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Quirky Quonsets: Alaskans adapt old huts for new uses

  • Author: Steve Haycox
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 10, 2016

Few episodes in Alaska's history have had a more profound impact in shaping the territory's development and character than World War II. Preceding the war, Alaska was an isolated wilderness populated by 30,000 Native Alaskans and 30,000 non-Natives living in more than 200 widely separated and remote villages, most with no road access. There, they pursued a traditional lifestyle, including substantial harvesting of subsistence resources and building a new society on the Last Frontier — mainly in scores of small towns scattered across the Alaska landscape, far removed from the American mainstream.

The war brought fundamental economic change to Alaska. Vastly increased federal spending injected new money into the region, creating jobs and attracting a substantial new non-Native population. During the war, the United States military spent nearly $3 billion (the equivalent of about $40 billion today, inflation adjusted) in Alaska.

• 300 military installations were constructed.

• 300,000 military personnel served in the territory, 150,000 of them full-time soldiers.

• Tens of thousands of civilians moved to the region to work for the military.

• Numerous federal agencies increased the scope of their activities in the territory, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the National Park Service and the U.S. Geological Survey. From 1940, federal spending became the major aspect of Alaska's economic base, usurping salmon canning, which was Alaska's most important economic activity before the war.

The swirl of war in Europe and conflict in Asia confirmed the wisdom of the decision to remilitarize Alaska. The U.S. Army proposed construction of a major land base near Anchorage, a network of air bases in the territory and troops to protect the new naval bases. In 1938 the Army began building additional air bases, a submarine base and two Army posts throughout Alaska. Large numbers of civilian workers were brought into the territory to build these facilities by such major construction companies as Morrison-Knudsen, West Construction and Sims-Drake. It was at this time, in late 1941, that large numbers of Quonset huts began arriving in Alaska.

While the attack on Pearl Harbor shocked most Americans, it inspired terror in Alaska.

Alaska went on a war footing immediately. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, who commanded the defense of Alaska early in the war, ordered all defenses strengthened, and construction accelerated on projects underway. The small town of Seward, the principal transportation entrepot, became a beehive of defensive and anticipatory activity. At the same time, the military appropriated about 25 percent of Alaska's land for the war effort.

By then, tens of thousands of Quonset huts were in Alaska. In fact, it is difficult to imagine World War II in Alaska without the Quonset hut. When military troops and civilian workers flooded the territory in 1940, there was insufficient housing for such a population. Housing was needed for workers during construction, for Army and Navy personnel who needed quick, temporary structures, and for quasi-permanent facilities on most of the 300 military installations established in the territory during the war.

This need fostered the ubiquity of the Quonset during World War II. They appeared throughout the territory where troops were stationed. One estimate suggests that between 20,000 and 30,000 of the huts were shipped to Alaska, a number highly likely but impossible to verify; their use can be documented at nearly every base. The first units likely came to the territory soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor in late 1941, when the Corps of Engineers ordered 16,000 for Alaska. Most went to the Aleutian Islands. Thousands of these were sent to Anchorage, headquarters of the Alaska Defense Command and all Army deployment in the region. Some were shipped surreptitiously: The shipping labels of some of the Quonset huts sent to a secret base on Umnak Island were marked "Blair Packing Company" and "Saxton Canneries," fictional companies invented to disguise the contents of the crates.

It (the Alaska Highway) was never conceived as a primary supply corridor for Alaska. Thousands of troops worked on construction of the highway, and Quonset huts and Quonset-like structures were a common sight up and down the road. They still are today.

Altogether, thousands of civilian workers poured into the territory to work construction, labor as longshoremen and help operate the many new facilities brought on by the Quonset huts. None of Alaska's towns were prepared for the onslaught, and general services were intolerably strained. Housing was inadequate; water, sewer power, and telephone systems were swamped. At the same time, permanent residents and business owners experienced an economic windfall as prices rose rapidly and money flowed as never before. For Alaska, war fueled a superheated economic engine.

The Quonset hut was an acutely familiar sight for those serving in Alaska, Hawaii and abroad during World War II. They worked in them, lived in them, ate in them, recreated in them. Quonset huts were the military's bunks, cafeterias, hospitals and war rooms. Soldiers made efforts to humanize their surroundings. They posted pin-ups along the curved walls of the huts, sometimes covering every square inch of the interior with photos of home and photos from girlie magazines.

The legacy of Quonset huts in Alaska is remarkable. As with any architecture, the space people live and work in is integrally related to how they define and understand themselves and how they perceive the world. The Quonset may be an elegant or inelegant design. Certainly, after World War II, the city fathers of Anchorage found the buildings inelegant, but Alaska would not have been defended in the war without Quonset huts.

The many housing and operational needs of the American military and civilians of Alaska could not have been provided for with the normal temporary tents that prevailed before the creation of the Quonset. Tents did not provide sufficient protection in Alaska against wind, snow, ice and cold; standard building materials, wood-frame structures on cement foundations, were cost prohibitive and difficult to transport. More than 30,000 Quonset huts were sent to and utilized in Alaska because they were an appropriate solution to a critical need. The millions of dollars spent in materials acquisition, operations and payroll might not have happened without the ubiquitous presence of Quonset huts.

We sometimes take for granted such elemental aspects of our endeavors as housing. Perhaps Quonsets are a tangible lesson in why we shouldn't.

Excerpted from "Quonset Hut: Metal Living for a Modern Age", edited by Julie Decker and Chris Chiei, published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2005. Used with permission.