The Alaska Project - An Underground Spy Network

  • Published
  • By Dr. Deborah Kidwell
  • OSI Command Historian

In the tenuous early days of the Cold War, the potential for military conflict with the Soviet Union and the spread of communism were important factors that shaped United States military policy and operations. The fear of communist aggression reached a feverish pitch when Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee launched the campaign to reveal the infiltration of communists in the U.S. government.  During this time, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the United States Air Force looked toward Alaska as a crucial strategic location in the event of war with the Soviets. 

On October 18, 1948, the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, now the Office of Special Investigations (OSI), opened a detachment at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Ak.  OSI agents planned to use Alaska’s proximity to the Soviet Union to their country’s advantage. In the event of war, Alaska would serve as a major staging ground for attacks, but it could also potentially be invaded. The FBI and OSI began a joint venture which eventually became known as the “Alaska Project.” A primary feature of the plan was to train civilians to serve as Stay Behind Agents (SBAs), who would serve as operatives of an underground intelligence network should the Soviets invade.  

Work on the project began in March 1950.  Maj. Joseph J. Cappucci, a veteran counterintelligence (CI) agent and chief of OSI’s Special Activities Branch in Washington, D.C., was named the chief coordinator for the project. He immediately met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff  to convince them to expand the project. In addition to the SBA underground network, Maj. Cappucci envisioned a plan that involved escape and evasion (E&E) routes that led to safe houses, scattered throughout the Alaskan wilderness, for downed U.S. Airmen.

Ultimately, two operations came out of Cappucci’s plan. One focused on the recruitment, training and ongoing support of the local residents as SBAs. The other involved the construction and equipping of survival caches along established E&E routes, and the recruitment, training and support of local civilians who could take downed Airmen into their homes. Cappucci wanted only the most highly trained special agents to serve in Alaska, so he assigned top agents from the Special Activities Branch who then reported to the icy tundra for this top secret mission.

The local SBAs went through an arduous screening process to ensure they were loyal, patriotic Americans who would support the US mission in a time of war.  They came from a wide variety of backgrounds, everything from wealthy prospectors to bush pilots. In the beginning of the operation, the SBAs were sent to Washington, D.C. for training, leaving many Alaskans to wonder why some of their neighbors were being sent to the continental U.S. for weeks at a time. OSI and the SBAs had to keep their mission a secret from the community, which was difficult to do in small towns where everyone tended to know each other well and when neighbors were asked to provide background information on those selected. Eventually the training was moved back to Alaska.

OSI got a lucky break when its agents were recruiting SBAs for the E&E sanctuary mission. They found Catholic Jesuit priests working in northern Alaska who could serve as team leaders for this mission. With the permission of the regional bishop, the priests were allowed to aid downed Airmen as long as their work was a purely humanitarian effort and not a spy mission. The priests would serve a pivotal role in the survival of endangered Airmen in the event of war.

In the fall of 1951, the FBI handed over the entire project to OSI. Maj. Bill Mann was sent from OSI Headquarters to Alaska to assume operations as the Deputy Director for Special Operations. One of the main duties during that time was the construction of the E&E caches throughout Alaska. The typical cache was a log cabin, set on stilts about 10 feet above the ground. The stilts protected the supplies inside each cache from being destroyed by animals. They also made gaining access to the caches much easier, since the doors wouldn’t be blocked by several feet of snow. Each hut had survival materials such as food, skis, snowshoes, medicine, clothing, sleeping bags, weapons and ammunition. OSI originally planned to construct about 200 of these survival huts, but adverse weather conditions and challenging terrain scaled down those numbers dramatically.

Almost all of the caches were completed by 1953, but some needed repairs due to weather damage. By fall 1953, the project focused on giving its OSI personnel and SBAs refresher courses. OSI had recruited nearly 100 SBAs, but the numbers were in excess of project requirements and some agents were debriefed and let go.

By summer 1956, officials decided to end the project due to its high cost and the ever-changing role of the Special Activities Branch in possible nuclear warfare. Agents spent the next year removing the rifles, snowshoes and skis from the caches. They left hermetically sealed food rations and gasoline inside, just in case downed Airmen or bush pilots needed the supplies. Agents marked the caches with bright yellow signs for easy identification in emergency situations. By mid-1957, Project Alaska was officially deactivated, and OSI turned the caches over to the 5004th Air Intelligence Squadron for future maintenance. After two years, the government abandoned all connection to the survival caches, which were taken over by the harsh winter climate.

Although the U.S. did not go to war with the Soviets in the early 1950s and the project was eventually abandoned, during the time it was one of OSI’s most significant operations.  Planning and executing these activities laid the groundwork for other Special Activities operations and was a training opportunity for some OSI leaders. Agents made a film (circa 1953) showing some of the caches in the wilderness and the interview process used when screening locals for SBA positions. Maj. Bill Mann, who worked on the project in 1951, became one of OSI’s first Hall of Fame inductees in 1998. Maj. Cappucci became OSI’s 6th director in 1964, and a young second lieutenant, Roy C. Tucker, served in Alaska in the early 1950s and went on to become OSI’s 8th commander in 1975.