View of Kathryn M. Highberg
Editors' Note - These remembrances are of necessity written
by Kathryn's husband, Walter Highberg, since Kay has been progressively
more disabled for several years with Parkinson's disease.
When it became increasingly obvious in the months
after Pearl Harbor that men were being lost from Spokane's Weather
Bureau Office due to transfers and promotions, as well as fulfillment
of military reserve obligations, Kay scouted the idea of working in
the Weather Bureau. Her husband, Walter, who had been employed in
Spokane since early 1941, broached the subject with the MIC. After
checking with the Regional Director in Seattle, the idea was quashed
so Kay took a job as a "Rosie the Riveter" at an Air Force base near
In 1943, Walter was transferred to Glasgow, Montana,
to assist in setting up a new RAOB station. Kay was fascinated with
her job at Spokane repairing war-wounded B-17s and wanted to remain
in Spokane until her husband had settled into the new station's routine
and, incidently, had found proper housing.
Sometime that summer, the Spokane MIC asked Walter
whether Kay would like to join the crew at Glasgow. It seems that
the bias against a man-wife team was ended. So Kay and Walt became
the first man-wife RAOB team in the old Seventh Region, if not in
the nation. Kay was duly inducted into the Bureau - joining three
other young women and three men. She fell readily into the routine
and became increasingly fascinated with her work. Her previous college
studies, with an accent on geography, had prepared her for map spotting
and analysis. Kay and Walt and their three-year-old son had finally
moved into a converted henhouse about six blocks from the station.
Child care problems were solved with a part-time grandmother type
or by the oncoming crew member walking the boy to the office and delivering
him to the off-going spouse.
The Glasgow office was situated on the second floor
of a bank building. The balloon inflation building was on the roof"
along with the PIBAL platform, thermometer shelter, and a couple of
runways for launching the radiosonde balloon. With the onset of winter,
balloon releases in the more frequent strong winds became more hazardous
and more frustrating. An eastern Montana winter, with temperatures
well below zero and gale-force winds blowing dust from the snow-free
terrain, convinced Kay that there were better places to be for a weather
gal even if it was in arctic Alaska. Her researches of weather and
climate data convinced her that McGrath, in central Alaska, would
be suitable, so she and Walt applied for transfer and were soon accepted.
So, some time during the night in early July of 1944, the Highberg
family left Glasgow on their new adventure. It started uncomfortably
for the train was chock-full. The conductor found a vacant space for
the youngster and a pair of camp stools for his parents. After stopping
off at Spokane for a week or two of leave, the family set off for
Seattle to go through the red tape necessary to get to Alaska, which
was still designated as a war zone, although the Japanese had been
thrown out of the Aleutians more that a year before.
Travel up the Inside Passage on the S. S. Alaska
was stimulating, but restful, although passage across open water in
the Gulf of Alaska necessitated blackout and restrictions on radios.
A Navy crew on board manned a gun and a depth charge thrower in this
area. After a one-day stopover in Anchorage, the Regional Office,
they were on their way to McGrath.
Their plane, a Lockheed Vega, was jammed with freight,
two Eskimo ladies, and the Highbergs. The two Eskimos had cartons
on their laps, Kay held the boy and Walt cuddled a 50-pound tractor
bullgear. After tossing back a few "urp-cups" to his laden passengers,
the pilot roared down the runway and banked sharply, heading for Rainy
Pass through the Alaska Range. McGrath, situated on a meander loop
of the Kuskokwim River was almost entirely surrounded by the river,
with the three ends of the T-shaped runways nearly at the water's
edge. The CAA community consisted of ten houses, four occupied by
Weather Bureau people, four by CAA communicators, and two for maintenance
personnel. A long structure contained the Weather Bureau office which
adjoined the CAA communications facility. Other structures included
warehouses, commissary, utility buildings and garages. A few hundred
yards away was the "business district" - Quonset post office, two
roadhouses, a Northern Commercial Co. store, and a few scattered houses.
Situated strategically at the intersection of the
Anchorage-Nome and Fairbanks-Bethel airways, McGrath's 24-hour surface
and upper air observations were crucial to the safety of the Russian
airmen who ferried U.S.-made fighter planes from Fairbanks to Nome
and across to Siberian air bases.
Kay could scan surface hourly reports and visualize
both the general weather patterns and their evolution, with more precise
evaluations of routes and destination airports. Many bush pilots would
ask for her particularly by name. Several took her on familiarization
flights. About a month before VJ Day, Walt took over as Official in
Charge and Kay unofficially was oldest hand. Personnel changes in
the next two years were frequent as some wanted to return to the States
and others mustered out of the services were looking for civilian
jobs. With four houses to accommodate seven employees, one solution
was to install three bachelor girls in one house. Kay was their unofficial
of 1947 saw the end of Kay and Walt's commitment to a three-year contract
of Alaskan service -Kay's resignation was accepted and Walt's request
for leave without pay to return to school was approved. Kay's memories
of her four rewarding years in the Bureau continued through the years
while her husband had duty in Fairbanks, San Francisco Forecast Center,
Los Angeles Forecast Center, and his last 18 years at Spokane before
retirement. In 1979, her book, "Orchard Prairie, the First Hundred
Years," was published and quickly sold out its press run. In 1989,
Washington State's Centennial Year, Kay was honored in the State's
Centennial Farm awards for living on a farm which had been in her
family's possession for over a hundred years.