Chapter 5: Alaska Communications (January–July 1942)
The attack on Hawaii, and the losses along the island front from the Philippines to Java in succeeding weeks, had turned attention everywhere to the Pacific, and accordingly to Alaska. Military planners in Washington were doing what they could to bolster the northernmost Pacific approaches to America. Early in the war, General Marshall had warned that Japan could be expected to strike a blow in the Aleutian Islands, especially at Dutch Harbor, and possibly even to attempt an invasion of the Alaskan mainland.1 Nevertheless, first things had to come first; strategists hoped that Alaska could meanwhile withstand an attack.
Admittedly, Alaskan defenses were weak when war began. They remained weak in the first months of war, but at the close of summer in 1942 there existed at least a string of initial outposts along a line running northward from Fort Glenn, at Otter Point on Umnak Island, to the Pribilof Islands, and thence to Nome. Spearheading American defenses in the Aleutians was the naval base at Dutch Harbor. At Fort Randall, on Cold Bay on the Alaska Peninsula east of Dutch Harbor, and at Fort Glenn, on Umnak to the west, newly established air bases guarded the Alaskan approaches. There were garrisons on the Bristol Bay side of the Alaska Peninsula at Naknek, and at Port Heiden, where Fort Morrow was located. To the westward, in the Bering Sea, St. Paul and St. George Islands of the Pribilof group were first evacuated of whites and natives engaged in sealing activities, then garrisoned against possible invasion.
The Command Network
Wherever the American forces went, specialists of the Signal Corps’ Alaska Communication System (ACS) had work to do.2 As the war progressed and the westward expansion into the Aleutians inched forward, the ACS engineered, constructed, maintained, and operated a vast radio, ocean cable, and landline communications system which knit American bases and connected them with the Alaskan mainland and with the United States. After 25 March 1942 the ACS also engineered and built almost all fixed communications: post telephone systems, harbor defense control systems, radar installations, and the Army Airways Communications System for the
north ferry routes. Almost as a side line, the ACS handled a substantial part of all signal security and surveillance activities.3
Three months before war began, the War Department’s disapproval of General DeWitt’s plea for a separate command radio net for the Alaska Defense Command (ADC) and its decision to substitute a supplementary command network operated by the Alaska Communication System but controlled by the ADC had sent the Signal Corps into action gathering together the necessary men, materials, and equipment.4 By the middle of January 1942 the veteran 1st Signal Service Company, which operated the ACS, had slowly risen almost to its maximum allowed strength.5 It was authorized 471 men, and had 468. The state of actual warfare, however, expanded everything, and emergency tables of organization were being thrown overboard. In accord with the policy everywhere, the 1st Signal Service Company was asking to commission its most highly skilled men, and to enlist as many more as possible. One hundred and twenty-four men were currently receiving instruction at the ACS school at Seattle, and 110 recruits, basic military training.6 Additional authorizations which followed quickly—for 150 men in February, for 50 in March, for 245 in April—brought the authorized strength to 916 men, although actual strength at the end of April totaled only 671.7
These men, plus a small group of civilian employees at the Seattle headquarters, comprised the operators of the ACS radio network, which with its connecting lines was already an elaborate installation by 1 January 1942, even though the expansion had barely started. There were radiotelegraph, and often radiotelephone facilities as well, at twenty-three stations besides Seattle, from Annette in southeastern Alaska to Point Barrow in the far north. In addition to those two, the stations were Ketchikan, Craig, Wrangell, Petersburg, Juneau, Sitka, Haines, Skagway, Yakutat, Cordova, Valdez, Anchorage, Seward, Kodiak, Kanakanak, Bethel, Flat, Nulato, Fairbanks, Nome, and Kotzebue. All the stations had radio channels or landlines reaching out to commercial stations or numerous other stations maintained by the Navy, the Coast Guard, the Department of Interior, the Bureau of Fisheries, the Civil Aeronautics Administration, and the Canadian Government.8
For the administrative network necessary to meet the wartime needs of the Alaska Defense Command, however, the existing facilities were not enough. The expansion
plan involved setting up ten new ADC stations, and enlarging eleven existing ACS stations. One step provided for restoration of the Seattle-Seward ocean cable to permit secret communication between the Alaska Defense Command and the Western Defense Command headquarters at San Francisco. This cable was put into operation on 3 December 1941.9
A limited radio net, the first section of the ADC net, could be brought into being immediately, according to the November 1941 planning. It would consist of the control station at Anchorage, and substations at Kodiak, Seward, Yakutat, and possibly at Annette Island. Accordingly, the ACS placed orders for equipment to provide a carrier telegraph circuit between Anchorage and Fairbanks, and a Morse circuit between Seward and Anchorage, both to operate over the open-wire lines of the Alaska Railroad. These telegraph circuits would operate exclusively in the ADC administrative net, thus avoiding the necessity for procuring special radio transmitters for Fairbanks and Seward.
Meanwhile the ACS at Seattle overhauled all transmitters and other technical equipment available there, and prepared it for shipment to Anchorage. Before it could be shipped, war struck, and the material had to wait for the hard-pressed Navy convoy escort vessels. The project was so urgent, however, that the ACS felt compelled to get the work started at once, using such items of equipment as could be found to make temporary installations which would be replaced whenever more material became available This was the pattern that the ACS followed in every case.
