The Black Corps of Engineers and the construction of the Alaska Highway – ALCAN – African Americans and World War II
E. Valerie Smith
Miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles. Temperatures of sixty below zero and dropping. More snow than a southerner or northerner could ever imagine..and the people… where are the people?
So describes the welcome which greeted the black men of the 93rd, 95th, 97th (Regiments) and 388th Battalion (Separate) of the Corps of Engineers assigned to Alaska. “Their 3,695 troops accounted for slightly more than a third of the 10,607 engineers on the highway.” These soldiers made a major contribution to the war effort which, until recently, was not recognized.
The building of the ALCAN has been described in the same vein as the building of the Panama Canal, a feat which most people believed couldn’t be done. Faced with innumerable odds, the soldiers persevered and accomplished what no others could, build a highway in record time through some of the roughest terrain in the U.S. Known as the ALCAN (Alaska-Canada Highway), once built, this road was to become the only overland route which strategically linked the north to the remainder of the United States and facilitated the construction of airstrips for refueling planes and supply routes. Among the adverse conditions which these courageous men overcame were:
* an extremely harsh climate for many men who had only known the southern U.S. climate and others who had experienced only mildly cold weather;
* insufficient clothing and accommodations, because the men were in the cold for months dressed in warm weather clothing and living in tents. The white soldiers were usually housed in the sturdier quonset huts and on the air bases;
* gross personal insult because of the pervasive belief that African Americans were inferior; the fear of many top Army personnel that the soldiers would harm the civilization of the indigenous population if they had contact with it and; the outspoken offensive posture of Commanding General S.B. Buckner, who feared that African American contacts with locals would produce a “mongrel race” through interbreeding and;
* severe discriminatory policies, segregation and isolation because the facilities, supplies, etc., were inferior, and in most instances camps were established in isolated areas away from towns with cloth tents as living quarters.
The Alaska Highway, evidencing something of the early American pioneer spirit as it cut through ice hills and muskeg swamps in a race against time, captured the American imagination in a way that few other projects did in the early summer of 1942 when so little else involving American forces in an aggressive role on a large scale had yet been made public.
Initially, the possibility that the Japanese might attack Alaska was believed to be unlikely; however with the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, it became clear that the northern U.S. territory was vulnerable. Thus, on December 11, 1941 the Western Defense (which included Alaska) was made a theater of operations. New construction was not to begin. However, existing projects were to be completed and planned projects remained authorized. Among those authorized projects was the construction of the Alaska Highway. The road was critical in the Allied Forces’ defense strategy because of the Japanese threat to the Pacific.
On February 6, 1942, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff approved the construction of the Alaska Highway. President Roosevelt authorized the construction of the pioneer road on February 11, 1942. On March 5, Secretary of War Henry Stimson announced the decision to build the Highway, and effective March 11, General DeWitt was assigned sole responsibility for overseeing all military-related real estate and construction in the Alaskan theater of operations. In a formal exchange of notes on March 17-18, 1942, the United States and Canada agreed to cooperate in the construction, maintenance and use of the highway.
The U.S. agreed to make surveys, to build a pioneer road and to have Canadian and American contractors complete the road under the supervision of the Public Roads Administration. For six months after the end of the war the U.S. agreed to maintain the road. The Canadian government agreed to right-of-way and to permit the use of local timber, gravel and rock, to waive import taxes and to exempt Americans employed in Canada from Canadian taxes. Canada had the option of assuming maintenance of the road earlier than the six month post-war deadline. On May 1, General DeWitt made General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr. entirely responsible for the execution of the military construction in Alaska. Efforts were made to recruit white civilians and enlisted men to repair and maintain the military buildings.
The War Department determined that the road was to be along the Northwest Staging Route, which consisted of existing airstrips from Edmonton, Alberta Canada to Fairbanks, Alaska. This route was used in the Russian-American Land Lease Program to transport more than 8,000 warplanes from Great Falls, Montana, to Ladd Air Force Base in Fairbanks. The planes were then flown through Nome and on to Russia.
