Special Eskimo Unit Guards America’s Frigid Frontier on Soviet Border

The Washington Post

Huddled on a strip of tundra surrounded by frozen sea, the Eskimo village appears to be hibernating through the rages of winter.

Savage winds pushing blinding sheets of snow lash the jumble of weathered gray houses. Doorways are draped with animal skins, protection from temperatures that typically reach 30 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

This is the time of year when most of the 400 people on remote St. Lawrence Island, a barren piece of the United States far out in the Bering Sea, stay indoors. While the winds blast outside, they while away the time carving tiny ivory whales and polar bears for tourists down in Anchorage, or stitching fur-lined parkas for their own families.


For the Eskimo Scouts, this bitter season is the time for training. They conduct military drills in weather so severe that metal cracks, radio batteries last five minutes and just touching the icy barrel of an M-16 rifle can rip the skin off an ungloved hand.

This highly specialized unit of the National Guard uses centuries-old Arctic survival skills to conduct surveillance and reconnaissance missions on U.S. terrain that lies at the frigid back door of Soviet territory. Their place in the U.S. military is so unique that they sometimes train elite Army special forces sent up from the Lower 48.

‘Eyes, Ears of North’

“They are the eyes and ears of the North,” said Capt. Timothy Wipperman, training officer for one of the three scout battalions. “No one can be trained to do the job they do in this environment.”

The 1,500 scouts come from 91 isolated Eskimo villages along the west coast and interior of Alaska. Most scouts are sustenance hunters who spend spring and summer pursuing the walrus, seals, whales, caribou and fish that provide their families with food, clothing and income. Because hunting and fishing are so critical to Eskimo survival, the National Guard conducts training only in the most bitter winter months, when it will create the least disruption to village life.

Using the same skills that keep them alive in one of the world’s least hospitable places, they lead snowshoe marches across miles of roadless white tundra, packing rifles and special supplies that include body-warming chunks of whale blubber, muktuk, and strips of dried fish.

They navigate the dark Arctic desert more by instinct than compass. It is a place where an unexpected blizzard can turn a military exercise into a real life-or-death survival test.

Snow-Going Guerrillas

Most of their combat training is in unconventional warfare and guerrilla tactics, and the best of them earn the guard’s coveted “Arctic Warrior” badge.

Combat training is secondary, however, to the scouts’ mission of watching for any air, sea or land military operation from the Soviet mainland just 37 miles west of here.

“We’re not combat units,” said Maj. Gen. John W. Schaeffer, adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard, the first Eskimo to hold that position. “We provide the early warning.”

The scouts also do reconnaissance from nearby Little Diomede, a small U.S. island barely 2 1/2 miles from Soviet-owned Big Diomede Island, where the opposing superpower is expanding military operations.

On those islands and the vast shorelines of western Alaska, the scouts perform their most important military mission as forward lookouts, witnesses to the expanding Soviet military activity in the northwest region that has concerned U.S. officials in recent years.

Pentagon officials have reported increased Soviet naval and air activity. U.S. interceptor pilots reported 56 Soviet aircraft, many of them Bear bombers, near U.S. territorial airspace last year, compared to 34 in 1986.

Watching for Soviets

The scouts are trained to report any overflight, submarine surfacing, suspicious person or items washed ashore. Military officials said that rarely a day goes by without such a report coming from a scout somewhere along the hundreds of miles of the Alaskan frontier.

Alaskan-based military intelligence officials said that sightings of unidentified persons, particularly men in wet suits, off the coast of St. Lawrence Island also have increased, from one or two a year to about seven in each of the last two years.

Alaskan intelligence officials suspect that the Soviets train special forces on isolated Alaskan islands, but said they have no concrete evidence and have never positively identified a member of a Soviet Spetsnaz team on American soil here.

Pentagon officials discount reports that the Soviets would use even uninhabited Alaskan territory for such operations, but the reports persist. In one typical encounter, scout Michael Apatiki reported that while he and his family were boating off St. Lawrence Island, he spotted what appeared to be a man in a wet suit. The frogman fled when he realized he had been seen, according to Apatiki’s report.