The Anchorage station, WXFA, came into the ADC net on 20 January. Work started in February with the new materials, but by that time new stations were coming into the net so rapidly that installations had to be made in a somewhat haphazard manner to keep ahead. Antennas went up in spots not entirely suitable. Temporary control lines had to be strung to the transmitter and receiver stations, and more operating tables moved into an already crowded operating room. The ACS made arrangements for its stations WVD, Seattle, and WXE, Anchorage, to use Civil Aeronautics Administration sending and receiving equipment. In the event that enemy action or anything else rendered the main control cables inoperative, auxiliary Ultrahigh frequency equipment was installed at West Seattle and at Fort Lawton to provide three extra channels for transmitting and receiving. Anchorage was the heart of the communication system; the circuits were the arteries and veins which supplied the lifeblood. Four types of radio circuits (high-speed, manual, teletype, and radiotelephone) and landline and telegraph circuits came into Anchorage. Until late in the war, when the westward movement had pushed beyond Alaska and the Aleutians to encircle the Japanese homeland, Anchorage was always in the throes of expansion, improvement, and change. By the first of June 1942, it had progressed to the point where it could keep ahead of the new activities and accommodate additional stations as they came into the network.10
Kodiak, Otter Point, Dutch Harbor
In the first weeks of war, the expansion plans moved anxiously forward toward Dutch Harbor and Otter Point on Umnak. Continuous wave transmission at both medium and high frequencies from there to ADC headquarters at Anchorage would be provided, with each of the two new stations manned by three ACS operators.11 By the last week of December, Cold Bay and Port Heiden on the Pacific side of the Alaska Peninsula had been added to the lengthening list of ACS stations. The Seattle district engineer of the Corps of Engineers had agreed to undertake construction of buildings to house the equipment and men. At Seattle the ACS was ransacking its stores for extra equipment which could be thrown into use at the new stations temporarily, regular equipment not being expected for a matter of several months. Each of the two construction parties, with an officer at the head, was to consist of only six soldiers and five civilians. Three of the soldiers in each party were to remain behind, when temporary construction had been completed, to establish initial communications.12
In refurbishing and enlarging the eleven existing ACS stations included in the expansion program, there could be no thought of complete uniformity of equipment. Those stations, built in the peaceful years when the Army budget was lean, contained a collection of equipment of such variety as the budget had happened to permit during the particular year when each was built. Among the transmitters were several models of the DBR-1, put together in the ACS shop, and known as the “Damn Big Rush” because of the haste and improvisation which had gone into its construction. The new equipment to be added would all be of the same standard design used in the new Alaska Defense Command stations. It included one medium-frequency 750-watt transmitter (an obsolete marine transmitter completely rebuilt and modernized in the ACS shop at Seattle); one high-frequency 300-watt transmitter; two 15-kva auxiliary power plants; an operating table and control equipment; six combination high and medium-frequency receivers; and a complete transmitting and receiving antenna and ground system, along with Quonset huts to house both the equipment and the men.13
Although Anchorage held first priority in the expansion of the Alaska Communication System stations, twenty others followed closely. In order came Kodiak, Otter Point, Dutch Harbor, and Yakutat, at all of which construction was under way by April, Cordova, Sitka, Fairbanks, Juneau, and a dozen others.14
Mountainous Kodiak Island, which lies at the mouth of Cook Inlet and forms the irregular western shore of the Gulf of Alaska, was of particular value strategically. The Navy had its main base there; and nearby the Army had built Fort Greely and named it in honor of the Signal Corps’ famed Chief Signal Officer and founder of the Alaska system, Brig. Gen. Adolphus W. Greely. When the Navy began building there in 1939, it found a small ACS station already on hand in Kodiak village, a settlement of
station was being enlarged to include a direct Seattle-Kodiak high-speed radio circuit, an ADC tactical circuit, equipment for the aircraft warning flash radio net, and fire control circuits for harbor defenses. Freezing temperatures and high winds hampered the work, but on 11 May the Kodiak-Seattle direct circuit was established. In the same month, an ACS engineer arrived to take charge of the enlargement and installation of the Fort Greely post telephone system; a private contractor hired by the Navy had started it, but his work had been unsatisfactory to the post commander.15
In order of urgency after Anchorage and Kodiak ranked the Otter Point project (Fort Glenn) on Umnak Island, where an important airfield was being built, and the ACS station at Fort Mears, the Army post at Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island. One of the small Signal Corps groups organized at Seattle and 1st Lt. Richard R. Murray had arrived in the area in February. Through contrast, the two projects pointed up the peculiar difficulties of Alaskan defense construction. Unalaska Island had fine harbors, but surrounding high hills and mountains offered little space for air facilities. Separated from Unalaska only by the twelve miles of open water constituting Umnak Pass, Umnak Island lay low and flat; its terrain invited airfield construction, but there were no harbors where ships could anchor to bring in supplies.
Since the Navy had good radio facilities already in operation at the big base at Dutch Harbor, the Otter Point station drew Murray’s attention first. The base which was to become Fort Glenn was still a-building, with post headquarters temporarily located at Chernofski, the most westward point on Unalaska and the one closest to Otter Point across Umnak Pass. The only communication was a tactical radiotelephone set operated by Coast Artillery men in an abandoned Aleut Indian hut at Chernofski. This set worked the Coast Artillery set atop Mount Ballyhoo, near Dutch Harbor. Although the channel could handle both continuous wave (code) and voice, there were no code operators, so messages went out by voice, the phonetic alphabet being used for enciphered messages. Across the pass at Otter Point, a Quartermaster soldier operated a battery set borrowed from a Navy gunboat. This set weighed almost 100 pounds, but was not very powerful. The men had developed a sort of doubletalk as an informal cryptographic procedure when discussing shipments on the air.
The channel of communication from the United States to what would become Fort Glenn was from Seattle to Anchorage by Alaska Communication System facilities; then by relay to NPR, the Navy station at Dutch Harbor; then (by teletype if it happened to be operating and by messenger if it was not) to Fort Mears’ post headquarters; then to the post cryptographic unit for deciphering; on to the commanding general for his attention; after editing, back to the cryptographic unit to be enciphered once more; then by messenger once a day to the Coast Artillery set on Mount Ballyhoo; via that set to Chernofski; and finally, via voice radio to the old gunboat set at Otter Point. It took three or four days for messages to arrive from the United States and, because of the numerous relays and handlings, much of the message matter was badly garbled by the time it reached the ultimate recipient.16
Murray put three men trained in continuous wave transmission in each of the three stations at Chernofski, Otter Point,
and Mount Ballyhoo. This speeded up matters appreciably. He installed a small Intervox radiotelephone transmitter and receiver in a hut at Chernofski, and erected an antenna for use with a similar set at Otter Point. This system and a ship-to-shore radio set installed on a tug took care of ship and barge movements between Otter Point and Chernofski. Meanwhile, the radio equipment for the ACS station at Otter Point had arrived ahead of the men who would install it. They had been delayed en route by the grounding of their transport. The equipment was stored in tents on the beach at Chernofski until it could be moved by barge across Umnak Pass. There were only five barges to move material, and food and ammunition for the troops at Otter Point had first priority. In succeeding months, the ACS men were to learn much of the difficulties of transshipping to Otter Point. The number of supply ships coming in exceeded the number of tugs and barges available to haul the material across the pass. Boxes containing material which might be a part of a project shipment often got separated from other boxes of a unit. Each organization wanted its equipment moved first. The post commander finally issued an order prohibiting expediters from individual units from going to Chernofski at all, since, as an ACS lieutenant once radioed, there would be “twenty or thirty persons on the beach at Chernofski cutting each other’s throats to get their equipment moved first.”
Even though the material for the first project was all gathered at Chernofski, Lieutenant Murray learned that it might be several weeks before he could get it across the pass. When it was shipped to Otter Point the second week in March, the men were left at Chernofski without any immediate prospect of passage. A Navy destroyer finally took them and their baggage across, and they arrived at 1600 on 13 March, only to find that there were no living quarters or tents available to them. Before nightfall, a carpenter put up a structure known as a Yakutat hut, a windowless affair 16 by 16 feet in size. This building housed 9 men, but a month later a housing shortage developed when 6 more soldiers arrived from Seattle. Now the hut had to serve as shelter for 15 persons.
