Hank Irelan


Irelan outside his home at Belmont Point in Nome.

Irelan outside his home at Belmont Point in Nome.

the chance to choose alaska

I was in the ROTC. I reported to active duty in April of 1972, going to my officer's basic at Fort Gordon, Georgia. After going through all that, basic, officers had one thing a little nicer than the enlisted men: we were able to choose our assignments. And luckily, I was the first class that didn't have anybody assigned to Vietnam; there were no assignments for military police officers at that time. So everything else we got was fairly much straight. There were European assignments, stateside assignments, and one Alaskan assignment. Normally, the military goes by merit. If I was one or two in the class, I would be one or two in those choices. But in this particular case, the personnel officer ran it alphabetically. So I'm right in the middle, at ‘I,’ with "Irelan." And there were probably-- half the class had the chance to choose Alaska ahead of me. Luckily, the only guy that was interested in it was after me in the alphabet! And so, when it came up: "I wanna go." And they had me call from Fort Gordon, Georgia to Fort Wainwright, and had me talk to Lieutenant Ferguson, who was the company commander. And I said, "Hey, I'd like to go to jump school, Ranger school, and some other schools that the army had.” ... So I packed up and came to my assignment at Fort Wainwright. Got into Alaska on August 31st-- at the border, came up. First radio show I heard was Joe Redington talking to Wee Wally. I forget Wee Wally's real full name-- he ended up mayor of Fairbanks after a while-- but he was a DJ, and they were talking about the Iditarod, which they were gonna run next spring.

alaska in my imagination

Growing up on the farm [in Ohio], my favorite books were things like "The Frontiersmen." I didn't really read cowboy and Indian books; it was all explorer kind of books: Daniel Boone, Frontiersmen. Of course I enjoyed it on TV, you know; as we grew up, he had all those kind of shows on TV with, and all the old movies they were showing all the time, of those eras. So, I grew up with that romanticism. I had another puppy that was like that [tall], and I would go out on Saturdays with her and my little bow and we'd go hunting. Uh, in my imagination I was-- I would practice the tracking, and whatever I learned from that. I had some cousins that went on a road trip and went up to Dawson and over to Alaska. And then, when they came back, my dad saw how I was just on every story they ever talked about. And he says, "Oh, we're gonna go to Alaska to get our private pilot’s license." And then I started finding out that he had been here, during the second World War. His first [deployment] was taking a plane to Fort Wainwright, which was Ladd Air Force Base at that time. And he had helped ferry [airplanes] for the Lend-Lease Program, the B-25.

russians and airplanes in nome 

The Lend-Lease Program was when the Russians needed airplanes. We [Americans] weren't in the war yet-- and they weren't our ally. [But] we could lend them things to get blown up, and we could lease them to them. And it was more than just airplanes-- but in this case, the airplanes came up from the United States up along several airports they built along the the Alcan [Highway]. The Alcan got built for this, for the second World War. And Nome was one of the 8 areas chosen for military airports. ... This was the last airport that their [Russian] planes were on American soil. The Russians actually picked up the planes in Fairbanks in Fort Wainwright, and brought them over to here. And would practice on those planes here and take them over. Many of those were lady Russian pilots, as well as many of the folks that ferried the planes from the States, were ladies too. ... One of the airfields they had was on the border of Canada and the United States. Because of the quirks of all our treaties, sometimes, they actually rolled the plane-- didn't fly the plane-- but rolled it across the border, at the airport. Because it then met all the requirements on where it was bought, and where it was leased. ... So that's Lend-Lease-- 8000 planes in two and a half years came through here.

Where the adventure was

When I was done with my [military] service ... I wanted to work on the Alyeska Pipeline. I wanted to go where the adventure was. The adventure was in Alaska and the Alyeska Pipeline. So, I ... went to work on The Alyeska Pipeline. Started out in Valdez, came back to Fairbanks. And then I found out I could make more money just with my hands and back as a laborer, than in security as a manager. And so I went to work on the labor haul, helped wrapping the pipe, doing all kinds of things like that ... So, after I get [done] with the pipeline, I had the typical country music thing: I got divorced, went back to school at UAF.

"I found myself feeling so uncomfortable outside of Alaska. I just did not feel like I fit in. It just didn't feel right. Everybody was doing a lot of things that I had no interest in. So ... I chose geography over career. Here, I could take my little bow and arrow with my dog and go hunting just outside the door. I could go fishing right outside my window. I can jump on a snowmachine and go from here to Barrow, or here to Fairbanks."


i got the girl

Now, I don't know if you guys are familiar with [James] Michener’s book on Alaska? ... One of his threads throughout that book was how people were in the same spot here, the same spot there, and they were virtually in the same room. Or maybe one served a coffee to the other, and this would [later turn out to] be grandparents, and the kids later on [would figure out the history]. … And it's amazing in Alaska-- you'll be in an airport, talk a little bit, find out: "Where were you?" And you find out you were actually doing the same thing together, and you actually might have been ... drinking coffee at the same table. And that happened to Marilyn and I. Because when I was in the service, I led the parade in Fairbanks. When I got out and went back to school at UAF, she had been going to UAF. When I got done and ran out of money and I had to get a job, I went to Barrow. When I went to Barrow, she had been over at Gonzaga at that time. But then she came up to Barrow-- just as I was leaving Barrow. ... [After traveling for a conference, I came back to Barrow and resigned from my job.] She was in my office ... this cute little girl sitting in my office, and all my stuff out in the hallway. And one of my other buddies there arranged my going-away party. And the only two females there [at the party] were my other buddy-- who had her boyfriend-- and Marilyn. And what, about fifteen guys? Fifteen guys there. So, I was trying to figure out: How am I going to make an impression with this cute girl there, with all these fifteen guys around? There was another guy that was really really hitting on her pretty hard. His name was Sammy. And I said, "Say Sammy, that guy over there wants to fight you." And then I go to Marilyn and I say, "I think this is gonna get pretty rough in here. Wanna go for a walk?" And she said, "Yeah." ... We went for the walk. The fight ensued. I eventually did tell my buddy about what I did. And then [my buddy] was really ticked off at me for having done that, but it worked. I got the girl! They're all in there having a big rumble! And away we went!