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Alaska: new challenges on old ground

by Carol Stokes

World War II made Alaska a theater of war and a major operations area for military tacticians. Nature made it one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Signal Corps soldiers serving there endured numerous hardships. Terrain was rugged, weather severe. Atmospheric conditions played havoc with radio transmissions. Nevertheless, Alaska was critical to the United States' and Canada's defense, and communications were a necessity.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Dec. 7, 1941, focused U.S. military attention on the Pacific — including Alaska, located on the ocean's northernmost reaches. Gen. Douglas MacArthur warned of the Aleutian Islands' vulnerability — an archipelago swerving off Alaska's coast — as well as the state's. Given the war's global demands, the War Department did what it could to bolster the defenses of this northwestern portion of North America.

Pre-war communications

In January 1942, the Alaska Communications System, operated by the Signal Corps, comprised some 600 men — 60 percent military and 40 percent civilians. Among the soldiers, the proportion of competent enlisted technicians exceeded the average. When 1st Signal Service Company, responsible for ACS, was authorized a strength increase in October 1941, it enhanced its already seasoned cadre with highly trained typists and radio operators.

Alaska's physical challenges during World War II were immense but not unfamiliar to the Signal Corps. Army communicators had been operating there since the turn of the century; after ACS' authorization by Congress in 1900, the corps constructed, maintained and operated it. Under Chief Signal Officer BG Adolphus Greely, signal officers — including Lt. Billy Mitchell (of later aviation fame) — supervised construction crews who endured physical and mental hardships to establish the system.

By 1903, the Signal Corps' Trans-Alaska Telegraph System — almost 1,500 miles of overland lines and a few hundred miles of undersea cable — was in full operation. Using the system, messages from Nome on the Bering Sea, and Fort Gibbon on the Tanana River to Eagle, Alaska, were channeled through Canadian lines to Vancouver, Seattle, and elsewhere in the United States.

By 1904, an undersea cable and 107-mile wireless telegraph link completed an all-American communications route from Alaska to Washington, D.C., and the continental United States. By 1906, the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System was handling more than 300,000 messages per year — about 20 percent of them military in nature. The lines, constructed at a cost of around $2 million, were maintained by the Signal Corps.

Keeping them in operation presented challenges unique to Alaska. On one occasion a moose ensnared his antlers in an open-wire pole line; on another, a whale became entangled in the Valdez cable at the mouth of Sitka harbor.

Alaska's WWII importance

A half decade later, Alaska's challenges for the Signal Corps were just as formidable. As recorded in one of the branch's three official World War II history volumes, The Signal Corps: The Test, "Wherever the American forces went, the Signal Corps' Alaska Communications System had work to do." At widely dispersed locations, with a peak strength of around 2,000 officers and men, the Signal Corps constructed a modern communications network. Specifically, signalers "engineered, constructed, maintained and operated a vast radio system which knit American bases and connected them with the mainland and with the United States."

Although the series contains no accounts of interference by wildlife or sea creatures, communicators battled the elements just as they had a half-century earlier. Conditions crews endured while constructing pole lines from Edmonton to Dawson Creek were described as "a bloodless battlefield." Crews drove three-ton trucks on half-frozen rivers with the ice shifting under their wheels. Five-foot snowdrifts and ice-sheeted roads were commonplace. Lamplight, flashlights and headlights illuminated the men as they strung wire in 30-degree-below-zero temperatures.

Post telephone systems, harbor-defense control systems, radar installations and the Army Airways Communications System (for the north air-ferry routes), significant signal security and surveillance activities were all responsibilities of ACS. Crews endured mountainous terrain, freezing temperatures and high winds to install high-speed radio circuits, fire-control circuits for harbor defenses and Alaska Defense Command tactical circuits on strategically important islands, such as Kodiak Island on the Gulf of Alaska's western shore.

While the Signal Corps expanded Alaska's communications by establishing stations at many inhospitable locations, wartime shortages were often as frustrating as the battle with the elements. Because of equipment's scarcity, communications systems were pieced together from disparate parts. An interesting example was a transmitter built in the ACS shop. It was dubbed the DBR-1, or "Damn Big Rush," because of its hasty and improvisational nature.

The construction of ACS stations in the Aleutians presented their own particular difficulties. Loose, porous, volcanic ash was the major component of island soil; freezing winds and 100-mile gales the norm. The threat of Japanese attack was constant as many sites suffered Fort Mears' fate, where enemy air strikes destroyed radar and medium-frequency radio equipment in June 1942.

The Japanese occupation of Aleutian islands Attu and Kiska led to intensified efforts to complete Alaska- Canada (Alcan) Highway construction, the military supply route to the far north and the land route from the United States through Canada to Alaska. ACS was responsible for communications for the project, including the installation of radio, telephone and teletype.

Radio, the most portable, came first. A more than 2,000-mile wire telephone system was installed between Edmonton, Alberta, and Fairbanks, Alaska. Men of 60th Signal Battalion slept in tents on frozen ground in early spring, with mud and mosquitoes in late spring, and dust and insects in the summer, as construction progressed. The Signal Corps: The Test describes their work, done in 15 months, as "one of the most spectacular and imposing communication accomplishments of the Signal Corps in World War II." The book goes on to explain the project would have, in normal times, taken years to complete.

Other Signal Corps contributions included work on communications for Alaska's Canol pipeline and northwest ferry route projects. In the first instance, ACS engineers and soldiers of 838th Signal Service Company provided communications for a petroleum-delivery system from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, to airfields on the northwest ferry route, a supply line between the United States, Canada and the Soviet Union.

In the second project, Signal Corps soldiers moved, maintained and operated fixed radio stations and constructed telephone lines connecting landing strips with northwest ferry route stations. Also, in collaboration with the Army Air Corps, the Signal Corps engineered, procured and installed radio equipment for AACS.

Throughout the war, military activities in Alaska and the Aleutians served a dual purpose. The first goal was to establish strong and permanent military defenses. The second, and more imperative, was to prepare the way for the American landings that would dislodge the Japanese from the Aleutian Islands.

Communicators were sometimes combatants. Such was the case when they went ashore with invasion troops in the Aleutian Campaign of 1943. An ACS combat-communications team, comprising two second lieutenants and 15 enlisted soldiers, hit the beaches in the assault upon enemy garrisons on Attu and Kiska in March of that year.

Throughout the war, Signal Corps people improved Alaska's communications system and established AACS and the Aircraft Warning Service. Branch people planned and supervised telephone and telegraph communications for the Alcan Highway and supported some 44 widely separated installations throughout the territory.

Staying on after the war, the Signal Corps operated ACS until 1962, when it was turned over to the Air Force.

Dr. Stokes is U.S. Army Signal Center and Fort Gordon's command historian.

Acronym QuickScan
AACS — Army Airways Communications System
ACS — Alaska Communications System

Last modified on:
April 04, 2012

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