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Reply #92: Building the Alaska Highway [View All]

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Brewman_Jax Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jun-18-07 04:45 PM
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92. Building the Alaska Highway
After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the need for an inland route to Alaska prioritized this policy. Manpower was scarce, and segregated troops were shipped north under the leadership of white leaders. The construction of the 1,522-mile long road (the Alcan Highway) from Dawson Creek, British Colombia, to Fairbanks, Alaska through rugged, unmapped wilderness was heralded as a near impossible engineering feat.

Many compared it to the building of the Panama Canal. There was much praise for soldiers who pushed it through in just eight months and twelve days. African-American battalions have seldom been mentioned publicly despite the fact that they numbered 3,695 in troop strength of 10,670. According to their commanders, these men did an exceptional job under severe pressure. Poorly housed, often living in tents with insufficient clothing and monotonous food, they worked 20-hour days through a punishing winter. Temperatures hovered at 40-below-zero for weeks at a time. A new record low of -79 was established.

The Alaska portion of the road, arguably the most difficult and hazardous section, was built by the all-black 93rd, 95th, and 97th General Service Regiments of the Corps of Engineers over the protests of the United States Army commander for Alaska, General Simon Buckner, Jr. African-Americans were initially kept from taking part in the Alaska Highway project because of objections similar to those of General Buckner. However, due to a severe shortage of manpower the Army decided to send the 93rd, 95th, 97th and 388th regiments to Alaska. (NOTE: The 388th Regiment worked primarily on the CANOL Oil Pipeline project.)

African-American regiments in Alaska were forced to endure the frequent bigotry and prejudice that was so much a part of those times and their living conditions while building the highway were especially harsh. Since they were not permitted to visit the nearby settlements or towns, most of the men were forced to live in tents which gave little or no protection from the freezing Alaskan weather. Although they worked on the same highway, the units were kept strictly segregated. The African-American engineers were often shortchanged in their allotment of equipment. In one case, the 95th Engineer Regiment, the final African American unit transferred to the highway, was left without bulldozers and other machinery. Although the 95th had more experience operating the equipment, the machinery was given to the all-white 35th Regiment. The African-Americans were given hand tools to use.

Regardless of race issues, the War Department's plans required enormous effort from everyone who worked on the highway. The grueling schedule and extreme conditions were tremendous challenges. Most of the men had never been in extreme cold. Many of the regiments were from the South or from other warm climates, such as Fort Ord in California, and working in Alaska and northern Canada came as quite a shock. To add to the difficulties, most of the men lacked much experience handling heavy machinery.

In that era, many people in the military felt that the African American engineers, because of their race, could not be as skilled and industrious as Caucasians. At a time when segregation and Jim Crow laws were commonplace, using white and black troops on the same project was seen as experimental. Another military rule that was bent was the stipulation that African Americans were not to be sent to cold climates.

The majority of these Black troops were from the South; yet, they persevered. On the highways completion, many were decorated for their efforts and then sent off to active duty in Europe and the South Pacific. The veterans of the Armys Black Corps of Engineers were members of the 93rd, 95th, 97th and 388th units. To build the Sikanni Chief River Bridge, men waded chest deep into freezing waters to place the trestles. To keep themselves going, some of the men sang. The Duke Chronicle relates a story of the 95th where, "when faced with the challenge of building a bridge, the men decided to place their salaries on the line by betting that they could finish the bridge in four days. Much to the surprise of seasoned engineers, the regiment did just that and completed the task in less than 84 hours, half the time it usually takes to build a bridge of those proportions."

The road, originally called the Alaskan-Canadian Highway, quickly adopted the shortened name Alcan Highway. It was opened to the public on November 11, 1942 and still provides the only land route to Alaska.

Although the Alaska project is remembered in the folklore of the area, one commonly overlooked detail is the remarkable work of the 3,695 black men who were originally deemed unfit for the task. When the road was formally dedicated, Brig. Gen. James A. O'Conner singled out the black troops for their hard work and dedication stating, "Some day the accomplishment of these colored soldiers, achievements accomplished far from their homes, will occupy a major place in the lore of the North country."

Alaska's Lt. Governor, Fran Ulmer speaking at Eilson Air Force Base in Alaska on March 8, 2002, (During Black History Month Ceremonies) praised the efforts of the 4,000 black soldiers of the 93rd, 95th and 97th Army Engineer General Service Regiments who were instrumental in building the Alaska Highway.

"If you've ever driven the Alaska Highway, you might remember a bridge just south of Delta on the way to Tok, that spans the Gerstle River," she said. "There's a sign on both ends displaying its name - the Black Veterans Memorial Bridge. It is a small gesture to name a bridge, but I hope that by doing so we will be reminded of the significance of the contributions of the regiments and of every black soldier since."

Lt. Governor Ulmer further stated, "Without the black soldiers, the Alcan would likely never have been built in such a short time."

Writer's Note: Please click on the links below for further information. Above is only a fraction of the hardships the black engineer regiments had to deal with in faithful service to a most ungrateful country that would rather forget them.

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