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Alaska Life

Who was Hodge? First namesake of famous Whittier building served in Alaska during World War II

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: August 24, 2016
  • Published August 18, 2016

The Hodge Building, now Begich Towers, under construction in the 1950s, as seen from uphill. The trailers in the foreground were provided by the military for officers and their families prior to the opening of the building. (T.M. Spencer Collection, Hodge museum exhibit photo/PWS Museum)

WHITTIER – Two enormous Cold War era buildings dominate the tiny Alaska port town of Whittier. One is the Buckner Building, a grim, sprawling derelict that is unlikely to ever be inhabited again. The other remains alive with people and services, including the town's city offices, post office, police station and clinic. It's a tall, bright, lit-up structure known as the Begich Towers.

But that wasn't always the name. When it first opened for business in November, 1956, the "wilderness skyscraper" was called the Hodge Building.

It's abandoned companion building is named after Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, the Army commander in Alaska for most of World War II. He was killed in the invasion of Okinawa, the highest ranking American officer to die in combat in the war. Buckner has military ships named after him and a big spread on Wikipedia. Buckner's famous.

But who the heck is Hodge?

That was the question that led Ted Spencer, founding director of the Prince William Sound Museum in Whittier, to launch internet searches and dig through phone books. At first he couldn't even find the full name of the mystery man. He eventually pinned down the right name, stumbled on an obituary of Hodge's son and connected with the sister of the deceased, living in Arizona.

"He just kind of called me out of the blue a couple of years ago and asked if I was related to Col. Hodge," said Judy Hodge Lundin, the daughter of the building's original namesake.

"We arranged to meet," Spencer said. "And she showed up with about 100 pounds of his papers and photographs." She had previously donated a trove of her father's photographs and papers to the Rasmuson Library at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Some of the second batch of material, including Hodge's West Point uniform and engineering boots, are now at the Whittier museum. The display tells the story of the man for whom the strangest building in the strangest town in Alaska — or maybe on Earth — was first named.

Walter Hodge, standing in the center, with his men in Burwash Landing after completing their reconnoiter of the final link in the Alaska Highway, 1942. (Lundin Family Collection / PWS Museum)

The Alcan on foot

Walter William Hodge was born in 1903 in Chicago. He excelled in school and accumulated numerous merit badges as a Boy Scout. He was also active in the ROTC program at his high school. Among the skills that caught people's attention at the time was his ability to send clear semaphore messages using flags at 50 words a minute.

When an unexpected vacancy popped up at West Point, Illinois Congressman Martin Madden called the Chicago Board of Education to ask if they knew of any qualified candidates. Hodge's name was at the top of their list.

At West Point he did particularly well in engineering classes. Upon graduation he was put in charge of a mapping expedition along the border with Mexico, where his attention to numbers and a love of the great outdoors caught the attention of his commanders. They arranged for him to study at Cornell University where he earned a degree in civil engineering.

In 1930 he was assigned to the Alaska Road Commission. The main work involved the Richardson Highway. But as the junior officer, Hodge was the guy who always got sent to remote spots no one else wanted to travel to. He loved it, thriving in a lifestyle of trails and tents, making friends with sourdoughs and Natives, homesteaders and others as he designed bridges and road projects throughout the territory.

His next post was Fort McIntosh in Laredo, Texas where he met an Arizona woman and proposed. His wife, Willie, once quipped, "This was mainly so he'd have a secretary always on hand and because he decided it would be cheaper for me to cook his meals at home than to be continually taking me out to dinner." They married in 1934.

Subsequent assignments included stints in Panama and at the Missouri School of Mines, where he developed a course on photogrammetry, the technology of making precise measurements using cameras. Hodge was an avid photographer who got hooked on the hobby as a boy, developing his own pictures from a Kodak Brownie. In the 1930s he became an expert in color photography. The development process of the time took most of a day.

"He was a great photographer," Lundin recalled. "We had a darkroom in the house. I can still remember the smell of the developing fluid."

On December 1, 1941, a few days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, he was sent to Vancouver Barracks and became the Executive Officer of the 18th Engineer Brigade, one of the units assigned to build the Alaska Highway through Canada in the spring of 1942. In that capacity, he reconnoitered the last link in the route, connecting Kluane Lake with Northway. He made the 300 mile scouting expedition with a pack train and local guides in the course of 30 days, vividly recording the adventure in his journal. The trek made him the first person to complete a trip on the Alcan, though the highway itself had yet to be built.

