Steel Soliders of the Alaska Highway: Part Two

An abandoned 1945 Studebaker US6 receives CPR in rural Alaska. (Summer, 2009)
Photo: T.J. Wheelman

Welcome back, friends!

Previously here at Throwin' Wrenches, we looked at the collection of military trucks owned by T.J. Wheelman and their past roles in the construction of the Alaska Highway. Part two of this story involves something much greater: bringing history to life and driving off into the future. A lot of us have worked on old trucks or cars and brought a derelict to life after years of neglect. Its an empowering feeling, isn't it? Knock off some rust, throw some ether down the carburetor, install a fresh battery, hit the key and boom! We've got a pulse!

Its not always that easy. Some project vehicles are more stubborn than that. They require extra finesse. Extra money. Extra time. If you're living in Alaska there's also the threat of the remote terrain and seasonal weather that make pulling an old truck out of the weeds a challenge requiring the strength of many men and months of planning. T.J. Wheelman's 1945 Studebaker US6 came to him the hard way, and here's how he tackled the project. 

The following is an excerpt of T.J.'s story, sent via email. 

Studebaker US6 Frozen in Time

Alaska, God's country. 

There are a lot of really good beer-drinking stories about lost relics or abandoned treasures in the massive Alaskan wilderness. There are stories of lost gold mines and eccentric miners who vanished or died after burying a cache of gold in the late 1800s or early 1900s that's just waiting for some lucky soul to stumble over. There are dozens stories of wrecked WWII aircraft and one particularly of a crash landed and mostly intact Bell P-39 Air Cobra that is said to have belly landed in eight feet of powdered snow somewhere up around Eureka Summit during the war.

The locals however are pretty tight-lipped concerning these stories and don't give up their secrets very often, especially to city slickers. 
Most of these tales are just that...good stories. Many are probably based on a grain of truth and nothing more but they make good stories and they're OUR stories. One story that has been around for decades is that of a big game hunting guide that had a place north of Eureka. The story goes that he had a Studebaker US6 from WWII that he used to haul supplies from an air field that is 75 miles out of Eureka. 
Aerial photograph of the fabled Studebaker US6 'Frozen in Time' .
Photo: T.J. Wheelman

According to the story, the old gentleman had eventually died and the Studebaker had sat abandoned at the remote airstrip ever since. The truck's engine had water instead of anti-freeze in it and supposedly froze up with ice and broke the cylinder head. The truck, it is said, is all there and intact.

T.J. and friends size up the US6 before bringing it back to life.
Photo: T.J. Wheelman

To claim this relic would be simple, all a person would have to do is find a cylinder head for a 1940s Hercules JXD , fly up to the air field that is 75 miles from no where , install the cylinder head and then get a truck running that has sat deteriorating for 20 years in the Alaskan wilderness , have someone fly you gas and beer and then drive a 1945 Studebaker 75 miles back to civilization. 
Oh and did I mention that there are no roads and plenty of grizzly bears too? That really would make a good story.

Getting things in order under the hood.
Photo: T.J. Wheelman

On the road again in 2009.
Photo: T.J. Wheelman

Well that's just exactly what we did. The story of the old truck is true and I loaned him a Hercules JXD cylinder head in August of 2009. Ray has an airplane and flew 'Close Air Support' hauling fuel, beer and moral support from all of us here at home. I think the photos explain the rest. Oh and if you ask why did they do this? If I have to explain, you wouldn't understand.

Here's a video clip from the mighty Hercules roaring to life in 2009. Nice job, guys!  -D

And here's a clip of the Studebaker traveling through a creek bed going through the gears. Both are from T.J.'s YouTube channel.  -D

Alaska's state motto is "North to the Future". How very fitting since in the summer of 2013, the old Studebaker T.J. and company recovered was the lucky recipient of something very engine overhaul. With hard work and a little research, T.J. is working to keep relics like this US6 around for another 70 years.

We'd like to thank T.J. Wheelman for sharing his story and photographs with us after we reached out to him. Getting to know people who preserve such unique history is a real treat, and in another life I could see myself getting into some heavy iron like these trucks. 

Fun Facts

*Studebaker not only built trucks like the US6 for the war effort, it also manufactured airplane engines and small track-type vehicles called "weasels". Its also estimated that 95% of their workforce at the time purchased war bonds.

*Studebaker also manufactured the US6 trucks under the Lend-Lease agreement that wound up in Russia, where they took hold and became an important tool for Russian troops in their battles with Germany.

*Rusty Dow, the first woman to drive the Alaska Highway drove a Studebaker truck

TJ's Alaska Trucker YouTube channel

Yukon Archives

PBS "American Experience" episode on the Alaska Highway

Thanks, as always for stopping by! 



Post a Comment

Thank you for your feedback on Throwin' Wrenches.

Popular Posts