Steel Soldiers of the Alaska Highway : Part One

TJ Wheelman's collection of trucks, living out their days with care in Anchorage, Alaska.      Photo: TJ Wheelman

"Many a night they went to bed
With bodies black and blue and red
In muck and mire, brimstone and fire
They bulldozed their way and and didn't tire." 

Winter's bleak nature zaps the energy from even the most determined souls. Snow-covered landscapes appear picturesque so long as you don't have to traverse them. From inside a 70-degree house with good insulation, a roaring fire in the fireplace, and a warm cup of coffee...winter is great. Once you're out in the thick of it, forget it! And if you think we have it bad here in the lower 48, try living through an Alaskan winter. You'd know the meaning of the word EXTREME. Folks living in extreme climates always intrigue us. Those who live with deadly wildlife do as well. Someone who lives in a place with both of those challenges, well...they're worth writing about. Especially if those challenges exist and that person still manages to collect and restore some of the most storied vehicles in recorded history.

Here is the story of  Mr. T.J. Wheelman of Anchorage, Alaska and his dedication to the preservation of several classic 2.5 ton trucks that helped build the Alaska Highway and protect our nation during WWII.

Alaska Route 51 in 1939.      
Photo: Alaska Road Commission Collection
Alaska Archives

Railroads connected several parts of Alaska between the late 1800's and the 1920's but the rest of the territory prior to the construction of the Alaska Highway was fairly difficult to navigate. Harsh winter weather followed by wet summers and soft ground didn't make for the best conditions to move goods or people around. Land travel in Alaska required true grit, something the residents definitely had.

With a population of roughly 72,000 residents in 1940, Alaska was home to descendants of the gold rush. Additionally, Native Alaskans of Indian, Eskimo and Aleut ancestry made their homes there. Fishing, trapping, and mining industries were key to the territory's economy. Life was hard but good for the most part..that is until war broke out in the Pacific. After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, it became clear that the United States and Canada would need a route to move military troops and equipment north to Alaska and secure North America from a second Japanese attack. The closest Japanese military base was just 750 miles from the tip of the Aleutian Islands and fears of a full-blown Japanese invasion were well-founded. On February 2, 1942 the plans for a military supply route through much of Alaska were unveiled and within the month, President Roosevelt authorized its construction.

Photo: Prelinger Archive
The Pioneer Road 

The initial Alaska Highway route, dubbed the 'pioneer road', would run from Dawson Creek in British Columbia, to Fairbanks, Alaska. The road would span roughly 1,500 miles through five mountain ranges and rugged wilderness. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, already taxed from the war, pulled mostly African-American troops from the southern United States and assigned them to the Alaska Highway project. Many of these men had experienced a harsh northern winter and were sent out to tame the wilderness with heavy equipment, trucks, tools, tents and limited provisions.

African-American troops at an Army in Alaska.    
Photo: Alaska Digital Archives
The job was grueling. Highway construction was fraught with danger at every turn. Spring thaws turned into landslides once timber was cleared. Temporary bridges washed out, cutting off supply shipments. Mosquitoes ate the men alive, not to mention the threat of bears and other wildlife. Often times the men wore through their clothes and makeshift tents weren't enough to ward off the frostbite as an unseasonably cold autumn moved through the land.

A Caterpillar bulldozer clears the way in 1942  
Photo: Library of Congress
Caterpillar bulldozers and graters were put to use clearing the land and fleets of Studebaker US6 and GM CCKW 2.5-ton 6x6 trucks were shipped to the region in droves. Roughly 100,000 trucks worked as hard as the soldiers who operated them. Their 270 cubic inch GMC and 320 cubic inch Hercules JXD six cylinders were fed a steady ration of fuel and kept alive in creative ways by servicemen in the motor pool. Replacement parts were several weeks and hundreds of miles away. Often times, there wasn't an easy way to get to the crews in the field. The fact that these vehicles made it through the mission was a testament to the quality of the machinery and the ingenuity of those who serviced them. Troops and contractors worked 15 to 20 hour days on the 'pioneer road' from March 8, to November 20, 1942 and prepared the area for civilian contractors to permanently complete the following year.

Workers celebrated the completion of the Alaska Highway pioneer route on November 20, 1942 at Soldier's Summit. That celebration was delayed by a week after three crucial bridges were washed out after November flooding. The following year, a permanent road was constructed by engineers and contractors from the U.S. and Canada and by 1947 the Alaska (now-ALCAN) Highway was fully opened to the public. The landscape was forever changed and the machines that helped make it possible were sold at surplus auctions. Many were immediately put back to work on the Alaska Railroad, in the oil or timber industries. Those cold steel soldiers would be left behind to march through time while thousands of servicemen and contractors headed back home in the lower 48.

