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Military convoy marks 70 years of Alaska Highway

Posted: September 1, 2012 - 11:12pm

FAIRBANKS Military vehicle enthusiasts last week briefly returned the town of Delta Junction to a time when vehicles were slower, music was brassier and the wartime highway was brand new.

A group of more than 200 participants was at the Deltana Fairgrounds last Tuesday in a convoy of historical military vehicles to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Alaska Highway.

As the group celebrated a successful ride from Dawson Creek, British Columbia, lots of comparisons were made between the experience of the highway construction crew and the contemporary historical re-enactors.

Seventy years after its construction, the Alaska Highway is paved, is several hundred miles shorter than the winding road the Army built, and does not have many of the steep grades and improvised bridges of the original highway. But even in 2012, it is not a simple trip. The international Military Vehicle Preservation Association spent three years planning the Alaska Highway trip after someone suggested Alaska as the next destination at the group’s last major convoy from New York to San Francisco. Vehicles had to pass an inspection, and spare parts were carried for the trip.

The convoy kept a tight schedule, and while the participants were in Delta Junction, a constant radio chatter reminded them when they needed to be in position for the afternoon ride. The vehicles travel at 35 mph in a series of columns with buffer zones between the groups to let faster traffic pass. The group usually doesn’t travel more than 200 miles per day.

For some in the party, driving the Alaska Highway was a lifelong dream; for a few, it was a chance to relive memories.

Owen Ose, who drove a modern support vehicle on this road trip, was 3 years old during construction of the highway. He lived in Canada for a year, when his father was a civilian contractor on the road. Because of his age at the time, he doesn’t have many firsthand memories, though he remembers his older brother getting in trouble with their mother when he went with some Army men to give food to a bear.

Throughout the trip, Ose has compared photographs with other people in the convoy and has seen his father in some of the photos other people have.

Mac McCluskey, who drove a military Jeep in the convoy, was a little older when the highway was being built. A machinist who lives in Crescent City, Calif., he came to Alaska with his father in 1941 when McCluskey was 13 years old. McCluskey’s father worked on the Glenn Highway. They later homesteaded on property at 152 Mile Glenn Highway.

“He left me in Anchorage at a boarding house where I went to school. Then in summer vacation, I was able to come out and kind of live near his camp where they were working by living with some of the Native Alaskans. It was very interesting,” he said. “I didn’t hear much about building (the Alaska Highway). I had a radio, but we were more focused on building the Glenn Highway.”

The convoy crew is made up of mostly retirement age men, most slightly younger than the vehicles they drove. Many families came as well. They are a friendly group, proud of their vehicles and happy to lift up the hoods and talk to crowds of curious locals who come to have a look each time the convoy stops.

Randy Bennett, who owns a historical vehicle parts store in Chardon, Ohio, drove a 3/4 ton Korean War-era Dodge truck that had American and New Zealand flags flying above it. The New Zealand flag was for his passenger, Peter Yates, a military vehicle enthusiast from Auckland, New Zealand.

Bennett bought the truck at a used car lot in Ohio. It has markings that show it had been used by the Alabama Fire Service and a fire department, but Bennett said it’s difficult to know how the military originally used the truck. Blue paint on the bottom suggests it was an Air Force truck.

Delta Junction is the official terminus of the Alaska Highway, but the convoy had been in Alaska for a few weeks because it made a scenic detour through the state, including the Taylor and Denali highways, before going to Delta Junction. Anchorage and Fairbanks were both left off the itinerary on purpose because of the logistical complications of taking the large convoy through city streets.

In Delta Junction, community leaders held a ceremony for the convoy. A convoy committee of Delta women got in the spirit of the era by putting on dresses from the 1940s and spending the morning getting their hair done before serving cupcakes to the guests at the end-of-the-highway marker. Last week’s convoy was the second military convoy to pass through Delta Junction to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Alaska Highway. A smaller American Legion convoy made the trip earlier in the summer.

As the convoy rolled out of town, Delta Junction residents stood on the highway and waved at the drivers who honked horns or turned on sirens. It took nearly half an hour for the parade of historical vehicles to be replaced by 21st century traffic going by Delta Junction.

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