Arctic Diary: My Year on the Alcan Highway
A collection of stories by RCAF nurse, Mary Elizabeth Fairey
Early in 1942, the U.S. Government conceived the idea of building a road through the mountainous wilderness of northwestern Alberta, British Columbia, the Yukon and Alaska forging a link between Edmonton and Fairbanks.
My Life with the Yankees and Rebels
The purpose of this link was to equip and service a chain of projected Airfields that would in turn provide the shortest route for the fastest possible delivery of American planes to Russia to aid in her war with Germany and Japan. American pilots would ferry the machines from Great Falls, Montana, to Fairbanks, Alaska, where Russian fliers would take over.
Mid-summer saw the plan begin to unfold as construction was started by the U.S. Engineers Division on the 'Alcan Highway'.
One of the immediate projects in this undertaking was the building of a terminal warehouse in Edmonton where materials and equipment could be collected and stored for shipment by truck to the various points along the highway. This particular contract was given to a civilian firm - Metcalf, Hamilton, Kansas City Bridge Co.
In the February following, Chris Justik, a grad for the Misericordia Hospital in Edmonton, and I, started together to work for M.H.K.C.B.
In this book (given to me by Chris) I am endeavoring to record a pictorial account of the months that followed, depicting, in so far as I am able, the people who meant so much to me, and the places I came so to love.
Individuals, when they are separated from families, removed from known haunts and projected into a state of isolation from all things familiar, are forced - if they are to survive the impact - into an unaccustomed dependence on those other individuals who share their lot.
With little apart from work in the way of diversion, idle hours are necessarily spent in talk. Casual talk, trivial talk; earnest and sincere talk. It is in this reciprocal reaching out and accepting that one learns to appreciate one’s fellow man and to understand him in all his strengths and weaknesses. It was a good life.
Here, then, is my introduction to our Allies in war and peace - The Americans!
The Wedding Gift
Chris, I remember with sadness and regret. She became engaged to one of the truck drivers for whom I didn’t particularly care, and sometime after I’d left Edmonton and returned again, her sister told me the engagement had been broken. I replied that I was glad since I hadn’t thought him good enough for Chris.
Next thing I knew, they were married and can only assume that the sister passed along my thoughtless remark - she never has acknowledged my wedding gift. It was then I learned that if one wishes to maintain friendships one keeps one’s big, fat mouth shut. Years later I saw her in Edmonton when she’d returned from the States to visit her family. We met as strangers.
Herbie, who loved Tschaikowsky, poetry, liquor and sometimes lightly, me, came originally from Honolulu and had worked on a newspaper in San Francisco. He was tremendously good company with a fund of poetry and nonsense that he spouted by the yard. We had so many good times together dancing, listening to records, talking.
He and my Mother got along fine until she found out he was a Roman Catholic. The roof fell in. I knew Herbie was not for me - there would have been the heights and too many depths and I needed a more even keel, but the situation at home became such that I, being younger than my years, seriously considered marrying him and escaping from it all.
Sanity returned and Whitehorse presented a better idea. Herbie went back to the States and joined the Marines. I wonder if the irony was intentional when he gave me his St. Christopher medal at that mournful parting.
Whitehorse, Yukon Territory
It would be interesting to know how many more people picked that vast north land as a means of escape and from what they were escaping. The Army personnel had no choice in their destiny. There were those who accepted it as part of their duty and found they were entranced with the glamor of the North. Still others there were who hated it and lived out their time in rebellion against it.
Some of the civilians undoubtedly were draft-dodgers, while others were constructively putting in time till call-up. The 4-F'ers had chosen this means of serving, to the best of their ability, their country in time of war. Along with the gold-brickers and lead-swingers were many of the finest people I have known.
Betty Balega, shown standing on the bridge over Miles Canyon, was anticipating a happy marriage to a young diplomat in Washington when, a week before the wedding, he had been killed in a plane crash. Betty sought escape in the Yukon but she found that grief must be faced on its own ground. In a matter of weeks she returned to Washington where she was to become a Statistician in Gen. George Marshall’s office. Her admiration for that great man was boundless.
