Sunday, January 18, 2009

A War of Words; The U S Army vs. the Alaska Game Commission

by Stephen Dennis, For the Fairbanks News-Miner
Published Sunday, January 18, 2009

The big war came to Alaska on December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor Day. But a much smaller Alaska conflict actually began five months earlier. This little known war, over the issuance of hunting licenses, was fought with bombast, not bombs, and words, not bullets. It was a war between the U. S. Army and the Alaska Game Commission and, given the passion and rhetoric displayed, it is hard to believe they worked for the same government!

Like many wars, this one started innocently enough when Withers Tolbert of the 4th Infantry Division at Ladd Field (now Fort Wainwright) was denied a resident hunting license in July of 1941. At the time the fee for a resident license was one dollar per year compared to fifty dollars for a non-resident license. With starting pay in the Army a meager $21 per month, the denial of access to a resident license was tantamount to denying the young soldiers the right to hunt at all.

Despite Tolbert’s pleas for reconsideration the rock solid bureaucrats at the Alaska Game Commission, a Federal agency, would not budge. He was a soldier. He was different. To receive a resident license a civilian simply had to declare that Alaska was his home and that he had been in the Territory for one year. However, since all servicemen were from somewhere else, in Alaska by order of the Army, they were not eligible to claim residency regardless of how long they had been in the Territory.

The license skirmish might have ended there had it not caught the attention of Lt. Marvin Walseth, the Adjutant at Ladd Field. A Minnesota hunter himself, he viewed the Commission’s actions as an affront to the U. S. Army and the hundreds of servicemen that were pouring into the Territory in those days. He decided to launch a frontal assault. On July 23rd he applied for a resident license at the Fairbanks office of the Commission pointing out, in writing, that he had been in Alaska for over a year, he owned land and he planned to make Alaska his home. It seemed like an open shut case. It wasn’t.

He was refused a license and the war of words began. It is unclear who said what to whom during the following two weeks but on August 4th, in his role as Adjutant, Walseth advised the Commission’s Fairbanks office that Lt. Col Dale Gaffney, Ladd Field’s Commanding Officer, was banning all Commission personnel from Ladd. Existing gate passes were to be returned and, in the future, game agents could only visit Ladd Field with special permission and under escort. The action was taken “…Because personnel of the Alaska Game Commission have made erroneous statements that are not conducive of goodwill to the Military Forces…”

This action must have been awkward for Walseth since one of the Fairbanks game agents, Sam White, was personnel friend. White had dined with the Walseth’s on several occasions and sent them a book on Alaska as a wedding present. White and Walseth had also flown together on trips to the back country. But for now White and his associates were banned from the Field.

The word battle in Fairbanks must have made waves in the system because the Commission soon rolled out their big gun from Juneau in the form of Frank Dufresne, the head of the Commission. Dufresne turned out to be their secret weapon. He was a bureaucrat among bureaucrats. Never giving an inch of ground he could write the kindest letters expression sympathy over the plight of the soldiers who wanted to hunt and then, in the end, blame Congress who made the rules. His job was simply to enforce them. He claimed he wanted to help but his hands were tied.

As to Walseth’s apparently foolproof application, it was reviewed by Dufresne and denied again on August 20th. Dufresne claimed that living at Ladd Field was different from living in Alaska for residency purposes and referred Walseth to a copy of the Alaska Game Law, which was written by Congress in far off Washington D. C.

Both sides now resorted to a war of attrition, hoping to wear the other side down. Letters and radiograms were tossed back and forth, between Juneau and Fairbanks, like live grenades. Dufresne would explain why no variance from the rules was ever permitted. Then Walseth would provide him with examples of exceptions that had been made by Dufresne’s agents. For example, Walseth named three members of the Signal Corp who had been granted resident licenses though no more qualified than Walseth and Tolbert. Why, he asked, were these touted rules not being applied uniformly? Further, why could any civilian just walk into a Commission office, claim his was a resident and walk out with a license with few questions asked? Were there different rules for civilians, Signal Corp personnel and the rest of the Army?

Dufresne was a master of doublespeak and, for each rule exception Walseth cited, he had an explanation for the apparent inconsistencies. Reading the correspondence today one can understand Walseth’s frustration. Dufresne’s rationalizations were weak and inconsistent but he would not budge from his prepared position. In this war of words it was clear that the Commission was well supplied. With hunting season approaching, Walseth needed to try a new approach, his wife.

Walseth knew that a number of Signal Corp spouses had received resident licenses. The Commission claim that Army personnel were different from others in Alaska would not stand up with her. She was clearly a civilian. So Phyllis Walseth applied for her first hunting license. A day later her application was denied and her dollar returned. It was time for another radiogram.
On August 30th Walseth launched a searing radiogram missile at Dufresne citing several Signal Corp wives, similar to his own, who had received resident licenses. Walseth felt this license denial and the Commission’s regular shoddy treatment of Army personnel was reprehensible. He closed the message with “…It may appear that I seem provoked concerning this. If so, that is quite right. For your information court proceedings have been started and though it may take some time, it is now up to the court to make final settlement.”

