Discussions concerning 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 concept picked up steam with the proliferation of automobiles in the 1920s, but the idea was a hard sell for Canadian authorities. Such a road would necessarily pass through their territory, and the Canadian government believed the project would have little impact, benefiting no more than a few thousand people in the Yukon.
In the days following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Guam and Wake Island fell to Imperial Japanese forces , making it clear that parts of the Pacific coast were vulnerable.
Priorities were changing for both the United States, and Canada.
The Alaska Territory was particularly exposed. Situated only 750 miles from the nearest Japanese base, the Aleutian Island chain had but 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., son of the Confederate commander who famously received Ulysses S. Grant’s “Unconditional Surrender” ultimatum at Fort Donelson (“I propose to move immediately, upon your works”), was in charge of the Alaska Defense Command. Buckner made his made point, succinctly. “If the Japanese come here, I can’t defend Alaska. I don’t have the resources.”
The Army approved construction of the Alaska Highway in February 1942, the project receiving the blessings of Congress and President Roosevelt within the week. Canada agreed to allow the project, provided that the United States pay the full cost, and the roadway and other facilities be turned over to Canadian authorities at the end of the war.
Construction began in March 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, hostile, wilderness.
The project received a new sense of urgency on June 7, when a Japanese force of 1,140 took control of Attu Island, murdering Charles Jones, a ham radio operator and weather reporter from Ohio, and taking his wife Etta prisoner, along with 45 Aleuts. Adding to the urgency was the fact that the Alaskan winter permits no more than an eight-month construction window. That period was already well underway.
Construction began at both ends and the middle at once, with nothing but the most rudimentary engineering sketches. A route through the Rocky Mountains had yet to be identified.
Radios of the age didn’t work across the Rockies, and the mail was erratic. The only passenger service available was run by the Yukon Southern airline, a run which locals called the “Yukon Seldom”. For construction battalions at Dawson Creek, Delta Junction and Whitehorse, it was faster to talk to each other through military officials in Washington, DC.
Moving men to assigned locations was one thing. Transporting 11,000 pieces of heavy equipment, to say nothing of supplies needed by man and machine, was quite another.
Tent pegs were useless in the permafrost, while the body heat of sleeping soldiers meant waking up in mud. Partially thawed lakes meant that supply planes could use neither pontoon nor ski, as Black flies swarmed the troops by day. Hungry bears raided camps at night, looking for food.
Engines had to run around the clock, as it was impossible to restart them in the cold. Engineers waded up to their chests building 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 sank in what seemed like stable roadbed.
That October, 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. Sims 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.
A gathering at Soldier’s Summit on November 21, 1942 celebrated “completion” of the route, though the “highway” remained impassable for most vehicles, until 1943.
NPR ran an interview about this story back in the eighties, in which an Inupiaq elder was recounting his memories. He had grown up in a world as it existed for hundreds of years, without so much as an idea of internal combustion. He spoke of the day that 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 operator, probably one of the 97th Engineers Battalion soldiers. The old man’s comment, as best I can remember it, was a classic. “It turned out”, he said, “that the first white person I ever saw, was a black man”.