When Christine McClure’s mother passed away in 2009, she left behind a collection of letters that had been written to her by her future husband, Turner “Tim” Timberlake. Timberlake was once a junior officer assigned to a unit of black soldiers sent north to help build the pioneer road to Alaska during World War II. We now know it as the Alaska Highway.
I met with Christine, and her husband Dennis recently during their visit to Whitehorse, and she explained how she became involved in the long and winding road that ended with a book on the Alaska Highway. It began as a genealogical endeavor, but over time, because there was so little information available, she became more and more intrigued by the mysterious 93rd Regiment in which her father served.
The 93rd Regiment worked on the stretch of the highway from Carcross to Rancheria in 1942. It was an all-black unit that was commanded by white officers like Timberlake. He was responsible for the motor pool that was attached to the unit.
While he served on the construction of the highway, he wrote letters to his sweetheart, Helen, who lived thousands of kilometres away in Maryland. “The great accomplishments of building that road gave him pride, but he never seemed aware of its history beyond the boundaries of his individual experience,” McClure said. “He worked with black soldiers in a racist environment but his letters offered no clues to what he had thought and felt about that — or whether he had thought and felt about that.” I’ll come back to that a little later.
As her curiosity about the mysterious 93rd Regiment grew, so did her involvement in unmasking the hidden story of their involvement in the highway’s construction.
The collaboration on this work with her husband, Dennis, grew from a moment of realization at the Sikanni Chief River Bridge during a trek up the highway. There, he explored the shores of the river until he found some of the hand-hewn timbers from the original bridge, built by another black unit, the 95th, in 1942. After that, he too was hooked on the project.
Between them, a collaboration evolved where Christine did the bulk of the research, while Dennis crafted the structure of the narrative into what, after many revisions, has become the book, We Fought the Road.
We Fought the Road is built around the love letters that Turner Timberlake sent to his future wife, Helen, but the real story is imbedded in the narrative assembled to describe the progress of the construction of the Alaska Highway, especially the role played by the black engineering regiments, particularly the 93rd.
The 93rd and the other black regiments of the United States Army helped build the vital link to Alaska after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. With a few exceptions, the wartime contribution of the black regiments to the construction of this strategic military road has been overlooked and mostly ignored. Finally, in We Fought The Road, some light is thrown upon this hidden chapter of the Alcan story.
The black soldiers endured isolation, brutal extremes of weather, plagues of mosquitoes, lack of proper equipment and systemic racism. Seventy years later, Carcross resident Millie Jones still remembered that while they were camped near her town, the members of the 93rd were not allowed to enter the local hotel, but had to go to the back entrance to ask for a drink of water.
We Fought The Road, which is published by Epicenter Press, is currently an advance print run. Expect to see refinements in subsequent printings. Its 224 pages contain 200 pages of narrative, plus acknowledgements, a 15-page bibliography, a useful two-page timeline and a one-page military organization chart (useful for those like me who are not familiar with the chain of command in the U.S. Army). There is no index. Included at the back is a two-page reading group discussion guide.
One of the shortcomings of many historical narratives, especially some detailing military history, seems to be the absence of useful maps to help place the events being described in a geographical context. This volume is quite the opposite, containing, by my count, 24 maps. They are clearly easy to understand and clarify what is going on in the story.
If any criticism were to be made of the maps, it is the repetition of virtually identical maps. Maps showing the route of the highway between Carcross, Jake’s Corner, and Johnson’s Crossing, for example, appear on pages 92-93, 96, 101, 118 and 155. The same thing was observed with the maps illustrating the route of construction for the 97th Engineers shown on pages 80, 136 and 160. However, they support the text and eliminate the need to flip back and forth between the text and a single map in a different section of the book.
The 21 photographs I counted in this volume provide fascinating glimpses of life in the 93rd. Selected from the Timberlake and Parker family collections, as well as the U.S. Army Signal Corps and the Bureau of Public Roads, they illustrate the places and conditions along the route during the construction of the pioneer road. I found them small and somewhat murky for my aging eyes, but I was also left thirsting for more.
As for Turner Timberlake, there is little indication from his letters where he stood on the race issue. The closest he comes is in a letter he sent to his father in October of 1942. Timberlake’s father was a descendant of civil war veterans and was racist to the core. Years earlier, when he learned that his young son was playing a baseball game against an all-black team, Turner’s father went to the game and marched his son off the field by the ear.
During his stay in the Yukon, Timberlake sent his father a letter which included a photograph of him eating Thanksgiving dinner with the black mechanics from the regimental motor pool. On the back of the photo he printed a note that said: “Dear Pop, Let’s see you get me out of this one.”
I think We Fought The Road is an informative read that plows into new ground in the history of the Alaska Highway, and would recommend that you put it on your summer (or winter) reading list.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, From the Klondike to Berlin, is now available in stores everywhere.