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FreightWaves Classics/Infrastructure: Alaska Highway was built 80 years ago (Part 2)

If you missed Part 1 of this article, here is a link.

The Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islands

To divert attention from the attack on Midway Island, the Japanese bombed the naval base at Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands on June 3, 1942. The Third Special Landing Force of 550 Japanese marines landed on June 7, 1942. They gained control of the mainly uninhabited islands of Kiska and Attu in Alaska’s Aleutian Island chain (which is located off southwestern Alaska) after the only battles of the war fought in North America.

Over the next several months, additional Japanese military units arrived. The occupation force grew to about 5,640 military and 1,170 civilians. They occupied the Alaskan islands for 14 months. 

By taking and establishing bases on Midway Island and in the Aleutians, Japanese military leaders believed that they could prevent attacks on the Japanese mainland, while also establishing control over the north and central Pacific.  

Although the Japanese occupation of the two Aleutian islands did not threaten the United States at that time, no one knew if additional troops would be sent to Alaska and more territory seized. 

Regardless, the invasion demonstrated the urgent need for the Alaska Highway. At that time, only 150 miles of the pioneer trail had been constructed. However, if the highway was to serve as a supply route to rescue China from Japanese control, aid the Soviet Union (an ally in the war) and block Japanese attacks on the U.S. mainland from bases in Alaska, more progress on the highway was needed. 

The work progressed, but too slowly

By early June, when the Japanese concurrently attacked Midway Island and the Aleutian Islands, progress on the Alaska Highway was very slow. There were a number of reasons for the lack of progress – “weather, the spring thaw, and the difficulty of getting troops, contractors and equipment to the site.” Some survey parties were still in the field; supplies were delivered to  them by “canoe, float plane and packhorse.”

Corps of Engineers’ officers leading the effort realized that no matter how hard their troops worked, they could not cut the pioneer trail through 1,400 miles of forest before winter conditions shut down operations. To meet this urgent goal, the Corps sought help from PRA’s contractors.

Therefore, in early August, the Corps of Engineers battalions and PRA contractors began to work together to finish the pioneer trail before winter. PRA contractors would focus on widening, grading and surfacing the trails that the Corps had opened.

Gaps in the Alaska Highway began to be closed, and only the most difficult sections (through eastern Alaska and the southwest corner of the Yukon Territory) were uncompleted by the end of September. The 97th Engineers finished the one-lane winter trail in Alaska; they then crossed into Canada’s Yukon Territory and began clearing the trail. Meanwhile, the 18th Engineers was bogged down along a stretch of 100 miles of permafrost that, according to Virtue’s book, “required the time-consuming placement of layers of insulating foliage topped off by logs laid side by side in corduroy fashion.”

The final section of the pioneer route was finished on October 25, 1942, south of Lake Kluane in the Yukon. Malcolm MacDonald, British high commissioner to Canada, described the final moments:

“The final meeting between men working from the south and men working from the north was dramatic. They met head-on in the forest. Corporal Refines Sims, Jr., a Negro from Philadelphia [of the 97th Engineers] . . . was driving south with a bulldozer when he saw trees starting to topple over on him. Slamming his big vehicle into reverse he backed out just as another bulldozer driven by Private Alfred Jalufka of Kennedy, Texas, broke through the underbrush. Jalufka had been forcing his bulldozer through the bush with such speed that his face was bloody from scratches of overhanging branches and limbs. That historic meeting between a Negro corporal and white private on their respective bulldozers occurred 20 miles east of the Alaska-Yukon Boundary at a place called Beaver Creek.” It was October 25, 1942.

Harold W. Richardson of Engineering News-Record shot a historic photo of the two men standing on their bulldozers while shaking hands. The photo appeared in newspapers around the country and is often used in books and articles about the Alaska Highway.

The Atlanta Daily World, a Black newspaper, published an article about the event. Its headline was: “Reveal Negroes Help Build Alaska Highway.” The headline echoed one of the complaints of the Black troops in Alaska – they were rarely mentioned in government press releases or news reports.

The 93rd Engineer Battalion commander, Lt. Colonel James L. Lewis (who was white), wrote, “Most of the news articles in magazines about the construction of the Alaska Military Highway failed to give Negro regiments much credit for their share of the completion of that project. Enlisted men of this regiment feel this deeply and their friends back home ask them why this is true.”

On November 20, 1942, “more than 200 dignitaries, guests and journalists from the United States and Canada,” gathered at Soldiers’ Summit on the south end of the Yukon’s Lake Kluane to mark the completion of the pioneer trail. That day the temperature was -15 degrees Fahrenheit; snow was falling when four soldiers held the red, white and blue ceremonial ribbon: “Corporal Sims and Private Jalufka, who had closed the last gap, and Master Sergeant Andrew Doyle (white) and Corporal John Reilly (Black). Alaska’s Secretary of State E. L. “Bob” Bartlett and Canada’s Minister of Pensions and National Health Ian MacKenzie used scissors engraved in Alaska gold to cut the ribbon.”

