Five former Alaska Territorial Guard members received their official U.S. Army honorable discharge papers Tuesday. One of those honored is about to turn 101 years old.
Nearly 70 years after their World War II-era service, former ATG members Henry Neligan, Victor Klose, brothers John and Willard Reese, and Ralph Devenny received their service medals and honorable discharge certificates.
Neligan will celebrate his 101st birthday in May. According to the Army, he is the oldest living Alaska Territorial Guard veteran to receive his honorable discharge. Here he is just a few moments before the ceremony began.
“It makes me feel good, is all I can say,” he said. “I’m glad that people think that was about
me. It makes me feel proud. It’s all right.”
John Reese says he didn’t expect to get his discharge so many years after his service ended.
“I didn’t think anybody would pay any attention to us,” he said. “It’s a big surprise.”
Maj. Gen. Thomas Katkus, adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard, and Verdie Bowen, director of the Alaska Office of Veterans Affairs, presided over the ceremony.
“Back in 1942, what did we have, we had the territory of Alaska, as big as it was, and we also had the threat of a foreign country, that had already landed on our soil, and there was no way to put in perspective the magnitude of the threat,” Katkus said. “And yet, the United States asked for the men and women of Alaska to step forward and provide a service to our nation.”
From 1942 to 1947, more than 6,400 Alaskans volunteered for the territorial guard, many of them Alaska Natives. They served in their assigned territories with little equipment and no pay until the ATG disbanded in 1947.
“So what did they get for five years of service? They didn’t even get a handshake,” Katkus said. “They didn’t get any recognition. They basically got told the war’s over, go home. Most people in the U.S., in the Lower 48, had no realization that anything had ever been accomplished or done by these members.”
About 13 years ago, through an effort spearheaded by Alaska’s late Sen. Ted Stevens, service in the Alaska Territorial Guard was given federal recognition. That allowed former ATG members to receive benefits as veterans who served on active duty.
Since then, Katkus said, they’ve been tracking down as many of the remaining territorial guard members as possible, to give them their official honorable discharge papers.
Bowen said that hasn’t been easy.
“You have to imagine this, in 1947, when the Alaska Territorial Guard was released, most of the records were released too,” he said. “And you guys know, especially some of the military guys, you understand that a lot of times it’s really easy for the government to lose those records in some box somewhere in some warehouse. We’ve had to reconstruct that time. It’s been a real difficult effort, but it’s been a real wonderful effort.”
Neligan served in the ATG unit in Craig; Klose and the Reese brothers served in Ketchikan; and Devenny served in Wrangell.
Ketchikan Indian Community’s training center was the setting for the special ceremony.