Among my souvenirs are a pair of ivory buttons Betty carved from a piece of Mastadon tusk she’d gotten in Juneau. During my honeymoon two years later, on a train out of Toronto, Walt and I met an old friend, Joe Cawthorpe, whom I had known as an intern back in training days. Joe, now in the Canadian Army, was on his way to Washington for a course in Tropical Medicine, so naturally I gave him Betty’s address.
She wrote an amusing account of their meeting. Joe, not having her phone number, had arrived at the apartment unannounced. Betty was taking a shower when the bell rang, and, expecting a dinner date shortly, called "Come in." Some little confusion followed but they were finally able to get the problem of who was who straightened out through a closed bathroom door. Betty and I knew each other only briefly but in that short period a friendship was formed that both will cherish, I’m sure, a life-time.
She married eventually and now lives on Long Island, N.Y. The other girl Helen, was a Canadian who’s soldier-husband had become an unknown quantity with the fall of Hong Kong. Happily, if memory serves alright, she received her first letter from him through the Red Cross while we were still in Whitehorse.
There were dozens of barracks like ours, shown in the picture.
The shots of the hills where I climbed on sunny afternoons and the river by which I wandered are regrettably poor photography. It was very beautiful. Nor have I any record of the night I stood on a bluff behind the quarters and watched the midnight sun trace its path low on the horizon, then, not quite sinking from view, begin its upward climb to start another day.
Watson Lake, Yukon Territory
I had been at Whitehorse only about six weeks when the M/O in charge asked if I would be willing to go to work at Watson Lake. This was by no means preferential treatment since Watson Lake, at that time, was no more than a name for a God-forsaken camp hewn out of the bush somewhere south-east of Whitehorse and no one else wanted to go.
But I had no attachments apart from Betty at Whitehorse, and with her imminent leaving, it made no difference to me where I worked. There-upon began a unique period in my life. The pictures are of some of the people with whom I shared so many happy, and sometimes sad, experiences.
As a civilian, rank was no barrier and my friendships ranged from the Major C/O (an interesting authority on Hula dancing) to many a lowly buck private. It will be noted that my world was predominantly male, but considering that I was the only nurse, indeed only the seventh female on a post of 1,000 men, this situation is readily understandable.
The number of women later grew to 15 or 20 but we were all kept so busy, my room-mate, Irene Schober, was the only one I knew well. There never was a hen party.
"Poppa" Nardini, a delightful person, came from someplace in Central America, I believe, and spoke with a heavy Spanish accent. He gave me this picture as a memento.
Ernie Heffer, the Doc. and I in front of the hospital. His wife sent me those scarce nylons and Schraaft candies from Brooklyn. To Ernie I owed much. He, it was, a Jew, with tremendous gentleness and perception, who healed the rift caused by a Catholic between my Mother and me, protestants. What a marvellous world! Knowing him was a wonderful experience.
Ernie was later transferred to Edmonton where Zelda and their little girl joined him. They were extremely kind to my Mother, visiting her and keeping track of her while she was alone. They’re back in Brooklyn now where Ernie is practising his specialty - Pediatrics.
Irene Schober, who was secretary to Maj. Dunlap, hailed from Chicago. Irene was full of zip, ready to try most anything and a good scout in all ways. An ardent fan of Ernie Pyle, it was through her I came to share the admiration of every American soldier for that gallant correspondent. Last I heard of Irene she was up in Anchorage, Alaska, raising a flock of young ones.
Dick Lipscomb, ass’t. To Maj. Dunlap, was one of God’s own people. He lived in horror lest some hint of infidelity reach his wife so Irene and I attempted to compromise him on every possible occasion. Dick remained entirely true and his departure brought the end of something fresh and good.
That’s J.J. Van Gundy, engineer, and Mike the first-aid man at No. 2 camp across the field, in the jeep. Van had an unhappy marriage behind him and a little girl named Nancy whom he adored. Rejected by the U.S. army, he later joined the R.C.A.F. Wish I knew what’s become of him.
