Why was the Construction of the Alaska Highway so important to American History?

Widening a road of the Alaska Highway in 1942

The creation of the Alaskan Highway was a monumental and difficult task. A 1942 New York Time help wanted ad explained, “This is No Picnic. Working and living conditions on this job are as difficult as those encountered on any construction job ever done in the United States or foreign territory. Men hired for this job will be required to work and live under the most extreme conditions imaginable. Temperatures will range from 90 degrees above zero to 70 degrees below zero. Men will have to fight swamps, rivers, ice, and cold. Mosquitoes, flies, and gnats will not only be annoying but will cause bodily harm. If you are not prepared to work under these and similar conditions…Do Not Apply.” [1]

The Need for the Alaska Highway

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had not been wrong when he declared December 7, 1941 to be “a date the will live in infamy.” The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor had not only laid waste to much of the American naval fleet in the Pacific but it awakened the United States government to the vulnerabilities of the West Coast to attack. A quick look at a map showed that the Aleutian Islands in Alaska were only a little more than 2,000 miles from Japan.

American forces in Alaska in 1941 numbered in the low thousands and providing supplies and reinforcements to the remote territory became an immediate concern. Thomas Harris MacDonald, who guided national road construction in the United States for 34 years in seven Presidential administrations, had been wanting to build an international road through Canada to Alaska since the 1920s but could never convince the Canadian government to foot any of the bill.

With the American entrance into World War II the calculus of an Alaska Highway shifted. MacDonald’s plans were dusted off and Canada granted the United States permission to construct a supply road through its territory to Alaska with two main provisos: one, the full cost would be borne by the United States and, two, the road and all associated facilities would be turned over to Canada when the war concluded.

The United States Army approved the Alaska Highway project on February 6, 1942 and financing from the U.S. Congress was forthcoming five days later. Construction began on March 8, less than 90 days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Crews began work on the north end in Delta Junction, Alaska, southeast of Fairbanks, and at the southern terminus in Dawson Creek, near the British Columbia/Alberta border. In between lay 1,700 miles of sub-arctic tundra, rugged mountains and virgin forests.


The Triumph of Black Troops

The Army Corps of Engineers assigned over 10,000 men to the duty of constructing the Alaska Canada Military Highway. Despite the importance of the mission, the mobilization to war in the Pacific, North Africa and Europe took precedence and serving in the North American wilderness was far from a glamorous posting. Officers sent to Canada and Alaska considered their Army careers over. And that also meant the road would be constructed by raw recruits.

And many of those untrained troops would be black, commanded by white officers. The Army was segregated at the time and would be throughout the war until President Harry S. Truman ordered the military desegregated in 1948. Approximately one-third of the manpower required to build the Alaska Highway came from black troops. In addition to the hardships described in the original job posting, black soldiers encountered one more obstacle in constructing the Alaska Highway - racism. [2]

Simon Bolivar Buckner, the commander of the American troops in Alaska made no attempts to hide his reservations concerning black troops. In a letter to Brigadier General Clarence Sturdevant, the head of the highway project for the Army Corps of Engineers, Buckner wrote, “The very high wages offered to unskilled labor here would attract a large number of them and cause them to...settle after the war with the natural result that they would interbreed with the Indians and Eskimos and produce an astonishingly objectionable race of mongrels that would be a problem here from now on. I have no objection whatever to your employing them on the roads if they are kept far enough from the settlements and kept busy and then sent home as soon as possible.” [3]

Black soldiers were considered unfit to operate heavy machinery so they worked mostly with picks and shovels. When they were issued bulldozers it was often the last stop for the earth movers before the scrapheap. Gradually, however, these troops earned their stripes far from the battlefield. When a regiment of black soldiers constructed a bridge 300 feet across the Sikanni Chief gorge in 72 hours the feat was heralded in Time magazine. [4]

The Aleutian Islands Campaign

The need to finish the great military road intensified on June 3, 1942 when a small Japanese force occupied the islands of Attu and Kiska in the Aleutians, triggering fears that the bases could be used as a stepping stone to invading the West Coast. On September 24, 1942 highway construction crews from both directions collided - almost literally - in the dense brush at what became known as Contact Creek. On October 28 the entire route was opened, although it would be several more months before the dirt roadbed was in good enough shape for military vehicles to traverse the highway. It had taken the U.S. Army less than nine months to get the job done. [5]

The attack to retake the Attu and Kiska began on May 11, 1943. The hostile conditions caused weaponry to misfire and slowed the Allied invasion force. After three weeks of fighting the last remaining Japanese defenders launched one of the war’s most determined banzai attacks. In the final count, 4,350 Japanese soldiers on Attu were killed and only 28 were willing to be taken prisoner. By the time combined Canadian and American forces turned their attention to Kiska the Japanese had snuck off the island. Even so, the Allies suffered 313 casualties due to friendly fire, frostbite and booby traps. [6]

The Alaska Highway in Peacetime

As agreed, the military road was turned over to Canada on April 1, 1946. The original route had been chosen to facilitate movement of men and materiel to the remote territory of Alaska and not to promote development of the vast northern Canada wilderness and so the route was fiddled with before opening to the public in 1948. It was hardly a road for casual travelers.

For most of its length the Alcan, as it was called, was only a single lane, unpaved and mud-filled for most of the year. There were no provisions for the steep mountains and some of the grades reached 25 percent, manageable by military trucks but hardly by the family station wagon. There were no facilities and a trip on the Alaska Highway required hauling gas, spare tires, engine parts and more. Any driver completing the journey would know that the toughest road trip in North America had been conquered.

Over the years civilization has intruded, but only barely. The entirety of the 1,387 miles have been paved. It is now a two lane road and the roughest climb is only a 10-degree grade. Gas stations appear every 50 miles or so. The hulls of trucks abandoned on the roadside during construction can still be spotted. And the scenery is still unspoiled for the 360,000 or so travelers who tackle the Alaska Highway each year. [7]

The Alaska Highway remains the only land route into the interior of America’s largest state. But its importance in American history transcends its origins as a military road. The building of the road demonstrated that black troops could perform every bit as well as their white counterparts and do so in inhospitable conditions. With that on the record, it helped end desegregation in the Army. As summed up by the Federal Highway Administration, the Alaska Highway was the “road to civil rights.” [8]

References

  1. Virtue, John, The Black Soldiers Who Built the Alaska Highway: A History of Four U.S. Army Regiments in the North, 1942-1943, McFarland & Company, Inc., 2008, page 111
  2. Dean, Cornelia, “In Road-Building, Black Soldiers Defied Prejudice,” New York Times, July 23, 2012
  3. Gifford, Bill, “Great Black North,” Washington City Paper, October 8, 1993
  4. “Army & Navy:Barracks with Bath,” Time, August 31, 1942.
  5. Dean, Cornelia, “In Road-Building, Black Soldiers Defied Prejudice,” New York Times, July 23, 2012
  6. “Battle of Kiska – Where the Allies suffered 313 casualties against a ghost enemy,” Argunners Magazine online,
  7. “Driving the Highway Today,” American Experience, pbs.org
  8. Weingroff, Richard F. “The Road to Civil Rights,” fhwa.dot.gov,

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