The pioneer road, stretching 1450 miles, was carved out of a massive wilderness in the phenomenal period of eight months and twelve days. To complete the Highway, the engineers built 133 bridges and 8,000 culverts.(2) The entire length of the ALCAN is 1619 miles.(3) The cost was approximately $110 million.(4) The ALCAN Highway begins in Dawson Creek, Canada and ends at Big Delta (Delta Junction) near Fairbanks, Alaska.
Each regiment and battalion was responsible for the construction of specific sections of the ALCAN. The first military command post was established at Ft. St. John, Canada where Colonel Hoge supervised the construction of the 650 miles of road from Dawson Creek to Watson Lake. The second command post was established by Colonel Hoge at Whitehorse, which would oversee the 850 miles of road from Watson Lake to Big Delta. Because of the distance between the two command posts, they became known as the Southern Sector (Ft. St. John) and the Northern Sector (Whitehorse).
The African American Corps of Engineers
The engineering regiments assigned the task of constructing the Alaska Highway were segregated by race. The original plan of the commander was not to use African Americans to build the roads, but to have them provide services. Three of the seven regiments were black regiments: the 93rd, 95th, 97th. One battalion, the 388th (Separate), worked in Canada on the CANOL Project, and is often included in discussions of black troops in the Northern Territory. They were joined by the white regiments, 18th, 35th, 340th and 341st.
All of the black Regiments were established originally as separate battalions. Initially, Secretary Stimson declared that no black troops would be sent to the northern territory because it was believed that the troops were incapable of functioning in the bitter cold climate. In time, increased need for additional troops in the northern region and the shortage of white troops resulted in Secretary Stimson reversing his position. Many of the soldiers had no idea that they were going to the far north when they were shipped out. In fact, when the white regiments were short of supplies and equipment, those of the black regiments were reallocated to white regiments. In time, need preempted bigotry and the black troops were given assignments traditionally given to white regiments. There evolved the pairing of regiments in many regions of the northern territory in the following way: Carcoss to Whitehorse and Watson Lake – 340th and 93rd; Whitehorse to Big Delta – 18th and 97th; Ft. John to Ft. Nelson – 341 and 95th.
As was the case with the military troops worldwide during World War II, all of the commanding officers of all of the regiments were white. Twichell points out, “…the biggest problem black units faced was the same one that had beset them in World War I: the lack of black leadership and the bigotry of white leaders.” He further points out that assignment to black units was an experience to be avoided if the white officers desired career advancement. Thus, if assigned, the officers devoted considerable time and energy attempting to get reassigned. Only black chaplains and doctors were commissioned officers in the Northwest Service Command.
The 93rd General Service Regiment arrived at Skagway on April 16, 1942 and worked on the pioneer road from Tagish north, to the McClintock River east, and then southeast to the Teslin River. Under the leadership of Colonel Frank Johnson, one segment of the regiment was to work back from Carcross to Whitehorse and the other cleared a new trail to Watson Lake. The 93rd’s primary responsibility was to construct a trail for use by the 340th Engineer Regiment as it built segments of the highway. Because of the lack of heavy equipment, engineers of the 93rd began their work using only hand tools. Later they were able to get heavy equipment.(5)
LINEAGE and ASSIGNMENTS – 93rd REGIMENT
October 1, 1933 Constituted in Regular Army as 52nd Engineer
January 1, 1938 Redesignated 93rd Engineer Battalion
February 10, 1941 Activated at Camp Livingston, Louisiana
March 27, 1942 Expanded and redesignated as 93rd Engineer
Regiment (General Service)
April 16, 1942 Arrived in Skagway, Canada
August 1, 1942 Redesignated 93rd General Service Regiment
November 17, 1945 Inactivated at Camp Kilmer, NJ
June 30, 1947 Consolidated with 1315th Engineer
Construction Battalion and redesignated
Engineer Construction Battalion
June 11, 1954 Allocated to the Regular Army and
redesignated 93rd Engineer Battalion
July 26, 1954 Activated as 93rd Engineer Battalion
(Construction) at Ft. Bragg, NC
Source: Corp of Engineer Archives
As the last of the black Regiments to arrive, the 95th, under the command of Colonel David L. Neumann, reached Dawson Creek, British Columbia, between May 29 and June 2, 1942. The 95th was originally organized as a separate battalion at the Engineer Training Center at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia. In April 1941, the original members of the 95th had completed thirteen weeks of training and worked on several construction projects at Virginia’s Camp A.P. Hill before going through Carolina maneuvers and being sent to Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, in early 1942. There they were joined by additional men, and had enough to form another battalion. The Battalions were upgraded to a regiment. After ten more weeks of training, the regiment was shipped to Canada.