Since the Fairbanks office of the Game Commission had escalated the fight by pushing the matter to their Juneau headquarters, in the form of Frank Dufresne, it was time for the U. S. Army to do the same. Walseth turned to the head of the Alaska Defense Forces, General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr.

Under normal circumstances a lowly First Lieutenant in Fairbanks would not be on speaking terms with a General Officer in Anchorage. But during the 1940 defense build-up in Alaska nothing was quite normal. Walseth had met with Buckner on many occasions when the General visited Ladd Field and had served as his pilot on several trips to the interior. During one of the General’s visits to Ladd the lieutenant surprised his young wife by bringing Buckner home for dinner.

Walseth and Gaffney, the Ladd Field commander, contacted the General and received an enthusiastic response. Buckner commanded a growing corps of low paid troops who would be living in a high cost Territory. Hunting would be an activity they could afford which would boost morale and keep them out of trouble. Additionally he no doubt saw the inherent inequity in the contradictory treatment of civilians, Signal Corp and Army personnel.

On September 19th Buckner made application for a resident license before Game Commission representative, Jack O’Connor. He attested to the fact that he had resided in Alaska for one year, that he was domiciled there, voted there and intended to stay there. O’Connor refused to issue the license.

Buckner then turned to Federal District Court in Anchorage. O’Connor and the Game Commission were named in a suit. The general sought an order from the court directing O’Connor to issue the license. At that point a game of cat and mouse ensued. When Buckner’s attorney sought to serve O’Connor with the suit he was nowhere to be found. Where he disappeared to was a mystery likely encouraged by Dufresne at headquarters.

At first the Commission simply ignored the proceedings as if Federal Courts didn’t matter to them. Upon hearing the case the judge concluded the license should be issued and called for a second hearing. Concerned over the direction the case was going the Commission finally came forward to denounce the entire proceeding and claim the court did not have jurisdiction over the matter in the first place.

On October 2nd the court reconvened and ruled on all the matters. First, it did have jurisdiction. That dealt with the Commission’s argument. Second, should Buckner receive a license? The answer was a resounding yes. The court found that if an applicant met the requirements of the law, including the residency test, the Commission staff had no right to use discretion to treat some applicants differently from others. That was the very point that Walseth had been arguing for weeks. It appeared that a clear cut victory for the Army was at hand. It was not to be so.

O’Connor refused to appear in his office so Buckner could apply for a license. A U. S. Marshal was dispatched to find him and bring him in. When the errant O’Connor was brought in Buckner presented him with a completed license application and the one dollar fee. O’Connor again refused to issue the license. He then left the office. Court was reconvened and the judge issued an order finding the game commission employee in contempt of court. Once again the Marshal was called, this time to arrest O’Connor. An hour later everyone but O’Connor was back in court. The empty handed marshal explained that his quarry had escaped by going to Fort Richardson where the marshal had no jurisdiction to make an arrest. Essentially a government employee had escaped apprehension by another government employee by escaping to a government reservation!

Undeterred the judge ordered the clerk of the court to issue the hunting license to Buckner in O’Connor’s name. O’Connor would be dealt with at a later time.

Any celebration of victory by Army personnel was short lived. Dufresne would have nothing to do with the judges ruling. His position was made clear in a front page article in the October 7th, 1941 Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. First, the Commission had no objection to Buckner’s license; they just did not recognize it as valid and planned to appeal the ruling. Second, the ruling only applied to Buckner, not to any other Army personnel. The Commission would not issue licenses to other soldiers. Finally, showing what a kind hearted bureaucrat he was, Dufresne said he would continue his efforts to change the law. In the meantime Buckner could hunt alone.
As the article further pointed out,…”[we know how Dufresne] feels about $1 game-shooting privileges for members of the agency assigned by the government to protect the Territory’s soil and human population…”

An editorial in the November 1941 Alaska Sportsman expressed sympathy for the soldier’s plight. “It is manifestly unfair, however, to deny a soldier who gives his time to the service of his country, the rights, such as that of hunting, which other citizens enjoy, when he has complied with the same requirements as the civilian.”

So who won the battle for the license? In the short run you would have to say that the bureaucrats beat the Army. In the sometimes virulent war of words the veteran Dufresne had a clear advantage over young Lt. Walseth. Sitting behind his volumes of regulations with years of double talk experience he was a formidable opponent.

More important matters would soon consume the military in the Territory and passion for the hunting license dispute would wane. Just two months after the judge issued his ruling Alaska changed forever with the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The participants in the license battle moved on. General Buckner went on to distinguish himself in the defense of Alaska but later lost his life in the 1945 battle for Okinawa. In July of 1942 Lieutenant, then Major, Walseth lost his life when his B-17 crashed in the Aleutians returning from a flight over Japanese held Kiska. Gaffney stayed in Alaska and played a significant role in the management of the Northwest Staging Route which transited warplanes from the lower 48 through Ladd Field for delivery to our Russian allies. Bureaucratic history has consumed the stories of the Game Commission participants.

In the many years that have passed the military has continued to play a significant role in Alaska. Today members of the armed forces are afforded the same hunting privileges as civilians, Walseth’s goal in the first place. State officials are clearly kinder to the military than the 1941 Federal employees of the Game Commission. So, in the end, perhaps the efforts of those license warriors in 1941 were not in vain.

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