By Jeff Brady
One hundred years ago in the summer of 1917, the world was at war and it had come to Skagway.
The town was about the same size as it is now, with about 1,000 residents, and they had been passionately following the ‘Great War’ in Europe for two years in the pages of the Daily Alaskan. They had read about Canadians just over the border from the Yukon and British Columbia who had been in the fight, while the United States sent supplies to aid the Allies overseas, but no troops. That policy changed in April after a series of sinkings of U.S. merchant and passenger ships by German U-boats.
President Woodrow Wilson called a special session of Congress on April 2 and presented a declaration of war resolution against Imperial Germany. The Senate and House passed the resolution, and the president signed it two days later. All over the country a patriotic fever emerged. Men were ready to enlist, women were ready to go to work, and it was suddenly dangerous to be a person from Germany or even a pacifist or union sympathizer. Even anti-war talk could get you in trouble.
The Daily Alaskan started running an Ame ican flag above its pro-war editorials, with the slogan, “America for Americans.” One asked everyone to fly “Old Glory.” Another editorial stated that “the die is cast” and time for analysis and discussion had passed; it was time to “support the president and be patriotic Americans.” Flags were unfurled all over town and new flag-staffs were erected by businesses. The town braced to get involved in the war effort in many ways.
Prior to the U.S. entering World War I, the only encounters Skagwayans, as they were called then, had with troops were social events with soldiers from Fort William H. Seward by Haines. They would come over on the boat Peterson to bowl or play basketball against local teams. The “soldier boys” had been more alert about pin totals than whether the Gateway City or the railroad could be a bomb target. Their mission was about to change.
Alaska was still a fairly young territory with ambitions for Home Rule and eventually statehood. It had a governor who was appointed by the president, and a lone delegate to Congress who had no vote. But Alaskans wanted to help, and within days Home Guards emerged in many Alaska cities at the urging of Governor J.F.A. Strong, a former Skagway newspaper editor.
An April 11 story said Skagway was ready to “get into the game” and form a Home Guard. It took a couple of weeks but a “Patriotic Rally” was called for April 30 (see graphic). On its front page the next day, the Alaskan reported, “Throbbing with the spirit of patriotism that marked men and women of revolutionary days, an audience that filled Elks hall to standing room only, listened to patriotic speeches and patriotic music last night and then while the hush of sober realization of the crisis confronting the country fell over the room, witnessed the offer of 74 men and boys of Skagway to form a Home Guard.”
More were encouraged to sign up for “home defense” so there would be enough for a full Army company, and when the Home Guard held its first official meeting two night later, the ranks had grown to 93. Elmer L. Wheeler, a retired Army sergeant and veteran of the Phillipines and Boxer wars, was elected Captain. Lieutenants Hansen and Gault had both fought in the Spanish-American War. A few days later, Sgt. Albert F. Bixby from Fort Seward came over and drilled 100 men at the Fire Hall. While awaiting real rifles, the men drilled weekly with wooden “dummies” churned out by the WP&YR rail shops. A Skagway Rifle Association was formed through the NRA to help the men attain rifles, since the War Department had none for home guards. The old Board of Trade would serve as an armory. The men would also join the Alpine Club on weekly hikes. In one report, the guards, “dressed in the olive drab and khaki of the fighting armies of Europe, made an attack in full force last night on Mt. Dewey.”
In their pledge of “home defense” to the community, the guards said they had “organized for the purpose of providing military defense to Skagway and immediate vicinity in case of necessity.” However, these home guards were not trusted to protect key infrastructure like the railroad. Soldiers from Fort Seward were assigned that duty, and a pair lived at Clifton Station and patrolled the tracks daily. That summer the post baseball team came to town and beat the White Pass Athletic Club team, but a serious matter emerged later in the year. Five men from the post’s 14th Infantry were court-martialed in San Francisco on Jan. 17, 1918 for plotting to blow up Fort Seward with dynamite “and to kill loyal members of their regiment as part of anarchistic plot.”
Meanwhile, the war raged on overseas. Residents were shocked to read about the parents of a Dawson City soldier on the front lines (a Mr. Harding) who had been wiped out in England by a bomb that was dropped by a German Zeppelin airship. Luckily, the soldier’s wife and daughter visiting from the Yukon were at her mother’s home and escaped the tragedy. In better news, an American ship sank its first German sub, but another U-boat in turn had sunk a British ship with 280 aboard.
At home, a Women’s Patriotic League answered the call for raising foodstuffs, and a Skagway Red Cross chapter was formed. Governor Strong said Alaska would help the troops abroad by raising more food. A Loyalty Garden committee headed up by V.I. Hahn, the railroad superintendent, urged every home in town to plant a garden, protecting liberty by “serving with a hoe or a rake.” The first Red Cross drive in town netted $905, earning chair Mrs. W. C. Blanchard praise from the Pacific coast field representative who stopped by on a visit later that summer. Her sister Esther Lovejoy was the first female lieutenant of the American Red Cross and would serve in France. Prior to Independence Day, a “Liberty Goddess” contest was held, and that honor went to Miss Lola McKay, who was the hit of the “glorious” 1917 Fourth of July parade.
