Alcan Highway construction begins

Date: 
Sun, 1942-03-08

*On this date in 1942 the building of The Alcan Highway in Canada began. This was an Army project during World War II that involved over 10,000 men of which over 30% were African American GI's.

Military policy during WW II dictated that Blacks would not be sent to northern environments or active duty. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the need for an inland route to Alaska prioritized this policy. Manpower was scarce, and segregated troops were shipped north under the leadership of white leaders. The construction of the 1,522-mile long road (the Alcan Highway) from Dawson Creek, British Colombia, to Fairbanks, Alaska through rugged, unmapped wilderness was heralded as a near impossible engineering feat.

Many compared it to the building of the Panama Canal. There was much praise for soldiers who pushed it through in just eight months and twelve days. African-American battalions have seldom been mentioned publicly despite the fact that they numbered 3,695 in troop strength of 10,670. According to their commanders, these men did an exceptional job under severe pressure. Poorly housed, often living in tents with insufficient clothing and monotonous food, they worked 20-hour days through a punishing winter. Temperatures hovered at 40-below-zero for weeks at a time. A new record low of -79 was established.

The majority of these Black troops were from the South; yet, they persevered. On the highway’s completion, many were decorated for their efforts and then sent off to active duty in Europe and the South Pacific. The veterans of the Army’s Black Corps of Engineers were members of the 93rd, 95th, 97th and 388th units. To build the Sikanni Chief River Bridge, men waded chest deep into freezing waters to place the trestles. To keep themselves going, some of the men sang.

Some African American soldiers, mainly from the South, sang old work chants like this "Steel-Driving Song." The soldiers bet their paychecks that they could finish the bridge over the swift flowing, snow fed, nearly 300 feet wide Sikanni River in less than three days. They won! Due to the fine showing of these Black troops and others, the U.S. Army integrated all units during the Korean Conflict, becoming the first government agency in the United States to do so. The road, originally called the Alaskan-Canadian Highway, quickly adopted the shortened name Alcan Highway. It was opened to the public on November 11, 1942 and still provides the only land route to Alaska.

Reference:
Library of Congress
101 Independence Avenue S.E.
Washington D.C. 20540