Hams on the Alaska Highway
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
of Contents]These 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 (if any) are hereby acknowledged.
See all available
vintage QST articles.
Hams on the Alaska Highway
Establishing Signal Corps Radio Stations at 72 Degrees Below
BY MAJOR LLOYD D. COLVIN.* SC, K7KG
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 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
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
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 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