The year 1940 marked the beginning of a period that one Alaska economist and author, George Rogers, called “Military Alaska.” It would last well into the Cold War years leading to statehood, and its economic and social impact would continue to resonate, eclipsed only by the discovery of oil. One contemporary author at the time remarked that while the “…Gold Rush gave Alaska its mystique, the military put it on the map.” The arrival of the military in force during 1940 divides the old Alaska from the new Alaska.
The first air unit, the 18th Pursuit (later Fighter) Squadron, arrived at Elmendorf AFB on February 21, 1941. Commanded by Capt Norman D. Sillin, it was equipped with 20 Curtis P-36 Hawk aircraft. Two Douglas B-18 Bolo bomber squadrons, the 36th Bombardment, and the 73rd Bombardment squadrons followed the 18th Pursuit Squadron. Major William O. Eareckson, who was to achieve fame during the Aleutian Campaign, commanded the 36th.
Following the 7 December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Army rushed reinforcements to Alaska and replaced the older aircraft with newer models. The 11th Fighter Squadron, commanded by Maj. Jack Chennault and equipped with Curtis P-40Es Warhawks, arrived in January 1942, as did the 77th Bombardment Squadron under the command of Maj. Robert O. Cork. The 77th was equipped with the new and unproven Martin B-26 Marauder. The 73rd Bombardment Squadron received B-26s and the 18th Pursuit Squadron P-40s. The 36th Bombardment Squadron retained its B-18s until late May 1942, when it was re-equipped with Boeing B-17E Flying Fortresses.
To manage the buildup of forces, the Alaskan Air Force was activated on 15 January 1942 under the command of Colonel Everett S. Davis. It was redesignated the Eleventh Air Force on 5 February 1942. Brigadier General William O. Butler arrived shortly afterward to assume control.
For the first six months of the war, the Japanese went from one stunning victory after another. Then they became overconfident and launched a campaign to expand their empire in the Pacific farther eastward. The Japanese planned to seize New Guinea in the Southwest Pacific, Midway Island west of Hawaii, and the western Aleutians Islands. They would then establish a defensive line and negotiate a peace treaty favorable to themselves.
The Japanese initiated the Midway-Aleutian operation by conducting a carrier strike against the U.S. Navy base at Dutch Harbor as a diversion to the main offensive against Midway Island. The raids, conducted June 2-3 from the aircraft carriers Juyno and Ryujo, were the only major air attacks conducted against North American soil during World War II.
The attacks by dive and horizontal bombers and Zero fighters inflicted minimal damage. Eighty-six Army and Navy personnel were killed, and 11 aircraft were destroyed. Several buildings and fuel tanks were also demolished, and a barracks ship, the Northwestern, was damaged. In return, 11th Fighter Squadron fighters based at Otter Point, an airfield built in secret near Dutch Harbor on the east end of Umnak Island, intercepted and shot down five Japanese aircraft.
A slightly damaged Zero fighter was later found on nearby Akutan Island. It was restored to flyable condition and flown against other American fighters to determine its strengths and weaknesses to develop more effective tactics to counter it. Then Captain Ronald Reagan narrated a training film about it.
Following the Dutch Harbor attack, the Japanese landed forces on the western Aleutian Islands of Attu and Kiska. The landings caught the Americans by surprise and posed a dilemma. For the first time since the War of 1812, a foreign military force occupied U.S. soil. Two choices faced America: contain the Japanese on the two islands or launch an offensive to drive the enemy out of the Aleutians. The political and military leaders chose the latter. The presence of the Japanese proved embarrassing.
The military decided to launch an air offensive followed by landing forces on islands nearer to the Japanese. Additional reinforcements include the 21st and 404th Bomber squadrons, equipped with Consolidated B-24 Liberators; the 406th Bomber Squadron, Lockheed A-29 Hudsons; the 54th Fighter Group with Bell P-39 Cobras; and the 54th Fighter Squadron with Lockheed P-38 Lightnings were sent to Alaska.
Since the significant Japanese force was located on Kiska, the U.S. concentrated forces against that island. Initially, the missions were flown from Cape Field on Otter Point. However, the 1,200-mile round trip limited the effectiveness of the B-17s and B-24s and prevented the employment of the medium bombers and the fighters. On 30 August, troops went ashore at Kuluk Bay, Adak Island, and within ten days constructed an airfield located 250 miles from Kiska.
