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
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 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
|A Caterpillar bulldozer clears the way in 1942 |
Photo: Library of Congress
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: http://usautoindustryworldwartwo.com/studebaker.htm|
Where Are They Now?
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|
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.
|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.