Can you do it? How Fast? Don’t worry about cost!
When President Franklin Roosevelt signed off on an executive order in early February 1942 to begin the construction of the 1600-mile supply road through the Northwest Territory from Fort St. Johns to Fairbanks, Alaska, approximately 11,000 soldiers and 4500 civilians packed their duffle bags and suitcases. Theirs is a story of amazing human interest, hardship, and tenacity.
One responder was a U.S. civilian contractor working at the time as far south as the Panama Canal to widen it for the latest generation of battleships. The other was a young Canadian woman working in Toronto as a paralegal. We’ll learn about them later.
Just two months earlier, December 7, 1941, Japan had launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, devastating the Pacific Fleet anchored at bay. Had they flown a few miles further inland, the Japanese would have discovered a massive cache of ammunition and other military supplies that would have forced the complete evacuation of a U.S. military presence on the Hawaiian Islands.
Within weeks, the Japanese had essentially destroyed both the U.S. and British fleets and dominated the Pacific Ocean. Where might they invade North America next? Many believed it could be through the Northwest Territory.
Creating the Alaskan Highway, known as the Alcan, turned out to be the most expensive construction job anywhere in the world during WW 2…around $138 million. In today’s dollars this amounts to over two trillion dollars.
Why so much? The simple answer is time. The road was roughed out in less than a year. The other is degree of difficulty.
Experts compared building the Alcan to the Herculean task of building the Panama Canal. As workers began carving a supply route over the Canadian Rockies through the Yukon Territory, they had to traverse over 200 rivers and streams. Temperatures ranged from 70 degree below zero in the winter months to 90 degrees above in the summer. They had to fight through swamps, mudslides, stubborn rock, ice, elevations, mosquitoes, flies, and gnats in some of the most extreme and often dangerous conditions imaginable. Not a job for the faint of heart.
Initially not everyone agreed the expense was necessary.
In his introduction to William Grigg’s book The World War II Black Regiment – That Built the Alaska Military Highway, Douglas Brinkley writes that the U.S. Navy objected to the project. They argued that their patrolling battleships were enough to deter Japan from invading “the rugged North Circle Country.” Likewise, many in the U.S. Army disagreed with the investment, viewing it as a wasteful pursuit when men and supplies were badly needed elsewhere to fight a war on two fronts. Mr. Brinkley notes that one Navy officer recorded in his diary “He (FDR) doesn’t understand that the Alaskan frontier is untamable.” Many distractors believed that it was simply idiotic to attempt to carve a highway through an unchartered wilderness where the only routes were known to “caribou and Indians.”
Proving the threat real, on June 4,1942, a Japanese carrier launched an air attack on Dutch Harbor on the Alaska Coast. Realizing that controlling the Aleutians would prevent a possible U.S. attack across the Northern Pacific Ocean, Japan also occupied Attu and Kiska, in the western Aleutian Islands until U.S. forces evicted them the following summer. In the process, American troops confronted the most severe banzai attack during WW 2 from over 2000 abandoned, suicidal intent Japanese soldiers. The Japanese navy fled the area when they realized the Alcan meant that they could be reached from the air as well as the sea. The Japanese Colonel Yasuyo Yamasaki (1891- 1943) refused to surrender.
The Alcan went down in history as the first overland route from the U.S. to what was then known as the Alaska Territory. It required close collaboration between the U.S. and Canadian governments. In the event that the Pacific Ocean lanes had been lost to the Japanese Navy and Air Force, the Highway brought Allied Forces to the closest land location to Japan and its occupied islands to launch a counter invasion. And, of course the Highway became the major artery for developing Alaska and tapping its vast resources after the war.
So, what about that young couple?
Mr. Tom Lepard, a U.S. citizen, and Miss Shirley Woods, a Canadian citizen, met and fell in love while working as civilians on the construction of the Alaska Highway. While there, they created three albums containing 284 photos, timely newspaper clippings, and other memorabilia that document their adventures. Also included in the collection are six scarce and/or original maps and two drawings that were used by the Okes Management Construction Company to plan the development of the southern half of the Highway.
The fact that the albums were created from the perspectives and experiences of both a man and a woman who had worked on the Alcan make this collection unusual and interesting. Men outnumbered women by a ratio of 24 to 1!
When the University of Alaska Fairbanks got wind of the Thomas Lepard and Shirley Woods Alcan Collection, they inquired whether it could be donated to their Elmer E. Rasmuson Library. The Rasmuson contains one of he world’s finest collection of Alaska and Polar Regions materials (photos, films, manuscripts, oral histories, books, and maps). Its contents are shared with researchers, educators, and historians from around the globe. On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Alcan, Tom and Shirley’s Collection found a permanent home.
To personalize this Collection, here’s a little biography of the two who met on the Alcan.
Tom was born in 1902 in Davenport, Iowa. His father, Mr. Alfred Lepard was appointed Road Master of the Chicago Rock Island and Pacific Railroad in 1906. Without going into detail, a Road Master was one of the most senior positions responsible for the construction and maintenance of tracks, bridges, and supporting facilities. No train could cross the Road Master’s line without his approval.
At age 15, Tom began working for his father. There he learned how to construct rail beds, roads, bridges, and other supporting infrastructure. Following World War I, his dad eventually left the railroad to become President of Gould Construction. Tom continued with Gould as a site manager for many projects in the Midwest and Southeast.
