The early buildup of World War II garrisons in Alaska brought teletype and teletypewriter (TWX) capabilities to the military. The Japanese attacks on Fort Mears at Dutch Harbor, with the inability of Fort Mears to contact Fort Glenn 80 miles to the west for air support, resulted in the loss of human life and equipment. Immediate communications upgrading was an absolute necessity. Subsequently, the ACS was expanded from 200 personnel in 1940 to 2000 in 1944.
Among the more heroic and monumental tasks during World War II was the stringing of an open wire pole line by the military the length of the CANOL (Canadian Oil) pipeline (a part of which later became the Alaska Highway) in 1942. In mid-November, with a Washington, D.C. imposed 1December deadline, conditions were less than perfect:
"A warm Chinook wind had blown for several days, taking out the ice bridges across the rivers. A snowstorm leaving record amounts of snow followed the Chinook and drifts of three or more meters encountered. Three ton trucks were driven over half frozen rivers where the ice would dip and sag. Men floundered through two meter snow drifts and strung wire by oil lamps, flash lights, and automobile headlights in temperatures of 30 degrees below zero" (Jenne and Mitchell 1982: 16).
To close the gap just east of the Alaska/Canada border, 50 miles of swamp had to be crossed in the summer. Twenty men from the 255th Signal Construction Company and two Indian guides on pack horses completed the task by 1 October 1943. The muskeg was belly deep on the horses and the men were wet for four weeks at a time. Their motto became: "Through muck and mire, we string our wire." On 1 December, placement of the last segment of line enabled the deadline to be met.
World War II increased people’s awareness of Alaska and its strategic role in any ensuing conflicts. While memories of the War in the Pacific were still fresh, the U.S. military realized the continued need to protect America’s back door. Alaska might still be Seward’s Folly to some, but the attacks on Dutch Harbor and occupation of Kiska and Attu served as grim reminders that the U.S. could be attacked from the North Pacific. Of course, the Japanese government had been defeated, but the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was becoming increasingly expansionist and militaristic in western Europe. Soon after the end of the war, Rumania, Poland and East Germany fell under Communist rule and the domination of Eastern Europe was completed in 1949. In a speech in Fulton, MO, in 1946, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill coined the phrase "Iron Curtain" to characterize the Soviet stance in Europe. "Iron Curtain" became a catchword symbolizing a threatening, malevolent force. The threat of Communist revolution and takeover in newly emerging former European colonies was sometimes real and sometimes imagined. The watchwords of the day became containment and balance of power. The late 1940’s-early 1950’s was a time of tremendous tension and happenings of global significance, including the formation of NATO, birth of Palestine and the Korean War. In 1949, the Soviets exploded the atomic bomb and the Communist conquest of China was completed.
In the meantime, plans for the defense of North America and Alaska figured prominently. There were already many installations in place from the overnight buildup during World War II, although most had been deactivated Following a visit to Alaskan military bases In 1947 by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, a major rebuilding of Alaskan Air Command facilities was undertaken. One of MC’s first goals was construction of a permanent Aircraft Control and Warning (AC&W) system. They relied on remnants of the World War II system and there was no overall control of the system, just localized warnings that would have to be relayed in other ways. The existing air defense system was improved and a new radar system developed. By 1952, the following AC&W sites were operational: Cape Lisburne, Cape Newenham, Cape Romanzof, Tin City, Northeast Cape, Campion, Tatalina, King Salmon, Indian Mt., Sparrevohn, Murphy Dome and Fire Island (near Anchorage). Other sites became operational in later years.
The post-war years saw revamping of the submarine cable network and overland routes, always with increased capacity in the number of voice channels. ACS manual switchboards for commercial needs appeared in Glennallen, Tok, Delta Junction, Fairbanks, Anchorage, Juneau and Ketchikan. In the grip of the Cold War, plans were begun as early as 1947 for a system to defend against over-the-pole attack from the Soviet Union. Construction of added AC&W and ACS sites took place during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. The foes of severe weather conditions and primitive living conditions were commonplace. A member of the First Communications Squadron, Griffis AFB, wrote in his diary:
"The team has been living in tents with mud up to our knees, working 12 to 14 hours a day, and eating B rations (canned food). We had to haul the radar equipment seven miles over dangerous mountain roads to the tower. There were times we had to walk up the mountain due to lack of transportation... .We have worked in snow, sleet and fog until we were either soaked to the skin or our hands got so cold that we could hardly work. Many times the team returned from their work too late for chow and had to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches" (Cloe and Monaghan 1984: 167).
In 1948, experiments had begun to ascertain which type of communications would benefit Alaska and the AC&W system. The Distant Early Warning (DEW-line) system was also on the drawing board, and would be constructed beginning in 1952, with the Barter Island finished first as the "trial balloon." Initial experimentation showed that using VHF, reliable voice communications could be obtained for distances of up to 200 miles. Thus, the decision was made by the Air Force to incorporate this new system and pre-existing microwave technology. It soon became apparent that VHF had problems. The AC&W radar jammed VHF signals, and it was the AC&W stations that the new system was supposed to support. This frustration led to formation of the Alaska Communications Study group in 1954, comprised of government representatives whose task it was to come up with better idea. This group, in turn, asked the Bell System to recommend an economic way to create a communications system for Alaska. The demands placed on such a system would be large. It had to span long distances in inaccessible areas. It had to be dependable despite frequent storms, long winters, intense cold, wind and heat; and the disturbance of the Northern Lights. Because the system was to function for the military and civilian sectors, it had to have the ability to carry many voice and telegraph channels simultaneously. Bell recommended to the Defense Department the construction of a relatively new system, the forward propagation tropospheric scatter system. Because of the tremendous cost involved in constructing and managing a remote tropo site, more traditional, smaller and manageable microwave facilities would be used where possible. These would be constructed along the road system every 50 miles or so. This recommendation was accepted by the Air Force and Western Electric Company (WECO) was awarded the contract in 1955. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Alaska District, selected and surveyed all original WACS sites, handled all contracting and constructed 11 of the original 31. The saga of surveying the sites is a story in itself. Consider the one fact that experimental transmission towers had to be set up at each potential WACS site during the winter months and that the tower and accompanying equipment weighed 14 tons. WECO constructed 20 stations and installed the electronics equipment in all White Alice installations.
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