In 1942, the threat of war loomed on Canada’s doorstep. After three separate attacks on American harbours in Alaska, a Japanese invasion of the north seemed a very real possibility. Without reliable roads or radio networks connecting Alaska to the U.S. through Canada, the first and last line of defence fell to the U.S. Air Corps. However, in the case of what came to be known as Million Dollar Valley, the greater threat would prove to be the hazard of Arctic air navigation.
On January 16, 1942, a U.S. Air Corps bomber group of six left Edmonton en route to Alaska under poor weather conditions. The wind and snow worsened as the bomber group flew over British Columbia, and three of the Marauders became separated from the others. Without discernible landmarks in the sparsely treed wilderness, and with fuel running low, the pilots of the lost bombers decided to seek a safe spot to touch down. A clearing at Greyling Creek on the B.C.\Yukon boarder looked good, and while the crew escaped serious injury, the heavy bombers sunk hopelessly into the deceptively deep snow. Veteran Canadian Airways Limited pilot, Russ Baker, was dispatched in a ski-equipped Junkers 34 to rescue the 21-man crew – who had survived for three days by taking shelter under tarps draped over the airplane wings.
Regrettably, the remaining three Marauders fared worse. While landing at Watson Lake, Yukon, one of the Marauders undershot the runway and had to be written off. A couple of days later, as the remaining two bombers departed from Whitehorse, one drifted off the runway into a windrow, destroying the plane and injuring the navigator.
The two wrecked aircraft at Watson Lake and Whitehorse were easily salvaged, but the three abandoned in what was then dubbed ‘Million Dollar Valley’ would be another story. Yukon Southern Air Transport was already working with the U.S. Air Corps on the Alaska Highway project and was contracted to retrieve the extremely valuable engines and weapons from the disabled aircraft.
The first task was to create a runway suitable for ski-equipped planes to remove the wreckage. Yukon Southern Air pilot, Les Cook, used a Fairchild Pilgrim to haul a dismantled Cat tractor into the valley in several loads. Cook then ferried in a U.S. Army salvage team who set to work stripping the valuable components from the planes and dragging them by sled to the landing zone. Two more ski planes were provided to assist in the airlift, which took nearly two full months.
By mid-March 1942, little was left in the isolated Million Dollar Valley, but the bare fuselages and wings of the three Martin Marauders. The invasions of Alaska and the Canadian North never came to pass. However, Canadian civilian organisations such as Yukon Southern Air Transport and Canadian Airways Limited made significant contributions to the needed northern air infrastructure at the time.