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The Northwest Staging Route

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Carl A. Christie

Reprinted with permission of the author and publisher of For King and Country: Alberta in the Second World War

For King and CountryOne of Canada's lesser known contributions to the war effort came in the form of a string of airfields in the northwestern part of North America, stretching from the United States to Alaska through Alberta, northern British Columbia, and the Yukon Territory. Many people know something about the Alaska Highway; few have heard of the Northwest Staging Route, developed during the war as an airway over which military aircraft and supplies could be sent to Alaska. In fact, the Canada-United States Permanent Joint Board on Defence [PJBD], when it proposed the ground route, simply called for a road to link the airfields between Alberta and Alaska.1

Early in the war, as the Japanese threat in the Pacific intensified, the officially neutral US military gained free use of the Northwest Staging Route from Edmonton to Fairbanks, Alaska, an air distance of about 1700 miles, or 2210 miles overall between the two US terminal bases at Great Falls, Montana and Anchorage, Alaska.2 The principal staging points were Grande Prairie, Alberta; Fort St. John and Fort Nelson in British Columbia; and Watson Lake and Whitehorse in the Yukon. Intermediate landing strips were located at Dawson Creek, Beatton River and Smith River, British Columbia, and Teslin, Aishihik, and Snag in the Yukon Territory.3

The history of the Northwest Staging Route dates from pioneering flights by bush pilots, surveys undertaken by the Canadian Department of Transport in 1935, and the start of aviation modernization before the war. However, by 1940 it was still little more than a string of primitive landing strips usable only in daylight and good weather. In November 1940 the PJBD recommended that the plans to improve the route be enlarged to accommodate American needs and pushed forward as quickly as possible.4 The United States agreed to pay for all facilities required beyond those planned by the Canadian government.

While American interest in the route as a strategic air connection with Alaska predated the war, little use was made of it until just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. As tensions increased in 1941, even before the United States entered the war, the United States Army Air Corps checked out the route and stored gasoline at the various airfields in case it had to be used as an emergency supply route to Alaska. In September 1941, J.A. Wilson, Director of Air Services with the Department of Transport in Ottawa and one of the key figures in the development of aviation in Canada, toured the route and reported, perhaps a trifle optimistically, that the airway would be in full operation, complete with radio ranges, and able to handle any type of aircraft in a few weeks. As the work progressed, a small American presence was built up around Alberta airfields that served as links in the chain connecting Montana and Alaska. Those who arrived from south of the 49th parallel viewed Alberta as a virtual frontier; those who came from the North reportedly found the provincial capital a real treat. One group of airmen from Alaska toured facilities on the route and were "quite excited at getting into civilization again even for a short time", when they reached Edrnonton.5

After 7 December 1941, work was pushed ahead with renewed vigour, amidst fears that the Japanese had designs on Alaska. Despite the accelerated pace of construction, the principal user, the United States Army Air Forces [as the Air Corps was renamed in June 1941], found the route unsuitable for the volume of air traffic following Pearl Harbor. Early in January 1942, for instance, thirteen Martin B-26 Marauder twin-engine bombers, accompanied by 25 single-engine Curtiss PAO Warhawk fighters, set out for Anchorage. Seven of the P-40s crashed en route and five were still on the way a month later, delayed by mechanical failures and other problems. Five of the B-26s also crashed, four corning down between Edmonton and Whitehorse in an isolated spot subsequently known as "Million Dollar Valley".6 Lieutenant-Colonel R.W. Hale, Officer Commanding, 2nd Battalion, Edmonton Regiment, reported on 16 February 1942:

Some forty-five large U.S.A. aircraft have used this route since it was completed. They, however, did not find it as easy as it looked, losing nearly a million dollars' worth of aircraft, and incurring injury to a number of Aircrews, some of them seriously. 7