The photograph of the lake was taken by Irene in front of our barracks at about 8:30 in the evening. Nowhere in this world have I seen such magnificent sunset or such awe-inspiring northern lights as those we witnessed so frequently at Watson Lake.
Watson Lake - a Northern Jewel
For someone seeking temporary respite from the stresses and strains of emotional turmoil Watson Lake must have been specifically created. Only about a mile wide and seven or eight miles long, it nestled down among the hills - a lovely jewel. Summertime drenched it in long, golden days that ended with a final triumph as the settling sun lit the western sky in evening glory, reflecting its blazing colors in the quiet waters of the lake.
Autumn brought crisp, sparkling air and discarded the green for all the colorful splendor of Indian summer. At night the heavens held a thousand stars and, perhaps, a thin, blue-white wash of northern lights streaking high above the end of the lake. The inky darkness in between broken only by the bright ray of the control tower beam knifing its long finger in a wide arc through the night.
Winter unfolded its own special pristine beauty. The world became a wondrous fairy land of hoary trees with elfin tracery bending to meet the whiteness of the snow. Cold, clear nights came alive as the northern lights flashed their ghostly hues of blue, green, red and white back and forth across the entire sky.
Travel by Dog Team
One day we "mushed" 30 miles (round trip) through the brush and across the Liard to take medicine (from the U.S. Dispensary) and food (from the U.S. Commissary) to some of Canada’s Indians.
With me are Father Poulet, the R.C. Priest, one of the Mounties, and an Indian guide.
We found the mother of the children shown, in a sleeping bag on the floor of the cabin, with a high fever and all the symptoms of pneumonia. Her infant lay beside her. The only food items on the shelf (there wasn’t a cupboard in the room) were a bag of dried beans and a small jar of tea. The father, known as Liard Tom, explained that with his wife sick there was no one to look after the traplines.
It was impossible to tell by those impassive faces whether or not they understood the instructions for the sulfa pills I left so I gave her an extra dose, just in case. In any event she did later recover.
In answer to my query about the little girl with the light-colored beret - her color was decidedly white and her face, unlike her brothers and sisters, animated - the Mountie informed me that the father in this particular wood-pile had been a previous Hudson’s Bay Co. factor. The child’s name was Lily!
The Land of Sam McGee
There were few places to go and transportation limited, but occasionally I joined one or other of the fellows on an inspection jaunt to some small out-lying camp. Sometimes we are with the men in the bush, using decidedly rudimentary equipment on a bare table but the food was always good and I had a logger’s appetite.
I accompanied Sam Luttrel on one of these visits. Sam was a particular friend of Van Gundy’s and they later joined the R.C.A.F. together in Edmonton. I shall always be embarrassed by the night I invited them (while they were at Manning Depot) over to Mother’s for "the biggest steak I can find." Never having previously cooked a steak I fried the daylights out of it and none of us could cut it. It was a terrible dinner!
Bob Tomlinson, the boss of M.H.K.C.B., came from North Carolina. He was a bit of a wolf in a poetic sort of way. I never quite got over the night we were driving back from someplace I’ve forgotten, when he stopped the pick-up we were in at the side of the highway, took both my hands in his and, eyeing the top button of my shirt, said "Ah’d sho’ nuff admah to see the moonlight shinin’ down between those alabastah pillahs."
I think he loved the North. He had an extensive knowledge of Robert Service and his rendition at a civilian party of "The Cremation of Sam McGee" was certainly stirring. I can still see the old boy sizzling in that furnace.
The Chipmunk in the picture is perched on a corner of the M.H.K.C.B. mess hall near our barracks where I sat with the civilians on wooden benches and ate at long rows of scrubbed tables. The food was generally very good, tremendous in quantity, and here I became acquainted with hominy grits and corn pone.
