The Black Corps of Engineers and the Construction of the Alaska (ALCAN) Highway

By Smith, E. Valerie | Negro History Bulletin, December 1993 | Go to article overview

The Black Corps of Engineers and the Construction of the Alaska (ALCAN) Highway


Smith, E. Valerie, Negro History Bulletin


Miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles. Temperatures of sixty below zero and dropping. More snow than a southerner or northerner could ever imagine..and the people... where are the people?

So describes the welcome which greeted the black men of the 93rd, 95th, 97th (Regiments) and 388th Battalion (Separate) of the Corps of Engineers assigned to Alaska. "Their 3,695 troops accounted for slightly more than a third of the 10,607 engineers on the highway." These soldiers made a major contribution to the war effort which, until recently, was not recognized.

The building of the ALCAN has been described in the same vein as the building of the Panama Canal, a feat which most people believed couldn't be done. Faced with innumerable odds, the soldiers persevered and accomplished what no others could, build a highway in record time through some of the roughest terrain in the U.S. Known as the ALCAN (Alaska-Canada Highway), once built, this road was to become the only overland route which strategically linked the north to the remainder of the United States and facilitated the construction of airstrips for refueling planes and supply routes. Among the adverse conditions which these courageous men overcame were:

* an extremely harsh climate for many men who had only known the southern U.S. climate and others who had experienced only mildly cold weather;

* insufficient clothing and accommodations, because the men were in the cold for months dressed in warm weather clothing and living in tents. The white soldiers were usually housed in the sturdier quonset huts and on the air bases;

* gross personal insult because of the pervasive belief that African Americans were inferior; the fear of many top Army personnel that the soldiers would harm the civilization of the indigenous population if they had contact with it and; the outspoken offensive posture of Commanding General S.B. Buckner, who feared that African American contacts with locals would produce a "mongrel race" through interbreeding and;

* severe discriminatory policies, segregation and isolation because the facilities, supplies, etc., were inferior, and in most instances camps were established in isolated areas away from towns with cloth tents as living quarters.

Background

The Alaska Highway, evidencing something of the early American pioneer spirit as it cut through ice hills and muskeg swamps in a race against time, captured the American imagination in a way that few other projects did in the early summer of 1942 when so little else involving American forces in an aggressive role on a large scale had yet been made public.

Initially, the possibility that the Japanese might attack Alaska was believed to be unlikely; however with the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, it became clear that the northern U.S. territory was vulnerable. Thus, on December 11, 1941 the Western Defense (which included Alaska) was made a theater of operations. New construction was not to begin. However, existing projects were to be completed and planned projects remained authorized. Among those authorized projects was the construction of the Alaska Highway. The road was critical in the Allied Forces' defense strategy because of the Japanese threat to the Pacific.

On February 6, 1942, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff approved the construction of the Alaska Highway. President Roosevelt authorized the construction of the pioneer road on February 11, 1942. On March 5, Secretary of War Henry Stimson announced the decision to build the Highway, and effective March 11, General DeWitt was assigned sole responsibility for overseeing all military-related real estate and construction in the Alaskan theater of operations. In a formal exchange of notes on March 17-18, 1942, the United States and Canada agreed to cooperate in the construction, maintenance and use of the highway.

The U.S. agreed to make surveys, to build a pioneer road and to have Canadian and American contractors complete the road under the supervision of the Public Roads Administration. …

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