WWII-era Studebaker ad promoting their role in the war effort.     Photo:

Where Are They Now? 

TJ Wheelman resides in Anchorage, Alaska and is a truck driver by trade. In his spare time he keeps his historic fleet of military iron running. A lot of folks may be wondering why are there so many of these 2.5 ton beasts in the Alaskan wilderness? According to TJ, the Army largely dumped them at surplus auctions after the Alaska Highway was finished. With a large, sparse population and few new truck sales until Alaskan statehood in 1959, the GM's and Studebakers were given a second career in countless professions.

I first stumbled onto TJ Wheelman of Anchorage, Alaska after watching a few clips on his excellent YouTube channel. (Its well worth a visit, BTW.) Several months ago while researching military trucks I saw that TJ owned many WWII-era GM CCKW and Studebaker US6 trucks. Most of them seemed to run and drive as you can see in his videos. Then I watched more of his YouTube clips and started counting. Dang, he has a lot of trucks. TJ's hobby of collecting trucks is serious!

How serious? Just try to count the war horses in his stable.

TJ Wheelman's collection covers a lot of ground.
Many of these 70 year-old 6x6 trucks run and drive and still
earn a living hauling parts or helping out around the property.
Photo: TJ Wheelman

There's almost any color you'd like, from Alaska Railroad yellow to original
olive drab.
Photo: TJ Wheelman
Notice the slightly longer nose of the US6 and raked windshield as compared to
the CCKW trucks in the lineup.
Photo: TJ Wheelman

Some trucks had their frames reinforced to haul heavy cargo boxes, others were fitted with well-drilling equipment. Many of the trucks' new owners also replaced their truck tires with something a little more substantial.

Airplane tires.

Studebaker US6 shown outfitted "swamp buggy" style with aircraft tires
and chains to aid traction.
Photo: TJ Wheelman

TJ explains how these former military rigs were outfitted by their second owners.

"Early Alaskan pioneers were quick to realize the truck's ruggedness and all-wheel-drive potential and quickly adapted Douglas DC-3 aircraft tires to the trucks to better navigate Alaska's  poor roads and remote bush areas, thus giving the trucks a new designation as "Swamp Buggy". The name stuck. Tire chains and A-frame front end lifting booms operated by the front winch completed the units into the ultimate work horse, and work horses they were. These were not recreational toys but necessary pieces of equipment  for living and working in a harsh environment."  -T.J. Wheelman

Frozen in Time

Perhaps the greatest vintage truck story that T.J. tells is the one about the expedition to retrieve his 1945 Studebaker US6 that he says was "frozen in time" in a remote area that wasn't easily accessible except by airplane. Not only did T.J. recover the truck, he and his friends got it running and drove it 75 miles back to civilization. You won't want to miss this tale.

That epic tale is featured in part two of our story. 



  1. Great story. I enjoyed it. Couldn't do it today, the greenies would sue to stop it. I can't imagine the work conditions those workers endured.

    1. Thanks for reading and sharing your comments. I wouldn't want to be in those guys shoes either, I hate the cold too much!

  2. My uncle (long since sadly passed away) recalled riding in the Weasels that Studebaker built expressly for the Black Ops mission to transport the “brigade” troops across the frozen Norwegian ice on the way to Monte La Difensa, where the Devil’s Brigade commandos made a near vertical ascent in the freezing rain to take the Nazis by surprise and seize their location.

    My FIL recalled how the Studebaker engines in the Canadian tanks ran forever due to the Studebaker engineering (which was likely why most post-war Studebakers had billowing blue smoke trailing from the tailpipe - IIRC it was because the oil galleries in the side-mounted valve compartment received too much oil, later resolved by inserting a screw to reduce the amount of oil that got past the valve seals all too regularly!)

    And let’s not forget the evacuating troops in Burma that couldn’t get the Stude engines to quit even after they drained the crankcases before their exit from that theatre! The Japanese forces apparently found them still running when they arrived… or the trucks the US shipped to the former USSR as part of the “lend-lease” program before and during WW2 and all trucks were called “Studebakers” thereafter, again IIRC.

    1. Thank you for the insight into the Studebakers in WWII and family stories...that's what makes this hobby great. Personal connections to the past and living history that we can drive. I did come across some fascinating articles on the Lend-Lease Studebakers and its not widely known (to a lot of car buffs) that these ended up in Russia and were loved by their drivers for the rugged durability you mentioned. Even if they maybe burned a little oil :)

  3. Thanks for your article about building the great Alaskan Highway and those involved in it. Those old trucks had to haul some heavy equipment through some rough terrain. I'm glad that someone has preserved those trucks for us to see. It would be interesting to see what kind of equipment and trucks would be used if the same thing had to be build today.


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