At one time or another I sampled the offerings of every other mess hall on the Post, and occasionally someone brought some special little treat to the hospital. An outstanding one of these was cooked by Lt. Col. Merritt (the new C.O. after Maj. Johnston was transferred to Nome,) - Ptarmigan with his own particular celery dressing. Marvellous!
Ptarmigan, incidentally, at first were very stupid birds. In the winter they sat about on fence posts and one of the hospital boys (a curly haired Pvt. from the deep South who called me "Ludy-Belle") bagged several with a slingshot.
The bear cub near the car was kept as a pet by the men and became quite tame. The other pictures are various shots of Indian dogs. The group at the bottom look like Huskies, though most of them were Malamutes.
Bill Bonser was an interesting person. He claimed that he and his wife, in Ohio, communicated by mental telepathy - that each knew what the other was doing at any given time of day. I asked why they bothered with letters and he said merely for purposes of confirmation. Who’s to know? He didn’t look in the least peculiar and was a really nice fellow.
Work at the hospital was not arduous and almost entirely pleasant. We looked after Army people, U.S. and Canadian Air Force, civilian workers, Indians and anyone else turning up in need of medical attention. One of my first chores was making curtains (by hand) out of a bolt of factory cotton, scrounged from who knows where, for all the hospital windows. Blinds didn’t exist.
We were equipped only for minor ailments; such things as broken legs, severe pneumonias, heart conditions and acute abdomens being flown out, after emergency treatment, to the larger Station Hospital at Whitehorse or the Base Hospital in Edmonton. I, who needed it least, had quite a few trips out with such patients lashed on a stretcher, to the top of whatever cargo happened to be carried by the first plane passing through.
There were enough cuts and bruises, burns and bouts of flu to keep us fairly busy. I did some routine bloods for Wassermanns and learned to sew neat seams up the front of a foot gashed by an axe, a fairly common occurrence. Then there were penicillin shots for a few hapless ones returning from leave. - What tragedy can be born from nothing more censurable than human loneliness!
There were two or three fatal accidents, a man burned in an explosion and another crushed by a truck, both dead on arrival at the hospital so nothing left to do but make a report, tag the body, ship it out and be sorry.
As always with the Army, there was a tremendous amount of paperwork. I had to make detailed reports in quadruplicate, for Compensation purposes, on every construction worker who came in, however trivial his complaint. Apart from the ward charts, the enlisted men and Matt Schmuck looked after the other U.S. and R.C.A.F. records. There was always time for coffee and talk!
Ft. Nelson Airfield
Due to security regulations, cameras were not allowed on the field, but these pictures, though taken later at Ft. Nelson, show some of the thousands of machines that passed through Watson Lake.
Mostly small pursuit planes like the Airacobra P-39 (commonly known as the Peashooter) and the Lightning P-38, there were also many medium bombers as the B-25 Mitchell, B-26 Marauder, A-20 Invader; and the four-motor heavies, the B-24 Liberator and that beautiful ship the B-17 Flying Fortress.
I loved those gallant little P-39’s that looked so wicked and made such a racket taking off over our barracks at the crack of dawn, and the DC 3 Dakotas won a place of affection in all our hearts. The sturdy old DC 3 truly earned its reputation as the "Workhorse of the North" plying up and down the route, faithfully carrying an endless stream of men and materials.
Princess Alice and the Earl of Athlone
I did not meet them. The R.C.A.F. C/O was a thorough-going bounder whom I chose to ignore and I think he was paying me back when he neglected to invite me to the party for them in the Mess.
However, I was told later that Princess Alice, sitting behind me at the movies that night, had admired my braids. - My one brush with Royalty.
The pictures are of the U.S.E.D. employees (United States Engineers Division), taken in front of the office. The one in which I’ve a stranglehold on Dick was for his wife.
There were two Royal Canadian Mounted Policemen in the Watson Lake detachment, Cpl. Coulson (second from the left,) and the Inspector, whose name I can’t recall (last on the right.) The other two were from Headquarters at Whitehorse and are shown here with Bob Tomlinson in front of the R.C.M.P. Barracks across the road from the Dispensary.
