Discussions of a road to Alaska began as early as 1865, when Western Union contemplated plans to install a telegraph wire from the United States to Siberia. The idea picked up steam with the proliferation of automobiles in the 1920s, but it was a hard sell for Canadian authorities. Such a road would necessarily have to pass through their territory, but the Canadian government felt the project would have little impact, benefiting no more than a few thousand people in the Yukon.
Guam and Wake Island fell to the Japanese in the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor, making it clear that parts of the Pacific coast were vulnerable, and changing priorities for both the United States and Canada.
The Alaska Territory was particularly vulnerable. The Aleutian Island chain was only 750 miles from the nearest Japanese base, and there were only 12 medium bombers, 20 pursuit planes, and fewer than 22,000 troops in the entire territory. An area four times the size of Texas.
Colonel Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., the officer in charge of the Alaska Defense Command, made the point succinctly. “If the Japanese come here, I can’t defend Alaska. I don’t have the resources.”
The US Army approved construction of the Alaska Highway in February, the project receiving the blessing of the Congress and President Roosevelt within the week. Canada agreed to allow the project, provided that the US pay the full cost, and that the roadway and all facilities be turned over to Canadian authorities at the end of the war.
Construction began on March 9 as trains moved hundreds of pieces of construction equipment to Dawson Creek, the last stop on the Northern Alberta Railway. At the other end, 10,670 American troops arrived in Alaska that spring, to begin what their officers called “the biggest and hardest job since the Panama Canal.”
In between lay over 1,500 miles of unmapped, inhospitable wilderness.
The project got a real sense of urgency in June, when Japanese forces landed on the islands of Kiska and Attu, in the Aleutian chain. Adding to the urgency was the fact that there is no more than an eight month construction window, before the return of the deadly Alaskan winter. Construction began at both ends and the middle at once, with nothing but the most rudimentary engineering sketches.
A route through the Rockies hadn’t even been identified yet.
Radios didn’t work across the mountains and there were only erratic mail and passenger runs on the Yukon Southern airline, what the locals called the “Yukon Seldom”. It was faster for construction battalions at Dawson Creek, Delta Junction and Whitehorse to talk to each other through military officials in Washington, DC.
Moving men to their assigned locations was one thing. Moving 11,000 pieces of construction equipment, to say nothing of the supplies needed by man and machine, was another.
Tent pegs were useless in the permafrost, but the body heat of sleeping soldiers meant they woke up in mud.
Partially thawed lakes meant that supply planes could use neither pontoon nor ski, as Black flies swarmed the troops by day, and bears raided camps by night, looking for food.
Engines had to run around the clock, because it was impossible to restart them in the cold.
Engineers waded up to their chests as they built pontoons across freezing lakes, battling mosquitoes in the mud and the moss laden arctic bog. Ground which had been frozen for thousands of years was scraped bare and exposed to sunlight, creating a deadly layer of muddy quicksand in which bulldozers wallowed in what otherwise seemed like stable roadbed.
On October 25, Refines Sims Jr. of Philadelphia, with the all-black 97th Engineers was driving a bulldozer 20 miles east of the Alaska-Yukon line, when the trees in front of him toppled to the ground. He slammed his machine into reverse as a second bulldozer came into view, driven by Kennedy Texas Private Alfred Jalufka. North had met south, and the two men jumped off their machines, grinning. Their triumphant handshake was photographed by a fellow soldier and published in newspapers across the country, becoming an unintended first step toward desegregating the US military.
They celebrated the route’s completion at Soldier’s Summit on November 21, 1942, though the “highway” remained unusable by most vehicles until 1943.
I remember hearing an interview about this story, back in the eighties. An Inuit elder was recounting his memories about growing up in a world as it had existed for a thousand years, without so much as an idea of internal combustion. He spoke of the day when he first heard the sound of an engine, and went out to see a giant bulldozer making its way over the permafrost. The bulldozer was being driven by a black soldier, probably one of the 97th Engineers Battalion soldiers. “It turned out”, he said, “that the first white person I ever saw, was a black man”.