Many a night they went to bed
With bodies black and blue and red
Mosquitoes, black flies, no see’ ums too
Had bitten their clothes and gotten through
In muck and mire, brimstone and fire
They bulldozed their way and didn’t tire
Kept the Alcan open, made it work
A monster challenge they didn’t shirk
The black soldier and his crew
Saw this great endeavour through
J. Roscoe Hurst
The construction of the Alaska Highway led to dramatic changes in the course of the development of the Yukon second only to the impact of the Klondike gold rush. For the black soldiers who helped construct it, it may have left an even more indelible mark in history.
Talk of a highway linking Alaska with the rest of the United States was a frequent topic of conversation during the 1930s. A number of different routes were proposed, although none really got past the discussion stage during the Depression years.
Interest in the feasibility was heightened by the military expediency of war. Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941, and within weeks, the wheels were in motion for the selection of a suitable route for the construction of a military road that was capable of bringing supplies to Alaska, free of the threat of Japanese naval interference. Secondary to the construction of the highway was the CANOL project, which was to supply crude oil via pipeline from Norman Wells to a refinery in Whitehorse.
Troops started arriving in Dawson Creek on Feb. 10, 1942, followed by the vanguard of the Whitehorse contingent on April 1. The task of these troops gained an added urgency when, on June 6 and 7, Japanese forces invaded American soil on the Aleutian Islands of Kiska and Attu. In total, over 10,000 soldiers, one third of whom were black, worked on the Alaska Highway.
From the beginning, these soldiers had many forces working against them. Prejudice was deeply ingrained in the senior ranks. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, officer responsible for the defence of Alaska, was concerned about mixture of the races if black troops were brought to Alaska, and Gen. William Hoge overseeing the construction of the highway, thought that they were good for nothing better than pick and shovel work.
Even Joe Louis, the world heavyweight boxing champion experienced racism. When he visited Whitehorse during the war, some American lodgers at the Regina Hotel refused to stay there while he was registered.
It was conceded that black units would participate in the construction of the highway, but that they would be isolated and kept away from any communities along the way.
Four units of black soldiers were given assignments on the Alaska Highway. The 93rd Engineers opened a trail from Carcross toward Teslin, which is presumably the present-day connector with the Alaska Highway. Then, they split into two battalions, one which worked back toward Whitehorse, while the other continued to Teslin.
Another Unit, the 95th Engineers, worked the section south of Fort Nelson. The 97th Engineers constructed a road from Valdez inland to Slana and over the Mentasta Pass to Tok, then south toward Beaver Creek (thus closing the final gap along the highway). The 388th was sent to work on the CANOL project.
Officers assigned to command black units saw it as a dead-end assignment and transferred out as quickly as possible; yet some recognized the problems and addressed them head on. Lt. Col. Heath Twichell was given command of the 95th Engineers on July 9, 1943. Seeing that the unit needed a boost in morale, he took on the construction of the Sikanni Chief River bridge as a challenge.
Rising to the occasion, his troops bet their paycheques that they could construct the crossing of the river in record time, and they did, in just 84 hours – half the normal time. Plagued by a shortage of heavy equipment, they concentrated their efforts on short stretches of the highway, where they demonstrated what they were capable of achieving, despite the lack of proper equipment, by constructing sections of “model road.”
In one contest to close the last gap in the highway, the black 97th Engineers, coming from the north were pitted against the white 18th Engineers, coming from the south, to see who would first reach the boundary between Canada and the United States. The 97th won. On Oct. 25, 1942, somewhere near Beaver Creek, Pte. Refines Sims Jr. of the 97th, in the lead bulldozer, reached across and shook hands with Pte. Alfred Jalufka of the 18th Engineers.
The challenges were also physical. The men were poorly clothed and battled the cold living in tents. There was no leave, no mail and no fresh food. During the summer months, they worked around the clock, seven days a week. Many of the soldiers enlisted from the Deep South and had never encountered conditions like those they now had to face. As winter set in, the mercury plummeted.
“Lord it was cold,” stated Staff Sgt. Clifton Monk of the 97th Engineers. “Your breath would turn to ice inside your blankets at night. If you touched anything metal with your bare hands, you couldn’t tear your skin loose. We’d have to keep fires burning underneath our trucks all night, or they wouldn’t move in the morning.”
Yet these troops, who some First Nations people called “midnight men,” proved themselves capable. They were subsequently assigned duty in the hot zones of the war – the South Pacific, Europe and Burma. It was a small step toward acceptance and assimilation into main stream society. The ultimate legacy for the black soldiers was that the military became the first government agency to integrate.
The legacy for us today is that the Alaska Highway links the Yukon and Alaska with the Outside world.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, will be available in April. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org