The Mounties covered all the territory within a 75 - mile radius of Watson Lake, and in their various roles as counsellor, doctor, mid-wife, legal adviser, welfare officer, policeman and friend to the scattered Indian population gathered many a strange and wonderful tale of the North. Mighty fine people they were.
I don’t remember where they float plane came from, but that’s Dick and Mike on it with Nardini at the window. That’s Lt. Isaacson, Dentist from Whitehorse, with Harold Todd and Ernie.
Bob Baumgartner, a lawyer and Special Investigator for the U.S.A.A.F., was one of those to whom the North was cruel. Isolation he found unbearable and depression set in. We spent long evenings at the hospital just talking and covering every conceivable subject. Somehow his wife (that’s Marion with him) was smuggled up for ten days and he was a new man.
However, an unsympathetic Army later transferred him to Nome, Alaska, where he cracked completely and had to be brought out under guard. Hope you’re well now, Bob - you were one of my special ones.
The Christmas Show
There were few diversions other than those created by the boys themselves. With the approach of Christmas, plans were made for a show in the Rec. Hall, to take the form of Dickens’ Christmas Carol with Puppets, and a fantasy that would rely on lighting effects and a narrator to get its message across.
Sgt. Jack Sommerfeld and I were good friends. Jack, who made all the puppets, was an artist and furniture designer back in Fond du Lac, Wis. I was his model for an oil portrait which he later had shown in an exhibition back in the States and he gave me a watercolor he’d done of the Northern Lights. One of my great regrets is that it was lost in some shuffle of later years. I wonder if he ever made the three-legged chair for which he was trying to dream up a practicable design.
Sgt. Paul Lovett had been in show business in civilian life and bore all the attributes commonly associated with Broadway producers including the cigar and mercurial temperament. He was on leave when "Oklahoma!" opened in New York and returned with the score and a lot of big ideas. Before I knew it, he had me talked into doing some of the songs with a shy young Pvt. (1st Class) with a beautiful tenor voice, at another show the boys put on.
Jack painted the backdrop - a sunny cornfield beside a red barn, and my honey and I held hands over the fence while we sang "Oh What a Beautiful Morning!" "People Will Say We’re in Love," etc. I don’t recall that the rave notices were tremendous, but at least we brought "Oklahoma!" to Watson Lake before the U.S.O. shows did it to death.
Then we performed the Christmas Story told in modern idiom. A fighter pilot is shot down on Christmas Eve. He sees a vision of Mary and Joseph, and as the vision unfolds before him, he understands the true significance of the Story in its beauty and simplicity. As the vision disappears, he joins in adoration.
I wish I had the script, and I don’t recall who wrote it - possibly Lovett. It was good. Irene portrayed Mary. Lt. Spelius was the pilot. Joseph, I’ve forgotten.
Christmas at the U.S.E.D. office. There isn’t great happiness registered on the faces of Irene, Van, Cookie, Dick, and Major Dunlap. No doubt their thoughts were on other Christmases and what might have been.
Unfortunately, I missed the celebrations at Watson Lake. One of the waitresses developed an acute appendix on the twenty-third of December and I had to take her to Whitehorse for an emergency operation. The weather closed in solidly and not a soul would fly me back.
I had a high old time in Whitehorse, attending the Christmas party and dance at the Officers’ Mess, accompanied by no less than three doctors and two dentists, but I yearned to be “home” in Watson. Didn’t get a change of sox or underwear for three days and nights either, and went to the party in the same viyella shirt, ski pants and moccasins.
Every Sunday night there was a dance in the recreation hall for the G.I.’s. Amongst them the boys had formed an excellent orchestra that beat out such old favorites as "Don’t Fence Me In," "Deep in the Heart of Texas," and "Pistol Packin’ Mama," in rare form.
Those dances did something for a girl’s ego. With a couple of hundred lads turning up and so few girls available, we seldom got more than halfway round the floor with the same partner. It was usually three or four steps then tag; a few more steps with the next one and tag again.