The first major attack from the new field was launched on 14 September. From then on, the number and intensity of the raids increased. However, a typical bombing mission in the Aleutians seldom exceeded ten bombers and a like number of fighters. Weather, rather than the Japanese, proved the greatest enemy.
The P-39s of the 54th Fighter Group proved unsuitable for the Aleutian conditions, and the group was withdrawn in December 1942, which left one bomber group, the 28th, consisting of three heavy and three medium bomber squadrons, and one fighter group, the 343rd, composed of four squadrons. The latter included the 344th Fighter Squadron, which formed from transferring personnel from the other three squadrons. Two troop carrier squadrons, the 42nd, and 54th provided passenger and high-priority cargo support.
The Royal Canadian Air Force also contributed a significant force. A bomber reconnaissance squadron was sent to Nome, and two P-40 squadrons, numbers 14 and 111 Fighter Squadrons, were committed to the Aleutians. Three other squadrons were based on Annette Island in southeastern Alaska.
The 54th Fighter Squadron was the only one equipped with the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. The others flew the single-engine, limited-range P-40. Because of its long-range, the twin-engine P-38 became the fighter of choice. As a result, the 54th suffered the loss of more than half of its original complement of 30 pilots.
On 12 January 1943, in preparation for a planned landing on Kiska, troops were brought to Constantine Harbor, Amchitka. Within a matter of weeks, a fighter strip was carved out. The 18th and 54th Fighter squadrons deployed forward. They were joined by North American B-25 Mitchell medium bombers from the 73rd and 77th Bombardment squadrons. The airfield on Amchitka placed the Eleventh Air Force within 60 miles of Kiska.
Headquarters Eleventh Air Force was moved to Adak, and the island became the primary base of operations for the remainder of the war.
Due to a shortage in shipping and the limited availability of forces, Vice Admiral Thomas Kinkaid, the overall commander in the Aleutians, decided to bypass Kiska and land troops on lesser-defended Attu Island. It was the first example of “leapfrog operations,” avoiding strongly defended positions, which became common practice in the Pacific.
In preparation for the assault planned for early May, Kinkaid ordered an all-out air assault against the two islands. The air assault, coupled with the end of winter and the improvement in the weather, resulted in a significant increase in mission. A total of 1,175 sorties were flown, and 771 tons of bombs were dropped during April 1943, breaking all records.
On 11 May, men from the 7th Infantry Division landed on Attu and in a hard-fought battle resulting in 549 dead and 1,148 wounded, with another 2,100 taken out of action for various other causes. It ended with a mass Japanese suicide charge against American positions on Engineer Ridge during the predawn hours of 29 May. Of the approximately 2,500 Japanese defending the island, only 29 survived as prisoners of war. The rest either died in battle or committed suicide. The Battle of Attu is remembered for the poor planning, inadequate clothing and equipment, and the terrible conditions men fought.
Because of the poor weather, air support was limited to 11 days during the battle. However, the Eleventh Air Force was able to fly 904 sorties and drop 541 tons of bombs during May. Most of the effort was directed against Attu.
The Eleventh Air Force next turned its full fury against Kiska. During June through August, it flew 1,775 sorties and dropped 1,405 tons of bombs on the island.
When a combined force of 33,000 Canadian and U.S. troops landed on 15 August, they found Kiska abandoned. The Japanese had managed to evacuate their garrison of 5,000 from the island on 12 July without being detected.
With the reoccupation of Kiska, the Aleutian Campaign ended. It was the only campaign of the war fought on North American soil. It had been primarily an air war. The Eleventh Air Force flew 297 missions and dropped 3,662 tons of bombs. One hundred and fourteen men were killed in action; another forty-two were reported missing in action, and forty-six died due to accidents.
Thirty-five aircraft were lost to combat and another 150 to operational accidents. It was the highest American combat-to-operational loss ratio of the war. The weather was the prime culprit.
The Eleventh Air Force accounted for approximately 60 Japanese aircraft, one destroyer, one submarine, and seven transport ships destroyed by air operations.
Following the occupation of Kiska, the Eleventh Air Force was drastically reduced to 404th Bomber Squadron flying B-24s and the 77th Bomber equipped with B-25s. Many of the support units departed for other duties. The Canadian air units withdrew. The four Eleventh Air Force fighter squadrons were retained to provide air defense of the western Aleutians Islands.
