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History and Culture

Home  >  History and Culture  >  Life in Alaska
The Father of Military Construction in Alaska: Colonel B. B. Talley
By Virginia Talley Page 1 of 4   Next ยป

The following is an excerpt adapted from a book-in-progress about activities of Brig. Gen. Benjamin. B. Talley, often known as "B.B." General Talley came to Alaska in September 1940 to build an airfield near Yakutat. For three years, General Talley undertook reconnaissance on the mainland and in the Aleutians and supervised construction on more than 60 projects. During that time, B.B. Talley's rank advanced from captain to colonel.

Background: The "Forgotten' Aleutian War

Virginia and Brigadier General B.B. Talley, in 1995.

Few Americans are aware that during World War II a foreign enemy invaded and occupied a part of Alaska. The U.S. Army had been present in Alaska since the territory was acquired by the United States in 1867. Their greatest impact, however, began during World War II. The primitive Alaska Territory was forever changed by the arrival of the U.S. military and the Alaska campaign to regain the captured territory from the Japanese.

A military engineer, Benjamin B. Talley, usually known as "B.B.," was responsible for much of the development and change. From the fall of 1940 to mid-1943 he was charged with construction of the bases, airfields, ports, roads and other infrastructure which enabled the military to prevail in ousting Japan from the islands they occupied. His work and that of others in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers provided the foundation of the postwar military in Alaska and contributed to the economic development of the state. The Aleutian war was virtually ignored both at the time and later in the histories about World War II. Several post-war writers dubbed it "The Forgotten War." It was a small war compared with operations in other theaters. The ground and air forces had to contend with conditions unmatched elsewhere in the world -- the geography and weather were more difficult to deal with than the opposing invaders and in many cases were more destructive. The conditions are aptly described in an unpublished manuscript by James E. Pitt describing the Aleutian Islands -- a thousand-mile chain of islands, including those islands occupied by the Japanese.
Here was the loneliest, the wildest, the most inhospitable of all American outposts, a series of minute rocky dots strung out in a crescent across the rough waters of the North Pacific and the Bering Sea, a chain of volcanic craters with their peaks poking out of the ocean.
For more than 700 miles there was no tree nor shrub higher than a man's knee, no animal life except a few foxes and the bold ravens and sea birds that wheeled monotonously in the almost perpetual shroud of driving fog. The sun showed itself rarely, sometimes only two or three times in as many months, but when it did the islands had a strange and uncanny beauty. . . . More often than not, rain, sleet and snow drove almost horizontally over the bleak islands, blotting out the very shapes of hills and peaks and shorelines, churning the ground into an indescribable morass of oozing, night-black mud. And day and night the wind played an endless orchestration, howling in demonic fury, wailing in ghost tones, sounding incessantly over this fantastic world.
The trials, exploits, achievements and misfortunes of those who were stationed in Alaska were seldom reported. Censorship was tight, with few communiques issued. As noted by Brian Garfield, author of The Thousand-Mile War:
I had never heard of the war in the Aleutians -- this was about 1966, I believe. It sounded new and different, so I went to the New York Public Library to look it up. . . . I found next to nothing. The little bit I did find was tantalizing. It looked like a story that might have scope and size. . . It overflowed with both tragedy and triumph. It had heart. It had laughs. It had the best and the brightest.

B. B. Talley experienced the beauties and the trials of Alaska, both on the mainland and in the Aleutians. He died in November, 1998 after a long and distinguished life and career which encompassed both military and civilian activities. An outline of his many accomplishments is contained in an article in the Alaska District, Corps of Engineers house publication, entitled, 'General B. B. Talley dies at 95.'

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IBM Text to Speech

 
About the Author: Virginia M. Talley, a retired lawyer, was the fourth generation of lawyers in her family. In the late 1930s when she entered Washington University in St. Louis, she was the only girl in her class. She graduated as valedictorian. After law school, Virginia took a job in the Legal Department of the Rural Electrification Administration, traveling widely throughout the lower 48 states to help establish electric cooperatives, purchase small electric companies or portions of lines being divested by larger firms.

After five years with REA, Virginia Talley was employed in the legal department of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank). The Bank was in its formative stage, and work was in progress on the first of its development loans. Virginia became the first woman to be sent overseas on Bank business.

Virginia never experienced active military service, but her relationships with the Army started at the top. She twice married Generals, each of whom were widowed and retired from the military. They both completed illustrious careers in the Army Corps of Engineers. Her first marriage was to Lieutenant General Raymond A. "Speck" Wheeler who, after finishing his tour as Chief of the Army Corps of Engineers, came to the World Bank to set up its Engineering Department. After her marriage, Virginia retired from the World Bank as a regular employee but continued as a consultant, and both the Bank and the United Nations sent the couple together as a joint engineering/legal team to countries around the world.

In 1975, Virginia married Brigadier General Benjamin B. Talley, and Virginia began her life in Alaska as a resident of the unincorporated village of Anchor Point. Virginia and B.B. married late in life, but enjoyed 23 years together. In spite of her original civilian orientation, Virginia had the opportunity to absorb the flavor of the military experience and to visit many of the places on the mainland and in the Aleutians where B.B. Talley had been charged with overseeing construction of numerous projects that changed Alaska and contributed to both the military and civilian economy.
 
Next page:   Testing the Tunnels to Whittier Pages:  1 2  3  4 


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