The troops were assigned to work on the segment of the Highway between Ft. Nelson and Fort St. John. Their task was to improve the road cut by the 341st from Ft. St. John to Ft. Nelson. The 341st bulldozed the forests to make the pioneer trail and the 95th followed, improving and maintaining the completed trail. Although the soldiers of the 95th were trained in construction, the decision to use them as the back-up force rather than the builders was based on both racism and the shortage of heavy equipment. Those few pieces of equipment which the unit had were reallocated to the 341st. The reallocation of equipment from black units to white units was rather common.
According to Twichell, “[t]he decision to beef up the 341st at the expense of the 95th was defensible, given the assignments of the two regiments.”(6) The argument was made that the 341st had been in the field for a longer period of time, thus they would be more experienced with the environment. The problem with that argument, however, was that the 95th soldiers were much better trained and experienced in construction. The morale of the black troops was very low, because of this and other discriminatory decisions. The state of their morale, however was of little significance to the “top brass” who considered the implications of the alternative reallocation. After all, “How would this white regiment have reacted to the humiliation of being taken out of the lead and given a supporting role behind a black outfit?”(7)
LINEAGE and ASSIGNMENTS – 95th REGIMENT
October 1, 1933 54th redesignated as 95th Engineer
April 23, 1941 Activated at Ft. Belvoir
October 1, 1941 Trained in Carolina Maneuver Area
December 7, 1941 Returned to Ft. Belvoir
March 6, 1942 Training at Ft. Bragg, NC
April 26, 1942 Depart Dawson Creek
May 29-June 1, 1942 Arrived at Dawson Creek
May 1, 1943 Returned to continental U.S.; assigned to
Ft. Claiborne, LA
December 16, 1946 Deactivated at Ft. Lewis, WA
Source: Corp of Engineer Archives
The 97th Regiment
On April 29, when the 97th landed, several feet of snow covered the ground, a strange new sight for most of the regiment’s 1,100 enlisted men, recently drafted African Americans from Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. Adding to their woes was the arrival of the 97th’s battered fleet of dump trucks, which had been classified as unserviceable and turned in for salvage at the port of embarkation in Seattle.(8)
The northern Alaska section of the ALCAN Highway was built by the 97th General Services Regiment. Commanded by Colonel Stephen C. Whipple, the 97th disembarked at Valdez, AK, which was the southern terminus of the Richardson Highway. This Regiment was faced with the arduous task of working in the harshest conditions of any of the regiments. The Alaskan interior (northern region) has the most bitter cold, the largest amount of snow and the most drastic temperature variation (-80 F to +90 F). While other regiments/battalions were able to complete many miles in a brief period, the 97th sometimes could complete only a few miles. Without recognizing the severe difficulties caused by the climate, it was easier for the commander and top management to assess the performance of the 97th as inferior to that of white regiments.
