The 75th anniversary of construction of the Alaska Highway brought recognition of the contribution by black soldiers who played a role in that major project.
Earlier this month, 96-year-old Leonard Larkins and his three sons visited the place where Private First Class Larkins endured a year under harsh conditions. From Louisiana, Larkins was accustomed to sub-tropical conditions as were most of the 3,605 African-Americans assigned to the project. They were expecting to go to the Pacific theater but instead were shipped to the far north.
Gov. Bill Walker, who signed SB 95 on Sunday, April 30, met with the Larkinses during their Anchorage stop. The measure set aside Oct. 25 each year as African-American Soldiers’ Contribution to Building the Alaska Highway Day. Their accomplishments ranked with those of the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II and the Buffalo Soldiers of the Civil War but until recently have largely gone unheralded.
Then known as the Al-Can Highway, the wartime project had long been talked about, but was rushed through to completion after the start of war in the Pacific.
As early as 1899, a railroad through Canada and Alaska to connect with European rails on the shores of the Bering Sea was proposed by E. H. Harriman. Harriman was considered the “savior” of the Union Pacific after taking over the failing enterprise two years earlier. Rumors continued for three more decades, including a railroad linking Alaska with Argentina and a planned road to the States by a Fairbanks group’s International Highway Association.
A federal commission appointed by President Herbert Hoover in 1930 considered such a railroad feasible, with the United States already owning The Alaska Railroad. The Secretary of War in 1934 suggested that Congress look at funding a highway, but for another four years, with the country in the midst of the Great Depression, it was not considered a worthwhile investment.
That changed, however, when Adolph Hitler’s armies overran Europe and Japanese forces swallowed neighboring countries. It was realized that Alaska could be cut off since it relied solely on shipping for commerce.
Airplane travel was still in its infancy, but War Department planners saw benefit in establishing an air route through Canada to Alaska. Plans were made to build landing strips to allow refueling. The Canadian government laid out emergency airstrips at Fort Nelson and Watson Lake, with airfields at Edmonton and Whitehorse. They became waypoints along the future highway. Those facilities were later improved to serve Lend-Lease flights of American-built airplanes to Russia.
On Jan. 16, 1942, just five weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed a commission to build a highway to Alaska. It would follow the route from Edmonton, Alberta, to Big Delta, then branch off to Fairbanks and Anchorage, the site of Ft. Richardson.
The Army Corps of Engineers was called upon to accomplish the project. A force of 10,607 men was assembled for the job. Of those, 3,695 were African-Americans. The black troops were assigned to four units, the 93rd, 95th and 97th Engineer General Service Regiments, and the 388th Engineer Battalion. All their officers were white except for two chaplains, Finis Hugo Austin of the 93rd and Edward G. Carroll of the 95th.
Agreements between the United States and Canada were completed in late February and early March of 1942. One regiment arrived at Ft. Saint John in March, before spring breakup, and drove along a wagon trail to Ft. Nelson. Their caravan consisted of heavy machinery, tractors and truckloads of supplies.
Construction began from three points along the route. Troops and supplies were taken by rail from Edmonton to Dawson Creek, the southern terminus of the highway; to Whitehorse by way of the railroad from the port at Skagway; and to Big Delta where troops and supplies were taken after disembarking at Valdez. From those points, each group pushed its way through virgin forests, across muskeg swamps and over hills.
A description of the work is found in USARAL Pamphlet 360-05 Building Alaska with the United States Army:
“Giant, lumbering, 20-ton Caterpillar tractors led the attack on the forest. Equipped with broad cutting blades or bulldozers, they advanced into standing timber and simply pushed it aside, trunks, stumps and all. Working back and forth across a blazed right of way, they mowed down the thick timber as if it were no more than a field of cornstalks.”
There was a great sense of urgency. In the eight months and 11 days of intense work, troops toiled around the clock, seven days a week. Each regiment was assigned a section of 350 miles. Individual companies were to complete 20 miles before moving to the next. Their progress averaged five miles a day. In darkness, their work was illuminated by the headlights of their trucks. They leap-frogged from one 20-mile section to another, camping in tents. Work was made easier by competition between units and singing favorite melodies.
Equipment in those days lacked the safety measures found today. Operators were in danger of being struck by tree trunks that fell back rather than forward, or sharp ends of split limbs that broke and whirled out of control. Streams were icy cold and spongy muskeg made walking miserable. Worst of all were the swarms of mosquitoes that attacked relentlessly, making life even harder during the hot summer months. Temperatures ranged from 90 above to minus 70.
Permafrost was a problem, with frozen soil making progress difficult.
Exposure to the sun caused thawing, miles of muddy roadway having to be corduroyed with layers of small trees lashed together to form a mat to keep the gravel from sinking out of sight.
Some 8,000 culverts were built to allow streams to cross and provide drainage. Boxes were made from logs cut on site. They were covered with brush to prevent fill from sifting through before gravel was spread to make a pioneer roadbed.
Two hundred bridges were constructed, the most difficult of them handed over to civilian contractors to complete. Trestles were built of logs cut from nearby trees. Men often waded chest-deep in the cold, fast-rushing water to place the piles and fasten trusses.
After the last two crews met, a dedication ceremony was held Nov. 20, 1942. The ribbon-cutting was broadcast live on radio across the nation. Announcers were not allowed to tell what the temperature was because that information was classified.
The project was considered one of the top engineering feats of the 20th Century, compared to completion of the Panama Canal as a top accomplishment of the Army Corps of Engineers.
It was a proud achievement for the African-American soldiers, but one that went without much attention. Their highest praise came after completion of the 300-foot-long Sikanni Chief River Bridge. Estimated to take much longer, the soldiers of the 95th Regiment bet their pay checks they would complete it in less than a week. They had to use axes and hand saws to cut the wood. When the first truck rolled across after 84 hours of labor, the bets paid off, not only in cash but in special recognition by their commanding officer.
It would be July 26, 1948, before President Harry S Truman issued an executive order desegregating the U.S. military.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com.