September 22, 2022
At Caterpillar, it’s true we help our customers build a better, more sustainable world. Getting the job done takes Caterpillar employees who design, build and deliver yellow iron to provide brawn that moves mountains. It also takes customers committed to doing the job at hand, sometimes under the most challenging conditions imaginable.
And once in a while, they are one and the same.
Tom was an engineer at Caterpillar when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in March 1942, two-and-a-half years after the start of World War II. Tom spent four months of duty working on the Alaska Highway – constructed during the war as a military transportation route connecting Alaska with strategic continental defense bases.
The highway had been commissioned earlier that year by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt in cooperation with the Canadian government and originally stretched through 2,700 km (1,700 miles) of rugged wilderness. It was built in an astonishing eight months with crews working from both the northern and southern ends, meeting in the middle at mile 588 – now known as Contact Creek in Yukon.
Building the road was a daunting task by any standard.
The construction crew accompanying Tom comprised 1,200 soldiers, 45 officers, and more than $1 million (roughly equivalent to $17 million today) worth of heavy construction equipment. Most of them, Cat® machines. Tom later said that according to an officer, 1,850 of the 2,200 dozers on the project were built by Caterpillar.
The crew was on a tight deadline, and Tom described the environment as “raw, crude and ruthless.” The soldiers worked ahead of the machines, often in brutally cold temperatures, laying down timbers so the swampy ground could support heavy equipment. Once the swampland ended, swift-moving streams or lakes appeared, requiring the team to construct permanent bridges. Along the way, they converted raw lumber into bridge timbers, piles, and corduroy road materials. The spring brought melting snows and torrential rains, and summer weather ushered the arrival of mosquitoes and biting flies.
The crew worked 14 – 18-hour days, seven days a week and ate fish and game they hunted along the way.
“During the entire road-building operation, the only recreation for the men had been almost a luxury and a necessity. Hunting and fishing were great. Virgin forests were full of game and untapped streams loaded with fish. It was more than a sport, however. It was fresh meat – something we didn’t have coming to us for a long time,” Tom said.
Tom recalled he was one of only seven men in his platoon with experience operating heavy construction equipment. As a motor officer, Tom’s primary job was to keep his crew’s machines, including 18 D8s and 20 D4s, running in mud, rain, and deep snow.
“Generally, I was familiar with the equipment. Right at home, in fact,” Tom recalled. “Men pushed the machines to their utmost power, and the machines responded. Through wooded expanses, our tractors pushed and up-rooted millions of board feet of jack pine and spruce. Trees were converted readily to our needs for timber for our bridges and our corduroy roads. ‘Cats’ seldom cooled their engines unless laid up for some repair. In such cases, I had to see they ran again.”
The highway was officially complete for military use in 1942. Tom’s crew “had been the last of seven road-building regiments to arrive at the job site,” yet finished the assignment in the shortest time.
After Tom’s military service, he rejoined Caterpillar and worked in the purchasing department until his retirement in 1976.
When the highway first opened for military use, it wasn’t suitable for automobile traffic. Over the years, it has continued to be upgraded and Cat equipment helped open the highway for public use in 1948.
Today, Caterpillar customers still use Cat equipment to maintain the iconic roadway.