The regiment was given the preliminary mission of opening an access road from Slana, 200 miles north of Valdez, over the Mentasta Mountain Pass and down to the vicinity of the upper Tanana Valley village of Tok. Units in the 97th operated the terminals for trucks on the “Fairbanks Freight,” the truck supply line over the highway. Company C was stationed at Cathedral Rapids, and was responsible for “glacial control,” chopping the glaciers away by hand. They built bypass roads to get around the glaciers when the situation warrnated such extreme measures. Company A, under Captain Walter E. Mason, built 295 miles of road from Slana, across the Tanana River and south into Canada. Eighty-five of the miles were corduroy road, sometimes five layers deep to counteract the permafrost.
According to Mason, they made about five miles a day and had to move camp every two or three days. The 97th was to meet the 18th Regiment coming up from Canada at the Alaska-Canada border. As a testimony to their commitment to the project, when the 97th reached the designated meeting point and the 18th wasn’t there, they continued to build until they did meet the 18th approximately 20 miles east of the border. On October 24, 1942, the 97th and 18th Regiments met at Beaver Creek. As Colonel Mason explained, all of the men of the 97th climbed in the bulldozer and crossed over to meet with the 18th.(9) Being such a historic and personally gratifying moment, everyone wanted to experience it. The kindred spirit of a team who had worked against the odds exuded. When the bulldozers of Technician 5 Refines Sims, Jr. of the 97th and Private Alfred Jalufka, lead driver of the 18th finally broke through to close the last gap in the road on October 25, 1942, the meeting between white and black drivers symbolized a kind of unity and cooperation that was difficult to achieve in the continental United States.
The final segment which would connect the northern and southern segments was not a pioneer road but a winter trail. The winter season was quickly approaching and there was the fear that the inclement weather might prevent completion of a road. Still to be done was the building of a bridge over White River. That was completed on November 20th, and in a ceremony the ALCAN Highway from Dawson Creek to Big Delta was officially opened.
After the completion of the pioneer road, the 97th Regiment continued to build another road to connect Delta Junction with Fairbanks, and other units built spurs off of the Highway. The 97th Regiment served in Alaska until March 1944 and, after a short tour in the United States, was shipped to the Pacific Theater. It served in this theater until the end of World War II.
LINEAGE and ASSIGNMENTS – 97th REGIMENT
October 1, 1933 Organized as 56th Engineer Battalion
January 1, 1938 Redesignated as the 97th Engineer Battalion
June 1, 1941 Activated at Camp Blanding, FL
March 1, 1942 Battalion reorganized and redesignated the
97th Engineer Battalion (General Service)
April, 1942 Departed the continental U.S. for duty in
Alaska to work on Alaska Highway
April 29, 1942 Arrived to Valdex, AK
August 1, 1943 Redesignated as 97th Engineer General
March 1944 Regiment returned to U.S. but was soon
shipped to the Pacific Theater where it
remained until the end of WW II
June 30, 1946 Reorganized and redesignated as 97th General
March 15, 1948 Regiment was inactivated in Manila,
September 11, 1950 Regiment activated at Ft. Leonard, Wood, MO
November 1951 Arrived in France
December 7, 1953 Redesignated as 97th Engineer Battalion
March 1967 Battalion moved to USAREUR
December 1967 Notified of its redeployment to Ft. Riley,
Source: Corp of Engineer Archives
The 388th Engineer Batallion (Separate)
The 388th Battalion (Separate) was activated on January 10, 1942 at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana. It was comprised of black enlisted personnel, many who had been reassigned to this battalion from others. To help form the 388th Battalion (separate), the 93rd, for example, had to give up several dozen officers and NCOs. It followed the 93rd up to Canada to work on the CANOL Project which built pipelines needed to ensure a continuous supply of oil in the event that the Japanese blocked other supply routes. Needed for the Project were camps for troops and civilian construction of landing strips.