One short private, with whom I loved dancing, managed to teach me a routine named the peabody, which was a graceful forward cross and pivot, then backward and pivot. Never remembering his difficult Polish name, I just called him Mr. Peabody. The boys at the hospital tried to initiate me into the intricacies of jitterbugging but I wasn’t cut out for that sort of thing.
There were lots of good dancers and some who were pretty awful, but with the rapid change, and the main requisite became adaptability. When intermission rolled around, a stack of records was put on the player and we girls danced with the Orchestra. I always counted on a round with the younger Mountie, Jack Coulson, who played a clarinet. I think he rather liked me, but he was much too shy to say.
Although this feverish activity took a certain toll of our feet, Irene and I rarely missed a Sunday night for months on end, and I’m sure our enjoyment was just as great as the men’s need to have us there.
Once or twice a week, at least on Fridays, there was a movie, also in the Rec. Hall, provided by the U.S. Red Cross and of course nearly everyone attended. It was there I first saw "Arsenic and Old Lace," and there were many good ones. Occasionally there was a U.S.O. show through, with such people as Kay Francis, Marsha Hunt, Reginald Gardiner, etc. Some of them were excellent but others disappointing, the accent apparently on the celebrities rather than on the calibre of the entertainment they provided. However, if you’d been there long enough, you could laugh at most anything.
There were Catholic, Protestant, and on special days as Yom Kippur, Jewish services held (recreation hall again) and Irene and I went to church most Sunday mornings.
Then, of course, there were companionable walks down the road on a sunny afternoon, or the odd stroll by the lake in the moonlight.
With the onset of winter, we took to snow shoes. I don’t recall any record-breaking temperatures at Watson Lake - it ranged somewhere around 50 or 60 below by times, but I do know that in that winter, at Whitehorse, the mercury reached -72 degrees. On one comparatively balmy day, Irene, Patterson (the pharmacist), Allen (chief clerk at the hospital) and I, set out across the lake for a steak fry - a novelty to a Canuck accustomed to beans and hot dogs.
We followed some rabbit tracks and watched the Ptarmigan for a while, then cleared a dug-out for the fire in the deep snow with our snow-shoes. I suppose the steaks were alright, but it wasn’t a very gay party and we started back across the lake much earlier than we’d intended. On reaching the Dispensary, the cause of our discomfort was suddenly clear. The temperature had dropped to 40 below.
The Hangar Completed
The night they wrote "Mission Accomplished" with the opening of the hangar, every last man at the Post was invited to the celebration. Only hitch - the Champagne bottle wouldn’t break so they hit it with a hammer.
Those are the cooks, responsible for the dinner, looking a little battle-worn after it was all over. That’s me just about out of range at the left of the Union Jack.
The Last Chapter
With the beginning of 1944, construction had almost finished. The rock and the swamps had been conquered; rivers had been bridged; the Highway was completed and a steady stream of planes was flowing from the South to the North. With the advance of the War, the Air Force stations were becoming larger, but the work of many civilians, not required for maintenance, was all but over and they began drifting out.
And so, abruptly, it came my turn. The First-Aid stations at the camps about Whitehorse were closing and one of the immediate nurses was sent to replace me. There were many pangs in leaving.
My days had been very full. Through work and play; laugher and, sometimes, tears, I had formed associations I was loath to break. It could never be the same on the “outside,” - Civilization and Sunday clothes somehow imposed a certain restraint on the easy camaraderie. I wanted to turn back the months.
Because of all those people, with whom I shared many good things, and from whom I received so much, my life will always be richer. Some of them I failed, and I’m sorry. Perhaps the intervening years have brought forgiveness. I hope at least a few may still sometimes remember me with affection and regard me as a fit ambassador for the Canada I so deeply loved. Remembering them, I feel again a little of the sadness of parting.
For how, then, could I have foreseen that in one short year I would be back in that same north land, in almost identical surroundings, though next time in uniform and with one important difference - at the close of my stay, a Husband?