Trucks began to roll on the pioneer road almost immediately; however, winter ended all but maintenance operations on the road.

Media reaction

The U.S. media recognized and praised the achievement. It was “America’s Burma road,” “the new Northwest Passage,” a military “life-line,” and the “Highway to Russia.” Articles called it “Alaska’s Short Cut to Tokyo,” a “Six-Month’s Miracle” of “modern engineering and human tenacity,” “One of the Greatest Road-Building Jobs of Our Day,” and “one of the biggest and toughest jobs . . . since they built the Panama Canal.” It was “an Army triumph” that created “a dagger aimed at the heart of Japan, a helping hand outstretched toward Siberia in case of a Japanese attack on Russia, a bulwark against a Japanese offensive on the North American continent.”

Engineering News-Record printed a three-part series that began in December 1942 on “Alcan – America’s Glory Road.” (The road’s original name was the Alaska-Canada Highway, or Alcan, but the Canadian government approved the name “Alaska Highway” for the road.) The articles’ author wrote, “experts said the highway could never be built in time to be of use in this war. They failed to understand the fortitude of men – officers and soldiers, engineers and contractors – and the stamina of American construction equipment that built 1,636 miles of new route and rebuilt 162 more miles of old trail, all in one short construction season.”

National Geographic featured what it referred to as “an Engineering Epic.” The article noted, “Black men and white have cursed the country in a score of American dialects, and many have remarked at one time or another that if the Japs conquered the country it would only serve them right.” The “ingenuity, the morale, and the toughness” of the men who built the Alaska Highway “should reassure Americans that the inevitable confusion at the start of the war would speedily give way to efficiency and to a successful outcome of the war.”

Completing the highway

PRA designed the Alaska Highway to the standards for park and mountain roads – a “well-drained, stabilized roadbed with an overall width of 36 feet to allow for two 12-foot surfaced lanes, 3-degree curves in prairie terrain and 16- to 19-degree curves in mountain sections, with maximum 5% grades in the lower levels and 7% in the mountains. The surface was to be 18 inches of gravel or rock.”

However, the result of the rush to complete the pioneer road in 1942 meant that the road was too narrow, not well surfaced, and had numerous wooden bridges that did not survive the winter. Therefore, truck traffic after the opening ceremonies was limited. “The section around Nisutlin Bay was nearly impassable until the ground froze, while the 400-mile section across the Canadian Rockies from Summit Lake to Teslin included steep grades, narrow widths and sharp curves.

PRA sent additional surveying parties to determine the best location for the permanent highway. Most of the work was finished in December 1942; however, a few crews continued field operations through mid-winter (although temperatures were as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit). The crews did their best to identify locations with “long sight distances, easy curves and gentle grades.”

During the 1943 construction season, PRA contractors were ready to work, but they made slow, unsatisfactory progress due to “rain, mud, frozen ground, a shortage of equipment and repair parts, washed-out temporary bridges, and bottlenecks at river crossings.” As written in PRA’s annual report, “And then nature delivered the most serious blow since the beginning of construction.” A “tremendous downpour of rain” that occurred on July 9-10, 1943, destroyed “many of the temporary bridges and washed out long sections of the pioneer road.” However, the contractors reopened the pioneer road by July 20.

PRA’s contractors were able to keep the pioneer trail in service while they also built the permanent road (much of it along the new route). By mid-July 1943, 81 contractors were at work, “employing about 14,000 civilian workmen operating 6,000 units of heavy equipment, including scrapers, power shovels, elevating graders, trucks, motor graders, gravel plants and sawmills.” There were also nearly 1,850 PRA employees. There were two shifts of 10 hours daily. With that, PRA and its contractors completed the majority of the work between mid-July and the end of October.

While the Alaska Highway crossed only three major rivers (the Peace, Liard and Tanana), its total length included “133 bridges of 20 feet or more in length, of which 64 were more than 100 feet long, while 69 ranged between 20 and 100 feet.” Many of the bridges had to be designed to survive icy conditions during the winter and spring. When work ended on October 31, 1943, PRA and its contractors had built 99 bridges. However, 34 other bridges were incomplete or had not been started due to late approvals by the Corps of Engineers.

Although work was needed on the permanent bridges, the Alaska Highway was passable along its entire length. On October 31, PRA turned the Alaska Highway over to the Corps of Engineers to maintain for the war’s duration. The Corps also took over all remaining contracts.

After the war, PRA’s contribution was described in this way: “Of the 1,420 miles of highway across Canada to Alaska that were opened to the public after World War II, about two-thirds (970 miles) consisted of the original Army pioneer road, all of which had been substantially improved and upgraded by the PRA. Another 450 miles of the highway were new – and strictly PRA-built. Here the Army’s pioneer road had served its original purpose as an access route and was abandoned thereafter. The wartime cost of the Alaska Highway came to a seemingly modest $138 million – less than $100,000 per mile.”

