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The Voice of the Arctic

Way up in Nome, metropolis of Northwestern Alaska, the air waves are full of music, drama, comedy.  For since December of 1941, Nome has harbored the Nation's northernmost radio station, WXLN, "The Voice of the Arctic."

An ice-bound port eight months of the year, Nome long ago severed relationships with dog teams as a mode of transportation to depend entirely upon civilian and Army air transport as its main link with the outside world.  And today the Army's Air Transport Command is the medium that provides WXLN with its most vital commodity, the topflight entertainment transcription units of the far-flung Army Forces Radio Services under the command of a Colonel Thomas H.A. Lewis.

But in December of 1941, WXLN, had a far more militant purpose.  It was built by Nome's Civilian Defense Committee under Garnet Martin as an aircraft warning device plugged into the city's power system.  With a Japanese invasion of Alaska's mainland anticipated, citizens were tuned in day and night ready to prepare for an air attack.  For filler, phonograph records of pre-World War I vintage, donated by townspeople were offered with heart-breaking regularity, intermingled with instructions on extinguishing incendiary bombs.  It was questionable which provided the better entertainment.  While the Japs were rampaging through the Philippines and the South Pacific, the community went without news for days at a time.

The broadcasting equipment for the primitive set-up was constructed from scattered odds and ends remotely resembling radio parts, gathered around town.  Funds were procured from a Nome Home Arts Club benefit dance held in the Nome school gymnasium with the support of the large native Eskimo populace.  The antenna, with simple dignity, was a piece of wire languishing over a couple of telephone poles.

The "studio" was located in a small room of the Nome school where General Jimmy Doolittle matriculated in kindergarten classes.  Later WXLN took up new quarters in the City Hall, just above the fire and police station, which also doubled as the city jail.

The staff consisted of six volunteers who took turns making the announcements, operating the phonograph, and playing "requests."  One blossoming high school girl who doubled as announcer was particularly partial to "Don't Let Julia Foolya," which she habitually played for the enlisted men in the local U.S. Army detachment burrowing in tents out on the ice-covered tundra.  She was referring to Julie Cook, Nome's fabulous "Dynamite Red," and original Eskimo pin-up girl.

The chief of police, Mr. Yenny, took over the morning broadcast.  He would play Scandinavian schottischers from six to seven to please all the Swedes while they were having breakfast, and from seven to eight he offered "all those fast records for the boys out at the camp."  The chief never had such a good time.

Late in the summer of 1942, two servicemen were detailed to the station by Commanding General Edwin Jones of the Post to contribute their assistance in keeping Nome's only recreational activity on the air.

By now if there was even a short cessation of the broadcast schedule, it was badly missed by practically everyone in Nome and the Seward Peninsula.  People at this northern outpost were accustomed to top entertainment over their sets.  Table radios would be snapped up for as much as $150.  The advent of Armed Forces Radio Service transcriptions providing the best of the network shows with commercials deleted, supplemented by OWI recordings, had created a listening public of snowbound servicemen and civilians entirely dependent upon the station for recreation.

The long overdue shot in the arm came with the unexpected visit of ATC's Lt. Ed Holwick of 19 Garretson Road, White Plains, New York, former co-writer of the Bing Crosby Kraft Music Hall.  Volunteering for Nome as a permanent assignment, and taking Cpl. Walter Starns of Los Angeles, California, with him, Lt. Holwick moved to the City Hall.  For seven days the two divided shifts keeping the station on the air.  After endless auditions, from the newly-arrived 398th Service Squadron, Pfc. Frank Tompeter of 1828 2nd Street, Peru, Illinois, and Pfc. Jack Knox of 221 S. Olive Ave., Alhambra, California, were selected for the announcing spots, with Pvt. Bill Winn of Juneau, Alaska, as staff writer and station clerk.

"Live" shows were initiated, including an early morning session dubbed "Reveille Without Beverly;" the studio and office were completely redecorated, and new features added.  Christmas, 1943, was greatly enhanced by an especially transcribed greeting to the officers, enlisted men and civilians at Nome by Bing Crosby and the full cast of the Kraft Music Hall.  Written by Carroll Carrol, the program's scripter, with the approval of the J. Walter Thompson Advertising Agency, this was probably the only time a commercial network show had ever devoted the talents of its entire personnel to a program intended solely for the listening enjoyment of one post.

In November of 1944, WXLN's transition was complete with the transfer of transmission facilities to sound-proof studios built in the commodious Enlisted Men's Club of the 1469th AAF Base Unit, ATC, and which had supplanted the Nome garrison.  Flanked by a barber shop and pool room, this made the station an accessible and vital part of Base Special Service activities.

Through the cooperation of Cpl. Edward Whelan of the Army Airway Communication System, Tech. Sgt. Clarence Richter and Lt. Stanley Morgan of Nome, and the line crew of the Alaska Communication System, a 300-foot antenna was erected.  The old civilian defense equipment was installed by Sgt. Harry Wiegert of 3rd Avenue, Cedarburg, Wisconsin, NCO in charge of Base Special Service, and Sgt. Ray Randahl, departing Alaska Department station technician of Ostrander, Minnesota.

The Nome station went on the air from its new location with the Air Corps theme song on November 13 without any interruption in the broadcast schedule.  Within the week the ancient transmitter came to an untimely end, catching fire and collapsing from sheer overwork.

Eight days later WXLN was in possession of a brand-new AFRS transmitting unit, shipped by air in sections by the Alaska Department.  A heart-rending wire had eked out a few tears and a complete new radio station.  Although WXLN had come under the AFRS aegis two years previously through the efforts of Lt. Larry Lansing of Los Angeles, California, former Mutual announcer, the arrival of the standard Armed Forces transmission equipment made it a full-fledged Armed Forces Radio Service Station.

Today WXLN broadcasts such varied items as the Ember Lounge dances held in the Fireplace Room of the E.M. Club; boxing and basketball carnivals in which Nome is a participant from Ladd Field, and a record show known as "Jivin' with Georgia."

With its announcing staff recently fortified by the addition of Pvt. Wilfrid Smith, formerly of CKCK, Regina, Canada, there is little doubt that WXLN has done much to assist in the changing of Nome from a forgotten gold rush town to its present status as a colorful key point on the Lend-Lease Route.


Source:  Alaska Life: The Territorial Magazine.  Juneau, Alaska: Alaska Life Publishing Co., May, 1945.




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