Historic convoy of military vehicles rolls through Alaska
Anchorage Daily News
PALMER, Alaska — A convoy of vintage military vehicles rolled into the Alaska State Fair grounds on Friday afternoon. About 70 jeeps, trucks, ambulances and other rolling warriors dating from World War II to Operation Desert Storm are visiting Alaska this month, accompanied by 30 more support vehicles — motorhomes, pickups, trailers and motorcycles.
The tour is organized by the Military Vehicle Preservation Association, an international club of about 8,000 members based in Independence, Mo.
"We get together and do a convoy every couple of years and try to find a road that has some sort of military significance," said Wendy Rowsam, who helped arrange the 2012 MVPA Alaska Highway Convoy and scouted the route with her husband, Jeff, last year. "The 70th anniversary of the Alaska Highway was a natural pick."
Commonly known as the "Alcan," the highway was constructed by the military over in a matter of months in 1942, creating the only road connection between Alaska and the contiguous United States.
Several of the vehicles on the commemorative trip are 1940s-era 1 1/2-ton trucks of the type that were used in building the Alcan, though no one can say for certain whether any of the trucks in this convoy were part of that project.
The Rowsams were driving one of the older rigs in the convoy, a Dodge 1/2-ton four-wheel drive built in April 1942.
"We bought it two years ago with this trip in mind," said Jeff Rowsam. "It was a basket case."
The exterior is original, he said, but almost everything else — brakes, wiring, engine — had been reworked or replaced. A canvas cover sheltered the bed, disguising a fairly modern pop-up camper. Turn signals have been added. And Jeff Rowsam had built plywood "weather doors." The original truck had no doors or seat belts. Like many of the old vehicles, its roof is canvas.
That makes for chilly driving, especially in Alaska, even in August.
"I could have used an extra sweater this morning," said Terry Shelswell of Clarkston, Mich., driving a 1952 Willys of the type used in the Korean War.
The convoy left Glennallen after breakfast Friday morning. After the Palmer stop, they planned to drive over Hatcher Pass to Willow. The route has purposefully avoided cities where possible and strived to find roads that reflect conditions on the original military corridor.
According to their itinerary, they'll stop at the Alaska Veterans Memorial and Denali National Park on Saturday, cross to Paxton on the Denali Highway on Monday, then take the Richardson Highway to Delta on Tuesday before turning south again.
The drivers from around the country rendezvoused in Dawson Creek, Canada on Aug. 4 and plan to be back there Aug. 30. They will have traveled 4,100 miles, Wendy Rowsam said, and most will still have thousands of miles to go before they're home.
When moving, the convoy follows what Jeff Rowsam called "loose military practice." Lead vehicles in front and "tail gunners" in the rear have radios. If a vehicle has trouble, it pulls over and the vehicle immediately behind it also pulls over to offer assistance. The rest of the train passes by. If the trouble isn't fixed by the time the end of the convoy arrives, maintenance vehicles can tow the stalled vehicle or put it on a flatbed.
"The maintenance units can pretty well fix anything," Jess Rowsam said. Spare parts are stored in racks in trailers. Veteran mechanics travel with the group. And most of the members are skilled at repairs.
The trip has been trouble-free so far, Wendy Rowsam said, aside from flat tires, radiator problems, "average things." Two people had to leave the trip due to family emergencies, she said, but none for mechanical reasons.
Highlights of the trip included going over the "Top of the World" Highway from Dawson to Chicken, she said, and making a run up the Dempster Highway to the Arctic Circle.
But the best part, she said, is how people have welcomed the caravan. Sheep Mountain Lodge fed everyone on Friday morning. A garage in Dawson opened its doors to the travelers so that they could take care of any fix-up or maintenance chores.
But things haven't always gone exactly on schedule. The convoy was supposed to check in at the fairgrounds parking lot at noon. It took almost two more hours before they all arrived.
The snag was one sadly familiar to Alaskans: summer road construction delays.