The 388th was responsible for improving transportation from the Waterways to Norman Wells. The regiment arrived during the first two weeks in June. Its first job was to build living quarters, unload supplies arriving from Edmonton, and cut and stock firewood for steamboats in the waterways. They lived in “pup” tents. The battalion moved to Norman Wells, Northwestern Territories, Canada, in June 1942. On January 1, 1943, the battalion was expanded into a general service regiment and redesigned as the 388th Engineer General Service Regiment. The regiment was returned to the United States at Camp Sutton, NC, and remained there in training until March 1944. It was sent from Boston to England, arriving in England on April 3, 1944. The Regiment moved to France two months later and participated in the Normandy and Northern France campaign, engaged in construction work.
The 388th is the least recognized and publicized battalion. In Lee’s book (classic history of black military activities) for example, it is not mentioned in the context of the ALCAN, but only when speaking of troops in Europe.
LINEAGE and ASSIGNMENTS – 388th REGIMENT
January 10, 1942 Activated at Camp Claiborne, LA as 388th
June 1942 Moved to Norman Wells, Northwestern
Territories, Canada to work on the CANOL
January 1, 1943 Battalion expanded to 388th Engineer General
September 1943 Regiment returned to U.S. by ship and was
stationed at Camp Sutton, NC
March 1944 Departed from Boston to England
April 3, 1944 Arrived in England
July 5, 1944 Moved to France
July 24, 1945 Departed from Marseilles, France
August 31, 1945 Arrived in the Philippines Islands
December 18, 1945 Inactivated
1954 Headquarters, Headquarters and Service
Company and Companies A,B,C, redesig-
nated as the 588th Engineer Battalion
June 30, 1954 Activated at Ft. Belvoir, VA as an engineer
March 1963 Reorganized as engineer combat battalion
May 1963 Moved to Ft. Lee, VA and served until
November 2, 1965 Arrived to Vietnam
November 16, 1970 Returned to U.S. and inactivated at Ft.
June 21, 1976 Activated at Ft. Polk, Louisiana
Source: Corp of Engineer Archives
Many soldiers were experiencing their first time away from their home state, and in some instances, away from the place in which they were reared. The men in the black regiments were from the northeast and southern regions of the United States. For many it was their first time in cold weather and for all it was the first time in such severely cold weather and “strange” summer. This meant that the experiences of the black troops were even more traumatic than those for other troops.
The soldiers lived in harsh and extreme climates ranging from a winter with 80 degrees below zero to a summer with temperatures at 90 degrees and a sun that barely sets. A confidential report noted during a field inspection at 63 below [that] the clothing of Delta’s Black regiment was found to be in abominable condition. The report described the “pathetically ill equipped 97th” as doing nothing else but hibernating at present and stated it was of great importance to note that those men were not freezing in unusual numbers.(10) The report further indicated that unpredictable weather resulted in the temperature soaring to 80 degrees and frozen earth turned to sticky mud very rapidly. Periodically the troops ran into patches of muskeg. When it was not deep, it was possible for the men to dig out the shallow patches and fill it with gravel; when not possible, the route was detoured around them. The deeper ones were corduroyed.
The completion of the ALCAN did not reduce the amount of work they had to do. Regiments in the southern sector had to build a number of community roads from the highway. Additionally, they had to continue to work to keep the road during the winter. Snow, ice and cold weather were the major obstacles. In the northern sector, underground springs flowed into ditches and froze into mounds of ice. A glacier blocked 1/2 mile of the road and the road had to be detoured around it. Diesel fuel solidified and gas lines froze at sub-zero temperatures. Engines had to have torches under them to prevent freezing and engines were left running all night to ensure that they would start.
The many rivers of Alaska presented problems for the construction crews. The equipment and supplies had to be moved. When possible, the truck drivers “braved the rivers” and attempted crossings. Periodically, the trucks would get stuck and extra efforts were required to dislodge them. When crossing without bridges was not possible, two Pontoon companies helped the construction crew, and equipment was forded across the rivers. If not possible, pontoon bridges were formed when equipment was sufficient; when not sufficient, pontoon rafts were formed by tying pontoons together and decking them with timbers.
The virtual 24 hour sunlight during the summer made it possible for the troops to work two or three shifts straight. The crews cleared an average of three to four miles per day.
