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Lend-Lease Program

In the summer of 1941, the German military machine controlled much of Europe, and was rapidly advancing against the crumbling Soviet Red Army. The United States, while not at war, was alarmed at the deteriorating Allied war effort in Europe, and was equally disturbed by the Japanese military juggernaut as it conquered countries in the far east. The lend-lease program would turn the Pacific Northwest, including the Yukon, into a vast system of military airfields.

The Lend-Lease Act, in which the United States would supply military equipment including arms, boats and planes, to Allied countries, had been passed in March, 1941. However, it did not include the Soviet Union, which then had a non-aggression pact with Germany.

But when Germany launched a sudden, massive invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941, the urgent need to help the Russians became very apparent.

In 1942, the U.S. built the Alaska Highway, and established a string of airfields along its route to supply Alaska with badly needed defense materials. This was the North American portion of the route which would be used to ferry fighter and bomber aircraft to the Soviet Union. The route began at Great Falls, Montana and ended at Nome, Alaska. In between, airfields were built at Fort St. John, Fort Nelson, Watson Lake, Snag and many other places in B.C. and Alaska. The existing airport at Whitehorse was abuzz with all kinds of military aircraft.

It was a costly venture and an air route rife with danger for planes and pilots - but not nearly as difficult as the continuation of the route across the Bering Strait, and then traversing 3500 miles of frozen wilderness to central Russia, and on to airfields near Moscow.

Support for these many small airstrips was difficult to maintain. Fuel and other supplies were desperately in short supply. Soviet pilots had to be trained in the operation of unfamiliar bombers and fighters.

At the peak of the lend-lease program, over eight thousand American military aircraft were flown by American pilots from Montana to Alaska, then picked up by Soviet pilots and flown to the Soviet Union to join the battle against Germany. About 133 aircraft were lost, and roughly 140 pilots killed.

To be sure there are some stories of heroism, deceit and political chicanery. One such story is that of a Soviet Navigator, Lt. Constantine Demyanenko, who was a member of a six-man crew in a bomber which enountered severe weather in northern Alaska. When the aircraft was finally able to land at the airfield in Nome, Demyanenko was not on board. The pilot remembered hearing a large bump as the bomber was thrown about in the clouds over the tundra. The tail wing was dented.

Fort St. John
Airports along Alaska Highway. Fort St. John.
Yukon Archives. Richard Harrington fonds, #91.
Click for larger view.

Watson Lake Area
Airports along Alaska Highway. Watson Lake Area.
Yukon Archives. Richard Harrington fonds, #94.
Click for larger view.

The crew assumed that Demyanenko was thrown out of the aircraft as he lifted his navigator's hatch to try and spot the ground. He was given up for dead. But a few days later, an American pilot spotted a large cloth lying on the tundra. He landed his float-plane and found Demyanenko alive and well, except for severe mosquito bites. The navigator was, indeed, thrown from the plane - his boots hit the tail wing - but he managed to open his parachute and land safely.

The Lend-Lease Program during WW II dramatically changed the Yukon, making, as it did, the air route between southern Canada and the United States to Alaska, and eventually to the Asian Pacific.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Radio in Dawson City

It’s hard to believe but there was a time when American armed forces radio (AFRTS) or radio Moscow were the signals of choice in the isolated north. They were the only choices.

In 1944, Whitehorse got a military-operated volunteer radio station called CFWH. However, in the rest of the Yukon, including Dawson City, nobody could get radio reception except from the United States or Russia . And that was only on shortwave.

In the 1940s, radio ruled and the US had plenty of popular programs. American culture was king in the Klondike, too.

In Dawson , there was a Canadian military signal-corps operation designed to keep track of enemy signals during the impending cold war. One signal man, Chuck Grey, had a room on the second floor of the Pearl Harbour Hotel. He also owned a gramophone, lots of old records, and a one-watt radio transmitter.

So he hooked up the record player to the transmitter, dropped a wire from his bedroom window and went on the air. Once they got a microphone, the signal corps boys said:

"This is Dawson City Radio. We hope you enjoy the music."