By April all the antenna poles for the radio station were up, and the wiring and equipment installed in the main building: a 20 by 20-foot frame structure erected on the flat eastern end of Umnak Island. The power plant was sheltered in a tent.17
When this station serving Fort Glenn opened for business on 20 March under the call letters WXFN, its messages for the United States could be relayed to Anchorage, which relayed them back to the Navy station at Dutch Harbor. Here they were turned over to the commanding general for editing, censorship, or approval, after which they were enciphered again, returned to the Navy station, and retransmitted to Anchorage and thence to the United States over ACS facilities. This awkward backtracking was far from satisfactory, but the Coast Artillery station at Dutch Harbor operated on a flash warning net of 2,092 kilocycles, and the nearest frequency on which WXFN could meet it was 3,885 kilocycles. To receive signals from WXFN the operator at Dutch Harbor had not only to listen at 3,885 kilocycles, but also had to leave the flash warning net, since the station had only one battery-operated receiver. It was impossible to use any of the ACS receivers because no 110-volt power supply was available.
This meant a return to the old system of landline telephone circuits, radio stations, radiotelephones, and messengers. In an effort to eliminate the cumbersome procedure, Lieutenant Murray hurried back to Dutch Harbor to set up a temporary station there.
A temporary site on the swampy floor of Unalaska Valley offered excellent grounding possibilities, unusual in the Aleutians, where the loose, porous volcanic ash, which was the chief component of the soil, made grounding difficult. Putting in 70-foot antenna poles, built of 15-foot 4 by 4 timbers spliced together with bolts, presented numerous difficulties. Not the least of these was the problem of getting tractors, since there was a shortage of such motive power, and the tractors on hand were constantly busy hauling guns, ammunition, and supplies to points otherwise inaccessible. The men working on the antenna poles always needed at least two tractors, because one often bogged down in the swampy ground and needed the other to pull it out of the mud. Each pole had to be sunk 5 feet in the top of a 20-foot hummock of earth, for an effective height of 85 feet, and braced and steadied by guy wires attached to foot-thick piling butts buried 5 feet deep.
Despite the hazards imposed by the unpredictable Aleutian weather, including a 100-mile gale which swept through the valley while the men were checking guy wires, the temporary station went into operation within a week’s time, making contact first with Kanakanak, then Fort Glenn, and finally Anchorage. On 5 April the station took over all Army traffic from the Navy station NPR, and inaugurated commercial traffic on 3 May.18
The Attack on Dutch Harbor
By mid-May 1942 Army and Navy commanders had been alerted for an imminent attack in the Aleutians.19 At the Navy base at Dutch Harbor, the Army post at Fort Mears on Unalaska Island, and the airfields at Fort Randall to the east and Fort Glenn to the west, the meager military forces were disposed as advantageously as possible to meet the attack, which intelligence sources estimated would occur the first week in June.20 At the temporary ACS station at Dutch Harbor, Lieutenant Murray and his little crew of Signal Corps soldiers and civilians buried the spare cash and a supply of radio tubes behind the station, readied slit trenches, and rehearsed arrangements to burn the building and destroy the transmitter if the post was overrun.21
On the morning of 3 June, radar on board a seaplane tender in the harbor detected the approach of enemy aircraft at 0540.22 In the ACS radio station, a sergeant tapped out a telegraph message for Anchorage: “Fort Mears is about to be bombed by enemy planes.” Then he hastily sought better shelter, for by that time Japanese fighter planes were strafing the area. The two enemy air strikes at Dutch Harbor that morning destroyed or damaged a number of Army and Navy installations. The most critical blow of all, in the opinion of Air Forces’ director of communications,
Colonel Marriner, was the loss of Signal Corps equipment intended for a radar installation at Cape Wislow on Unalaska Island. This equipment and a medium-frequency radio transmitter were destroyed in a warehouse fire touched off by the bombing at Fort Mears. Replacements were not available except at the cost of sets scheduled for delivery to the South Pacific bases.23
The next day, when the enemy fighters, dive bombers, and high-level bombers returned for another attack, they struck repeatedly at the Navy radio station, particularly at the steel towers. They scored no direct hits, but they smashed tubes and knocked down the receiving antennas. No planes came near the ACS station, which continued to handle communications for the area while the Navy station, with its receiving antennas knocked out, could only send “blind.” Apparently the Japanese did not suspect the presence of a second station at Dutch Harbor, since they concentrated their attack on the Navy towers. The ACS station no doubt escaped notice because its antenna poles were grouped inconspicuously, near a number of power poles. From the air it was difficult to detect.
Across Umnak Pass at Fort Glenn, the Japanese were unpleasantly surprised to find an American airbase at their backs. In the fog and mist which covered the islands, the Japanese did not notice the Umnak airstrip on the first raid, but found an obvious target in the Alaska Communication System station standing in the open on the flat beach, surrounded by antenna poles. Fighters strafed the station area with machine gun fire, but inflicted no damage. On the second day, the invaders did not get near the station, possibly because this time the Japanese planes from one carrier had unwittingly selected the western end of Unalaska Island as their rally point. There they were met by American fighters from Fort Glenn, P-40’s which engaged the Japanese dive bombers and fighters in air battles through the 500-foot overcast.24
The Repercussions of Dutch Harbor
The Japanese had planned the Aleutian attack as the northward prong of a coordinated campaign reaching out into the Central Pacific toward Midway Island. The southward prong was snapped off by the naval and air battle of 3-6 June off Midway Island. Though the Japanese plan to take Midway had failed, the Aleutian attack had yielded a consolation prize. Between 7 and 21 June, the enemy forces occupied Attu and Kiska in the outer Aleutians. To prevent development of either island as a major enemy base was important. Wherever American forces garrisoned Alaska, reinforcements now moved in. Crews worked harder and longer on the Alcan Highway, the military supply road begun in March 1942 and now pushing up north on its inland route. Communication projects not yet completed assumed greater urgency, and plans for new ones were born.
At Dutch Harbor, meanwhile, Lieutenant Murray had been fretting over delays in building the permanent Alaska Communication System station. As a matter of fact, until the Japanese attack, the plans for a permanent Army communication station in the Dutch Harbor area were not firm. It was felt that perhaps the Navy station
should handle military communications for Dutch Harbor, primarily a Navy base, while the ACS temporary station acted as an auxiliary. After the bombings, doubts about the need for more communication facilities vanished. Orders went out to erect a bombproof shelter for the permanent ACS station, and to connect Dutch Harbor and the Fort Glenn airfield by an ocean cable to provide communication privacy.
While crews blasted away a rocky hillside to provide the bombproof shelter, the cableship Restorer came up from her previous assignment at Petersburg in southwestern Alaska to make the Mears-Glenn lay. Still in her holds were about 120 miles of deep-sea repair stock cable belonging to a commercial company. This cable contained almost 500 pounds of copper per mile, four times as much as was contained in the cable the ACS used ordinarily. But as it turned out, it was also the only cable available anywhere on the west coast, and the ACS requisitioned it at a cost of $154,482.25
The actual laying of the cable proved to be uneventful. The weather was best at that time of year, and the Restorer made the run from Juneau to Dutch Harbor in ten days. Thick fog and high winds ate up three days’ time, but within a week the 73-mile lay between Fort Mears and Fort Glenn was completed, as well as the 12-mile lay across Umnak Pass to Chernofski. The cables opened for traffic late on 1 July 1942.26
The cable gave trouble at first. Initially, it was a problem of different transmitting procedures; at one end of the line the ACS operators used one sort, while at the other, tactical operators used another. Then the poorly insulated field wire landlines at the end proved unable to withstand the ravages of tractor cleats, and the circuit had to be rerouted through post telephone cables located conveniently nearby. Trouble with the shore-end cables developed next. With no heavy-duty cable available, the smaller deep-sea cable had been run right up to the cable huts on the beach. But the rough, rocky beaches and the frequent storms soon damaged the shore ends of the cable, and ship anchors broke it. The Restorer came back in September, repaired the cable, and substituted heavier shore-end lines.27 After that the cable operated so successfully that late in the year the commanding general of the Western Defense Command asked for a complete cable system connecting Anchorage with all stations on the Aleutian chain.28
Of the ten new Alaska Defense Command stations to be built, six had not yet been started when Dutch Harbor was attacked. They were Boundary, later known as Northway, Big Delta, Gulkana, Galena, Naknek, and the Bethel airfield station. The material had been on hand in Seattle since April, but shipping space was scarce, and the ACS engineering organization which would handle the projects had not been completed. Now the matter could wait no longer. Emergency stations must go in at once. Col. Fred Andrews, chief of the Alaska
Communication System, sent Maj. Charles F. Felstead northward to build the stations and set up the engineering organization without further delay.
Major Felstead and Alfred K. Robinson, chief civilian radio engineer for the ACS, arrived in Fairbanks on 17 June. Within twenty-four hours they had combed the town for good radio receivers and transmitters, and had bought four of each from local radio amateurs. They had located a fifth set, owned by the ACS operator at Bethel, M. Sgt. Kenneth A. Vandewater. They had commandeered six trained men from the Fairbanks ACS station, and had formed them into three two-man teams, one operator and one technician to a team. They had furnished each team with a transmitter and a receiver, a doublet antenna already cut to frequency, a telegraph key and headphones, and switches for transferring the antenna from transmitting to receiving. They had persuaded the Civil Aeronautics Administration to give the new stations temporary houseroom in CAA station buildings at each site, and to provide power from CAA power supply units.
Early on the morning of the second day, the three teams set out from Fairbanks with their radio equipment, sleeping bags, and a week’s supply of C rations. They headed southeast, one team traveling by commercial airplane for Northway, near the Yukon Territory line, while the others drove ACS trucks southeast on the Richardson Highway to Big Delta, at the junction of the Tanana and Delta Rivers, and then farther south to Gulkana on the Gulkana and Copper Rivers.
Those were the longest days of the year. The sun barely dipped below the horizon for an hour each night, and the men, snatching only a few hours’ sleep, worked almost around the clock. In that heavily wooded section of Alaska there was no need to set antenna poles; trees would do.
By evening of 19 June radio contact was established between Northway, Big Delta, and Fairbanks. By the next day Gulkana was on the air and in contact with Big Delta and Anchorage. Meanwhile, to the southwest of Fairbanks at the Bethel station on the Kuskokwim River, Sergeant Vandewater had sent a man across the river to the site of the proposed Army airfield to establish a temporary ADC station. It was in contact with the Bethel station on 20 June. By that time, the technical men from each of the installation teams sent to Northway and Big Delta had returned to Fairbanks, leaving the operators behind to man the stations. The technicians started out again with the last of their receivers and transmitters, this time due west for Galena. Within twelve hours that station, too, was in operation.
Thus within a space of three days and in a giant circle from Fairbanks, five of the six remaining stations of the Alaska Defense Command now were put in operation on an emergency basis. A week later Engineer troops arrived at these points to establish construction camps. The regular equipment for the permanent stations, delayed by lack of shipping space, did not arrive until July.29
Naknek, the site of the sixth station southeast of Fairbanks on Bristol Bay, was still partially iced in when Dutch Harbor was attacked. ACS engineers were already on the spot waiting when a task force vessel anchored off shore on 3 July and started lightering men and equipment ashore at high tide, the only time barges could ply
the shallow river. The station went on the air the next day, 4 July, relaying through Kanakanak, and a month later made contact with Anchorage to complete the first phase of the northern chain.30
Of the eleven existing ACS stations originally slated for expansion, Sitka had been rather far down on the list. Now as the site of the third-ranking naval base in Alaska it acquired new importance. With a crew of eight enlisted men and one civilian engineer, 1st Lt. Charles M. Beach arrived at Sitka in mid-June to remove the transmitter from its location in the middle of town to a remote site several miles away. He was also to construct a control cable from the operation site in Sitka to the transmitter site and to rearrange the operations layout.
Because Sitka, the old Russian capital of Alaska on Baranof Island in southeastern Alaska, lies in a heavily wooded area, the Seattle headquarters had assumed that poles would be available locally. Beach found that actually there were none to be had, and there were no logging operations going on in the vicinity. He and his crew turned loggers for a few weeks and cut their own poles, including several 90-footers. This situation immediately increased their difficulties, for the weight of a green pole is three times that of a seasoned one. To add to his woes, the lieutenant found that although he had six men fresh from a three months’ training course at Fort Monmouth and classified as linemen, five of them had never had on a pair of climbers, much less climbed a pole. He set out to teach his “linemen” a lineman’s most fundamental requirement.31
Meanwhile, no one was sure what had happened in the Pribilof Islands. Rumor had it that the Japanese had occupied the tiny, isolated islands in the Bering Sea, and were preparing to move against the mainland to take Nome. In peacetime the islands operated under the jurisdiction of the Fish and Wildlife Service, but natives and government officials had been evacuated hurriedly after the Dutch Harbor attack. On Sunday morning, 7 June, ACS headquarters at Anchorage received orders to get four men ready to leave that afternoon for an unknown destination. There was no time to pick and choose; four privates were selected at random out of a group of newly arrived men, and told to get ready to leave with the Army intelligence teams, which, they eventually learned, were headed for the Pribilofs. Two ACS men were to be stationed at St. Paul, and two at St. George.
