Hams on the Alaska Highway
April 1945 QST

April 1945 QST

RF Cafe - April 1945 QST CoverTable of Contents

Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles from QST, published December 1915 - present (visit ARRL for info). All copyrights hereby acknowledged.

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."

Establishing Signal Corps Radio Stations at 72 Degrees Below Zero

Hams on the Alaska Highway - RF Cafe

Official U.S. Army Signal Corps Photographs

By Major Lloyd D. Colvin* SC, K7KG

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!

Shaving with frozen water - RF CafeMy 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.

A large high-speed Station at Whitehorse - RF Cafe

A large high-speed Station at Whitehorse

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.

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, sir?"

THe Prestone antifreeze would freeze - RF CafeOn 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.

Transportation was the biggest problem - RF Cafe

Transportation was the biggest problem.

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.

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.



Posted February 24, 2021
(updated from original post on 11/20/2012)