In the late 1970’s I was sent to Kotzebue, Alaska for the construction season. My job was to keep all of their old surplus Army and Air Force equipment running, by whatever means.


Photograph of the Caterpillar name on an old radiator tank, era 1947.

Going right to work after arriving in town, we found the Kotzebue City dump well stocked with spare parts. Not that we were scrounging for parts. Not us. We were RECYCLING WITH DIGNITY. Traveling throughout Alaska repairing equipment, this remained a constant in the villages. When a machine quits the weather is usually too cold to allow outside repairs, and often, there is no one available to repair it anyway. They order a new one from town and just let the dead one lay where it quit. For high quality fasteners we’d take bolts from an abandoned Caterpillar D-7 bulldozer there. If we needed a carburetor or carburetor parts, we’d pick from 20 or so machines strewn along the road to the dump.

A large, beached Viet Nam-era landing craft lay nearby. Needing some steel plate one time, I took a torch to the boat and cut off a big chunk. Noticing the sparks from the torch cut were of different color and character than regular mild steel, I realized the outer structure of the boat was armor plating, the equivalent to expensive abrasion resistant T-1 steel. Further, down inside the boat was any size of steel pipe we might need. Once in a while we’d find an artifact we could dress-up and re-purpose, as shown here.

Re-Purposed Lifting Lug From A Cat Engine.
In the bush, the talent to keep equipment going, to “haul the gravel” or “dig the hole” or “carry the freight”, with almost no parts, supplies or special tools, is valuable. But when you get back to town it is not that way. Field mechanics can become fixated on “function” at the expense of  “aesthetics”. Many of the really good field mechanics with whom I’ve worked were Korean war, or Vietnam veterans who learned to keep things going in a war zone. They were trained in the mindset of “Field Expedient Repairs”, like the Army BDARs (Battlefied Damage Assessment and Repair)  techniques. As an aside, these mechanics are often found with the Master Mechanic rating  in “poor-boy” mining, logging, or construction operations.

Speaking of war, the company bought a lot of Defense Department surplus equipment from Air Force and Army bases in Anchorage and Fairbanks. The used equipment reduced the cost of doing business in the bush. Machines were shipped on barges to where they were needed and then sold to someone near the job site when the job was finished, thereby eliminating the freight cost to ship it home.

Durable Water Proof Tool Box Made From Cat Valve Covers.

The company had a pilot, a Viet Nam veteran, who carried passengers and freight as needed. One plane they often used was a twin engine SKY VAN which was built like a mini version of a Hercules aircraft and loaded through the tail. Its reversible pitch props gave it maneuverability on the ground, even permitting the plane to back-up when needed.

The pilot once delivered an earth mover tire to a place near Kivalina, and didn’t even land. Since they were flying with the back door open, they just flew low, and shoved the tire out near the village. Since it’s pretty hard to break a tire, no harm was done and this one was just fine after its fall. This happens to be the only peace time tire-bombing of an Alaskan village on record.