When the first pair, Privates Mackie and Phillips, arrived at their destination on St. Paul Island on 22 June, they found the area deserted but unmolested. In hurried flight after the Dutch Harbor bombings, the natives had left everything they could not carry with them. The two soldiers, furnished with emergency equipment only, had been told to make use of anything still left on the island. They established contact the first day with the other two operators at St. George, and then set about energetically taking stock of material on hand and helping to set up the outpost. They started 24-hour radio watch, insofar as the equipment would permit, rigged blasts which could destroy the radio station in case of attack, and settled down to the job of repairing and improving facilities, working usually 16 to 17 hours a day. Traffic was light; the men sent out one message a day, and few came in. During flying hours they kept continuous watch on aviation frequencies for flash information. On St. George Island, the second team led a
similar existence. By August the men were apprehensive about what life would be like on the barren islands during the winter. Then came word that troops would be landed before winter, and the outposts manned.
This was the beginning of the stations in the Pribilofs: a matter-of-fact handling of a difficult and dangerous assignment that was to earn all four young soldiers praise from Colonel Andrews, who pointed out their “unusually capable solution of field engineering problems that would normally have called for engineer or non-commissioned officers of considerably greater rank and experience.”32
Signal equipment for the Fort Morrow station at Port Heiden on Bristol Bay left Seattle in late June with the Engineer troops, and 1st Lt. Harold A. Cordes took along a portable 30-watt transmitter, receiver, generator, and antenna. When four more ACS men arrived at the station a few days after the first group, they brought with them a 100-watt transmitter capable of contact with Anchorage. The men still lacked many things they needed to build the station: several kinds of wire, fittings and couplings, insulators, cement, rope, gasoline, and oil. Ingenuity cured some shortages; for example, no bowl-type insulators were sent, so the men used two kitchen mixing bowls. Borrowing overcame other shortages. Lacking enough wooden poles for transmission lines and antennas, they borrowed wooden pilings from the Engineers. The miscellaneous shortages were funny but exasperating: there were only three legs for the operations table; a heating stove, but no cook stove; an ironing board, but no iron; ten doors for Quonset huts, but no hardware with which to hang them.33
Hasty outfitting for the project accounted for some deficiencies, but to a greater degree they reflected the universal shortage of materials and shipping space. Supply agencies had to shortchange many a requisition, sending half a supply-loaf in the hope that it would be better than none at all. Troops in Alaska lacked many items in the summer of 1942; among others, field switchboard equipment, telephones, and wire, requisitions for which remained unfilled.34 To men living in remote posts under the threat of enemy attack and without adequate communications protection, the shortage of equipment in the early part of the war was often incomprehensible. It was natural that they should see only their own problem, and not see it in relation to the whole war situation. It was difficult for them to understand that their lack of equipment was not a malignant fault of Army red tape or negligence. Officers who might be inexperienced in military supply matters had small realization of the time involved in producing and transporting material, in mobilizing and training men, or of the greater urgency of the situation at other points on the world-wide battlefield. In April 1942, an officer stationed at Anchorage made a plea for a “small reserve” of 15 student radio operators, six emergency power units with some cable, two complete high-frequency and two low-frequency radio stations, and four complete transceivers of a type similar to the walkie-talkie sets. It was not too much to ask in order to bring about the service which the station wanted to provide. It was, however, more than a hard-pressed Signal Corps could give under the carefully
considered priorities of men and materials at that time.35
To alleviate the supply problem in Alaska was precisely the task of the Anchorage engineering and supply division which Major Felstead had been directed to set up. It could not create material where none existed, but it could solve many a problem imposed by time and distance. It could even build or improvise equipment from odds and ends of material purchased locally. Best of all, to a certain extent it could reassure the men in the field that they were not forgotten. When Major Felstead flew to Anchorage from Fairbanks on 21 June, he found the town already overflowing with war workers and government agencies. The only space available to the Alaska Communication System was a single large room in the basement of the Federal Building. There on a stool at the drafting table in the otherwise empty room Major Felstead found his office force: a single disconsolate soldier who had been assigned to occupy the room during the day to prevent its confiscation by some other government agency in the building.
During the next few weeks the engineering section grew up, its growing marked by battles for more office space, more personnel, more equipment, more motor transportation. By August warehouse space had overflowed the 25 by 100-foot chicken house, which was the only spot available at first, into a three-story building that provided 10,000 feet of floor space. The organization included a purchasing section to acquire local material, and a separate clothing section which outfitted newly arrived personnel. As time went by, the constant movement of engineering and construction men through Anchorage made the clothing section particularly valuable. Often men arrived in Anchorage without the proper clothing for the particular location where they were to be stationed. In northern Alaska, they needed heavy parkas, kerseylined trousers, and boots or overshoes, but in the Aleutian area, they required lighter clothing with rubberized parkas and trousers to keep out the perpetual dampness. The engineering organization still lacked adequate office space. In August 7 officers, 1 warrant officer, 34 enlisted men, and 6 civilians comprised the staff. The supply warehouse and motor transportation men were stationed at the warehouse, and the engineers were usually in the field, but the 27 people stationed at the main office fell over one another trying to crowd themselves in at their desks in the single basement room. Major Felstead appealed to General Buckner to intercede for an order from Washington evacuating from the building all organizations whose work was not essential to the war effort. This effort bore fruit in August.36
The Alcan Highway
When, in March 1942, American engineers about to begin work on the Alcan Highway jumped off into the Canadian wilderness from the railhead at Dawson Creek, British Columbia, they had to have communications, first at their base camp in Fort St. John, forty miles beyond Dawson Creek, and later at successive camps along the trail as they pushed toward Alaska.
Also their construction parties needed mobile communication units to keep contact with their bases. Three types of communications were planned to serve the pioneer tote road and later the completed highway: radio, telephone, and teletype, in that order. Radio, the most portable and easily installed, would go in first. After it would come a 2,020-mile telephone line which would also carry facilities for teletype, from Edmonton in Central Alberta to Fairbanks in interior Alaska.
