History of Morrison - Knudsen to the end of WWII from the company website

Morrison Knudsen Corporation (MK) has long stood as one of the world's largest engineering and construction organizations. A 1954 feature article in Time identified cofounder Harry Morrison as "the man who has done more than anyone else to change the face of the earth." Such words reflect the magnitude and scope of the company's projects, ranging from work on the Hoover Dam to the construction of the then largest building in the world, the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center, to the building of portions of the transAlaska pipeline. Today, MK is active in more than 35 countries, serving the environmental, heavy civil, industrial, mining, operations and maintenance, power, process, transportation, and logistics markets.

Dams Marked Early Years

The company's origin dates back to Idaho's Boise Valley at the turn of the century, when Morris Hans Knudsen and Harry W. Morrison teamed up to exploit business opportunities introduced by the National Reclamation Act of 1902. The U.S. government was subsidizing projects to irrigate vast tracts of desert. Knudsen, a native of Denmark, moved to Idaho with his wife in 1905. He became well known for his skill using horses and basic scrapers to haul dirt. Morrison, a native of Illinois, moved to Idaho in 1904 as a concrete superintendent for water reclamation projects. In 1912 Morrison and Knudsen collaborated on their first job, a subcontract for approximately $14,000 worth of work at a pumping station along the Snake River near Grand View, Idaho. This and other early jobs generated little, if any, profit. The first financially successful endeavor for the duo was the 1914 construction of Three-Mile Falls Dam in Oregon. In addition to yielding a profit, the Three-Mile job established the company as a legitimate player in dam construction, which became one of the company's hallmarks. (By the 1980s MK had built more than 150 dams, including Brownlee, one of three dams erected across the Snake River in Hells Canyon for Idaho Power; Karadj, near Teheran, Iran; San Luis, in California, with a crest length of more than three miles; and Hungry Horse and Yellowtail, both in Montana.)

One of the most significant milestones in the growth of Morrison-Knudsen Company was, in fact, construction of yet another dam, the Hoover (Boulder) Dam, contracted in 1931. The magnitude of the job led to the 1932 incorporation of Morrison-Knudsen Company, Inc. The project was massive, drawing on 5,000 workers. It called for 4.5 million yards of concrete (enough to pave a four-lane highway from Seattle to Miami, according to company sources) and reached a height of 726 feet upon completion. To handle such a formidable task, Morrison brought together a consortium of different companies, Six Companies, Inc., thus introducing the now commonplace practice of joint-venture construction. The dam was completed in 1935, two years ahead of schedule.

Having survived the Great Depression, due, in part, to its success with the Hoover Dam project, MK was prepared to meet the business demands of World War II. The company joined other contractors in a joint venture known as Contractors, Pacific Naval Air Bases. Building airfield facilities on Midway and Wake islands in late 1941, more than 1,200 company workers were captured by the Japanese. On the Hawaiian island of Oahu, MK was also engaged in the construction of 20 huge naval fuel-storage vaults, each 250 feet high and 100 feet in diameter. MK launched its company magazine, the eMKayan, in March 1942, a strategic time to reinforce public relations.

These and other World War II projects established long-lasting ties for MK in the area of military contracting. In addition to extensive building contracts in Vietnam, the company procured a substantial amount of business outside of active battle zones. The Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, a chain of bases and radar installations, was constructed and maintained across northern Canada, as was the "White Alice" communications system in Alaska. In the 1960s MK became a leading builder of missile facilities, including the first U.S. underground Titan missile installation at the Lowry Air Force Base in Colorado. The company sponsored a joint venture for the Aeropropulsion Systems Test Facility, an advanced jet engine center for the U.S. Air Force, which was completed in 1984. The company also was involved in the reconstruction of Kuwait following the 1991 Gulf War. According to U.S. News and World Report, such an expensive national reconstruction effort had not been launched since the Marshall Plan molded a new Europe after World War II.



from Gary Paulson on the Dogberry Patch website

August 28, 2005

We were in Boise for the 84th birthday party for my father, Oscar Paulson. The people there were either family or co-workers from his years with Morrison-Knudsen (M-K). I listened in to an interesting conversations about the capture of Wake Island by the Japanese and the M-K construction workers who were taken prisoner.

I did some Google searching and the story is quite amazing. First some background on M-K. According to the Idaho State Historical Society Harry W. Morrison and Morris H. Knudsen became partners in March 1912, with six teams of horses, some equipment, and $100 in cash. Their first major job was the Three-Mile Falls Dam in Oregon in 1914.

… In 1926 they built Guernsey Dam in Wyoming, where Morrison pioneered the concept of the joint-venture — several firms joining to bid and complete a single project. In 1929 they built Deadwood Dam in Central Idaho, using for the first time bulldozers and diesel trucks instead of horses. In 1931 Morrison formed the Six Companies, Inc. to construct the mammoth Hoover Dam (wiki). The joint venture concept was also used when M-K worked on the San Francisco side of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

… The company began work on foreign construction with projects for the U.S. military — M-K employees were among the Americans killed or captured on Wake Island during World War II. In 1943 the company began projects in Mexico and Canada and quickly spread worldwide. Later M-K projects included Grand Coulee Dam, the St. Lawrence Seaway, railroads in Peru and Brazil, and Karadj Dam in Iran.

According to an Associated Press story about the company:

The projects were big and made a difference in the way people lived. In 1954, Time magazine called Harry Morrison the one builder in history who had done the most to change the face of the earth.

My family has always been an M-K family. Both of my parents have worked for the company, 4 out of the 5 of us kids have worked for M-K, and even 2 of our spouses worked for M-K when we met them. My younger brother and myself were in Viet-Nam (3/1966-1/1969) with my folks during the war on an M-K job and my brother was with my parents in Iran as a high school senior when the Shah was deposed. The school graduated his whole senior class mid-term and the company strongly suggested all family members leave the country.

So, back to Wake Island. Harry Morrison was devastated to have over 1,000 employees of his small Boise, Idaho company captured and/or killed while working for him on Wake Island. The best account of the story I have found is by Major Mark E. Hubbs. It is hard to comprehend the worldview of the Japanese soldiers whose barbaric treatment of the prisoners was based on the fact that they could not understand why these men would surrender unless they were cowards who were unfit to live. All but 98 of the men were shipped to labor camps in Japan and China. Over 200 of these men either died on the ships or in the labor camps. The 98 men who were left on Wake Island were mostly experienced construction hands who could operate the machinery. All 98 of these men were killed before the island was liberated. It is a gruesome tale.

Some books I would like to read:

•Remember Wake by Teresa R. Funke
•Pacific Alamo: The Battle for Wake Island by John Wukovits
•Hell Wouldnt Stop: An Oral History of the Battle of Wake Island by Chet Cunningham
•Jims Journey: A Wake Island Civilian POWs Story by Leilani A. Magnino
Here is a list of the articles I found online:

•Massacre on Wake Island by Major Mark E. Hubbs
•Wikipedia article on Wake Island
•The Peter Hansen Story by Gerard Moran -The Testimony of Claude Davis Howes a diary account
•44 Months of Strict Hell By Annette Cary, Tri-City Herald staff writer
•Nampan Recalls 16 Days Under Fire by J.O. Young, Idaho Press-Tribune. (Parts 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7)
•Farm Bureau Fall 2006 Magazine pages 36,37,41
•A Magnificent Fight: Marines in the Battle for Wake Island by Robert J. Cressman

Back to the Miscellany page, The Hansen Story >