1942 Yukon Nuggets
Charlie Lake Disaster
The morning of May 14th, 1942 was windy but warm as the hastily built pontoon boat left the southern shore of Charlie Lake. The 17 U.S. soldiers on board were members of the 341st Engineer regiment of the American army. They had recently arrived in Fort St. John to begin construction of a road to Alaska. The men, like thousands of other American troops, were in a hurry. They needed to build the 1500-mile pioneer road, through the largely unknown wilderness, before the snow flew in the fall. It seemed an impossible task. On Charlie Lake on that May morning, just north of Fort St. John, the pontoon boat carried heavy equipment such as trucks and caterpillars. The men and equipment were going to the north end of the lake, a distance of about 12 miles. At the time, there was no road around Charlie Lake.
The pontoons of the wooden boat were fitted with canvas covers to keep the water out. Powered by two 22-horsepower engines, the boat was slowly making headway northward on the lake when one of the gas lines began to leak. The officer commanding ordered the boat to head to shore where they could fix the leak. But the wind and waves had increased and when the boat turned sideways, waves broke through the canvas pontoon and flooded the compartments. The boat immediately flipped over and dumped 17 soldiers and the equipment into the icy spring water of Charlie Lake.
From his cabin on the northern shore of the Lake, a trapper named Gus Hedin had been watching the boat’s progress with binoculars. Suddenly all he could see was a few black dots bobbing up and down in the lake.
Hedin raced to his homemade 14-foot rowboat and paddled about a mile to the scene of the pending disaster. There he saw nine soldiers in full work gear struggling to stay afloat in the wind-swept waters. Hedin could not know at the time that eight other soldiers had already disappeared under the windy waters. As if powered by some supreme force, Hedin managed to drag two men in full batttle gear into his homemade rowboat and paddle to shore. He then paddled back to the sight and again lifted two men out of the water and took them to shore. He returned a third time to find just one man still above water, whom he also rescued.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.