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The Charlie Lake Alaska Highway Memorial

Charlie Lake, BC (Alaska Highway Km 82.4)



Northern Highways - Alaska, the Yukon & northern British Columbia

The History of the Alaska Highway (Alcan)


Click on each photo in this article to greatly enlarge it

Charlie Lake Memorial, Alaska Highway     Driving the Alaska Highway today, it's difficult to imagine that the initial track could have been built in 6½ months - construction began on April 11th, 1942, and the final gap was closed on October 25th. In the harshest of conditions, punching through some 1,700 miles of wilderness was a project often compared to the building of the Panama Canal. Given the speed of construction and the often-brutal conditions, it's quite remarkable that there were relatively few deaths. The largest loss of life occurred on the morning of May 14, 1942, when 12 of the 17 men on a pontoon boat crossing Charlie Lake, just north of Fort St. John, drowned after the boat sank.

    In 2008, a monument to commemorate the tragedy was built on the shore of the south end of Charlie Lake, in Ross McLean Rotary Park (see map). The stainless steel monument stands 12 feet high, in a 12-foot circle surrounded by 12 posts, one for each of the soldiers who lost their lives.

    Although the monument can be seen from the highway, it seems to get few visitors. That's sad, as it's a significant site, as well as a lovely one. A visit to the monument, preferably following stops at Mile 0 and Alaska Highway House in Dawson Creek, and the Kiskatinaw Bridge, provides an excellent introduction to the history of The Road.

    The story of the event is told on a sign (seen below and to the right) located near the monument. The text on that sign is copied below, followed by a photo of, and the text on, each of the posts:




Tragedy and Heroism at Charlie Lake, May 14, 1942

Charlie Lake Memorial, Alaska Highway

    Not long after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved a plan to build an inland supply route from Canada to Alaska. Construction of the Alaska Highway began in March 1942 and brought nearly 11,000 American soldiers to northern British Columbia, the Yukon, and Alaska. As the work began, many soldiers were stationed in the Fort St. John area.

    Shortly after 8 a.m. on May 14, 1942, a pontoon boat left the 341st Engineer Regiment landing at the south end of Charlie Lake to deliver equipment, supplies, and personnel to Company E's bivouac site at the north end of the lake, a distance of about 12 miles (20 km). There were seventeen men on board. Major John Marvin Turvey, in charge of the expedition, had overseen the loading of the equipment, which included a radio command car, a bulldozer, drums of oil, and other supplies.

    The two-bay, three-boat raft had been built the previous day under the supervision of Lt. John Langendorf, of the 74th Engineer Company. The front compartments of the pontoons were fitted with canvas covers to keep the water out.

    When they started out from the south end of the lake, the water was choppy, with one-foot (0.3 m) waves. Powered by two 22 horsepower motors, the boat proceeded north in increasingly rough water and stronger headwinds, with waves soon reaching two to three feet (0.6-0.9 m).

    By 11:15 am., the boat was about two-thirds of the way to its destination and in the middle of the lake. The men then discovered that a plug had come out of the gas line of one of the motors and gasoline was draining out. They had just rounded the headland when Major Turvey ordered a turn to the west shore. As the boat started to turn, two waves hit it in succession, flooding the right pontoon, which went under, and tipping the raft at a precarious angle. Then it settled and went under, all in less than two minutes.

    A mile and a half (2.4 km) away in his cabin on the northwest shore of the lake, homesteader and trapper Gustaf Albin Hedin watched the pontoon ferry making its way up the lake as he cooked his breakfast. He checked its progress through his field glasses, returned to his stove, then checked the lake again. This time, the boat was nowhere to be seen. Instead, he saw men bobbing up and down in the water. Within two minutes, he had launched his 14-foot (4.25 m) rowboat. It took him about 15 minutes to reach the men.

    At the accident scene, he found nine men afloat. They were hindered in their own efforts to rescue themselves by their heavy winter clothing and boots. Some of them couldn't swim. He hauled two survivors ashore, then returned to help the others, even though his own small boat was in danger of being swamped by the waves. Two more were rescued during the second trip, and on a third trip, he saved one more man.

The following men were rescued from the freezing waters of Charlie Lake:

PFC Pedro R. Ramirez, 39067026
74th Engineer Company (Light Pontoon) Charlie Lake Memorial, Alaska Highway

PFC Don P. Smethurst, 39081661
74th Engineer Company (Light Pontoon)

Pvt. James G. Eberle, 35170512
74th Engineer Company (Light Pontoon)

Pvt. Daniel P. Galli, 39085932
341st Engineer Regiment

Pvt. Robert O. Wooldridge, 37048058
341st Engineer Regiment

A military investigation concluded that the accident was not caused by any misconduct.

Gustaf Hedin received a medal from the Humane Society of Canada and was also honored by the Canadian military and the US. military.




Charlie Lake Memorial, Alaska Highway
Major John M. Turvey

0-306650

DOB August 28, 1908

341st Engineers

Charlie Lake Memorial, Alaska Highway
2Lt. Giles W. Hargis

0-453654

DOB February 12, 1920

341st Engineers

Charlie Lake Memorial, Alaska Highway
Cpl. Robert H. Taylor

32119473

DOB March 22, 1919

74th Light Pontoon

Charlie Lake Memorial, Alaska Highway
Pvt. Edward F. Smith, Jr.

32092333

DOB March 31, 1917

74th Light Pontoon

Charlie Lake Memorial, Alaska Highway
PFC Sherril T. Sheldon

38056568

DOB July 31, 1919

74th Light Pontoon

Charlie Lake Memorial, Alaska Highway
PFC William J. Pakaluk

32113368

DOB July 26, 1916

74th Light Pontoon

Charlie Lake Memorial, Alaska Highway
PFC Frank Nemeth, Jr.

36164503

DOB March 27, 1917

341st Engineers

Charlie Lake Memorial, Alaska Highway
Pvt. Thomas P. McClarnon

362219114

DOB February 11, 1916

74th Light Pontoon

Charlie Lake Memorial, Alaska Highway
PFC Wallace M. Hamilton

38043017

DOB October 10, 1919

74th Light Pontoon

Charlie Lake Memorial, Alaska Highway
Pvt. Harold D. Forkner

35710198

DOB 1919

74th Light Pontoon

Charlie Lake Memorial, Alaska Highway
PFC Paul W. Laws

37007366

DOB July 3, 1918

74th Light Pontoon

Charlie Lake Memorial, Alaska Highway
Pvt. Ernest A. Azevedo

39086123

DOB April 1, 1919

341st Engineers




Charlie Lake Memorial, Alaska Highway Charlie Lake Memorial, Alaska Highway