Later in the war, now a colonel, he was sent to Fort Randall (Cold Bay) as resident engineer and became post commander. His duties included hosting movie star Olivia de Havilland when she visited the base on a moral-boosting trip.

When the war ended, he went to the Philippines, where he supervised the reconstruction of Manila using Japanese POWs as laborers. He was then made the executive officer of the Army Corps of Engineers South Atlantic Division.

In 1948, he and Willie made a six-week drive by car up the Alaska Highway and around the territorial road system. It was the realization of a "long planned daydream," Willie said. The trip took them from Haines to Circle, Fairbanks, Anchorage and Valdez. "Walter found old friends every place we went," Willie later recalled. "This trip was a great satisfaction to him."

At the end of 1948 Hodge became deputy chief of staff, Armed Forces Headquarters for Unification of Facilities and Services, Western Area, based in San Francisco. On the morning of April 21, 1949, he was flying to Portland in a Douglas A-26 light bomber when the pilot sent out a call reporting visibility issues. It was the last communication from the plane. The wreckage was found several months later on the 7,000 foot level of Mount Hood, well off course.

Hodge was buried at the National Cemetery at the Presidio in San Francisco.

The Hodge Building, now Begich Towers, under construction in the 1950s. (T.M. Spencer Collection, Hodge museum exhibit photo/PWS Museum)

New owners, new name

It's not known whether Hodge ever came through Whittier, known as Camp Sullivan during his Alaska stint. It was being built up while he was in Cold Bay.

During the Cold War, the military ramped up the base to become a major supply and administrative center. Because space was tight, the construction of an apartment building to house soldiers went straight up. When completed the unit — actually three separate towers built within inches of one another — could house 1,000 officers, enlisted men, civilian employees and their families. That's about five times the 2015 population of Whittier.

It was said to be the largest project in U.S. military history after the Pentagon. Col. T.A. Weadock, who was in charge of constructing the towers, had served under Hodge as a sergeant. The towers were named the Hodge Building at his suggestion.

The national press made the trip by train for the dedication on Nov. 20, 1956, and marveled at the $4 million structure that "might have been lifted from New York City and dropped in the Arctic intact."

Willie Hodge was present and wielded the scissors at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. She died in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 1996.

Willie Hodge, widow of Col. Hodge, cuts the ribbon at the opening of the Hodge Building in Whittier, now Begich Towers, in November, 1956. (Lundin Family Collection / PWS Museum)

The military importance of Whittier ended almost as soon as the construction was finished. The Army began to leave in 1960. The town, accessible only by sea or train via a tunnel through the Chugach Mountains, was almost empty when a tsunami measuring more than 40 feet high struck during the Good Friday Earthquake, March 27, 1964. Thirteen of Whittier's 70 residents died.

The Hodge Building survived, however. In 1956 a newspaper article lauded its all steel and concrete construction "built to withstand earthquake and fire." The building lived up to that promise, undergoing relatively little damage.

The town also survived as an important Alaska port, transferring Alaska civilian freight from ships to trains. The city of Whittier incorporated in 1969, and the Hodge Building was transferred to the city in 1973. In March of the following year a condominium association was formed and has remained the official manager of the facility ever since. At that time it was renamed Begich Towers in memory of another public official who died in a plane that went down in bad weather, Alaska Congressman Nick Begich.

At the time of the dedication in 1956, a bronze plaque was put on the building identifying its namesake. Somehow that plaque disappeared over the years.

The town will address that loss later this month. With the cooperation of the Prince William Sound Museum, Begich Towers Inc., Prince William Sound Economic Development District and the Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm National Heritage Area a new plaque has been acquired. It weighs 55 pounds and, Spencer said, is an exact replica of the original, based on photographs taken at that time.

The plaque will be installed on Aug. 22. Hodge's daughter, Lundin, is expected to attend along with her children. It will be her fourth trip to Alaska.

"I've been to Whittier twice before," she said. "I've actually spent the night in the Hodge Building. … well, what used to be the Hodge Building."

Walter Hodge, second from right, talking to Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner at an unnamed Alaska location during World War II. The two largest buildings on Prince William Sound were named after these two officers. (Lundin Family Collection / PWS Museum)

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