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World War II’s Whittier Tunnel has local connection

Posted on Saturday, November 11, 2017 at 8:20 am



U.S. Army Major Caleb Burgoyne Sr., inset photo, helped lead an engineering team in constructing the Whittier (combined railroad-vehicle)  Tunnel in Alaska near Prince William Sound during World War II in 1942 to protect ammunition and military supplies being shipped in from ports from Japanese submarine attacks.

—Photos provided



Philip J. Lorenz III

As the number of veterans who served their country during World War II continues to exponentially decline, Franklin County resident Caleb Burgoyne Jr. wants to share his late father’s accomplishments with others.

Burgoyne Jr., a retired engineer with Northrup Grumman and other firms, said his father, Army Maj. Caleb Burgoyne Sr., helped lead a project to construct a railroad tunnel in Whittier, Alaska, in 1942, to deter the damage of Japanese aerial attacks on railroad lines and other vulnerable industrial areas in the state.

“This was a big, secret project in 1942,” Burgoyne Jr. said. “(The Army Corps of Engineers) employed the West Company to build this three-mile tunnel, and my dad was the corps’ resident engineer to oversee the tunnel’s construction.”

After 75 years, steps are being taken to have the elder Burgoyne’s accomplishments duly recognized

The family has received word from Ted Spencer, with Spencer Associates in Palo Alto, California, who is working to have an outdoor recreational area in Alaska renamed as Caleb Burgoyne Sr. Park for his contribution to the Whittier Tunnel during World War II.

Burgoyne, Jr. said those conducting the project started drilling the tunnel in January 1942. His father joined them on the work in February “as the chief engineer over the supervision of (the construction of) the tunnel.”

The crew completed the Whittier Tunnel on Nov. 20, 1942, “six months ahead of schedule.”

The purpose of the railroad tunnel was to allow the military to bring weaponry from a deep water port, called Prince William Sound, into the state.

“They needed to get ammunition into Alaska because of the (concern that the) Japanese may be going to attack (the state),” he said. “They had already hit Attu and some of the other islands.”

From 1942 to 1943, the Japanese Navy – aircraft carriers and planes – had attacked and their forces had occupied Midway and Attu Island as part of their “Aleutian Islands campaign” before being driven out and defeated by U.S. forces.

The tunnel was built to safely bring ammunition and supplies from all ports in the area around Whittier and transport it via rail to Anchorage and “farther out to the Aleutian Islands to support the American troops in Alaska to stop an invasion by the Japanese.”

After the celebration of the project’s completion, Maj. Gen. Simon B. Buckner, the commander of the Army’s Alaska Defense Command, referred to its success as “preventing the enemy from knocking out the most important piece of transportation in Alaska.”

During the celebration led by Buckner, held upon the completion of the Whittier Tunnel, Burgoyne Sr. received an award for that project, and the company received what they call an Army-Navy E Award the West Company did for completing this tunnel and doing such an excellent job.

Burgoyne Sr. also served in the Army as a first lieutenant infantryman during World War I in France.

Poor health prevented Burgoyne Sr. from remaining in the military during World War II, but later he recovered and joined the staff of Mississippi State University as a professor teaching mechanical engineering.

Burgoyne Jr.’s wife, Carolyn, was an elementary school principal when they lived in Huntsville, Alabama. Their daughter, Connie Gaskill, is the CEO of Liquid Automation Systems in Birmingham, Alabama. Burgoyne Sr.’s son and daughter-in-law also have a son, John Burgoyne, who is an independent contractor.

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