Sometime during the 1930’s Tom earned the respect of Mr. Day Okes and Mr. Charles Palda, principals in the Okes Management Construction Company of St. Paul, MN. They hired Tom as a senior project manager and sent him to the Panama Canal. Although the U.S. was not yet at war, our government wanted to enlarge the canal to handle newer, larger Navy Vessels that were being built to reinforce the Pacific Fleet.
In October 1940, the Washington D.C. office of the Panama Canal invited bids for the construction of a third sets of locks on the Atlantic side of the of the Panama Canal Zone. Okes Construction Company won this bid to excavate an approach channel, a lock structure and a drainage canal, and for grading a railroad relocation.
When President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the construction of the Alaska Highway, Okes Construction Company won the contract to operate as the managing contractor for work on the Alcan from Fort St. John to Fort Nelson (Section E) and a portion from Fort Nelson to Lower Post (Section D). By the middle of March, U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and civilians began arriving in Alaska. Their Canadian counterparts joined them.
Tom was pulled from the Panama Canal to be part of a front group, including Mr. Okes and Mr. Palda. The company trucked in men and supplies, erected construction camp buildings, built a temporary bridge over the Peace River, graded and surfaced roads, built several permanent bridges, and maintained a 256 mile stretch of the highway for a year. They cut through a forbidding wilderness some thought impenetrable. If operators weren’t alert and careful, mud bogs could easily swallow a Cat D8!
Tom’s fields of expertise included bridges and dams, in addition to roads and buildings. He would have been the hands-on site manager. In fact, he shared a story that the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers named a bridge in his honor…notably, the first one to cross the Peace River. He lamented that the following spring the Corp blew up the Lepard Bridge by mistake, trying to free an ice jam upstream.
Tom was an avid hunter and fisherman and a true conservationist who subscribed to Field and Stream all his life. He would share stories with family about how ruggedly primitive and beautiful he found the Northwest Territory.
While working on the Alcan, he became best friends with Brigadier General James O’Connor who had overall responsibility for the southern half of the Highway.
In what little spare time available, Tom and the General would briefly commandeer a pontoon plane and fly onto pristine rivers and lakes to duck hunt and fish. It’s conceivable that this informal relationship between the two men enhanced communications between military and civilian personnel and helped expedite work on the Alcan while heading off potential problems.
Tom shared memorable tales of spotting numerous wildlife and bringing back large quantities of ducks that he and the General shot. They would treat the base camps to special meals of wild game. They didn’t kill anything they didn’t eat. His trusted 1932 Remington Model 32 12 gauge over and under shotgun helped put food on the table.
The General offered Mr. Lepard a military commission as a high-ranking officer in the Corp of Engineers, which he declined. The reason may have been somewhat influenced by Miss Shirley Woods, an attractive, vibrant, and single Canadian lady. She was working on the Alcan as a paralegal for Okes Management Construction Company. The two met on the Highway and fell in love…probably one of many relationships that the Alcan fostered.
Here’s the Shirley story. She was born in Ontario, Canada in 1913, the daughter of a Presbyterian Minister. Her father supplemented his modest income from the proceeds of a meager oil well that he owned and continued to operate during the depression years of the 1930s. She and her family lived frugally in a small farming and oil producing community.
For many years Shirley took care of an ailing mother. After her mother died at a young age, Shirley attended business college and then joined a Toronto law firm.
Canada entered WWII ahead of the U.S. Responding to Great Britain’s call for a united front, Shirley’s brother joined the Royal Air Force and fought as a pilot for most of the duration of the War. He retired as a major, having engaged in frequent and harrowing air battles over Great Britain and Europe.
Wanting to do her share to help the war effort and looking for adventure, Shirley responded to the call to work on the construction of the Alaska Highway. Okes Management Construction Company hired her to do administrative work and to function as a paralegal. As a general contractor, Okes had to manage many contracts with other suppliers, employees, and relationships to both the U.S. and Canadian governments.
Interestingly, Ms. Woods and Mr. Lepard became friends with Mr. Grant McConachie, Founder of the Great Northern Route.
Mr. McConachie established a reputation as an early Canadian pioneering bush pilot. Before and during the war, he ran his own small fleet of bush aircraft, including ski and float planes. His company delivered mail, freight, and supplies in the remote areas of the Yukon and Northwest Territories. Because of his special knowledge of the terrain and skill sets, the United States government hired him to aerially chart the best route to build the Alaska Highway.
Continuing his pioneering and entrepreneurial nature, after the war Mr. McConachie became CEO of Canadian Pacific Airlines. Recognizing that old enemies would eventually become friends, in 1949 Mr. McConachie acquired the landing rights at the Tokyo and Hong Kong airports. This opened the door for Canadian Pacific’s highly successful service to Australia, Asia, and the South Pacific.
After the War, the now Mr. and Mrs. Lepard moved to Davenport, Iowa, located on the banks of the Mississippi River, where Tom grew up and first began to work as a teenager. Mr. Lepard then purchased surplus war equipment and started his own construction company. Shortly the couples’ first and only child, Katherine Lepard, arrived on the scene in April 1945.
This year (2017) that only child and I celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary. At her request, the Thomas Lepard and Shirley Woods Alcan Collection…now 75 years old, finds its way back to Alaska. If you ever visit the Rasmuson in Fairbanks, ask about it.
April 11, 2017
April 12, 2017 5:28 PM CDTJim,
You make History so interesting, it's better than a novel. I didn't realize until your last paragraph this one child was my good friend!
April 12, 2017 11:28 PM CDTWhat a wonderful history lesson and love story!