Entrenched in the Alaskan experience was the pervasive view held by military officials and the majority of the U.S. society that African Americans were intellectually inferior, physically limited, and generally incapable of being competitive and performing at the level of their counterparts. It was believed that black soldiers could not operate the equipment and could not perform tasks which required any type of technological sophistication or skills. On U.S. military bases the troops were subjected to horrible treatment by their white colleagues, as illustrated with the situation of the 94rd, based at Camp Livingston, Louisiana. “To go out the camp’s gate on pass was to risk harassment, humiliation, and even physical harm in the nearby towns; individual African Americans were not much safer wandering through Camp Livingston’s white cantonment areas.”(11) The service club and movie theater were segregated. The discrimination and limitations of movement and access continued in Alaska.
There was no secret that the Army, and especially the commander of the Alaskan troops, did not want the black troops in the territory. On April 2, 1942, Brigadier General C.L. Sturdevant, Assistant Chief of Engineers, wrote a letter to General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., Commander of the Alaska Defense Command, empathizing with his objection to having black troops in Alaska; however, he also pointed out the urgency of the situation and the severe shortage of troops. In an apologetic tone, Sturdevant wrote,
I have heard that you object to having colored troops in Alaska and we have attempted to avoid sending them, we however have been forced to use two colored regiments and it seems unwise for diplomatic reasons to send them both in Canada since the Canadians also prefer whites. I hope, therefore that you will not protest this action since I believe it would only cause delay with no different result because the urgency of the project prevents reduction of the force and all remaining regiments are assigned to task forces.(12)
Further in the letter Sturdevant assured the General that the two regiments would be working “… in two reliefs on a 20 hour schedules in out-of the way places” and observed, “and I cannot see how they can cause any great trouble.” Buckner, (the son of the Confederate General Simon Bolivar Buckner, who surrendered to Grant), responded,
I appreciate your consideration of my views concerning negro troops in Alaska. The thing which I have opposed principally has been their establishment as port troops for the unloading of transports at our docks. The very high wages offered to unskilled labor here would attract a large number of them and cause them to remain and settle after the war, with the natural result that they would be interbred with the Indians and Eskimos and produce an astonishing objectionable race of mongrels which would be a problem here from now on.(13)
He noted that he had no objections to employing them on the roads “…if they are kept far away from the settlements and kept busy and then sent home soon as possible.”(14) The racist attitudes were not limited to the military personnel. Some of the locals had the same stereotypical attitudes about African Americans being incapable of anything above unskilled tasks and genetically inferior (closer to animals) with tails.(15)
It was the creativity of the soldiers coupled with the positive relationship which existed between the indigenous peoples and some locals which ensured the survival of the soldiers. The white officers in the black regiments had better accommodations than the troops, often living in quonset huts rather than tents. The black troops were requred to live in cloth tents. The soldiers discovered that the stoves in the tents produced condensation outside the tents which, when frozen, served as insulation and kept them heated.
They often had to improvise with their clothing. Winter clothing included serveral pairs of socks and plastic bags over the shoes to keep out dampness and insulate for warmth. The indigenous population taught the men a number of survival techniqes and introduced them to additional ways to make clothing and keep the tents warm. In a region where everything “looks the same” and areas were unmapped with few trails and no towns, it was not hard to lose direction and underestimate distances. In rare occasions when a few soldiers got lost, the indigenous scouts located them. There was only one soldier who froze to death.
Because of the segregation, discriminatory policies, inequitable treatment and the practice of keeping the soldiers away from populated areas, the newly built air bases were off limits. Thus, they could not enjoy the warm accommodations and conveniences of the base. In many towns, the African Americans were refused admission to shops and in some instances denied the right to walk on the streets of the town.(16)
Despite the regulations forbidding local people from interacting with the black soldiers, there were a few locals who risked the reprisals and attempted to make their stay in Alaska a bit more palatable. In Delta Junction, Mrs. Irene Mead, recalled that her parents, Bert and Mary Hansen owned, Rika’s Roadhouse Restaurant. It functioned both as a restaurant and as a telephone relay station. Her parents clandestinely brought various soldiers to the Roadhouse and gave them coffee and warm food to keep them nourished and warm. Had the military officials discovered that, the telephone relay station could have been shut down and the Roadhouse declared off limits for the white soldiers. That would have resulted in the forced closure of the Roadhouse since it would not have been able to survive without the business from the base.
