Hams on the Alaska Highway
April 1945 QST Article
Even 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 and technicians."
April 1945 QST
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles
QST, published December 1915 - present. All copyrights hereby acknowledged.
Hams on the Alaska Highway
Establishing Signal Corps Radio Stations at 72 Degrees Below Zero
BY MAJOR LLOYD D. COLVIN.* SC, K7KG
Official U.S. Army Signal Corps
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
My 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 stations.
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
Eventually 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.
All 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 it,
On 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 up.
During 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.
Much of 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
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.
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