Plans called for two sectors, one in the north centered at Whitehorse, in Yukon Territory, and another in the south extending from Fort St. John to Watson Lake. Operating out of each sector would be three 16-man Signal Corps teams, one for each of the six Engineer regiments on the road. Each team would have a base section of four men, who would operate a fixed 250-watt radio station to maintain contact with the other men of the detachment, who would operate mobile units of SCR-193 transmitting and receiving sets installed in command cars to accompany the construction parties on the road. In addition, there would be a railhead signal detachment of five men operating a 75-watt fixed station at Dawson Creek. While the mobile units would keep contact with their respective base section stations, the base stations in turn would communicate with each other and the railhead station, and would relay their messages to the United States through the Alaska Communication System station at Ketchikan, WXH, in the Alaskan panhandle 450 miles west of Fort St. John. At Fort Lewis, Washington, men of the 60th Signal Battalion had been training for assignment to the Alcan project. But there had been too little time to do a thorough training job. Of the sixteen men attached to the 18th Engineer Regiment, for example, ten had received very little training, and two of them only two or three hours. Before he left Seattle, the sergeant in charge of the group bought $1.98 buzzers that sounded like doorbells; when the group arrived at Whitehorse he set the men to work in code classes using these buzzers.37
By 22 April the detachment of five men had already set up a small 75-watt station at the railhead, Dawson Creek, to communicate with Fort St. John. The station at Fort St. John, WXCD, was scheduled to go on the air and work Ketchikan beginning 5 April, but delays and difficulties intervened. Station WXCE at Fort Nelson, 200 miles farther to the northwest, got in touch with Ketchikan on 29 April. Contact was not good, both because of high frequency fadeouts common in northern latitudes, and because the student operators were slow and inexperienced.38
But student operators could and did improve fast. Some of the command cars worked along supply routes. Others bumped and lurched right behind the giant bulldozers that were cutting the highway out of the virgin wilderness. Camps moved every two or three days, and the signalmen moved with them. They slept in tents or on the ground through the cold, early spring
weather, through the mud and mosquito-ridden late spring, the dry, dusty, insect-laden summer. Operational and routine reports formed most of the traffic, but there were life-and-death messages, too. Radio directed rescue parties seeking lost men, sought and gave medical advice, warned of forest fires and bad stretches of road that had been gulped down by the custard-like muskeg.39
Useful as the mobile units and base stations were, the Corps of Engineers, the Alaska Communication System, and the Army Air Forces knew that radio transmission was not entirely satisfactory in the northwest. Atmospheric and magnetic phenomena caused serious interference. Furthermore, no matter how adequate the stations and frequencies, or how regular the transmission and reception, there was no guarantee of security. The problem became even more acute as each new radio circuit was established. A wire system to supplement radio seemed the answer.40
In March 1942 the Chief of Engineers had asked the Chief Signal Officer to submit recommendations for wire communication along the Alcan Highway to augment radio. Without a doubt, in less trying times the Signal Corps, an old hand at telephone line construction, would have welcomed such a challenging opportunity. But signal construction units were in demand at Allied bases everywhere. None could be spared without proof that a telephone line in Alaska was a critical military necessity. Additionally preliminary estimates indicated that the pole line would require at least 3,000,000 pounds of copper. Copper was in critical supply, and what there was of it would have to be hoarded for the most urgent military uses. These were the considerations that shaped General Olmstead’s reply: that the desired wire project should be based upon military necessity after the highway had been completed.
In other words, the Engineers would have to get along as best they could with only radio facilities while the pioneer road was being built, and the Signal Corps would continue to do as it had been directed, to build the minimum facilities for handling of message traffic essential to the war effort. Nevertheless, the Engineers, joined now by the Public Roads Administration, which would build the finished highway to replace the Engineer-built pioneer road, pressed the matter. The original directive on the highway was silent regarding signal communications, and the Chief Signal Officer agreed that it would be proper to carry the matter to “higher authority”: to the Commanding General, Services of Supply. Tentative details set forth on 4 June in a letter from the Chief Signal Officer to the Director of Requirements proposed one phantom group, consisting of four wires placed on a pole line having 40 poles per mile, to provide two physical circuits, one phantom circuit, and four grounded telegraph legs; as well as one three-channel carrier system which would make available three talking channels, one of which would be modified to provide for five to seven telegraph channels. Such a line would cost about $1,600,000 and could be finished at the same time as the road.41
Two weeks later the Services of Supply granted permission to build the wire line, and directed the Chief of Engineers to make the necessary funds available to the Signal Corps. Even before the project was approved, and in the next few weeks thereafter, a series of conferences got under way, in Washington, D. C., and Seattle. By August, after a long second look at the whole undertaking, the Signal Corps found that its relatively modest proposal had grown enormously in scope and estimated cost. Rather than a phantom group and one three-channel carrier circuit, the Fairbanks-Edmonton network now envisioned called for two carrier circuits to provide five carrier telephone channels, three voice-frequency circuits, twelve through telephone circuits, and two or three local telegraph circuits. Connections with the United States would be established by means of a third carrier system linking Edmonton and Helena, Montana, and including two carrier telephone channels and twelve telegraph circuits. The cost had been revised upward to about $4,300,000.42
A large number of organizations were concerned in some manner or another in the project. The two most important were the Corps of Engineers, which was building the pioneer road and which was responsible for construction projects for the Army, and the Western Electric Company, which contracted with the government to furnish much of the equipment and the civilian specialists who would make the actual installations.43 But at one time or another, the Signal Corps dealt with an imposing list of government agencies and private concerns. Included were the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals, Royal Canadian Air Force, Canadian Department of Transport, Rural Electrification Administration, Public Roads Administration, Army and Navy Electronics Production Agency, War Production Board, Transportation Corps, Quartermaster Corps, Army Air Forces, Alaska Defense Command, Northwest Service Command, Northern Alberta Railways Company, Alberta Government Telephones, Canadian National Telegraphs, Bell Laboratories, Graybar Electric Corporation, Railway Express Agency, Miller Construction Company, and Onan-Smith Construction Company.44
The outlines of the Signal Corps’ organization for the project began to take shape by the end of August 1942. Within the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, the expanded Plant Division would have primary responsibility. To Maj. Ora F. Roberts, officer in charge of the wire section of Plant Division, would fall the ticklish job of directing ACS field force construction. He was to find that his most baffling questions would be posed not by nature, but by the administrative jungle into which he was about to plunge.45
To relieve him of the radio installations along the highway and on the Canol pipeline, now making its entry on the northwest stage, Roberts would have the services of Capt. Burton Cole, a Western Electric engineer commissioned directly from civilian life. Since there were not enough Signal Corps construction troops to go around, civilian crews would have to be used to build the pole line. Capt. Henry H. Bartlett, who
had made a survey of the proposed pole line for the Chief Signal Officer in the summer, was transferred from the Plant Division to take charge of the telephone line engineering and to supervise the civilian inspectors who would check the work of the contractors. Capt. Earl A. Burdick would assist.
Telephone repeater stations were to be spaced at 100-mile intervals along the highway, each at or near a military camp. To supplement the telephone line and to provide service if any part of a 100-mile section of line should go down under the assaults of the hazardous winter weather, there would be 125-watt radio stations at each of the telephone repeater stations. In an emergency a circuit could thereby be patched over from the telephone line to the radio channel from one station to the next, assuring one voice channel regardless of the condition of the telephone line. The 843rd Signal Service Battalion would be organized and trained at Fort Lewis, Washington, to furnish the operating personnel.
