Alaska News

Cultural treasures from the Cold War

On March 26, 1958, Anchorage citizens jammed into the Talkeetna Theater on Elmendorf Air Force Base to witness a wonder few, if any, had ever seen -- a man in Alaska picking up an ordinary telephone and chatting with a man in the states.

The well-publicized phone call from Secretary of Interior Fred Seaton to Territorial Gov. Mike Stepovich formally inaugurated the system that would finally give many Alaskans long-distance telephone access to the rest of the country.

The personal application of the technology excited the attention and hopes of people in what would soon be the 49th state. But civilian communication was only a side benefit of the White Alice Communications System.

Its primary purpose was military. The federal government was spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build and man radar stations and air bases that formed a defensive parameter protecting North America from enemy attack. White Alice was part of the technology that linked those stations with the Pentagon and the White House.

On Wednesday at the Campbell Creek Science Center, historian Karlene Leeper will talk about the far-flung Cold War sites that transformed Alaska, how they came to be built, what impact they had on nearby communities and what has happened to them in the 60 or so years since they were constructed.

Electronic 'fence'

Leeper is an Air Force archaeologist. Her technical job title is Cultural Resources Program Manager for the 611th Air Support Group based at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

The 611th manages small air stations and radar sites in Alaska and some Pacific islands, both the ones that are up and running and some that have been decommissioned. Several are deemed to have significant historical importance.

Leeper said her talk will focus on the aircraft control and warning system, the first link in Alaska's eventual electronic "fence."

It originated in the early 1950s, she said, one of the first radar defense systems to be developed. Since the concern at that time was that Soviet bombers would enter American airspace via the closest point -- the Bering Strait -- it consisted of a line of radar stations running along the west coast of Alaska from Cape Lisburne to King Salmon, connected to other stations in Fort Yukon and Murphy Dome, near Fairbanks, and fighter jets prepositioned to scramble to intercept any hostile aircraft.

But the speed and range of bombers quickly increased. "They realized that Soviet aircraft could come over the North Pole, so they developed the DEW Line," Leeper said.

The Distant Early Warning Line put stations along the Arctic Ocean from Alaska to Greenland. The northern radar sites were sentinels; they could not fight off an attack, but they could provide advance warning to the rest of the nation that one was coming. Their importance became even more critical after the launch of the Russian satellite, Sputnik, which raised the possibility that the United States could be struck by intercontinental missiles carrying nuclear bombs that could reach any part of the world.

Eventually the fence extended from the Aleutian Islands to Iceland. Building and supplying the posts in the raw wilderness far from roads, ports or cities presented logistical challenges of a high order. Food, parts, personnel and fuel had to be shipped in. Coastal sites received an annual supply barge. Landlocked locations had to depend on air support throughout the year.

Some installations were so-called "split camps," with housing and power in one place and radars and antennas in another, usually higher, spot. Enclosed corridors linked wooden or modular buildings. Workers drove through snowdrifts and windstorms in tracked vehicles or rode to the mountaintop facilities via a tramway.

The trams didn't always work and a bad storm or equipment malfunction could strand crews in one spot for days.

A few locations were close to towns, like Fire Island near Anchorage and Ohlson Mountain near Homer. But most were far from any entertaining distractions aside, perhaps, from hunting in good weather. The hardship postings were limited to one year.

Long work shifts -- up to 16 hours at a time -- and isolation took a toll. In 1958 the Daily News reported a "mutiny" among airmen at one station, saying they had gone on strike to protest the working conditions. (No follow-up report was published.)

But if, as some say, the greatest victories are battles that never have to be fought, the Alaska radar posts have to be acknowledged as playing a part in a splendid military success. They played a role in keeping the country safe at a time when people around the world anticipated global war at any moment. But no bombs ever fell.

Giant baseball gloves

White Alice sites relayed information from the Chukchi Sea to the Lower 48 in a system that, in retrospect, resembles a Rube Goldberg scheme. Radio could cover long distances, but reception could be disrupted. Microwave was an option, but required line-of-sight receivers that were, in many cases, impractical given the curvature of the earth and the ruggedness of Alaska's terrain.

The answer turned out to be tropospheric communications. Instead of trying to aim a signal at a tower visible in the distance, as with microwave technology, White Alice transmitters shot their signal into the sky. It bounced off the tropopause, the point in the atmosphere between five and 11 miles high. Here the thinning air ceases to cool with further height and becomes almost completely dry. (Most of our observed weather takes place in the troposphere, the layer closest to the ground. Commercial jets try to fly above it.)

The boundary between the troposphere and the stratosphere above it acts something like a mirror. The signal would ricochet to the next ground station, hundreds of miles away, which would then bounce it on its way back up to the tropopause and thence to the next station in line. It was sort of like baseball players warming up by tossing one-hop balls around the bases. Except the rectangular, parabolic "baseball gloves" were gigantic.

"They had these huge antennas," said Leeper. "The big ones were 120 feet. Even the little ones were like 60 feet. There were at least four antennas at each site, one to transmit and one to receive in each direction."

Voice communication was not at the level of today's phone connections, she said. There could be long, distracting delays between sending and receiving. "But they tried other systems and they just weren't as good."

As the military radar sites had been helpful to civilian aircraft, so the White Alice infrastructure served average folks along with the government by carrying private phone communications.

It took a while and wasn't as convenient as punching a number on your smartphone. Lines were limited. Even in Anchorage, the biggest city, people had to line up at the downtown Federal Building to take their turn at a phone that would let them talk to parties outside Alaska. For a long time, it remained quite expensive to make a long-distance call.

But it was possible. Knowing that, Alaskans could feel that they were a lot closer to the rest of the country than they were at the start of the 1950s.

Protected artifacts

Alaska's Cold War radar and communication sites were among the technological marvels of their time. Yet within 20 years they were outdated.

Satellites, so feared in the Sputnik era, became the long-distance telephone conduit of everyday life. The last White Alice link, from Wasilla to Middleton Island, was decommissioned in 1985.

Likewise, the science of radar advanced so that fewer watching points were needed and smaller crews were required to run them.

Fifteen sites have been upgraded and modernized, Leeper said. "They're still in service."

Much of the abandoned equipment has been leveled. The giant White Alice antennas posed a particular danger. Environmental cleanup efforts have been undertaken to remove toxic material from the sties. But their historical value remains.

When a military "landscape," base, facility or other installation, is 50 years old, relatively intact and deemed to have an association with important developments in history, they can be considered historic. The 611th's mission now includes preserving the archaeology of places for which it is responsible. A notable example is the Tin City station near Wales, still functioning as a long range radar site, where an ongoing effort to photograph and record the surviving older buildings and infrastructure has been undertaken.

Leeper provided a brochure from the Air Force and the Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands that reads, in part: "The AC&W and DEW System are considered significant cultural resources to United States and Alaskan history for their contributions to the Cold War and for their engineering design. For this reason, buildings constructed during that time are protected."

The brochure cautions current workers at the sites to be aware not only of the Cold War relics but of any older graves and artifacts that might be in the area. The features that made some of these prospects attractive to military planners -- access, drainage, viewpoints -- may also have led nomadic hunters, opportunistic prospectors, explorers and even whole communities to the same spot in past centuries. Graves, tools and other artifacts remain behind.

The Air Force reminds visitors -- not just people assigned to these locations but any wandering Alaskans who may pass by -- "These cultural resources are irreplaceable records of the recent and ancient history of all Americans."

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.


Mike Dunham

Mike Dunham has been a reporter and editor at the ADN since 1994, mainly writing about culture, arts and Alaska history. He worked in radio for 20 years before switching to print.