From a peak of 16,526 in August, the strength of the Eleventh Air Force declined to 14,975 by the end of 1943. By the end of the war, it had dropped to 6,849.
After helping to drive the Japanese from the Aleutians, the Eleventh Air Force was committed to flying bombing and reconnaissance missions against Japanese military installations in the northern Kurile Islands.
Against Japanese military bases on Paramushiro and Shumushu islands, the Eleventh Air Force launched the first mission on 10 July 1943. Staging out of Alexai Field, Attu, eight B-25s from the 77th Bomber Squadron, under the command of Capt James L. Hudelson, flew a nine-and-a-half-hour, 1,600-mile round trip mission against Paramushiro. It was the first land-based air attack against the Japanese home islands of the war.
Another mission was flown eight days later by a more significant force and a third on 11 August. The Eleventh Air Force dispatched eight B-24s and 12 B-25s from Shemya and Attu on the final mission of the year, flown on 11 September. By now, the Japanese had reinforced their defenses and were on the alert. Seventy-four crew members, three B-24s, and seven B-25s failed to return. Twenty-two men were killed in action, one taken prisoner, and 51 interned in Russia. Therefore, one-third of the Eleventh Air Force’s bomber capability had been wiped out.
After a five-month break, the Eleventh Air Force resumed the missions against the northern Kuriles on 5 February 1944. Six B-24s from the 404th Bomber Squadron and 16 P-38s from the 54th Fighter Squadron provided cover in relays for a Naval force following a ship bombardment on Japanese installations located on the northern Kuril Islands.
With the naval strike against the northern Kuriles, the military implemented the highly classified Operation WEDLOCK, designed to divert the Japanese attention north and mislead them about U.S. strategy in the Pacific. The plan, which involved airstrikes by Army and Navy bombers and U.S. Navy shore bombardment and submarine operations, worked. The Japanese increased their garrison in the northern Kurils from 8,000 in 1943 to 41,000 in 1944. They maintained more than 400 aircraft in the Kurils and Hokkaido area to anticipate the Americans invading from Alaska.
Senior military planners had briefly contemplated an invasion of northern Japan from the Aleutians during the fall of 1943 but rejected the idea as too risky and impractical. Logistics and weather posed too many difficulties. The planners also considered basing Boeing B-29 Superfortresses on Amchitka and Shemya but likewise rejected that idea. The military went ahead with plans to expand the bases in the western Aleutians, and a significant construction program began on Shemya. Therefore, any plans were put on the shelf for a possible invasion of Japan via the northern route in 1945.
The Eleventh Air Force continued to fly missions against the Kurils until the end of the war. The 404th Bomber Squadron operated from Shemya with its B-24s. The 77th Bomber Squadron flew from Alexie Point on Attu with B-25s.
The 404th Bomber Squadron flew 183 missions involving between one and 12 bombers, with four being the average. The 77th Bomber Squadron flew 93 missions with a similar number of bombers. The 404th possessed on an average 12 B-24s and the 77th 22 B-25s. The two squadrons conducted some of the longest over-water flights of the war under the most adverse weather conditions. Despite their limited numbers, they tied down a significant number of Japanese, including 10 percent of its air force, which could have been employed elsewhere.
The two squadrons lost 81 crew members killed in action, 13 missing in action, and 11 were taken prisoner, of which three died in captivity. Another 178 were interned in Russia. The missions to the Kurils were long and complicated. If an aircraft suffered battle damage or mechanical problems or the crew ran into weather difficulties, the only alternative was to land in Russian. Most flew to Petropavlovsk, the nearest sizable airbase near the Kurils. The Russians kept the planes and eventually released the crews, who were sworn to secrecy not to reveal where they had been because Russia and Japan had a neutrality pact at the time.
They also flew without fighter support. Although the Eleventh Air Force experimented with using the P-38 for long-range escort, the range and conditions proved too formidable for the older model P-38s flown by the 54th Fighter Squadron. The other three squadrons, the victims of military priorities, continued to fly the obsolete P-40. The squadrons finally began converting to more capable P-38L Lightnings in early 1945. It had the range to reach targets in the northern Kurils with some assurance of success. By then, the war was winding down, and they were not used for that purpose. In the interim, the fighter squadrons trained, provided air defense in the western Aleutians, and occasionally intercepted and shot down bomb-carrying balloons the Japanese were attempting to drift across the Pacific Ocean to North America.
