Nov. 11 is the day that is normally set aside to remember veterans; however, memories were alive and well along the Alaska Highway on Wednesday morning.
The Canadian Convoy was on hand in both Charlie Lake and Fort St. John to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the construction of the Alaska Highway.
“This is a huge event that happened locally – the building of the Alaska Highway,” said Christina Gregoire. “If we didn’t have the Alaska Highway, where would we be? A little, tiny community,” she continued. “The Alaska Highway’s our main artery in the North and these men came up here from the U.S. into the middle of nowhere to build this for us.”
She said it’s important to “remember and honour that” and to let their stories be told.
Gregoire and her husband took a particular interest in the barge – which carried 17 American soldiers – that sank in Charlie Lake.
“There are so many people who said, ‘oh I fished off the barge’ or ‘I flew over the lake and I saw the barge in the lake’ and we searched for it,” said Gregoire.
She said she and her husband hiked around the lake, dove, put holes in the lake during the winter and put a camera down to search for any sign of the barge.
“It’s not in the lake,” she said. “We actually have photographs and affidavits from the U.S. Military stating that it had been removed in 1942.”
Gregoire, along with members of the convoy, politicians, RCMP, cadets and members of the community were on hand at the Charlie Lake Monument to honour the 12 American soldiers who drowned in the lake.
“We want to recognize and remember those men that gave everything,” said Gregoire.
She said she and her husband, among others, worked to erect the monument – which lists the names of each of the men who lost their lives in the lake in 1942.
“At first, contacting the relatives of those who had drowned, they kind of thought it was a little bit hokey and they didn’t understand,” she said.
She said after contacting them a number of times, they started to understand that they “actually had a concern and felt it was important to recognize their relatives.”
Gregoire explained that there were 17 men on the barge when it capsized.
She said a trapper on shore noticed the barge coming up the lake, and he also saw heads bobbing in the water, which he initially thought we were ducks.
“He rowed for 15 minutes, paddled hard,” Gregoire explained. “He got to the location and being that there was something wrong with his paddle, he was able to save a couple of men at a time.”
He saved five of the 17 men in three trips.
“We just want to remember all these soldiers and we want the public and people to continue to remember them and know the story,” said Gregoire.
John Hawthorne, a member of the Canadian Convoy, was on hand for the Charlie Lake Memorial yesterday.
He said it’s stories like these that propel his interest in military history.
“We just came from the Charlie Lake memorial, which is honouring 12 American soldiers who died on that lake, so it brings back (and allows us to) remember back what may have been the hardships faced,” said Hawthorne. “Now of course it’s a modern highway, then it was just a trail through the woods.”
Hawthorne has owned ‘Old Pokey,’ a 1941 General Motors truck used by the U.S. Army signal core for long-range communications, for 20 years.
He said this is the fifth convoy he participated in with ‘Old Pokey.’ He also made his way up the Alaska Highway as part of the 50th Anniversary in 1992.
“That time I drove a jeep; now we’re travelling in more comfort,” he said.
He explained that he transformed the inside of his vehicle into an RV.
While he doesn’t believe ‘Pokey’ would’ve have been part of the original Alaska Highway build, he believes it’s important to be part of these convoys to honour veterans.
“We visit legions in all the various towns and communities and the idea is to raise awareness of our veterans and public awareness and another way of honouring our old vets,” said Hawthorne. “We’ve been visiting in legions all the way up from Vancouver.”
He said the reception from veterans and communities is “outstanding.”
“Veterans seem to appreciate it,” he said. “They sort of like the idea that we’re coming in some of the trucks that they drove – especially World War II veterans.”
Hawthorne said his interest in military history was developed because he was a 25-year member of the military himself.
“I guess a little bit of green stuff rubbed off on me and I like to follow (and) read articles,” he said.
Hawthorne said, while the Alaska Highway was a predominantly American operation, it’s important for Canadians as well.
“The Canadian involvement was more the logistical involvement in supplying the (land) allowing the Americans to build it, and I guess there were some Canadian engineers who were actually helping as well,” he said. “It opened up a route to Alaska and Canada benefitted too because in 1948, they handed over the operation of the highway… and opened it up to the general public.”