Castner’s Cutthroats


Jim Rearden’s book gives us an entertaining glimpse into
the Alaskan Scouts known as Castner’s Cutthroats.

Back in the early 1990s, I joined a military book club. You remember those. You were committed to lifetime membership, or you’d be banished to the portal of hell if you broke the code of acceptance. These clubs sold overrun books for pennies on the dollar, and then you had to buy at least one book a month from their selection list, consisting of the ‘non-popular’ books.

I’d obtained some good books at bargain prices and some not so good. One of the good ones, one that captured my imagination and sense of adventure, was “Castner’s Cutthroats.”

Alaskan Scouts celebrating after a victory.

Alaskan Scouts

The book is what I call “faction” — part fiction and part non-fiction. The author, Jim Rearden, did a wonderful job mixing the two. The story is about a small group of men known to become the Alaskan Scouts. Coming from all walks of life, they all had two things in common: they were all outdoorsmen, but more importantly, they were tough! They were comfortable being alone in the wilds of Alaska, knowing how to survive by fending for themselves. Made up of hunters, prospectors, trappers, hunting guides, commercial fishermen, miners, dog sledders and Alaskan Natives, these men were the precursor to today’s Special Forces.

The Scouts had the skills to survive the Alaskan backcountry, carrying their own provisions while catching crabs and fishing for food. They wore their own clothes, failed to wear any insignia as to who they were, and had relaxed grooming standards. There was no rank structure among the troops — they were equal to one another.

The group was trained by Maj. William Verbeck on how to attack and fight like commandos. Some carried Browning Automatic rifles, M1 Garands, but most carried their favorite hunting rifles and knives, along with .22 LR handguns. There was never a more effective rag-tag unit until this time.

The Scouts were rugged men who wore their own choice of clothes and gear.

Official Unit

The Alaskan Scouts officially became the 1st Combat Intelligence Platoon on November 19, 1941, weeks before the surprise attacks on Pearl Harbor. Castner handpicked every man under his command, and all of them shared a common trait.

“They all have one thing in common,” he said. “They’re tough.”

They had nicknames like Bad Whiskey Red, Aleut Pete and Waterbucket Ben, and they wore a hodgepodge of military and civilian gear when deployed. Their ruggedness quickly earned his men a nickname from the press that stuck, “Castner’s Cutthroats,” though the proud and humble men in the unit preferred Alaskan Scouts.


In 1935, the father of the U.S. Airforce, General William “Billy” Mitchell, when referring to Alaska, stated, “I think it is the most strategic place in the world.”

Less than 10 years later, Japanese forces would prove Gen. Mitchell right, believing Alaska’s Aleutian Islands would provide them with a huge strategic advantage. The Japanese thought holding the chain of Islands would prevent the U.S. Navy from reaching the islands of the South Pacific and provide airfields for launching attacks against Seattle and other U.S. targets.

A map of the Aleutian Island chain showing just
how vulnerable they are from the mainland.

Castner’s Idea

In 1940, a young Army officer, Major Lawrence Varsi Castner, was assigned to the Alaska Defense Command. He recognized the potential danger Alaska was in, knowing the area was vulnerable to invasion. Castner argued the need for a special commando force to defend the Alaska Territory in the event it was ever attacked. When presenting his case, his superiors agreed, and the Alaskan Scouts were on their way to being.

Castner’s father fought with a legendary Indigenous force in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War called the Tagalong Scouts. Castner wanted the same type of unit for Alaska. The cold, wet terrain provides a challenge most soldiers would prefer to avoid. Castner wanted/needed men familiar with the harshest elements Alaska provided.


The Aleutian Islands consist of craggily, rocky volcanic terrain. The island chain is in the northern Pacific, having the rough, frigid weather comparable to Quebec and Amsterdam. Its rocky coasts and high mountains are challenging in the best of times, yet almost unbearable with the cold, rainy, foggy weather it hosts most of the year provided by the Bering Sea.


On June 6th, 1942, the Japanese took control of Kiska Island and, on the 7th, Attu Island. On August 28th, 1942, two U.S. submarines surfaced with 37 Scouts (Cutthroats). Using five rubber rafts, they paddled over 4 miles through icy waters to reach shore. Facing no resistance, the Scouts quickly set up an airstrip on the island of Amchitka. U.S. planes began bombing Kiska shortly after.

On May 11, 1943, the Alaskan Scouts guided over 15,000 Allied troops onto the beaches of Attu to retake the island from more than 2,300 fortified Japanese soldiers.

When the Army regulars arrived, the Scouts provided intelligence to where the Japanese were. The fighting would eventually drive the Japanese back to their homeland. It was Castner’s Cutthroats who led the ground troops, chose beach landings, carried messages and provided the troops with food while fighting beside them.

The Scouts provided food for regular troops
during WWII with their skills.

Job Well Done

The Alaskan Scouts, Castner’s Cutthroats, more than anyone or anything else, saved the Aleutians from occupation and Seattle, Washington, impending attack from the Japanese. If you’re in need of some interesting reading, check out anything about the Alaskan Scouts or grab a copy of Jim Rearden’s “Castner’s Cutthroats.” I’m sure you’ll be glad you did.

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