Thus in the summer months of 1942 the plans were laid and the organization assembled for one of the most spectacular and imposing communication accomplishments of the Signal Corps in World War II. The most modern telephone equipment was rushed into an unmapped wilderness, and the longest open-wire line in the world built in the phenomenally short time of fifteen months: a feat that in normal times would have required years of effort. It was
hardly to be expected that so prodigious a task, with construction problems compounded by the time limits imposed, could have been accomplished without bickering, mistakes, and confusion. Ultimate evaluation must count the project a brilliant success. In its latter phases, the operation moved with remarkable smoothness. But the late summer months of 1942 constituted a period of uncertainty, of divided authority, and of conference table wrangling from one end of the continent to the other.46
Canol and the Northwest Ferry Route
Technically distinct from the Alcan Highway, but tied to it by geography and by the total defense plan, were two other undertakings: the Canol pipeline and the northwest ferry route to Alaska.47
The Canol project got under way in the spring of 1942. Plans called for drilling wells in the inaccessible oil country near Fort Norman on the Mackenzie River, and for building a pipeline and pumping stations to deliver the oil to a refinery to be erected near Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. The gasoline from the refinery would be used to fuel airplanes at the major airfield at Whitehorse, and at other Canadian and Alaskan fields. From the refinery at Whitehorse tank trucks would carry gasoline over the Alcan Highway south to fields at Watson Lake, Fort Nelson, and Fort St. John in Canada, and north to Northway, Big Delta, and Fairbanks in Alaska. These airfields were stepping stones of the northwest ferry route, over which aircraft from the United States were ferried first to Edmonton, Alberta, and then to Fairbanks or Nome for delivery to pilots for the USSR. The same air route served the air transport service, bringing in large quantities of supplies and men to Alaska.48
To provide the Corps of Engineers on the Canol route with communication at their various camp sites, ACS engineers planned and laid out communication systems, while soldiers from the 838th Signal Service Company manned the radio stations and headquarters center. At some points, the ACS built short telephone lines. By fall 1942, when it was decided to continue operations during the winter, airplane landing strips were being planned at points along the river route, and Signal Corps men were busy moving fixed radio stations to the landing strips, or constructing telephone lines from the strips to the radio stations.49
Meanwhile, in Alaska, the Aleutians, and Canada, the Alaska Communication System was completing the engineering, procurement, and installation of important radio equipment for the Army Airways Communication System. By Army regulations, the Signal Corps was responsible for providing the equipment, and for installing it, while the Air Corps was responsible for control and operation.50 Although the Signal Corps in the early part of the summer of 1942 had practically relinquished its Army Airways Communications System duties in other areas to the Air Corps for want of a
competent field organization, in Canada and Alaska it could depend on its experienced engineers within the Alaska Communication System.
Two nets were planned at first, extending from the panhandle of Alaska out through the Aleutians to Umnak. The north net was to consist of Ladd Field, Fairbanks, WZY; Elmendorf Field, Anchorage, WXZ; Gulkana, WXXB; Northway, WYSL; McGrath, WYSE; Galena, WYSM; and Nome, WYSG. In the south would be Fort Glenn, WYSI; Fort Randall, WYSH; Naknek, WYSD; Bethel, WYSF; Woody Island (Kodiak), WYSK; Elmendorf Field; Cordova, WYSC; Yakutat, WYZY; Juneau, WYSA; and Annette, WYZF. The north net operated on five frequencies, with four spares; the south on four frequencies and four spares. As new Aleutian and Alaskan stations were activated, they would take their places in the south net. About six weeks after Pearl Harbor, the installations at Nome, Bethel, Naknek, Kodiak, Cordova, Cold Bay, Fort Glenn, McGrath, Juneau, and Gulkana were authorized. Northway was added 12 April, and other sites were selected subsequently. By the first week in May, the station at Elmendorf was 75 percent, and the one at Ladd Field 95 percent, complete.51
The Army Airways Communications System complained that the Alaska Communication System was sometimes unable to supply radios. These the Air Corps proceeded to acquire however it could: from hams and from stations operated by the Civil Aeronautics Administration, by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and by civilian airlines such as Pan American and Northwest Airlines.52 In making the Alaskan installations, the Air Corps supplied BC—401 transmitters and receivers. The ACS supplied antenna material, pole line hardware, power plants, and other equipment, scraping it together from any source possible. Some items it took from stock on hand, others it bought locally and still others, such as operating positions, it built in the ACS shop at Seattle.53
In June, the Alaska Communication System became responsible for the Northwest Service Command installations in northwest Canada. By the end of the month, the ACS was busy with plans for Army Airways Communications System installations at Aishihik, Whitehorse, Upper Teslin, and Watson Lake, in the Yukon Territory; Fort Nelson and Fort St. John, British Columbia; Grande Prairie and Edmonton, Alberta; and Regina, Saskatchewan. Stations in the north at Fairbanks and Northway, Alaska, and in the south at Great Falls, Montana, were linked in the net by virtue of geographic proximity. In most cases, Northwest Airlines either had established or would build the facilities under commercial contract, while the Alaska Communication System would furnish additional equipment for control towers and weather reporting service.54
Communications for Ground and Air Warning Systems
On 25 March 1942 the responsibility for installation and maintenance of all fixed signal communication facilities of the Alaska Defense Command passed from the Ninth Service Command to the Alaska
Communication System.55 The two most important projects, exclusive of Army Airways Communications System installations, were the harbor defense and aircraft warning systems.
Fire control systems, the tactical command communications networks which controlled the firing of the heavy guns of the Coast Artillery, comprised fixed telephone and radio communication between all elements of the harbor defense: headquarters, gun emplacements, observation posts, radars, searchlights, antiaircraft batteries, tide stations. They included also a pulse-signaling system for simultaneous sighting of targets from several widely separated stations, and radars for accurate computation of gun-firing data. Installing such complicated systems in the harbors of Alaska meant solving problems imposed by nature—rugged terrain, severe weather, waters of great depth, and precipitous, rocky shores—as well as difficulties resulting from the undeveloped civilian economy of the region and the great distances from the sources of supply and manpower.