Despite the harsh conditions, the soldiers were expected to perform at the optimal level and they did. Relative to the conditions to which they were exposed, there were only a few instances of resistance or rebellion. One group of soldiers was court martialed for refusing to sit in the back of an open truck to ride miles in temperatures well below zero. Had they complied, they ran the risk of freezing to death or having permanent physical damage from frostbite.
The diverse backgrounds caused a variety of interactions to develop, e.g., mentor-mentee arrangements and close relationships which lasted fifty years. The social and educational background of the soldiers spanned the total range from lower class and limited education to upper class with college education. One of the admirable aspects of the experience of the soldiers was the willingness of the more educated soldiers to help the less educated by tutoring them and serving as mentors. There were some coflicts, particularly among different geographic groups. Some of the soldiers from Louisiana experienced communication problems because their accents were so different that some of the other soldiers refused to make the effort to listen closely to understand and chose, instead, to tease them.
It was not uncommon for the men to go for long periods without leave, mail or fresh food. For leisure, among other things, the men played billiards and cards, listened to music, sang popular and religious songs, told jokes and stories and adopted animals such as dogs and bears as mascots. They fished sometimes, using the rifle as the pole and telephone wire as the string.
The ALCAN assignment offered the unprecedented opportunity to earn pay and benefits equal to those of the white soldiers. As noted above, this was a particular “thorn in the side” of General Buckner, Jr.
Although there were war correspondents sent to all regions where military activities occurred, as was the case with most Negro troops, few war correspondents visited the Negro segments of the ALCAN Highway. Additionally, “for national security purposes,” the mail was censored. Thus, African Americans and others at home were not aware of the achievements and hardships of the black soldiers. Some letters did filter through to people back home when carried by returning soldiers. The effect on the soldiers was a lowered morale.(17) Despite the general lack of public recognition of the contributions of the black troops to the victory in World War II, the performance of the various regiments resulted in commendations from their commanders. For example, Commander Colonel Albert L. Lane, in a letter to the Commanding General, Northwest Service Command (Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada) on April 26, 1943 writes,
For a period of four months this Regiment provided the bulk of the labor necessary to the establishment and operation of this Post and its numerous utility installations. Their effort reflected a continual efficient performance of duty and a spirit of mutual cooperation that set a high standard by which other units could pattern their own activities. They exhibited an admirable ability to adapt and to create. Good morale was abundantly in evidence.
At about -15 degrees at Soldiers’ Summit (ten miles from Slim’s River) on November 20, 1942, the ALCAN Highway was officially opened. The dedication of the men during their ordeal in Alaska was phenomenal. In effect, these men were pioneers. They had to adapt to a totally new way of life in an unfriendly and relatively isolated climate. There was no challenge which was not accepted by the soldiers. Members of the 95th at Sikanni Chief River, for example, bet that they could build a bridge in record time and offered their paychecks as the wager. They were successful and built the bridge in eighty-four hours, approximately one-half the usual time necessary to build a bridge. The respective regiments received campaign streamers for the Aleutian Islands; New Guinea; Luzon; the Asiatic-Pacific Theater and were decorated with the Meritorious Unit Streamer embroidered ALCAN Highway. When the soldiers left Alaska, many were sent to Europe, Burma and/or the South Pacific and continued to perform superbly, thus negating the argument that African Americans were unfit for battle. The 93rd and 97th Regiments were sent to the Pacific while the 95th Regiment was sent to Europe.
