Alaska Life

Alaska, the day before Pearl Harbor

On Dec. 6, 1941, Fairbanks folks in a celebratory mood went dancing. The Fairbanks Daily News Miner advertised the "up-to-date music of the International Swingsters, including Carl Weller and Charlotte Arnes" at the "famous Nite Club Room of the International Hotel." Those who preferred floor shows could catch one of three Saturday night floor shows by Marjorie Milward with Gene Smith's Orchestra at the Club Royale.

Alaskans had reason to celebrate. Unlike most of the rest of the world, America was at peace. But at the same time, a military buildup was underway in the territory, bringing jobs and money to a place where previously both had been scarce. The 1940 census put Anchorage's population at 3,495. That summer, three U.S. Army airmen flew a B-10 bomber into Merrill Field to start the creation of a new base. Within a year 3,300 workers, most from Outside, had completed the runway and the apron at what is today's Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Fairbanks, with a 1940 population of around 5,600, experienced similar growth with the opening of Ladd Field.

Airplanes were redefining Alaska. Air connections pioneered in the preceding decade had brought a profusion of carriers, whose schedules and services were big news. Pan American Airways announced plans to fly all winter long. There were five flights a week from Fairbanks to Seattle and tickets cost $170. The Nome Nugget gave details of every flight in and out of town.

"The Pilgrim arrived at noon today with mail and is remaining overnight." (The Fairchild 100 Pilgrim was a large single-engine 1930-vintage "utility transport" aircraft, now mainly seen in museums.) "Pilot Long to the Kougarok with J. Kealiher for Taylor." "Pilot Sasseen left Nome for Anchorage this morning with the following passengers: Mr. Bethall, Mr. Ely, Francis Panchott, Ray Smart and Josh Fisher."

Airplanes had made it easier to get around Alaska, but getting out was another matter. Pan Am flew along the coast to Washington, stopping frequently. Those in a hurry might consider taking Pollack Flying Service from Fairbanks to Whitehorse and "making the Yukon Southern Airways connection to the states" flying over Canada. The Anchorage Daily Times published a map of a proposed Alaska "skyway" that would link Edmonton, Canada, to Fairbanks via Watson Lake, but it was only lines on paper.

Those with more time might take the Alaska Railroad's twice-a-week service to Anchorage, maybe make the side trip to Sutton, then on to Seward where they could take one of several steamships to Southeast Alaska or Puget Sound. The schedules for those ships were likewise published in the papers. However, the government had recently imposed an irksome requirement that all passengers be fingerprinted.

Grub from the states

Ships, trains and planes kept the territory stocked with food. 1941 was a record year for crops in the Matanuska Valley, but, the Times noted, most food came from Outside, even with abundant moose, wildfowl and fish — at least in the cities. But even the Bush was getting used to shipped-in food. A thousand pounds of freight was offloaded in Barrow when the once-a-year boat shipment arrived in August.

Klehmann's store in Nome advertised "extra fancy full drawn turkeys, 55 cents per pound" and even promised some fresh vegetables and fruit. The Piggly Wiggly Grocery in Fairbanks offered potatoes (85 cents for 15 pounds) and eggs (59 cents a dozen) from Washington, along with canned salmon and pot roast. Prices were roughly triple those in Seattle.

An ad from the Crescent spice company on the back of Alaska Life magazine listed four grocery stores in Fairbanks, five in Juneau (1940 population: 5,729), three in Anchorage and two in Seldovia.

The ad didn't include Tanacross, where a fire burned the Kessler and Hajdukovich store to the ground. An attempt to bring in supplies by boat stalled not far from Big Delta. The owners hoped to bring in goods via airplane, the News Miner said, adding, "The day of dog team freighting is past."

And yet Watcher Bros. Co. Meat Market in Fairbanks carried this notice: "Attention dog mushers. We have a limited amount of edible beef tallow rendered and packed in 36 pound tins. Ten cents per pound."

Dogs weren't the only beasts of burden still used in Alaska in 1941. The News Miner reported that a teamster in Seward approached the fire chief while volunteers were battling a big blaze and asked whether the flames would spread. The chief told him they surely would and that he should move his horses as soon as possible. "I already got my horses and wagons out," the man said. "I was just wondering if I should move my wife and kids too."