The Russians entered the war following the 6 August atomic bombing of Hiroshima. On 18 August, the Russians seized the northern Kurils. The Eleventh Air Force flew its last combat mission of the war on 24 August, when two B-24 crews attempted to take photographs of the Russian occupation and were turned back by weather. The war ended on 2 September with the signing of formal surrender documents in Tokyo Bay. On 4 September, two B-24s flew the last mission over the Kurils. Russian fighters intercepted and forced them away, a foretaste of the Cold War that lay ahead.
The end of the war brought a significant reduction in force and the closing of Aleutian bases. The wartime 28th Bomber Group inactivated on 20 October 1945. The Eleventh Air Force redesignated the Alaskan Air Command on 18 December 1945. In keeping with an Air Force policy to keep the oldest and most illustrious units, the 57th Fighter Group activated at Shemya AFB on 15 August 1946. The 343rd Fighter Group inactivated the same day, and its personnel and equipment transferred to the 57th. Shortly afterward, the 57th Fighter Group exchanged the P-38 Lightnings for the North American F-51H Mustang.
The emphasis shifted from bomber to air-defense operations against the emerging Soviet bomber threat. The Soviet Union, using reverse engineering, developed the TU-4 Bull from three Boeing B-29 Superfortress that had made emergency landings at Vladivostok in 1944, which meant that the TU-4 could reach Alaskan targets.
At the time, only the U.S. possessed the atomic bomb and the means for delivering it. National leaders did not view the Soviet Union as a threat to North America. Reconnaissance flights during the late 1940s indicated that the Soviets were not constructing bases from which the TU-4 could reach targets in the contiguous United States. Therefore, Senior Army Air Forces leaders believed that the nation's best defense rested with the threat of its offensive nuclear capability.
They did not, however, completely ignore the need to develop a modern air-defense capability. The Air Defense Command was activated on 27 March 1946 to create an air defense system for the contiguous United States. The Alaskan Air Command was responsible for a similar approach in Alaska.
In February 1946, Gen. Carl Spaatz, Chief of Staff, U.S. Army Air Forces, spoke of what would become known as the polar concept for air defense. He noted that "the areas essential to the polar approaches" was Alaska. A quick look at the map showed the shortest bomber route distances to North America were across mainland Alaska and over the polar ice cap. It was only a matter of time before the Soviet Union would develop more capable follow-on bombers to the TU-4 and a nuclear capability. United States intelligence analysis estimated the latter would occur by 1952.
General Spaatz visited Alaska in September 1947 to gain further knowledge about its capabilities. He and his party traveled to bases in interior Alaska and the Aleutians. The Army Air Forces were looking at Alaska because of a need to provide better air defense and as a place to forward base its B-29s. The 28th Bomber Group had been reactivated on 4 August 1946 and equipped with B-29s. It deployed to Alaska from October 1946 to April 1947 to test the concept.
Alaska's strategic importance was not lost on other military leaders. Generals David Eisenhower, Henry Arnold, and Curtis LeMay visited Alaska during this period, as did the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff in September 1949. Their visit came at a crucial time.
On 3 September 1949, an Air Weather Service WB-29 flying from Japan to Alaska picked up atomic particles in a paper filter. Lab tests revealed that the filter, which had been exposed at 18,000 feet for three hours, contained a significant radiation count of 50 per minute. Subsequent flights showed counts of up to 1,000 per minute. President Truman announced on 23 September 1949 that the Soviet Union had exploded a nuclear device. The Cold War took on a new meaning.
At the Air Force's urging, Alaska's limited defense capabilities received a further boost when the Boeing Company announced in late 1949 that it was moving the production of its all-jet B-47 Stratojet from Seattle, Washington, to the less vulnerable Wichita, Kansas. Governor Ernest Gruening, Alaska's territorial governor, protested. To him, the move represented a tacit admission that Alaska was open to attack.
The Alaskan Air Command had already taken steps to defend against a Soviet bomber attack. In September 1946, it created the Aleutian Sector headquartered at Adak Air Force Base and the Yukon Sector, with headquarters at Ladd Field. One month later, Alaska Air Command moved its headquarters from Adak to Elmendorf.