Mechanical problems and inexperienced pilots were two factors involved in the mishaps, but on the whole the operation pointed to the undeveloped state of the airfields and the lack of navigation facilities, proper communication systems, and reliable meteorological services. Authorities stepped up their efforts to upgrade the airway.8

In January 1943, Air Force Headquarters [AFHQ] in Ottawa summarized the progress:

All main Staging units, viz; Edmonton, Grande Prairie, Fort St. John, Fort Nelson and Watson Lake and Whitehorse, are now in use. Accommodation is available for personnel and refuelling facilities are provided by the United States Army Air Force. Radio Ranges are installed and point-to-point communication has been set up. The intermediate staging units are not fully serviceable. They are located at Beatton River, Smith River, Teslin, Aishihik and Snag. Landings can be made in an emergency at Teslin, Aishihik and Snag. 9

Throughout 1942 the Canadian government clung to its plan to develop the route as a national project. However, the improvements required by the United States and the limited supply of domestic labour brought about the reluctant conclusion to accept American assistance. After February 1943 the two countries developed the northern airway as a joint venture. Frequent meetings took place between Canadian and American officials with the aim of upgrading the facilities on the crucial connection between the continental United States and Alaska.10

Notes

1. Recommendation No. 24, February 25-26, 1942, Stanley W. Dziuban, Military Relations between the United States and Canada, 1939-1945 [Washington 1959], p. 357, and C.P. Stacey, Arms Men and Governments: The war Policies of Canada, 1939-1945 [Ottawa, 1970], p. 346.

2. Wesley Frank Craven and James Lea Cate, The Army Air Forces in World War II, Vol. 7: Services around the World [Chicago 1958; reprinted 1983], p. 152; Deane R. Brandon, “ALSIB: The Northwest Ferrying Route through Alaska, 1942-45, Part 1”, Journal American Aviation Historical Society, Vol. 20, No. 1 [Spring 1975], p. 23.

3. Stacey, op. cit., p. 379-82

4. Tenth recommendation, Dziuban, Military Relations, p. 351; F/L E.P. Wood, “Northern Skytrails, Part X”, Roundel, Vol. 1, No. 10 [August 1949], pp.4-8. For details on the development of the Northwest Staging Route as a military airway, see Department of Transport [DOT] file 515032 pts 1 and 2, “Airports & Airharbours, Northwest Staging Route, General Correspondence”, National Archives of Canada [NA], Recorded Group [RG] 12, Vol. 1405.

5. Lieutenant-Colonel R.W. Hale, O.C. [Officer Commanding], 2nd Battalion, Edmonton Regiment, to District Officer Commanding [DOC], Military District [MD] No. 13, Calgary, 11 September 1941, enclosing “Interim Report on International Airports”, 10 September 1941, and “F”, Headquarters, MD 13, to Major-General R.O. Alexander, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Pacific Command, 12 September 1941, DHist 169.009[D106].

6. Brandon, “ALSIB . Part 1”, p. 23; Craven and Cate, op. cit., Vol. 1: Plans and Early Operations, January 1939 to August 1942 [Chicago 1948; reprinted 1983], pp. 303-4.

7. Hale to Brigadier F.M.W. Harvey, DOC MD 13, 16 February 1942, DHist 169.009[D106].

8. Hale, after seeing the route for the first time in several months, commented: “I found that there have been so many changes and improvements that I am out of date myself.” Hale to Harvey, 16 February 1942, ibid. For more detail on improements at each of the airfields by late 1942, see the facility reports in RCAF file S.50-50-8, DHist 181.003[D4823].

9. A/V/M N.R. Anderson, for CAS, to AOC-in-C [Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief] RCAF Overseas, 26 January 1943, AFHQ file S.24-1-13 [Plans/JP], DHist 181.003[D4823]. See also other progress reports in RCAF file S.267-17-1 Vol. 4, “Aerodrome Facilities Reports”, DHist 181.003[D5217].

10. See, for example, minutes of meetings and related documents in RCAF file FS-N-25, DHist 181.009[D3293].

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