During the last few years, scouts also have found Soviet rubber rafts anchored under sand on the beaches, as well as a set of Russian batteries at a site inland, according to Sgt. Reynard Nichols, intelligence officer with the scout battalion that covers St. Lawrence Island.

War Games Scenario

Military officials said that some of the unidentified persons may be ivory pirates hunting walruses for their valuable tusks, but U.S. authorities were concerned enough about the prospect of Spetsnaz-type activity that the Alaska National Guard’s biennial “Brim Frost” statewide military exercises in 1986 were based on scenarios of small Soviet guerrilla attacks.

Most of the material that floats onto the beaches is garbage from ships of a dozen nations that pass through the Bering Sea. Occasionally, however, there is a significant military finding. A mask found recently on the shore provided valuable information about new chemical warfare agents being developed by the Soviets, military officials said.

The frequently nomadic life style of the Alaskan natives, as well as the isolation of their villages, create some problems for the military.

Distance and atmospheric phenomena such as the aurora borealis often make radio communications unreliable. Some findings and sightings may go unreported for months because it is so difficult to contact the scouts, particularly when they are miles from their villages at summer hunting and fishing camps.

Radio Stations Help

One commander sometimes asks commercial radio stations to broadcast a request that a particular scout telephone headquarters collect. “Sometimes he gets the message, and sometimes he doesn’t,” the officer said.

Modern technology has eased some of the distance problems and other handicaps. Snow machines, called snowmobiles in the Lower 48, have replaced dog sleds as preferred ground transportation. For larger troop movements, all-terrain vehicles pull long lines of scouts, M-16 rifles slung over their backs and skis strapped to their boots. Many scouts, particularly those on the islands nearest the Soviet Union, have been issued night-vision equipment for surveillance.

Other changes imposed on the scouts are less welcome. One of the most controversial issues is the National Guard’s new requirement that all officers earn college degrees by 1991 to qualify for promotions to major or above. Eskimo officials said the rules are exacerbating an already serious lack of native officers.

“Formal education is low on the list of priorities,” said 3rd Scout Battalion training officer Wipperman. “It does not contribute significantly” to the survival skills of hunting and fishing.

The 1st Scout Battalion based in Nome, for example, has only 14 college graduates among its more than 390 Eskimo members.

Non-Eskimo Officers

“We produce so few native officers we have to fill the slots from outside,” Schaeffer said.

According to Wipperman, this has created an almost colonial system of outsiders leading native Eskimo troops that has caused resentment in some units. Lt. Gen. Herbert Temple, the National Guard Bureau chief who ordered the new education standards, said he will consider granting temporary waivers to some Eskimos who cannot meet the deadline.

For many young Eskimos, participation in the National Guard historically has brought relief from the boredom of long winters and, more importantly, provided significant income. The $2,400 to $3,000 a young enlisted scout earns in a year can almost double his family’s income The region is so poor that in the 1st Scout Battalion, which includes Gambell, almost every member is eligible for federal food stamps, according to Maj. Fred Haynes, commander of the unit.

Visiting Doctor, Dentist

Many villages, such as Gambell and nearby Savoonga, are visited by a physician twice a year and a pharmacist, dentist and eye specialist once a year. Alcoholism and suicide rates are high in many villages, authorities said, but family counselors and psychologists visit only twice a year. Most supplies are brought to the villages by “cool barge” once a year.

The irreversible impact of a new era is bringing changes to most villages. Each year a few more young people, particularly women, go to college. More women are joining the National Guard. About 7% of the scouts are women who serve as radio operators and in other jobs.

The slowly increasing emphasis on education and emerging reliance on modern technology may mean a loss of some of the native-taught skills of the scouts valued so highly by the military.

“Now we’ll have to do some of the training that had been left up to the fathers and grandfathers,” Schaeffer said.