The arrangement, however, lasted only a year. The command abolished the Aleutian Sector on 1 July 1947 and began withdrawing its forces from the islands. Since the anticipated bomber routes lay across mainland Alaska, the Aleutians were no longer relevant to air defense.
The Aleutian radar sites were dismantled and relocated to mainland sites. The units that supported Cape Air Force Base on Umnak Island and Thornbrough Air Force Base on Cold Bay were inactivated on 1 January 1950. The unit that supported Amchitka had been inactivated on 25 February 1949. The Navy assumed responsibility for Adak on 1 July 1950 and turned it into an anti-submarine warfare base. After deciding to close Shemya Air Force Base, Alaskan Air Command reversed its decision and kept the installation open to support the Korean War as a refueling base. Later it became a base for collecting intelligence on Russian missile development.
The 57th Fighter Group moved to Elmendorf Field in March 1947, with its 64th, 65th, and 66th Fighter Squadrons. A fourth squadron, the 449th Fighter (All Weather), moved from Adak to Ladd Field in March 1949. The unit had been assigned to Adak in September 1947 and equipped with the Northrop F-61 Black Widow. However, it converted to the piston-engine North American F-82H Twin Mustang at Ladd. The 57th Fighter Group converted to the jet-powered Lockheed F-80C Shooting Star in 1948.
The Alaskan Air Command divided Alaska into two air defense sectors, one headquartered at Elmendorf and responsible for the southern half and one headquartered at Ladd, responsible for the northern half of Alaska. Two direction centers, one on Elmendorf and the other at Ladd, provided command and control over the interim air defense system.
The late 1940s marked a period of limited military funding and significant organizational changes. The Alaskan Command was established on 1 January 1947 as one of the first unified commands. An Army Air Forces general became its first commander in recognition that Alaska was an air theater of operations. The United States Air Force generals continue to be the senior military commanders in Alaska, recognizing the Air Force's pivotal role in what has become recognized as an air theater of operations.
In addition to his other responsibilities, the Commander-in-Chief, Alaskan Command, was responsible for the air defense of Alaska, which they delegated this responsibility to the Commander, Alaskan Air Command.
As the result of the Armed Forces Unification Act of 26 January 1947, the United Air Force (USAF) achieved equal status with the Army and Navy on 18 September 1947. As elsewhere, it had a significant impact on Alaska's military community.
The Alaska Air Command, as major Air Force command, reported directly to Headquarters U.S. Air Force. Its commander, however, continued to report operationally to the Commander-in-Chief, Alaskan Command. Elmendorf Field became Elmendorf Air Force Base on 26 March 1948, and Alaska Air Command assumed responsibility for all Air Force installations and property from the Army during June-July 1948. The separation of services became final on 3 March 1951, when the Department of the Army transferred Elmendorf Air Force Base to the Air Force and moved to the eastern side of the installation. The Air Force inherited the old Fort Richardson and the immediate surrounding lands of the military reservation.
The outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 had a significant impact on Alaska Air Command. The war marked the end of the fiscal austerity of the post-World War II era and the beginning of considerable growth in Air Force forces and capabilities.
At the time, the Alaska Air Command's commander led a limited air defense force consisting of three squadrons of F-80Cs, a squadron of F-82s, and five temporary radar sites at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Ladd Air Force Base, King Salmon, Nome, and Gambell on St Lawrence Island. The latter also tracked nearby Russian shipping in the Bering Strait and operated around the clock for intelligence purposes. The Army provided point air defense of Elmendorf and Ladd with 75, 90, and 120-millimeter anti-aircraft gun positions.
With the outbreak of the Korean War, Alaska Air Command sited other radars at Willow, Farewell, and Bethel in the southern sector and Kotzebue, Galena, and Clear in the northern sector. At best, it provided an interim air defense system until the Air Force could construct a permanent defensive line, a fact that Air Force planners realized in the face of the Soviet development of a nuclear bomb and the means for delivering it.
The World War II vintage radars from the Aleutians provided limited local coverage, and command and control were rudimentary. Given the growing Soviet threat, the need to expand and modernize the air defense system became apparent. The Alaskan Air Command had already become involved in several studies leading to a permanent method of air defense radars.
In March 1946, the Army Chief of Staff and the Chief of Naval Operations appointed the Hoge Board, named after Maj. Gen. William Hoge, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to study Alaska’s joint defense needs and make recommendations. It recommended 36 radar sites, 10 of which would be operated during peacetime and equipped with modern radars. The study, more of a concept, did not address funding.
