Images of a yesterday and snapshots of time adorn the walls and share pieces of history. Captioned words give life to the action captured in the photographs. The stories remain in the minds of the men who served during that time.
To most, he would seem to be just another soldier, a face on a photograph and a veteran from a generation ago. To us, he is far more.He is the son of my grandfather, the man who became the husband to my mother and a father to my three brothers and me. He is my mentor, my hero and an example on pride, honor and value of a man’s word. His name is John Baumann, but we just call him “dad.”
My wife and I celebrated 25 years of marriage on a dream trip to Whittier, AK. The journey would take us back in time. It was an adventure in the making, a chance to put a place to the names, and somewhere to find pictures for the stories heard during my youth.
How do we get there? That was our first and largest concern. Our travel agent in Virginia, MN, gave us wonderful hints on how to get to the port and even helped us rent a car.
We were scheduled to bus to Anchorage, however, we found out all the cars at a rental agency were booked. Our bus driver happened to stop just outside our hotelso we could get off and ask for help. An enthusiastic plea to a considerate desk attendant, along with a modest tip, got the wheels rolling. Another agency came and picked us up, just like their ad said. They, too, had all their vehicles “out,” but they went the extra mile and found us one.
The agency literally took a brand-new jeep out of plastic and brought it to us to rent. I was admittedly nervous about driving a new car, especially with only 50 miles on it, to a town I had never seen, on a highway I did not know, and through a mountain tunnel I could only imagine.
Luck was with us on our journey.We were dazzled by the locals riding the boar tide into the bay. Parasails and windsurfers danced on the half-milewide and two-foot-high wave cruising in with the tide. Most of the ride was captured on video for my father and mother.
Rounding a corner, glacier-capped mountains called to us with trees as high as one dare look. Above the natural line of sight was raw wilderness, home to the many different kinds of animals found in Alaska.
Far ahead of us, at the base of a particularly huge peak, was a tiny speck of a building that appeared to just reach over the railroad tracks. Following the tracks along the ocean, we watched the speck grow into what looked like a garage built into the side of the mountain. I realized it was the Whittier/Anchorage tunnel I had heard about in the stories told by my father.
Travel flows in one direction for 30 minutes, then in the other direction for 30 minutes. You can only go one direction with it changing every half hour. If you are late, you wait. If you miss the open lanes by not getting back before 10, you are stuck on that side of the mountain. The train gets the night shift.
Entering the tunnel,I realized very quickly that we were traveling over the same path the railroad takes. The tunnel has modern lights and fans blowing to keep the air fresh,however, about a half a mile inside the tunnel,we could no longer see the natural lights of the opening. Small warning signs that read “In case of train, please exit vehicle”add to the tenor of the nerves. “And, go where?”is the automatic question.
Our first view of Whittier was a breathtaking sight as Mother Nature’s best work adorns the mountains. Glacier-covered peaks still shadow the winter past; they give some sense of distance and time. Tall pines and Sitka spruce punctuate the mountains with a large, watchful eagle sitting on top of her nest, serving as the greeter and gateway to Whittier.
The main street of Whittier boasts a few new shops and a sweet little coffee shop, but there’s no museum to be found. Searching the second street, I notice an old cement building and remember my father telling me that all the buildings of Whittier,except for the cement communications building,got damaged in the 1964 quake. It appears that this building is now a grocery store and holds the town’s museum.
Nervous energy spilled over into endless chatter about mostly nothing, but my patient wife followed me to the building and helpedsearch. On the museum’s greeting wall, or the “teaser” part of the museum intended on getting you to go inside, is my father’s story and many more.
At first glance, I am absolutely speechless, something my wife enjoys for the moment. Tears of pride swell in my eyes as there on the wall in full color is my father’s story: John Baumann, Army Veteran and proud young man.
His Army enlistment photo is digitally colored and looks like a young man “full of the army,” and proud to be in Alaska. Others share images to stories told long ago.
Favorite original photos include a softball game played at 3 a.m. in full sunlightor the middle of the night. One photo is of a red-haired, 17-year-old soldier drinking from a pure crystalclear mountain stream. Another original photograph from 1949 shows the swagger of a young soldier at home on the docks, in love with Alaska, and still not old enough to vote. We tried to find the exact spot of the photograph, only to find out the wooden pier burned down in the early 1950s.
Black and white photographsand short anecdotes in print show soldiers walking and marching in lineslong forgotten by time and memories. Even the footprints have been erased by the seasons.
The snow piles get so high in the winter that tunnels are built through the drifts in order to keep the buildings open. My dad’s stories tell of storms where the snow fell so fast that guards put down their weapons and made rounds with shovels, just so the soldiers would not get buried in their barracks.
Pastimes in Whittier included guard duty, loading and unloading ships, baseball, bowling, marksmanship practice, and playing cards. Several of my father’s bowling trophies remain in a box at the museum, waiting for room to display them for everyone to see.
The question is asked, “Why was the Army base put in Whittier?” The answer is, “The surroundings are beautiful, the people are more than friendly, and the air and water are very clean.”
Few know the true history of the port called “Whittier, a soldier’s port.” Built with the weather in mind, the port was commonly covered in clouds and difficult to find from the air. This natural camouflage kept Whittier out of the sights of enemy pilots during the war.
For a short time, part of Alaska was once held by the Japanese soldiers. They, too, enjoyed the scenic beauty of the area.
Whittier boasts a deep-water bay capable of handling the biggest ships of the day. Captains can guide their vessels between the glacier-covered mountains to within 75 miles of Anchorage and still out of reach of the world, except by rail.
Good Friday of 1964 would forever change the geography of Whittier and Alaska. An earthquake caused a large part of the mountain to slide into the ocean. The falling rocks and the shock wave sent a 43-foot-tall wave over the piers of Whittier, essentially whipping it off the map. When the waves receded, all that was left were burning oil reserves and the concrete communications building.
Time healed Whittier and, with the Army moving out, tourism moved in. Some historic-minded individuals rebuilt the museum to showcase Whittier during the war.
Ted Spencer from California, with my father’shelp, filled in the missing years from the historical timeline. Spencer is the same man who was involved in the updating of the Anchorage museum too. Spencer showed the story of Whittier from a point of knowledge with photographs to give humanity to stories.
There was a human story behind the soldiers’ uniforms hanging on display, the men who fought and those who lost. Honor is shared, glory is found, and my dad smiles broadly from his perch on the welcoming wall in Whittier.
Alaska could not be a more beautiful state and, God willing, I will journey back to wonderful Whittier with my family to show them the places Grandpa John stood, learned, served and played.
Thank you to all the veterans of our great country. I salute our veterans, and especiallymy fatherArmy Sargent John Baumann of the 146th Transportation Company, Whittier, Alaska.
Dad, you make us proud!
Patrick Baumann, M.Ed., lives in Virginia, MN.Since Baumann’s visit a few years ago, the museum is planning to move his father’s memorabilia into a diorama and display more of his materials and memories of Alaska.