Anchorage Remembers: Knik River Bridge, March 1964

by Arne L. Bue

I didn’t want to sign up with the Alaska National Guard, but in 1960s Juneau during the Vietnam War, the Draft Board was calling up a lot of the guys with whom I partied. My name would be called soon. A drinking buddy suggested it would be the right move to get in the Guard so I could stay out of Vietnam. That sounded pretty good to me, so I headed over to the Armory, where Captain Roger E. Henderson swore me in.

I didn’t like wearing a uniform, however. Officers and sergeants considered me a goof-off and gave me latrine duty for my non-military attitude. Henderson knew I worked with numbers and writing, and he made me company clerk, probably to better keep an eye on me. Typing morning reports and filing kept my mind busy as my hangovers dissipated. I vowed that volunteering for any kind of extra military duty would never happen.

In March 1964, our annual active duty took place at Fort Richardson Army Base. As training ended on Good Friday, March 27, headquarters started closing down operations. A few company clerk duties occupied me that day. As I filed and packed, marching band music drifted in an open window. The glint of sun off a tuba caught my attention, then something unusual and frightening occurred: beyond the band, tall trees started whipping back and forth. Seconds later, the entire band fell to the ground, which was moving toward our headquarters like ocean rollers. When these waves hit, I toppled to my hands and knees. The rocking continued for more than three minutes. When it stopped, we laughed. Not because we thought this was funny, just that it happened so fast. We didn’t realize its seriousness. Later, we learned this was one of the worst quakes in the history of the North American continent. It tumbled Anchorage.

In our Quonset hut a few hours later, a sergeant called us to attention. He needed volunteers. Some of us volunteered to go into Anchorage. He called for more volunteers, needing a few people at the Knik River Bridge, about thirty miles north on the Glenn Highway. For the first time in my Guard career, I raised my hand.

From the back of the ambulance—my new living quarters—little could be seen of where we were headed. Finally, the ambulance stopped. A staff sergeant opened the back. The Knik River Bridge wasn’t far from us. An oil drum sat a few meters away. We dug some rocks and sand, dumped it in the drum, and set a rusty grill on top.

“You get hungry, pour this fuel in there and light it,” the sergeant said. “Heat up your rations here. Plenty of snow around to make coffee.”

State engineers were examining the bridge. They concluded it had been damaged but was sound enough for traffic because one of them approached us and ordered, “Stop everyone. They gotta wait fifteen seconds while the vehicle in front crosses. Don’t let them go faster than fifteen miles an hour.”

An endless line of vehicles heading north out of Anchorage appeared, filled with families, suitcases, mattresses, tarps, coolers, boxes tied to the tops, parents in the front, kids in the back, dogs and cats.

I stood in front of an approaching vehicle and raised my arm. The line stopped. The driver rolled down his window and reached for me. He wanted to shake my hand.

“Thanks,” he said. His wife and kids waved. They crossed the bridge.

I stepped in front of the next vehicle.

On watch one night, the moon’s light added a blue tinge to the snow. I crossed the bridge to keep moving and stay warm. Up the road a moving dot grew bigger and shaped into someone on foot. Closer this person came, an old-timer on snowshoes carrying a back pack, a 30-30 strapped over it. He slogged along, gray beard, flaps on his fur hat over his ears.

“Where’re you goin’?” I asked.

“Eklutna,” he said.

As his figure receded, eventually disappearing into the cold night, I began to contemplate. The old-timer was someone who knew where he needed to go. He was carrying out a responsibility to his family, friends, or to himself. I compared what he was doing with how I’d been living, and this made me think of my mother and father, Norwegian immigrants. They’d wanted me to grow up in America believing I could do anything, and they wanted me always to try to do the right thing. The way I’d been living wasn’t the right thing. I recalled my Uncle Ture. I’d earned college money commercial fishing with him. I could see him in my mind’s eye, a man bothered by memories from his military service in World War II. What returned to me were the words about life he spoke to me on the fishing grounds: “All work is good work.”

Perhaps these memories were part of the reason I volunteered for duty on this bridge. I think at that moment I was proud to wear the Guard uniform, and even a little grateful for having a commanding officer like Henderson and sergeants who kept an eye on goof-offs like me.

After that night, my life spun off in a new and better direction. Whenever I drive over today’s Knik River Bridge, I remember.

Arne L. Bue, a member of 49 Writers, lives with his wife Shirley near Baxter Bog Park in Anchorage. A life-long Alaskan, he was born in Ketchikan, worked in Juneau and Anchorage, and is now retired. He moved to Anchorage in 1978. Bue is the webmaster of Alaska eBooks Alaskan Authors, which can be found at

1 thought on “Anchorage Remembers: Knik River Bridge, March 1964”

  1. Nice remembrance with vivid imagery and thoughtful life lessons for us all. I almost volunteered for the National Guard in 1970 as I was graduating from college. Same reason: avoid Vietnam. I happened to talk to the recruiter on a May morning that year, just as the National Guard was firing on students at Kent State. I went on to flunk my draft physical exam and worked my way to Alaska. Such is life, I guess.

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