The post-war Alaska Highway

The Corps of Engineers turned over the maintenance duties on the Alaskan portion of the highway to the territorial Alaska Road Commission. However, the Corps maintained the Canadian portion until April 1, 1946. Dignitaries gathered in Whitehorse on that date to celebrate the transfer of the Canadian portion of the highway to Canada.

Although the road was finished, driving along the Alaska Highway was rugged; travelers needed to obtain a permit before beginning a journey. Because accommodations were sparse and widely spaced, “each vehicle had to have enough gas to reach the next service station, as well as spare tires, an ax and shovel, sleeping bags, and proper clothing in case of breakdowns.” 

During these early years, the trip was not for tourists. However, over time and “almost imperceptibly, a new society emerged along the Alaska Highway.” Accommodations, even small communities, took root along its length. The road “was interminably long, excruciatingly dusty at times, rough and ragged.” 

The 1960s

Alaska became the 49th U.S. state in 1959. In the early 1960s, Alaska and Canadian officials began discussing the Alaska Highway’s future.

Canada’s Department of National Defence transferred responsibility of the Canadian portion of the Alaska Highway to the Department of Public Works, the nation’s highway agency, on April 1, 1964. More Americans than Canadians were using the highway, so paving and maintenance of the Canadian portion of the highway was generally deficient except in the more populated area from Whitehorse south.

And although Alaska had paved its section of the Alaska Highway by the early 1960s, the weather meant the asphalt surface took a beating. 

The 1970s

U.S. and Canadian officials began discussing paving a 205-mile portion of the Alaska Highway “from the Yukon settlements to the Alaska-Canadian border, as well as the Haines Highway from the port at Haines in Alaska to Haines Junction in the Yukon. At the time, the Haines Highway, sometimes called the Haines Cutoff, was the only direct land link between Fairbanks and the population centers in southeast Alaska.” The Army Corps of Engineers had built the Haines Highway in 1943. 

In February 1977, the countries signed an agreement that provided for U.S. funding for reconstruction, while Canadian engineering and resources would be used on the project. Canada also committed to maintain the road in Canada. Called the Shakwak Project, it was named for a valley in the Yukon. Officials took part in a groundbreaking ceremony on August 15, 1978, at Haines Junction.

The untold story 

Historian Douglas Brinkley described the Alaska Highway as “not only the greatest engineering feat of the Second World War; it is a triumph over racism.” He explained that the symbolism of the meeting of Corporal Sims and Private Jalufka on October 25, 1942 was significant. “Blacks and whites worked together for a common cause. Before long the U.S. Army would become integrated [by President Harry S. Truman’s Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948], a major step in the African American struggle for racial equality.”

Nearly 50 years after the war, the Black soldiers who helped build the pioneer trail received recognition for their accomplishments. Professor Lael Morgan of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks was researching a planned article on the highway; she became fascinated by the Black regiments that worked on the highway. Project histories barely mentioned the Black soldiers. She told a reporter in 1990, “You go through all the souvenir books of the Alaska Highway and all the old news clippings, you never see a single Black face. Nor did any historian know the whereabouts of these people. So I started looking.”

Working with author Heath Twichell and James Eaton of the Black Archives Research Center and Museum at Florida A&M University, Morgan located 70 Black veterans who had worked on the Alaska Highway. Her article was the cover story in an August 1992 issue of the Anchorage Daily News Magazine, “The Story They Forgot to Tell: How Black Soldiers Overcame Racism to Build the Alaska Highway.”

In 1992, most of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Alaska Highway’s pioneer trail neglected the Black soldiers who had worked on it. In Eaton’s words, they were “a lost page in history.” However, Morgan’s article prompted interest. On July 4, 1992, the city of Anchorage invited several of the Black former troops to participate in the city’s parade.

Remembering the Alaska Highway

The author of a 2011 guide to the Alaska Highway called it “the last great overland adventure left in North America.” The Alaska Highway, the author stated, “leads you back in time.” The author was referring to “a simpler place, a wilder place, and, to some, a more enchanting time.” 

While that description may be true, nothing about its construction was simple. “The Alaska Highway was built in the desperation of war, at a time when the outcome of that war could not be known, by men stressed to their limit by the challenges of an unforgiving environment. It was built in part by Black soldiers who faced the same challenges common to all workers on the project, but also the prejudices of the day, their role little known during the project, and forgotten for decades.”

The planning and then construction of the Alaska Highway began 80 years ago. “The Alaska Highway remains a tribute to the soldiers, white and Black, and civilians who overcame multiple challenges to build it.”

Author’s note: This is one of several articles that FreightWaves.com has posted/will post to honor Black History Month in the United States.