Hams on the Alaska Highway
April 1945 QST Article
though my fingers stop working when exposed to temperatures below
freezing, I love the northern climate - four full seasons, snow,
iced-over lakes, migrating birds, fiery autumns, cool summers, the
whole experience. Having the option of not participating in the
cold outdoor environs is what makes it good. However, the U.S. Army
Signal Corps guys pulling duty in Alaska during World War II
did not have that luxury. As told by radio engineer Major Colvin
in this story from a 1945 edition of ARRL's QST magazine, winter
life in Alaska at -40° was a real challenge. It was a world
where Prestone antifreeze froze, the sun shone only a few hours
a day, vehicles had to be left running 24/7 or risk not being able
to be re-started, and mile-long treks between buildings was common.
There were no snowmobiles. The success of the communications station
was attributed to "the high percentage of amateur radio operators
April 1945 QST
articles are scanned and OCRed from old editions of the ARRL's QST magazine. Here is a list
of the QST articles I have already posted. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.
Hams on the Alaska Highway
Establishing Signal Corps Radio Stations at 72 Degrees Below
BY MAJOR LLOYD D. COLVIN.* SC,
Official U.S. Army Signal Corps Photographs
One question always asked of troops returning from the Alaska
Highway is this: "How cold is it up there?" Prior to my assignment
in October, 1942, as a radio engineer on the Alaska Highway I had
spent nearly two years in various parts of Alaska. I thought I knew
what cold was - but I had a surprise coming. During the winter of
1942 the weather along the route followed by the Highway has been
officially described as perhaps the coldest ever experienced in
that area. At the time of my arrival at Army Highway Headquarters,
located in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, the temperature was 25°
below zero. That first night I slept with two other officers in
a tent near the airfield. In the morning, after considerable hunting,
we found enough wood to build a fire in a small stove near the center
of the tent and heated some water. When the water was boiling I
took some in a pan to the entrance of the tent, where I could see
better, and started to shave. Before I had finished shaving, ice
had formed all around the edge of the pan!
first job was supervision of the building and operation of a large
high-speed radio station at Whitehorse to serve the Army Headquarters.
The installation consisted of a multiposition operating room near
the headquarters establishment, with remote receiving and transmitting
The Army troops and contractors had moved into
Whitehorse faster than supplies could follow them. There seemed
to be a scarcity of everything except cold weather. Transportation
- or the lack of it - was the biggest problem, however. I had been
instructed to get the station on the air at the earliest possible
date, but work on signal facilities was at a standstill because
of the lack of transportation. The distance from the operating room
to the receiving station was three miles, while the distance from
the operating room to the transmitting station was six miles. Neither
the buildings nor the antennas at either site had been completed.
With the extreme cold that prevailed it was imperative that some
kind of a vehicle be obtained to get the Signal Corps personnel
to and from work.
In my search for transportation I saw
everyone from second lieutenants to the commanding general. All
were very sorry, but all available Army transportation that would
run was needed to haul food and clothing to keep the men alive.
In desperation I started a canvass of the stores in the
village of Whitehorse, asking, "Does anyone know of a civilian who
has a car or truck that could be rented or bought?" The village
fire chief was finally located. His job as fire chief was only a
part-time duty, but he had an old Ford pick-up, painted red, which
he used to take him to what had previously been the very infrequent
local fires. After considerable persuasion I talked him into renting
this vehicle to me. I had no authority to make such a contract,
but the Army eventually paid the bill.
With the aid of our new "fire wagon," work was resumed. The vehicle
was too small to take all the men to either the receiver or the
transmitter sites in one load, but by making shuttle trips we managed
to get everyone to and from work. In spite of the cold the radio
station was completed and on the air in a few weeks.
A large high-speed Station at Whitehorse
we received several Army vehicles for Signal Corps use. However,
our troubles were not over. These cars and trucks originally belonged
to the first engineer troops who worked on the highway. The vehicles
had already taken a terrific beating before they were turned over
to the Signal Corps, and only one of them would run.
repair work had to be done out in the open because no garage could
be found for the vehicles and no material was available with which
to build one. The temperature was 50° below zero when we started
to repair the trucks. After several days of such work, I started
out one morning to see how the work was progressing. The temperature
was only about 20° below and I had on several coats, a parka, shoepacs
with two pairs of heavy woolen socks, and two pairs of gloves -
but I still felt cold. When I reached the vehicles I found one of
the Signal Corps mechanics wearing about half the amount of clothing
I had on, with no gloves, handling metal parts with his bare hands.
He was whistling and appeared to be in the best of spirits. Turning
to me, he said, "Good morning, sir. Much warmer this morning, isn't
another occasion, after we had one vehicle repaired and were in
high hopes it would run, we discovered we had no antifreeze for
the radiator. Not having a car available that would run, I walked
a mile to a quartermasters' warehouse where I could draw Prestone.
It was one of our coldest days. After two trips I got enough anti-freeze
to fill the repaired car - but when I finally got the cans open,
the pure Prestone was frozen solid! I was mad enough to fight the
whole war alone.
We found that the oil would freeze in the
cars unless we let them run all night. The latter plan was reasonably
satisfactory except when a drop of water got into the gas line.
When this happened the engine would stop and everything would freeze
most of that first winter some supplies had to be flown in by airplane.
The Air Corps had very little covered storage space, and as a result
many tons of the equipment and supplies unloaded from planes were
left in the snow near the edge of the airfield.
Christmas Day of 1942 was spent on the airfield in the hope that
the incoming planes would bring Christmas-packages for the men in
the radio section. Just as I was about to leave the field I accidentally
kicked the snow off a box half buried in a drift. Imagine my surprise
when I saw my name on the box! Except for that lucky kick, the box
might have remained there until spring.
Hoping it would turn out to be a Christmas present, we rushed the
box to the radio station and hurriedly opened it. Imagine my mixed
feelings of disappointment and joy when it turned out to be a much-needed
communications receiver for the station. One of the men lifted the
receiver out of the box, placed it on a table - and then gave a
terrific yell. The metal chassis was so cold that when he let go
pieces of flesh were pulled off his hands! After warming up the
receiver, first over a. fire and then in the conventional manner,
it was found in perfect operating order.
Transportation was the biggest problem.
Yes, the weather
was cold during the building of the Alaska Highway. But, as in so
many other parts of the world, the U. S. Army Signal Corps, with
its high percentage of amateur radio operators and technicians,
is providing communications there of which we can all be proud.