By the time we arrived in Whittier, we had enough time to set up for a couple of live broadcasts and then it was off to bed.
When we woke up the next morning, the previous day’s clear, warm weather had given way to a cool, foggy morning.
There wasn’t much time for sight seeing, so I set out on my bicycle to see what I could do before we had to depart on a ferry for Valdez.
I had always wanted to check out the nearly 70-year-old Buckner Building. The Buckner Building’s construction began in 1949 in commemoration of Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, an important figure in Alaska’s World War II history. The son of a famous Confederate general, Buckner was born in Munfordville, Kentucky on July 18, 1886. Buckner attended Virginia Military Academy and was eventually appointed to West Point by President Theodore Roosevelt. After training Buckner served two tours in the Philippines, and in World War I was an instructor for aviation cadets.
Buckner found his way to Alaska when the Army and Navy were moving quickly to fortify the territory. With the exception of the Chilkoot Barracks in Haines, Alaska was largely considered a demilitarized zone following WWI. Buckner was put to work making sure Alaska was properly fortified in the event of war. He oversaw the construction of nearly 300 military installations, and the deployment of at least 150,000 active military personnel.
Buckner was instrumental in the work to open the Whittier Tunnel. On November 20, 1942, Buckner personally flipped the switch to detonate the final piece of dynamite that would open that tunnel.
Army’s and Navy’s hunch paid off, and when Japanese forces successfully invaded the Attu and Kiska Islands, it was Buckner and other senior commanders who were successful in retaking the occupied territories.
It wouldn’t be the last time Buckner and his forces would tangle with Japanese forces.
In 1943, Buckner, now a General, was sent to Hawaii to organize the 10th Army and prepare for the Battle of Okinawa, the largest land, and sea and air battle in history. It would also prove to be Buckner’s greatest test.
By the time Buckner had reached Okinawa he had already developed a reputation for putting himself on the front lines with his troops, right where the action was. Despite all the counseling against such action his field commanders would give, Buckner wouldn’t hear it. It would prove to be his undoing.
Four days before the end of the battle for Okinawa, Buckner traveled to an observation post on the perimeter of the battlefield. During a skirmish, he was hit in the chest by artillery shrapnel while directing his troops. He lived for 10 more minutes.
On that day, Lt. General Simon Bolivar Buckner became the highest-ranking United States officer to be killed in the Pacific Theater in WWII.
Following the WWII the Buckner Building would begin construction and in 1954 it was ready for occupation. The six-story building provided 273,660 square feet of floor space. It was commonly referenced as “the city under one roof.”
Providing homes for more than 1,000 officers, the Buckner Building certainly lived up to its reputation. Along with a small hospital, the building was home to a 350-seat theater, a four-lane bowling alley, a six-cell jail, a bakery, church, barbershop, library, radio station, rifle range, photo lab, commissary, one cafeteria, an assortment of kitchen space and an officers’ lounge. All of these areas were connected through a network of stairwells and elevators.
The building was constructed in seven sections, providing flexibility in the event of an earthquake. And withstand an earthquake the Buckner Building would, when in 1964, on Good Friday, Alaska would be rocked by one of the largest magnitude earthquakes ever recorded.
Following WWII and the rapidly changing geopolitical military strategy brought on by the onset of the Cold War, the U.S. military made the decision to mothball the Whittier port in 1960 and withdraw the vast majority of personnel stationed there. When Whittier’s population began to diminish so too did the Buckner Building’s luster.
Then on a Friday morning in April 1964, a 9.2 magnitude earthquake rocked Alaska so hard people in California perished from its effects. Coupled with the inclement weather, vandalism and lack of people to help maintain it, the Buckner Building fell further into disarray. The once proud achievement and testament to a brave soldier, now a ruin and ghost of a bygone era.
Today, the Buckner Building stands where it always has, fenced off, abandoned, rusting and crumbling. Graffiti adorns its black and grey walls. Its only true sense of historical value now resides upon the walls of Whittier’s museum less than 500 yards away.
Like the man it was named after, the Buckner Building helped put Whittier on the map. And like that man, the building is still remembered by those in Whittier as a testament to what hard work and determination can accomplish.
The sad truth, unfortunately, both Buckners served a master that could not reciprocate the service each provided. Both Buckners were shining examples and casualties of circumstance and a rapidly changing industry that would outlast them both. And while neither may be able to speak for themselves on the matter, their legacy lives on with the people who still live and thrive in a little harbor town called Whittier.