My uncle F. S. Pettyjohn Jr. was born in 1915 in a sod house on the White River of South Dakota, just north of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. When his mother, Mary MacNamara Pettyjohn died after giving birth to her ninth child, he quarreled with his father, and left home at the age of twelve.
In 1941 he was an Army Sergeant stationed in Cut and Shoot, Texas. When a new paratroop division was formed in 1942, the 82nd Airborne, he was an original member. By the end of the war, 90% of these soldiers were casualties. He fought from North Africa to Berlin, jumping at Anzio, Normandy, and Holland.
The Holland jump was part of Operation Market Garden, and the 82nd was surrounded by SS units of the Wehrmacht for eleven days. They were saved when the Canadians broke through to rescue them.
When he came to Alaska after the war he was known simply as Pettyjohn, as he was in the army. After re-upping for the Korean War, he came back to Alaska. He prospected, and in 1952 succeeded in locating the McLaren River copper deposit, which was subsequently thoroughly explored. Low copper prices prevented it from being developed.
In the early 1950’s he was part of Tennessee Miller’s road construction crew which built an ice and snow road from Fairbanks to the North Slope. This road was for supplies needed for the construction of the Distant Early Warning Line of radar sites. Prior to the pipeline, the DEW line was the biggest construction project in Alaska, and was completed in 1959.
While on the North Slope he met and worked with the local Inupiat, and got to know them well, and to admire them. He liked their toughness, and their sense of humor. He never forgot their primitive living conditions, and their ingenuity and resourcefulness.
He’d been wounded out a couple times during the war, and his body bore the scars of combat. But the worse scars were in his mind, and he drank excessively, and was a violent man. He was 5′ 10″, 245 pounds, with a 53 inch chest, and the main reason he wasn’t behind bars was because of the respect that law enforcement had for his war record.
In the mid 1950’s he returned to South Dakota and married his first cousin, Helen Mary Mitchell, who was one quarter Oglala Sioux. For her, he quit drinking, and they ran a roadhouse midway on the Richardson Highway. He became the host of an Anchorage morning television show, “Breakfast in Bedlam”.
Later he wrote and published “Alaskana”, a complimentary newspaper supported by ads. It was given to passengers flying to Alaska, and distributed to schools. It was the story of Alaska, and its Natives, from the earliest days. He wrote most of the stories himself, and was a talented writer.
He continued prospecting, and made a living selling his claims to people wanting to have the right to build a cabin in the Alaska bush. Any amount of gold was a legal discovery, and he could find gold anywhere.
His passion was the Natives of America, and his intention was that they be treated fairly and respectfully. His wife, Helen Mary, had a steady income as a secretary for the Federal Aviation Administration, and when they bought a nice home in south Anchorage he paid for a portrait artist to show him in a full Oglala Sioux costume.
Pettyjohn claimed to be part Native American, but it wasn’t true. His mother was the daughter of Irish immigrants, and his father could trace his ancestors back to Virginia in 1635. He had no Indian blood, but the portrait of him as a Sioux Indian hung above his fireplace.
Like Pettyjohn, I am named for his father, and I came to Alaska to meet him in 1969. After going to law school I returned with my wife Babbie in 1974, with an intention of becoming a United States Senator. I figured I’d have a hard time ever raising any money, so I decided to get into the state legislature and make a name for myself as the most conservative politician in the state.
I worked on the Reagan campaign in 1976, and came to the attention of Bill McConkey, who was running Gov. Jay Hammond’s reelection campaign. He asked me to come to work on the campaign, which I was glad to do.
Right before the August primary against Hickel and Fink, Bill asked me to form an imaginary volunteer group, Hands for Hammond. He then asked me to issue a press release, in which I accused Wally Hickel of running for governor as a stepping stone to the White House. My uncle had told me that Hickel looked down on the Natives, so I was happy to do it.
The Anchorage Daily News was in on the plot, and ran a big story about my charge. Hickel reacted as expected, over the top, confirming what everyone already knew about him. He lost to Hammond by 98 votes.
Ideologically, I was a Tom Fink Republican, and some people just thought I was an opportunist to work for Jay Hammond. But they didn’t know my uncle, Pettyjohn.