The primative broadcasts could be picked up around the corner at the signal office. Actually the signal reached all of Dawson, but that was it. Bear Creek, nine miles away, was out of luck. People began to notice. The hotel room became a Mecca for youngsters who wanted to see where the broadcast was coming from. Radio sales in Dawson boomed. Then, someone advised communications regulators in Ottawa about the pirate station. They quickly sent an order to cease and desist.

So the signal corps' pirate radio station went off the air. But the local population now knew what local radio meant. They put pressure on the federal government and the order was withdrawn.

Not only that, but Ottawa shipped the signal corps a 100-Watt transmitter and local Dawson radio was back in business — all the way to Bear Creek. It was popular, but still without a name until the boys talked it over, and decided on CFYT as the call letters. It meant Canadian Forces Yukon Territory.

Radio Dawson
Bill Anderson in front centre. Lloyd Moore, CBC's senior engineer is to Bill's right and Jimmy Mellor(?) to his left. In the back to Bill's right is Jack Craine who was involved in setting up CBC Northern Service. Click for larger view.

Most of the programming was still American Armed Forces Radio shows on sixteen inch transcription disks. They also broadcast the occasional live program when the Yukon’s famous Bill Anderson joined the volunteer staff.

Then in December of 1958, the CBC Northern Service took over all community-operated transmitters in the North. CFWH in Whitehorse became the first CBC North Radio station on November 10th, 1958, and a month later, CFYT, with Wee Willie Anderson as its first employee, joined the CBC Northern Service.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Klondike Photographer Asahel Curtis

Bold photographers, who packed cumbersome equipment over the Klondike trails, emerged with a photo story of incredible hardship, endurance and valour. There's little doubt that the Yukon story would not be the exciting tale it is had it not been for these few.

One such photographer was Asahel Curtis. He was born in Minnesota in 1874 and moved to Washington State in 1888. His older brother, Edward, opened a photo studio in Seattle in 1892, and Asahel began working there in 1895.

In 1897, Edward was contracted by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper to supply photos of the gold rush stampede. So he sent brother, Asahel, then just 22 years old, on his Klondike adventure. Loaded down with heavy gear, he sailed north, on a rickety boat called the Rosalie, in the fall of 1897.

When he reached the desolate port of Skagway, young Curtis stood on the beach as the Rosalie left. He felt very alone. But soon he adapted to life on the trails and he became not only a photographer, but the unofficial postman, by picking up mail along the trail. He once returned to Skagway with nearly 100 pounds of mail.

Curtis was impressed by the wild country and the drama of the gold rush. But had no desire to go to Dawson City because he was enjoying life on the White and Chilkoot passes and earning a good living taking photos of the stampeders and keeping the negatives.

Meanwhile, Edward wrote an article for The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine called "The Rush to the Klondike over the Mountain Passes." The photos were Asahel's, but were credited to Edward as owner of the studio and sponsor of the expedition.

After spending a year on the trail, Curtis decided to go to Dawson City before freeze up in 1898. It was an eventful journey. Years later, he told of watching a boat go through the White Horse Rapids. He knew the passenger was doomed because the boat went crosswise to the current and the dark figure in the boat seemed helpless.

Then a side current caught the boat and spun it straight into the rapids. He watched from shore as the boat raced passed him. He was impressed with the boat-handling of the occupant only to find out later than the dark figure was a large black dog, accidently set adrift.

In the fall of 1898, Curtis and a partner filed a claim on Sulfur Creek. But it was a non-paying proposition.

In his last diary entry on February 16, 1899, he had given up on the claim and was back concentrating on photography. After two years in the Klondike, he returned to Seattle with more than three thousand plate-glass negatives of the gold rush.

There, Asahel and Edward had a disagreement over who owned the negatives. They never spoke to each other again. Edward Curtis became the foremost photographer of Native Americans in history while Asahel operated a photo studio in Seattle for nearly four decades, documenting the growth of the Northwest. When he died in 1941, his children sent a telegram to Edward. Edward never replied.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin