Nome’s military history began even before the town was incorporated, and continued through the Cold War into the 1970s.
When thousands of gold miners descended on Nome, they found just about every prospect already claimed. Many had staked their entire fortunes on the trip. Jealousy and desperation led to shady dealings, claim jumping and legal wrangling to take the claims from the “Three Lucky Swedes” on the basis of their nationality. Soldiers from nearby Fort St. Michael were called in to help keep the peace.
Fort Davis was later constructed three miles east of Nome at the mouth of the Nome River. It included barracks, an icehouse, coal house, stables, bakery, gymnasium, hospital, magazine, bath and pump house – even its own cemetery. More than 130 soldiers were posted here to keep law and order during the gold rush years, from 1900 to 1918, when it was abandoned. Photos from the time show the soldiers on skis, as that was an efficient way for them to get through the deep snows of winter. New infantry groups came in regularly to relieve previous groups, arriving and leaving by steamship. Troops participated in 4th of July parades down Front Street, and gave music concerts as well. Before and after the military presence there, the Fort Davis location was a popular summer fish camp, where families would harvest, process and dry fish. Today it is locally-owned private property referenced by locals as “Fort Davis fish camp.” It has all but been abandoned again due to poor salmon runs.
World War II
When you fly into the Nome Airport, you’re right on the site of the former Marks Air Force Base (formerly Marks Air Field), in operation from 1940 to 1950. During World War II, the fear of attack on the mainland was great, especially after Dutch Harbor was bombed in June of 1942. Later that month, reports of a Japanese fleet in the Bering Sea precipitated a great build-up of troops, all within a 36-hour period. Nearly 2,300 airmen were hastily assembled in Nome, along with several tons of equipment and supplies.
Russian soldiers were a common site in Nome during World War II, as they were shuttling planes from the Lower 48, through Fairbanks, Nome, and ultimately to battle on the Western front. Approximately 10,000 aircraft came through Nome through the Lend Lease program.
Hometown boy turned World War II hero, Jimmy Doolittle made Nome proud with his aviation accomplishments, including leading the 1942 raid on Tokyo after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. In a 1989 speech, President Reagan said, “We’ve got to teach history based not on what's in fashion, but what's important: Why the pilgrims came here, who Jimmy Doolittle was, and what those 30 seconds over Tokyo meant." Doolittle had spent his formative years in Nome, from 1900 to 1908, while his father was trying his hand at gold mining. His independence, courage and competitive nature (setting multiple trans-continental aviation records) were attributed to being raised in the rough and tumble environment of gold-rush era Nome.
The Distant Early Warning, or DEW line, was a series of military radar sites constructed around the Arctic Circle to detect the first sign of any Soviet missile attack. The 60-foot “White Alice” antennas relayed information from the DEW line on down to the Lower 48. The advent of satellite technology in the 1970s led to the deactivation of the White Alice sites, and Nome’s antennas are the last remaining from that system. Today they dominate the city skyline, serving as an important historical marker and navigational aid.
Connecting with Nome’s military past
- Visit the Carrie M. McLain Memorial Museum.
- Drive three miles up Teller road to Satellite Field and see the 1944 T-hangar, Higgins boats, and 6-inch guns.
- Drive up to the White Alice site and check out the Cold War era antennas.
- Check out the Nome Nugget building on Front Street. After the 1934 fire destroyed the town’s business section, including the Nome Nugget office, the guardhouse from Fort Davis was moved to Front Street to serve as the new home of the “oldest newspaper in Alaska.” (It probably wasn’t salmon-colored at the time, though!)
Drive the Nome-Council road to the Nome River Bridge and look out at Fort Davis (the line of buildings that hugs the coastline).