Black soldiers of the 97th Battalion cutting and clearing timber from right-of-way during the summer of 1942. (Photo courtesy of Christine McClure)

Black soldiers of the 97th Battalion cutting and clearing timber from right-of-way during the summer of 1942. (Photo courtesy of Christine McClure)

History Hunter: A Different Race: Hardship, Racism and a Court-Martial on the Alcan

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, the American army deemed the construction of a road to Alaska to be a military priority. Seven engineering regiments, three of them consisting of Black soldiers, were dispatched to undertake the job. The construction started from both ends, and the middle, and in just nine months, the various segments of what became the Alaska Highway had been tied together as a pioneer road.

The role played by the Black soldiers was critical to the success of this undertaking. Four years ago, Christine and Dennis McClure published the book, We Fought the Road, an account of the Black soldiers’ contribution to this massive engineering project. The 93rd Regiment opened the middle segment of the project, from Carcross south toward Teslin. The McClures chronicled this undertaking based upon extensive research, site visits, and the letters of Christine’s father, Turner Timberlake, a white officer in the 93rd.

In their new book, A Different Race, the McClures direct their attention farther north, to the work of another Black regiment, the 97th. This unit, began construction of the northern segment of the highway from their point of entry at the port of Valdez, in Alaska. The story is developed thanks to more research by the McClures and the letters of Captain Walter Parsons III, who commanded Company F of the First Battalion.

Despite being inadequately equipped, poorly provisioned and subject to disorganized and incompetent command, the Black soldiers overcame numerous geographical obstacles. They adapted quickly to local conditions, and cut their way through dense bush, over mountains, across rivers and permafrost, to connect with the 18th Engineers, coming from Whitehorse.

As illustrated by the authors, the US Army did not think highly of their Black soldiers. As late as 1963, a study produced by officers in the US Army War College had this to say about them: “As an individual, the negro is docile, tractable, lighthearted, carefree and good natured. If unjustly treated he is likely to become surly and stubborn … He is careless, shiftless, irresponsible and secretive. He resents censure and is best handled with praise and by ridicule. He is unmoral, untruthful and his sense of right doing is relatively inferior. Crimes and conviction involving moral turpitude are nearly five to one as compared to convictions of whites on similar charges.”

In another study, dated 1958, Black soldiers were said to have “…lacked the sense of responsibility necessary for the care of equipment … and were slow to absorb instruction.” Army command deemed it best to station the black units in isolated stretches of the route of the highway, so that they were away from settled communities. Despite the stereotypical characterizations of the time, the Black soldiers persevered and completed their task — and then some.

The Black soldiers carried on without supervision, direction, or coordination in the early stages. The white officers spent their time bickering and avoiding work. One senior officer observed: “In some instances, I’ve seen it take longer to figure out some reason for not doing a thing than it would have taken to do it in the first place.”

Despite challenging terrain, harsh weather and incompetent command, the Black soldiers restructured, learned as they went, improvised, and found a way to get the job done. On Oct. 25, near Beaver Creek, a bulldozer from the 97th touched blades with one from the 18th, and the final gap in the pioneer road was closed.

Instead of being transferred to another theatre of operation, the men of the 97th were assigned the task of keeping the road open over the following months. The winter of 1942-43 was the coldest in 25 years, but the 97th were supplied with inadequate housing, bedding and food. Most of these soldiers came from the deep south and had never experienced anything like the cold they encountered on the Alaska Highway. The black troops quickly figured out what was required to survive under these extreme conditions.

In March of 1943, several soldiers from the 97th, stationed at Gerstle River, were ordered by a white officer to climb into the back of a truck to take them to Fairbanks, a journey of several hours. The temperature had sunk to minus 37 degrees, Celsius. Rather than risk freezing to death, they chose to resist that command.

Ten soldiers were quickly detained, and rather than being subject to a disciplinary assignment, they were charged with mutiny, an offence punishable by death. The soldiers were shipped to Whitehorse, where they were kept in custody until June 5, when the court-martial began.

According to the McClures, the court-martial served not to apply justice, but as a tool of command. It was not a question of guilt or innocence, but a matter of discipline and control. In a racist military, it was believed that Black soldiers required more discipline and harsher sentences. By comparison, the most serious punishment received by a white soldier on the highway for “willful disobedience,” was six months at hard labour and one third regular pay.

The McClures lay out the cases of the prosecution and the defence in this mock trial. In the summation, Captain Parsons, the defence for the accused soldiers, pointed out the racial implications of the case, then went further to state that this was a case of disobedience, not mutiny.

From the outset, it was clear that one of the soldiers, private Calhoun, had not been present when the offences occurred. He was judged not guilty. The others were given sentences of from three to 20 years. Upon review, the sentences were reduced, and four more of the accused were released to regular duty due to insufficient evidence. With the expediency of circumstances and the good behaviour of the five men who remained in custody, they were all released back to general service for the remainder of the war, a year later.

In conclusion, the authors state that these soldiers were victims of “the invisible hand that ruled the lives of all colored people in… the entire south.” They eventually left the army post-war, but remained subject to the “invisible hand,” and regulated by Jim Crow.

This account of the soldiers of the 97th Brigade, and the subsequent court martial, is an excellent account of conditions, physical, social, and military, that they endured while serving in the north. I can heartily recommend it.

A Different Race by Christine and Dennis McClure was published by Little Lands End Publishing, Taylors South Carolina. 246 pages, nine maps, 14 photos, extensive endnotes, selected bibliography, no index.

Michael Gates is the author of six books of Yukon history. His book, From the Klondike to Berlin, was shortlisted for a national book award. His latest book, “Dublin Gulch: A History of the Eagle Mine,” is now available in Yukon Stores. Michael is the Yukon’s first Story Laureate.

History Hunter