Fire or no fire, Seward boomed along with Anchorage and Fairbanks. Several downtown lots, three-quarters of which were owned by the city, sold as soon as they went on the market. Property elsewhere had also become a good investment. Lots in Mountain View sold for $40. A one-room cabin could be purchased for $450. A "7 room modern house" in Anchorage was listed at $3,750. A two-room apartment in Fairbanks rented for $30 a month.

A world in trouble

Alaskans without cash could still use old-fashioned gold. The Miner and Merchants Bank of Alaska in Nome took deposits of gold dust. The News Miner celebrated the annual production of gold and tin from the Manley Hot Springs district of $340,000.

But gold miners saw a cloud on the horizon. "Authorities have ruled that placer mining is divorced from the mining industry of America when it comes to the matter of priorities," wrote the Nugget. That meant that it would be difficult or impossible to get spare parts for dredging equipment and pumps. "Alaska is hit hard," the Nugget concluded.

In fact, the whole world was hit hard by the troubles in Europe. Canada, with the rest of the British Empire, was already at war. Newspaper stories spoke of Canadian women battling over rationed silk stockings. Canadian ships that had served Alaska had been conscripted for military use, which jammed shipping on American hulls at exactly the same time the U.S. military was moving tons of equipment and supplies into the territory. The Alaska Steamship Company apologized to customers and urged patience.

Front-page articles chronicled the advance of the German army into Russia and ominous movements of Japanese forces from China toward the Indian Ocean. A group of high-ranking Russian officers traveled by seaplane to Nome, Kodiak and Sitka en route to Washington, D.C., for consultations with American leaders.

Alaska Life magazine asked prominent Alaskans, "How far should the government go in the defense of Alaska?" Juneau attorney J.A. Hellenthal advised caution, saying, "The cost of providing defense should not exceed the value of the object defended." Banker William Bates of Ketchikan urged more bases for the territory. Juneau Mayor Harry Lucas hoped one of those bases might be established "on the broad expanse of Mendenhall flats." R.E. Robertson, another Juneau attorney, suggested it might be easier and cheaper just to transport all civilian Alaskans to the contiguous states.

Elsewhere in the same issue, Oct. 1940, managing editor Dean Sherman fretted over the threat posed to Alaska by the Soviet Union and Jim Scott railed against Interior Secretary Harold Ickes' plan to colonize the territory with Jewish war refugees. Scott preferred Poles, Czechs and Finns who "make excellent, uncomplaining mine workers."

Growing pains

The influx of fighting men made life more interesting. The big sports news involved local bowling leagues, whose games were assiduously tracked in the paper. But the Times could also report an actual football game between the Fort Rich Eleven and the Air Corps Eagles. In Fairbanks a crowd packed Moose Hall to see a boxing card headed by soldier Tommy Dunn, who won a "hair line decision" against University of Alaska student Bert Stewart.

Government spending also made things livelier. One hundred thousand dollars went to buy land for military uses. The road from Palmer to the Richardson Highway, considered a necessity by the Army, cost $2 million to construct, twice as much as estimated. One entrepreneur looked forward to running buses from Anchorage to Fairbanks as soon as the road was open.

But along with so many new people came difficulties. Many officers and civilian construction personnel brought their families. Anchorage school administrators were stunned by an enrollment of 900 students, 100 more than the previous year, and no place to put them. The school board blamed the territorial legislature (whose members earned $15 a day). The legislature faced similar problems all over the territory. New schools had been quickly built in Kodiak and Unalaska, communities even more swamped by the buildup than Anchorage had been. The only thing Anchorage could do was hire more teachers and double-shift students.

In Fairbanks, the problem was loose dogs, particularly around schools. "Stray dogs have become a menacing nuisance," the News Miner reported. "Several of the little children in the past several days have received medical treatment for wounds caused by dog bites. … Postmaster Alfred Ghezzi declares that dogs are an annoyance at the Post Office and that he has considerable trouble in keeping the lobby clear of them."