On 21 May priorities assigned to the various fortifications were set forth, with Dutch Harbor, Kodiak, Seward, Sitka, and Yakutat high on the list. Submarine cable would form the communications backbone in each case, and the Signal Corps busied itself placing orders for the large quantity required. Altogether there would be 5,000 tons of it, equivalent to a freight train 100 cars long. Storing it posed a problem, since obviously so much could not be placed in the holds of the cable ships according to standard practice. Luckily, unlike prewar cable, it did not have to be stored under water to avoid deterioration. The Alaska Communication System solved the problem by building a series of dry-land “tanks” out of wooden pilings, at Ames Terminal.56
With the Japanese occupying Attu and Kiska in the Aleutians, the weakness of the aircraft warning system in Alaska appeared more threatening. Little could be done about it except to spread the limited numbers of trained men and the meager supply of available equipment exceedingly thin.57 Under the priorities existing in March 1942, only two interceptor pursuit squadrons would go to Alaska. The five detectors (SCR’s 2 70 and 2 71) on hand or en route to Alaska were all that could be allotted, and it seemed there would be no more for many months to come.58 Aircraft warning system installations in the Alaska Defense Command in May amounted to nine under construction and six in abeyance.59
The greatest part of ACS’s normal budget in 1942 went to aircraft warning. The allotment for installation and rehabilitation of aircraft warning systems (for purchasing equipment, for cable repairs, for buildings, and so on) was $2,315,435. An additional sum labeled simply “Aircraft Warning Service” came to $859,100.60 At the end of June, plans called for an information center in the Fighter Command headquarters at Fort Richardson, in Anchorage, fed by ten filter centers at Fairbanks, Sitka, Annette Island, Nome, Yakutat, Cold Bay, Naknek, Bethel, Kodiak, and
Otter Point. There would be twenty aircraft warning system radar stations scattered up and down the rugged coastline of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. The growth of air activity in Alaska soon forced all the filter centers to become information centers for plotting targets within their regions. By midsummer some equipment had been installed at all the points named, although a full complement of equipment was not expected to be on hand for many months.61
In the early stages of planning for radar installations in Alaska, both the Corps of Engineers, which built the access roads, cleared the sites, and prepared the buildings, and the Signal Corps, which furnished the radars and installed them, were much too optimistic. First estimates for the SCR-271 fixed installations at Sitka and Kodiak had set August 1941 as the probable completion date. Actually, the Chiniak station on Kodiak was completed seven months behind schedule, on 1 March 1942, and the Sitka station almost a year late, on 21 July 1942.62 It took the Engineers five to ten months, sometimes a year, to move into a selected site and prepare it for signal installation and occupancy. Engineer construction troops were scarce, and shipping was not always at hand. To make matters worse, many of the locations were so far north that vessels could land supplies and men only during a few months out of the year. Sites for fixed radars were necessarily in wild and remote spots, requiring access roads to be carved out of the wilderness, dams built to assure a water supply, camp sites converted to permanent quarters for station attendants, messing facilities installed, and power houses erected.
Satisfactory sites for radar installations were difficult to find. When the sets were located at the foot of a hill or mountain, echoes caused double images to appear on the oscilloscopes. When they were located on the summits, echoes rebounded from the distant higher mountains. The station attendants improvised reflectors out of chicken wire, and there were other examples of ingenuity. Despite the highly technical equipment, the time never came when improvisation by men in the field was no longer necessary. Yet by trial and error, radar men found that a location similar to that selected for the Sitka station was best: part way down a hill and on a slope where beams from the radar would be reflected up and away from the station.63
When radar equipment arrived at its selected location, it was likely to be in poor condition. The SCR-270’s and 271’s were fairly rugged, but nevertheless they constituted highly intricate and delicately adjusted mechanisms ill-fitted to withstand the rough handling they had to endure before reaching Alaskan outposts. In most cases portions of the equipment had to be rebuilt or reconditioned. Many parts had to be replaced. Often, needed parts were not available, and had to be requisitioned from depots in the United States. To obtain them took from three weeks by air to six months by water for the larger items. At some locations barges loaded with radar apparatus capsized in storms and sank. Even on the surviving barges the equipment was thoroughly soaked by salt water. Radar crews by necessity became very proficient
at making repairs and constructing new parts from material at hand.64
By late summer of 1942, besides the two permanent SCR-271 stations at Sitka and Chiniak, four temporary mobile SCR-270 radars were in service: at Montague Island, Cold Bay, Cape Nome, and Fort Glenn. The installation at Cape Wislow on Unalaska Island had been badly damaged by the Japanese raid on Dutch Harbor in June, and the parts of the radar set destroyed in the burning warehouses could not be replaced before September. A broken ceramic coil had made the mobile set at Cape Rodney on the Seward Peninsula inoperative. Still another mobile set was ready for installation at Cape Tanak on the Bering Sea side of Umnak Island, and fixed SCR-271’s were awaiting installation at Nikolski, Lazy Bay, Otter Island, and Prominence on Unalaska Island. Installations planned for seven other locations awaited the allotment of additional SCR-271 sets which would not be available until 1943.65
As the war progressed, military planners were to find that the strategic situation changed faster than the rate of progress on radar construction in Alaska. Many of the proposed stations were canceled before they were completed or even begun, their strategic importance having diminished as the focal point of warfare moved westward. At various times until the end of the war, thirty-four Aircraft Warning Service projects were approved; of these, only eleven were completed.66
Getting equipment to Alaska was a headache. Usually shipments went by water from Seattle, but there were seldom enough vessels available to relieve the congestion of material waiting on the docks. High-priority items that could be transported by air were sometimes crowded into the Army Air Transport Command planes, now making regular runs through Edmonton, or into the twelve Northwest Airlines planes operating from Great Falls, Montana, to Fairbanks. After supplies arrived at Alaskan ports, there remained the problem of getting them into the interior. Until mid-1943 most of the water shipments came to Seward, and had to be transshipped by rail to Anchorage or Fairbanks. At Anchorage, a 32-foot tide prevented ships from docking for longer than six hours at a time. At Bethel, St. Michael, and Nome, shallow water near shore made it necessary to transfer cargoes to lighters for unloading. Some supplies sent overland by rail to Prince Rupert were transferred to barges and towed by tugs through inside water passages to Juneau and Skagway. Such circuitous routing and the frequent rehandlings and reloadings were costly, time-consuming, and hard on signal apparatus as well. Civilian help was scarce, and inefficient. Wages were high, and turnover heavy.67
All these factors affected the progress rate of communications installations in Alaska. Nevertheless, as summer faded into autumn, the Signal Corps could point to a very substantial record of achievement in Alaska. That it was able to do so much in so short a time could be traced to the fact that it possessed a seasoned veteran organization in the northwest, the Alaska Communication System, as an inspector from Washington pointed out in his report in September.68
The Alaska Communication System itself bad waxed greatly during the first half-year of war. Its civilian personnel had grown to 263 by 30 June, although 192 of these were on duty in the Seattle headquarters, and only 71 in the field in Alaska. Enlisted men on duty in connection with the operation and maintenance of the system had grown from 282 on 30 June 1941 to 1,011 by 30 June 1942. There were 38 officers. The value of the government traffic handled over the ACS network had practically doubled: from $1,207,301.95 in fiscal year 1941 to $2,339,710.20 in fiscal year 1942.69