from McDonald.
In his letter, Young also said some headstone applications have been denied for relatives of Territorial Guard members who did not have Social Security numbers when they died. "This is a small number of Veterans, who likely died within several years of the war, but they are still due the proper respect as all of those who serve our great nation," Young wrote.
When the 6,400-member militia was formed in 1942, Alaska was still 17 years away from statehood.
The largely Native unit was activated after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor and at points along Alaska's Aleutian Islands. The militia members, nicknamed Eskimo Scouts and Uncle Sam's Men, stepped in to watch over the 586,000-square-mile territory, which was vulnerable to further attack with the Alaska National Guard already pressed into federal service.
The militia disbanded in March 1947, almost 2 years after the war ended. But it wouldn't be until 2004 that Territorial Guard members were formally recognized by the Army at U.S. military veterans.