A selective service draft was announced in the news the following day. A presidential proclamation called all males age 21 to 31 to register for the draft between July 9 and Sept. 2. Registration would take place at the Customs House in Skagway weekdays and at the offices of the city clerk Wednesday evenings and on the final night. A total of 1.37 million were expected to register nationwide, and 687,000 would be called. The quota in Alaska would be 696, and the first called would fill vacancies in the National Guard, a July 25 report stated. Registration in Skagway started slowly over the first week, with 39 registering, but grew to 81 by the deadline. Of those, 28 claimed an exemption for various reasons. Those who did not register were labeled “slackers” in the press and eventually would be arrested and jailed, though none were reported in patriotic Skagway.
While these men waited for months to see if they would make the final draft list, a few reports about Skagway enlisted men who had answered the “call to colors” as volunteers began appearing in the paper. In the July 14 “Society News” column, it was reported that Roy Mulvihill, son of W. J. Mulvihill, had left over the weekend on the Prince Rupert to join his company in the Coast Artillery, which would soon mobilize. “Young Mulvihill is the second Skagway boy to join the colors, the first to go was Clarence Pyke.” Roy Mulvihill would write a letter to the paper early in the new year about life at Fort Harrison, Montana, but their focus was less on going to war than dealing with striking I.W.W. workers and working guard duty for slackers. “Our chances of seeing active service seem to be slim,” he wrote. “We still hold out hopes of handling the business end of some of Uncle Sam’s new heavy field artillery in France before Kaiser Bill gives up the fight.”
Both of hotel entrepreneur Harriet Pullen’s sons had graduated from West Point and were U.S. Army officers, but it took some nudging to get them involved in the war. Alaska’s Delegate to Congress Charles A. Sulzer called on the Adjutant General to make use of the services of Alaskan officers, including Captain Dan Pullen, who was near the head of his class at West Point. Subsequently, 20 spots for Alaskans were allotted at the Presidio in San Fransisco for officers’ training. Dan, however, would go straight into training on the East Coast and receive the rank of Major as a tank commander on the front lines in France. His younger brother, Royal, would become a commissioned First Lieutenant at the Presidio.
That fall residents were focused on a shoe drive, sending 450 pairs of shoes for war refugees. There also was a big push to buy Liberty Bonds, and the total in Skagway from that first sale was $33,500.
In early September, the first American casualties were reported after the bombing of a U.S. hospital in Paris, and General John J. Pershing ordered the start of daily casualty reports. Thankfully, none would hit home in Skagway until the end of the war.
On October 25, 1917, the Daily Alaskan printed the first official draft list. The paper noted Royal Pullen was excluded from the list, as he had already enlisted, and Bert McKenzie was removed because he had died in a tragic railroad accident with his father that summer, when their engine was hit by a rockslide.
Number 19 on the list was Vincent Tony Dortero, known locally as “Happy.” He had been in the news earlier that summer after suffering from a badly sprained hand, “the result of getting in the way of a fast coming base ball.” But he also was an enterprising young man who had talked his father, Tony senior, a tobacco merchant, into setting up the son in business. In late November the family celebrated the wedding of Vincent’s sister Rose to David Stevenson, son of a railroad conductor.
It was a record cold winter, with the temperature on Christmas nearing minus-30 in the midst of a Red Cross membership campaign. In its 1918 New Year’s edition, the Alaskan regaled in the glory of Skagway as if war was the farthest thing from everyone’s mind. “Romantic Skagway appeals to Tourists,” one headline crowed, and there were thumbnail sketches of many local businesspersons. Vincent Dortero was among them. He had come to Skagway in 1903 with his family and attended the local school for six years and was now running his business, Dortero & Sons, “handling a large clothing trade.”
The first letter from a Skagway boy stationed in France was published on February 4, 1918. Private E. Matthews was with the 50th Canadian Infantry and was “dragging along” after suffering from being gassed, but his platoon had recently won a shooting contest and earned a wonderful Christmas dinner of turkey and dressing, roast pork, mashed potatoes, and fruitcake. “It was certainly great to what we have been used to,” he wrote.
Later that month, the Alaskan on Feb. 19 published a new draft list “in the order in which they will be called.” Even though he was now number 24 on the list, Vincent Dortero had made some decisions. He announced in his ad in the same paper that Dortero & Son would be “Retiring from Business” after seven years. The business advertised bargains weekly over the next two months and then closed on April 12. An article in the Alaskan stated that young Dortero was looking to set up in Astoria, Oregon after his pending service.
“In a lot of ways I regret leaving the north, but I think that I will do better in Astoria, and if I am drafted, I will be foot free to give all my thoughts to helping Uncle Sam win from the Germans,” Dortero told the paper.
The draft quota for Skagway was trimmed to 15 men that spring, but it was noted that six had already enlisted. Of those remaining nine, Dortero was one of those called and he reported to Fort Seward that May with 238 of the 696 who had been “called to colors” from the Alaska draft rolls.
Over the next few months, during their initial military training, the drafted Alaskans waited for further deployments. When given the chance, local organizations like the Eagles and Elks would invite the soldiers over to Skagway for farewell dances.