The Alaskan Air Command, unaware of the Hoge Board’s actions, also completed its study, which called for 58 sites providing coverage for the entire territory, including the Aleutian Islands.
On 23 June 1947, the Army Adjutant General ordered an air-defense study of Alaska. Lieutenant Colonel Harold J. Crumly, Army Air Force, two other officers, and a civilian arrived in Alaska shortly afterward. The group filed a two-volume report in October 1947 after traveling around Alaska; the group recommended building 13 radars along anticipated bomber routes at an estimated $24,501,790. The report also recommended another 13 radar sites along the coastal region as a follow-on.
The Air Force, in the interim, had been studying the need for a radar system. After looking at several options, it settled on a system of 374 radar sites and 14 control centers in the contiguous United States and another 37 radar sites and four control centers in Alaska. General Spaatz approved the Supremacy Plan on 21 November 1947. The scheme of operations called for surveillance radars to detect incoming bombers and report to control centers who would then direct alert fighters to intercept points under the control of ground control intercept radars.
Because of its high cost and fiscal austerity, the Air Force had to scale the plan back to 75 radar sites and ten control centers in the contiguous United States and ten radar sites and two control centers in Alaska. Congress approved the so-called Modified Plan in the spring of 1949 and authorized funding in the fiscal year 1950 budget, which ran from 1 July 1949 to 30 June 1950.
Congressional appropriations included $31,000,000 for Alaska, of which $270,000 was advanced to begin site investigation. The command established early 1952 as the target date for the permanent system to become operational. By the end of 1951, the estimated cost had climbed to $71,000,000, and the completion date extended to 1954.
The Modified Plan opened the way for the most significant construction program since World War II. Like that war, the Cold War construction had a significant impact on Alaska's economy and social structure. It provided employment in remote areas that would not have otherwise been available. It also facilitated the extension of modern communications to small communities through the White Alice Communications System. The annual resupply of the remote radar sites also provided an opportunity to ship goods to nearby villages.
The Alaskan Air Command developed a plan for locating the radar sites as far forward as possible along probable Soviet bomber approach routes to provide early warning and direction to fighter interceptors. It called for constructing a line of five coastal surveillance sites along the Bering Sea Coast, one interior ground-control and intercept site, and four direction-center areas. The system became known as the aircraft control and warning (AC&W) system.
The command awarded contracts in March 1950 for constructing the direction centers at Murphy Dome near Fairbanks and Fire Island across from Anchorage. Initially called master ground control intercept stations, they received priority. They were equipped with CPS-6B search and height-finding radars and were responsible for controlling air-defense operations in their respective sectors. They became operational in September 1951.
The following sites in order priority were direction centers at Campion and King Salmon and the ground control intercept site at Tatalina. The command awarded contracts for King Salmon, Campion, and Tatalina during April-May 1950. King Salmon achieved operational capability in November 1951, Campion and Tatalina in April 1952. The three sites were initially equipped with AN/CPS-5 search radars.
Following the outbreak of the Korean War, Alaska Air Command received additional funds for two ground-controlled intercept sites to cover radar gaps in the interior. The command selected two locations, both remote and accessible only by air.
Major General William Old, Commander, Alaska Air Command, personally selected the site for Sparrevohn on 3 June 1951 and named it after his helicopter pilot, Capt. Frederick Sparrevohn who flew him from Elmendorf AFB to the proposed site. Because of the high cost of using a contractor, the 813th Engineer Battalion received the job of building the radar site. The battalion arranged for a D-4 bulldozer to be air dropped on 7 June 1951. The engineers, who had arrived by helicopter, used it to carve out a runway.
A mobile AN/CPS-5, installed on the 3,400-foot mountaintop, became operational on 13 December 1951. Five days later, winds estimated at 100 miles per hour blew down the antenna, demonstrating the need for some form of protection. This was solved with a familiar geodesic dome, the so-called white "golf ball," which became a standard, identifying feature at all the radar sites.
As with Sparrevohn, a helicopter reconnaissance was used to select the Indian Mountain site. The 807th Engineer Aviation Battalion started construction on 18 July 1951. The unit began by upgrading an airstrip that once served a gold mine and building an eight-mile road to the top of Indian Mountain. The site became operational in November 1953 with an AN/FPS-3 search radar. Each site costs approximately $1.5 million to build. Compared to the $3-$5 million in contractor costs for the other sites, the two interior sites were a bargain.
