Black Soldiers Who Built the Alaska Highway

Image of black and white American soldiers shaking hands
About the Author

Don Vaughan is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is renowned for tackling difficult projects that range from construction of the Panama Canal to nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq. But few endeavors have proved as challenging as the construction of the Alaska Highway, a 1,500-mile stretch of road hewed by sheer grit and determination through some of North America's most inhospitable territory.

At its height, the Northwest Defense Projects, which also included a string of airfields to Alaska, the development of the CANOL oil field and an oil refinery in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada, involved nearly 40,000 Americans. Among the approximately 11,000 Army engineers assigned to build the Alaska Highway were three predominantly African-American Engineer General Service Regiments: the 93th, 95th and 97th.

Many of the black soldiers hailed from the South and had never seen snow, much less temperatures that sometimes dropped to minus 50. But despite this and other hardships, they played a vital role in assuring the roadwork was completed on schedule.

“The building of the Alaska Highway is considered one of the biggest and most difficult construction projects ever undertaken,” says Donna Blasor-Bernhardt, an Alaska native and author of Pioneer Road: Anthology of the Alaskan Highway (ArcheBooks Publishing). “It's now billed as the 'greatest highway on earth.'”

FDR gives authorization

President Franklin Roosevelt authorized a highway connecting Dawson Creek, British Columbia,  and Delta Junction, Alaska, in February 1942 in response to growing Japanese aggression. Just two months earlier, Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and was rapidly approaching the Aleutian Islands. A connecting highway through Alaska would be necessary to shore up American defenses in that part of the world.

“The highway had two purposes: to supply the airfields of the Northwest Staging Route (designed to ship American-built planes to the Russians for use on the Eastern Front) and to provide a supply base for American forces in Alaska, which seemed threatened by Japanese expansion,” says historian Ken Coates, Canada research chair in regional innovation, Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Saskatchewan.

“The armed forces in the U.S. did not support the idea at all strongly - they had other priorities.”

Nonetheless, the project began in March 1942 with the arrival of thousands of men and more than 200,000 tons of equipment; construction officially commenced April 11. Instead of working from a single point forward, the seven regiments involved in the Alaska Highway were posted at strategic positions along the route and worked north and south, eventually meeting up with each other.

With surveyors working approximately 10 miles ahead, teams of bulldozers cleared the path by knocking down trees and vegetation in a stretch that extended 50 to 90 feet across. Once the path was cleared, a second battalion flattened the road.

“It was not a highway, it was more of a positioning road, built very quickly, with temporary bridges and inadequate sighting and finishing,” says Coates.

Numerous hardships

Among the most frustrating obstacles were swamps of decaying vegetation known as muskegs, which could - and did - swallow a bulldozer whole. If surveyors couldn't find a way around a muskeg, the road was “corduroyed” by laying felled trees across the bog and covering them with fill. In addition, large patches of semi-frozen ground called permafrost melted into several inches of thick mud when the temperature rose just a few degrees. Six weeks were lost while the engineers tried to figure out a way to build over it.

It was the weather, however, that gave the engineers the most difficulty. Fall and winter temperatures routinely plunged many degrees below zero, which was a huge shock to most. Making matter worse, many of the black soldiers lived in tents while white soldiers often were housed in wood shelters. During the coldest periods, the black soldiers started their days by examining each other's faces for white spots - an indication of frostbite.

Racism occurred in other forms as well. The African-American soldiers typically were segregated from white colleagues and prevented from going into any villages they passed as construction progressed. In addition, the African-American engineers often were given inferior construction equipment or no equipment at all. In many instances, heavy equipment was delivered to less-experienced white regiments, leaving the black engineers to work with hand tools.

Summer brought its own hardships, including unbearably hot temperatures, clouds of choking dust, swarms of mosquitoes, and 24 hours of sunlight. Crews worked double shifts to take advantage of the extra light, and 400 miles of highway was laid down in July alone. 

Ferry disaster

The urgency of the project not only propelled construction but also resulted in tragic accidents. An estimated 30 men perished over the course of the road construction, half of them in a horrific ferry accident on Charlie Lake, near Fort St. John, British Columbia, May 17.

The ferry was built hastily out of pontoons and road materials so construction crews could move heavy machinery across the still-wintery lake. But on its first trip, an unexpected storm slammed the makeshift raft into heavy waves and chunks of ice, causing it to capsize. A local trapper who witnessed the accident managed to rescue five of the passengers, but the remaining 12 drowned. The last body was recovered June 9.

Despite these and many other difficulties, construction of the Pioneer Road that was the foundation for the Alaska Highway was completed in slightly less than eight months. At 4 p.m. Oct. 25, the last gap in the highway was closed.

“On the final breakthrough of the road, one bulldozer coming north and one coming south touched blades about 12 miles south of Beaver Creek, just short of the Yukon boarder,” says Blasor-Bernhardt. “The bulldozer from the north was operated by a black man, Cpl. Refines Sims of the 97th Engineer General Service Regiment, and the bulldozer from the south was operated by a white man, Pvt. Alfred Jalufka, from the 18th Engineers. There are dozens of photographs of them shaking hands.”

The construction of the Alaska Highway was a remarkable achievement for the Army Corps of Engineers but ultimately played a relatively insignificant role in the war effort. Nonetheless, the men who participated in its construction were extremely proud of their participation, and their service is commemorated with numerous memorials and markers throughout Alaska.

“The men and women who worked on the Alaska Highway did their jobs with shared urgency, professionalism, and dedication,” says Coates. “The Alaska Highway is a world-class road, one of the most unique on the planet. The people who built it deserve our respect and thanks.”

 

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