A military engineer who became a living Alaska legend, Brig. Gen. Benjamin B. Talley died on Nov. 27, at the age of 95, in Homer. His distinguished career spanned nearly a half-century. His achievements include supervising construction of Elmendorf Air Force Base in 1941, readying Alaska for defense from Japanese invasion in World War II, and overseeing the reconstruction of Anchorage and southcentral Alaska after the Good Friday earthquake in 1964 as a civilian engineering manager.
Talley, considered to be the father of military construction in Alaska, is the namesake of the District's main conference room. The Talley Room contains display cases of his many awards and medals earned in service around the world. Photos on the wall show significant contributions he made as a military engineer in Alaska. In each decade of the 1930's through the 1980s, he accomplished more than most military officers would dream about in a lifetime.
As a young officer in 1931, he went to Nicaragua with an engineer battalion conducting the Nicaragua Canal Survey. After a devastating earthquake there, he helped to restore basic services and to reconstruct the city of Managua. Later, he pioneered the use of aerial topographic surveying, invented a portable stereocomparagraph, wrote a textbook on aerial photogrammetry, and lectured on photogrammetry at Harvard University.
From January 1941 to June 1943, charged with overseeing all Army and Air Corps construction in Alaska, he was responsible for more than $300 million of construction. (Cost figures are in 1940 dollars and would be in the billions in the 21st century.) This massive construction of some 28 major projects was undertaken prior to and after the attack at Pearl Harbor. It included the Whittier Tunnels and numerous hangars, barracks, facilities and air bases at or near Yakutat, Anchorage, Fairbanks, Cold Bay, Umnak, Adak, Amchitka and Shemya. Always willing to go into harm's way, he landed with the D-Day forces on the beaches of Omaha and many Pacific beaches.
For his leadership and bravery on D-Day, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. In the 1950s, he was promoted to Brigadier General and eventually retired from the Army. As a civilian contractor and officer of Raymond International, he was responsible for negotiating the contracts and constructing 11 office buildings in Brasilia, the new capital city of Brazil. Following the massive Good Friday earthquake of 1964, he was in charge of engineering for the reconstruction of the greater Anchorage area as the resident manager for Metcalf and Eddy, Engineers.
In the late 1960s, he was responsible for the in-house engineering for many projects of the U.S. Navy in South Vietnam. For three years during the 1980's, as chairman pro-tem of a citizens advisory committee, he worked as a volunteer on production of a documentary film, Alaska at War. It gives the story of the World War II invasion of the Aleutians by the Japanese and the American/Canadian efforts to retrieve the two occupied islands of Kiska and Attu.
In 1965, General Talley purchased property in the area of Anchor Point, Alaska, an unincorporated community on the Kenai Peninsula. For several years, he and his wife, Manila, divided their time between Alaska and Oklahoma. They were good friends of Lt. Gen. Raymond A. Wheeler and his wife, Virginia Morsey Wheeler, and in early 1974 they planned to visit the Wheelers in Washington, D.C.
In late 1973, however, Manila died quite suddenly. B.B. notified his friends of Manila's death. On February 7, 1974, Gen. Wheeler penned a handwritten note to B.B. saying that he and Virginia still hoped that B.B. would come to visit. The next morning, Wheeler became ill. He and Virginia rode in an ambulance to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., and while she waited outside the emergency room, Virginia went down the hall to mail the letter to B.B. An hour later, the doctor came to tell Virginia that General Wheeler had died. Some weeks later, B.B. heeded his good friend's call, and he came to see Virginia in Washington.
In 1975, B. B. and Virginia were married. Although they married late in life, they enjoyed more than 23 wonderful years together.