Storms and labor problems delayed the construction of the five coastal surveillance sites. Contracts were awarded in June 1950, and construction began shortly afterward. The sites featured split camps, with the support camp located at the foot of the mountain and the radar site at the top. Tramways connected the two. Northeast Cape became operational in November 1952, Cape Lisburne in February 1953, Cape Romanzof and Tin City in April 1953, and Cape Newenham in April 1954. All were initially equipped with the AN/FPS-3 search radars.
Additional surveillance sites were later added. Kotzebue and Ohlson Mountain (near Homer) became operational in February 1958, Middleton Island in May 1958, Unalakleet in April 1958, and Bethel in July 1958. Fort Yukon became active as a ground control intercept site in April 1958.
Except for Sparrevohn and Campion, all the sites bore local names. To avoid confusion with nearby Galena and honor a deceased airman, Alaska Air Command named Campion after Lt. Allan J. Campion. Lieutenant Campion, an F-94 radar operator, had been killed when his fighter crashed during an attempted landing at Galena in November 1950.
While building the permanent system, AAC continued to use the interim plan. It proved limited in capability, as demonstrated during exercises. The system suffered from gaps in coverage, old equipment, and a lack of trained personnel. The plan gradually phased out as the permanent radars came on line.
In addition to the AC&W system, the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line was constructed across northern Canada and Alaska during the mid-1950s. A prototype DEW Line AN/FPS-19 search radar was installed at Barter Island in 1954 and tested, and construction of the DEW Line started shortly afterward. The FPS-19 was established at Point Lay, Wainwright, Point Barrow, Lonely, Oliktok, Flaxman Island, and Barter Island. Gap filler AN/FPS-23 radars were sited at 15 other locations along the north coast of Alaska. The Alaska Sector of the DEW Line became operational in 1957.
Initially, the Alaskan Air Command was responsible for the operations and maintenance of the Alaskan Sector. However, it later transferred to the Air Defense Command, responsible for the entire northern system. Radar surveillance data was passed to the Alaskan NORAD Regional Control Center. The Tactical Air Command assumed responsibility for the DEW Line when the Air Defense Command inactivated in 1980.
Tying the system together required a reliable communications system. Initially, high-frequency communications provided the links. However, it proved unreliable due to atmospheric disturbances. The Air Force looked for a better approach to include a series of line-of-sight microwave repeaters. They proved too expensive. Therefore, to find a more reliable and economic system, Maj. Gen. George R. Acheson, Commander, Alaska Air Command, formed the Alaskan Communications Study Group, which completed its work in May 1954.
Their report recommended a system of long-range radio-repeater sites free from atmospheric disturbances. Bell Laboratories, AT&T, developed a new system called troposphere scatter, which bounced radio signals off the troposphere. The Western Electric Company began work in 1955, which took three years to complete, with 3,500 people working on the $140 million project. Twenty-five radio repeater sites linked the far-flung radar sites together. More areas were added as the system expanded and new requirements developed, including a system of microwave repeater sites along Alaska's main roads extending down the Alaska Highway into Canada.
The White Alice Communications System (WACS), as it became known, featured large billboard-type antennas that dominated the landscape. It provided the only reliable long-range communications in Alaska until the advent of satellite communications in the 1970s.
Another effort involved developing a system of resupply for the widely separated and remote sites. Most were not located on a road network and reached only by waterways during the summer months. Initially, the military handled the deliveries. The first significant resupply effort began in 1951 when a fleet of vessels departed the Port of Seattle. By 1953, the annual attempt had reached the point where Mona Lisa earned a name, later changed to Cool Barge.
In 1958, the military turned the Cool Barge operations over to a contractor who used a system of seagoing vessels and barges to deliver the bulk of supplies during the ice-free months. Military and contracted airlift provided a year-round capability for the delivery of critical cargo and personnel. Airlift also supplied all the needs of the sites, which could not be reached by surface means.
Cool Barge passed into history at the end of the 1995 season because the number of personnel at the sites reduced to a handful of personnel requiring fewer supplies. Therefore, the reduced needs were taken care of with an airlift. However, sea and river barges were still used to deliver fuel and large cargo items.