Others on the list who had been in the Lower 48 were sent to forts right away. Rudolph Richard Bradenthaler had been inducted at Camp Lewis and assigned to the 71st Division Officers’ Training Corps. On May 10, writing from Fort Jackson, South Carolina to the Local Draft Board No. 7 in Skagway, he said he would be leaving for France “almost any day” and was trying to reach another Skagway boy named “Bonebreak” in the camp. Another boy, John Blanchard, wrote to Captain Wheeler of the Home Guard on July 23, from “Somewhere in France.” After landing at a port, they were taken by train to the front and marched into an old French village that had been in German hands. “Occasionally a shell would come shrieking along and burst nearby, continually reminding us that we were not on a pleasure trip,” he wrote. He said they were being fed well but would strip down to just fighting gear soon for their next move. He was one of a million U.S. soldiers chasing the “Huns” back to their German homeland that fall, but there were heavy casualties in places like St. Mihiel Salient, where more than 10,000 Americans died. Major Dan Pullen, according to his mother’s biography, was a hero of the battle of Bois-de-Cuisy in France on September 26. After the war, he would receive the U.S. Distinguished Service Cross and other awards from France and Belgium. Pullen was wounded in the shoulder by a shell fragment in October.
Back in Alaska, the “farewell” to the soldiers from Fort Seward lasted much longer. Weekly dances for the boys of the 14th Infantry were held into early September, but Major White wrote to Tony Dortero that the dances would have to stop due to fuel shortages. The war economy was taking its toll. Alaska sockeye salmon caught that summer were heading to the troops, the Red Cross was rounding up old clothing, another round of Liberty Bonds were sold, and a new draft was called that fall for even more men.
It’s not certain from the pages of the Alaskan when Vincent Dortero shipped south, but a new threat had emerged late that summer which would impact the nation and hit home locally as well. The Spanish influenza was reported in East coast training camps in mid-September. By early October it was in Seattle, and later that month there were reports of the flu in Juneau and among a few passengers on ships heading north to Alaska. The SS Princess Sophia was one, and it had quarantined some passengers when it landed here on October 23. That night it sailed with a full load of mostly Yukoners heading south for the winter. Overnight, it encountered a blinding snowstorm near Juneau and slammed into Vanderbilt Reef. On the afternoon of Oct. 25, while still waiting out the storm in order to transfer passengers safely to relief boats, the Sophia broke apart. All aboard, more than 350, perished in the worst marine disaster ever on the West coast. Not among them was a family, the Thompsons, who had decided not to sail for fear of their children catching the flu.
As Skagway and the region grieved for friends lost on the Princess Sophia, some very sad news came from the Lower 48. Private Vincent Tony Dortero had died of the Spanish flu at Fort Dodge in Des Moines, Iowa on October 27. “Happy, as he was known to countless friends through the northland, was a Skagway boy,” the Alaskan reported under his photo on Oct. 29. He was 28 years old. A member of Company A, 14th U.S. Infantry at Fort Seward, he had recently been transferred to the states. His body would be shipped home.
“Vincent Dortero is the first Skagway boy to give his life for his country,” the Alaskan lamented, “and while the honor was not his to be overseas when the supreme sacrifice was made, the sacrifice was not one whit less than had he died on the battlefield of the Great World War. He had done his duty and the management of this paper joins with the many friends in extending to the bereaved parents and relatives their heartfelt sympathy in this, their time of sorrow.”
After Dortero’s body arrived in Skagway, funeral services were held on November 17, 1918 at the Arctic Brotherhood Hall, where he had been a member. Graveside services at Skagway’s Pioneer Cemetery were conducted by the members of Eagles Aerie No. 25. As taps were played and the coffin was consigned to the ground, the paper noted that, “The loss of his son has born heavily on the father, Tony Dortero, and his grief found a responding chord in every heart.”
Vincent would be the only Skagway casualty of the Great War, which ended on November 11, 1918 with the surrender of all Central armies and abdication of the German throne by Kaiser Wilhelm. Other soldiers from Fort Seward were inflicted with the flu, including Sgt. Bixby, who was with his troops in Iowa, and survived. Upon arrival at Fort Dodge, the Alaskan boys had been transferred to the Supply Company, 85th Infantry and were not expected to go to war. In a letter to the Alaskan dated Nov. 12, Bixby said his boys’ resistance to the disease had been lowered by the two weeks of traveling and lack of sleep in the cold weather on the trip to Iowa. “We were unable to put up the right kind of fight against the flu than we otherwise would have done,” he wrote. The war over, and after seeing enough of the “outside,” he said they were ready to come back to Alaska.
Headlines in December noted that the flu was finally subsiding and thousands of “Sammies” (U.S. soldiers) were heading home.
Alaskan writer Jeff Brady is the editor of the book, Skagway: City of the New Century.
• Daily Alaskan, April 1917 to December 1918.
• The Queen of the Heartbreak Trail: The Life and Times of Harriet Smith Pullen, Eleanor Phillips Brackbill, Twodot Books, 2016.
• Alaska, a History of the 49th State, Claus-M. Naske & Herman E Slotnick, University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.