With less than 20 shopping days before Christmas, the papers were full of gift ideas. Polet's store in Nome urged Alaskans to celebrate in style by dressing up their holiday table. "Regardless of the shipping conditions we have succeeded in assembling a very large assortment of desirable merchandise for this occasion."

In Fairbanks, The Hollywood Shop had a special on fur coats on sale, ranging from genuine Alaska sealskin ($395), to "natural skunk" ($185), to Russian pony ($165), to civet cat ($150.) Martin A. Pinska Outfitters for Men offered fancy mackinaws, Woolrich breeches and "mukluks for men and women." The Northern Commercial Company billed itself as "the store of a million gifts," including Winchester rifles, Sunbeam mixers, bicycles, Johnson baby requisites, Luxite pajamas and Ful-o-Fashion lingerie. Coal companies in Fairbanks and Anchorage urged customers to stock up soon to stay warm through the winter.

Fairbanksans who had finished their shopping early might head for bingo at the Elks Hall or the card party sponsored by the Catholic Ladies' Auxiliary, the winners of which would be reported with as much enthusiasm as the bowling scores. More solitary types could take in a movie — "Sis Hopkins" with Judy Canova and Bing Crosby was showing at the Empress — or pick up one of the "books for sale or rent" at Janet's Book Store in the lobby of the Pioneer Hotel. Newly arrived titled included "Saratoga Trunk" by Edna Ferber and "Inside Latin America" by John Gunther.

Or, if they wanted to worry, they could read the international news. President Franklin Roosevelt huddled with congressional leaders and "thoroughly canvassed the eastern (Pacific) situation." At a "belated Thanksgiving dinner" benefit for infantile paralysis, he hinted that by next Thanksgiving "our boys in the Military and Navy academies may be fighting."

Japan recalled its ambassador to Mexico. Britain recalled soldiers to posts in Singapore and Malaya. Nonessential U.S. personnel were given notice to leave the Philippines soon. "Far east makes ready for war," read the headline in the News Miner.

The last dance

In Fairbanks itself, however, a festive mood prevailed. It was 44 degrees below zero, but everyone who could arrange it headed for the Senior Ball at the high school. The News Miner merrily described female students and adult women who arrived bundled then shed parkas and heavy boots. "(They) emerge like butterflies from a cocoon to appear on the dance floor in the latest fashions of evening gowns."

If the dancers wished to keep going after the last dance at the high school, the International Swingsters would keep playing at the Nite Club Room until 3 a.m. After that the party crowd could stop by the Tivoli Café, open all night long, before collapsing in bed to sleep away their Sunday.

At least one Fairbanks resident was not asleep in the early hours of Sunday morning, Augie Hiebert, a radio engineer at KFAR. The town's only radio station didn't sign on until much later in the day, but Hiebert was at the studio to run some tests. He had a shortwave receiver tuned to a radio drama when the program was interrupted with news that Pearl Harbor had been bombed in Hawaii.

Hiebert roused commander Col. David Gaffney at Ladd Field and Alaska Command head Gen. Simon Buckner at Fort Richardson.

Alaska — like the rest of America — woke up to a different world on Dec. 7, a world that would soon see America's northern territory bombed and invaded.

The thousands of war workers and soldiers who had already arrived in the territory would seem like a trickle compared with the tens of thousands who followed. Schools emptied as Alaska's nonessential personnel returned home — luckier than those in the Philippines, who were trapped in the fighting. Shipping schedules were no longer announced in the newspapers. "Information on sailings and arrivals furnished only on request when, as, and if available from nearest agent," read the new Alaska Steamship ad in the Nugget.

The News Miner ran an extra edition that Dec. 7. The large-font headline was printed with an antique typeface that looked like it hadn't been used since the gold rush. An editorial ran on the front page.

"War is on and it will be a war to the finish," it declared. "America and the Allied Democracies are in the fight to the death."

Mike Dunham

Mike Dunham was a longtime ADN reporter, mainly writing about culture, arts and Alaska history. He worked in radio for 20 years before switching to print. He retired from the ADN in 2017.