Operation Washtub: How Alaskans Were Trained in a Top Secret ‘Stay-Behind’ Program During the Cold War

June 25, 2020Matt Fratus
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OSI’s “Alaska Project” prepared for the possibility of a Russian invasion. Its main features were training observers and setting up stores of supplies in the rugged Alaskan wilderness. These scenes depict daily life for agents in Alaska. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.

The Soviet Union and the United States may have been allies during World War II, but during the 1950s, the two nations were in the midst of the Cold War, a stand-off between two of the world’s most influential superpowers that had both nations threatening nuclear annihilation. While the Atomic Energy Commission tested nuclear weapons in the deserts of Nevada, a stone’s throw from Las Vegas, the FBI and the U.S. Air Force were up to their own tricks to protect the homeland from a possible Soviet invasion. 

The top-secret joint effort planned by the FBI’s Edgar J. Hoover and former FBI official Joseph F. Carroll formed the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI). The OSI trained a “stay-behind” agent program called Operation Washtub. In 2014, the Air Force unclassified 704 documents about the operation that ran from 1951 to 1959. 

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A letter to J. Edgar Hoover assigning the name “washtub” to the operation, part of the declassified documents on the operation.

According to the documents, “The plan is to provide for an organization within Alaska designed to obtain, collect, and transmit, such intelligence information as may be of value to the United States in the event that Alaska or a part thereof is invaded and occupied by armed forces of the enemy.” 

Alaska was a Russian colony during the 18th century before it was purchased for $7.2 million in 1867 by the United States. American strategists, knowing the Russians had inside knowledge of the territory, had a real concern that the Soviet Union may use the territory as an entry point for a possible invasion. 

“The military believes that it would be an airborne invasion involving bombing and the dropping of paratroopers,” one FBI memo said, according to the Associated Press. The agents in the stay-behind program, however, were to have no known ties to the military or an intelligence service. They consisted entirely of civilians — fishermen, bush pilots, trappers, and other Americans who had established livelihoods, who were positioned around strategic Alaskan towns and villages such as Fairbanks, Kodiak, Anchorage, and several others. 

Operation washtub coffee or die
OSI’s “Alaska Project” prepared for the possibility of a Russian invasion. Its main features were training observers and setting up stores of supplies in the rugged Alaskan wilderness. These scenes depict daily life for agents in Alaska. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.

The unclassified records estimate the average age for an agent was 50 years old. Most of their names remain redacted, including one agent who formerly worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and another who was a dockman for Northern Stevedoring Company. The most famous name that was rumored to play a part in the classified mission was Bob Reeve, a historic glacier bush pilot who is considered one of Alaska’s most accomplished pilots.

“Bob Reeve pioneered glacier flying and proved the airplane offered the key to the future of Alaska,” said Jimmy Doolittle, the mastermind behind the World War II Doolittle’s Raid. “He learned the hard way about flying in the below zero weather and he shared his secrets with the military and brother commercial pilots. He risked everything he owned many times to drop supplies to stranded miners or to go in and get them out when they were hurt and needed a doctor and there was no other way. Bob shrugged off the heroics and told them that it was all in a day’s work. Maybe it was, but in those days every flight Bob made was an aviation milestone and in some important way influenced the history of Alaska.”

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Bob Reeve was one of the most accomplished glacier bush pilots in Alaska’s state history. Bush pilots were the perfect prospects for the covert “stay-behind” program because they had reasoning for being in remote areas. Photo courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage

The FBI suggested agents should be trained and to assume cover stories with pretexts and deception. The agents were flown to Seattle for training and were given instruction on encoding and decoding messages, surreptitious photography, methods of interrogation and recruitment of informants, and the necessary skills to lead a guerrilla force in the remote winter climates they lived in. The initial pool of potential agents numbered as high as 40,000, according to the FBI documents, although only 89 were believed to be selected. They were paid $3,000 for their involvement.

Their equipment was located in pre-staged areas, hidden in caves, perched above the frozen tundra tucked away within the trees, or buried underground. Inside these supply caches were weapons like a small-caliber automatic pistol “fitted with a maximum-type silencer” and a .30-’06 semiautomatic rifle with a telescopic sight. The equipment included 150 feet of climbing rope with crampons and petons, snow shoes, commercial skis, explosives to erase evidence of the cache, $500 in gold or silver coins to use for bartering, and other survival equipment one would typically need in a freezing cold, snowy environment. 

Since the Soviet Union never went through with potential plans to invade the mainland United States, the operation came to a close in 1959. Although the operation has since been declassified, there are still many unanswered questions as to the identities of the agents who selflessly stepped up when their country asked them to.

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

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