A surprising number of the veterans are not bitter about the systematic discriminatory and exclusionary posture assumed, until very recently, by the Army. When asked about the obvious exclusion of their contributions to World War II in literature and the awarding of honors, many expressed a sense of personal satisfaction and believed that they contributed to the subsequent integration of the military regardless of whether it is recognized or not. Quite a number of lasting friendships have evolved as a result of the camaraderie which developed.
One of the interesting aspects of the story of the men of the 93rd, 95th, 97th and 388th is what happened to them after the war. Among those veterans located thus far, there are
Bishop Edward Carroll (95th), the first black Bishop of the United Methodist Church of New England; Dr. George Owens (93rd), a former president of Jackson State University; Mr. Nehemiah Atkinson (97th), the senior circuit national tennis champion, is a tennis instructor for the New Orleans Parks Department and the namesake of a tennis scholarship, “The Nehemiah Atkinson Tennis Scholarship;” Mr. Hayward Oubre (97th), an artist with exhibits throughout the United States, was one of the first Art faculty members at Florida A&M University and was the founder of the Art Department of Alabama State University; Mr. Joseph Prejean (93rd). who, trained as a cook while in Alaska, became a renowned Louisiana chef after separating from the service.
For fifty years, no public recognition of the ALCAN veterans was given. In 1992, however, things changed. Under the leadership of Mr. James Eaton (founder and curator of the Black Archives of Florida A&M University), assisted by Dr. E. Valerie Smith, the A&M University), assisted by Dr. E. Valerie Smith, the first reunion of the Black Corps of Engineers was organized at Florida A&M University in January 1992. Thirteen veterans and members of their families attended.
Concurrent with, but independent, of the reunion, an exhibit consisting of vintage photos collected from personal collections of some veterans and various archives and contemporary reunion photos taken by Mr. White entitled “Miles and Miles,” was developed jointly by Ms. Lael Morgan and Mr. Cal White of the University of Alaska Fairbanks in January 1992. During July 4th celebrations, the veterans were honored in Alaska and a number of them participated in the parade. A few days later they visited for the first time since its completion the highway they built.
As a result of the initiatives and leadership of Dr. E. Valerie Smith, the ALCAN veterans were honored at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. on June 14, 1993. The ceremony was followed by the opening of an exhibit entitled “Miles and Miles.”
In 1992, throughout Alaska, the celebration of the completion of the ALCAN Highway occurred. Initial publications and publicity omitted the involvement of the African Americans. There were, however, some recognition which did occur. In more recent publications, there is varying discussion of the role, level of involvement and high quality of performance of the black soldiers. On March 26, 1993, the State of Alaska passed House Bill 98 which renamed the bridge over Gestle River the “Black Veterans Recognition Bridge. The bill was signed by Governor Hickel.
Approximately fifty years after the building of the ALCAN, members of the Black Corps of Engineers have finally been recognized.
(1.)Lee, The Employment of Negro Troops, p. 609.
(2.)Morgan, “Miles and Miles Brochure.”
(3.)Twichell, Northwest Epic, p. 214.
(4.)Newberry, “Party Planned for Blacks Who Built Alaska Highway.”
(5.)Twichell, p. 120.
(6.)Twichell, p. 131.
(8.)Twichell, p. 213.
(9.)Interview with Mason, 1992.
(11.)Twichell, p. 142.
(12.)Sturdevant, Letter of April 2, 1942.
(15.)Interview with Roberts, 1993.
(16.)Lee, p. 438.
(17.)Lee, p. 387.
Buckner, Simon B. Letter, no date given.
Carroll, Edward G., Bishop. Interview, January 18, 1992, Tallahassee, FL
Coates, Ken. North to Alaska. Fairbanks, AK: University of Alaska Press, 1992.
France, Albert. Interview, January 18, 1992, Tallahassee, FL; Interview, October 24, 1992, Cooksville, MD
Guiterrez, Peter. “Black Soldiers’ Role in Alcan Chronicled.” All Alaska Weekly,. p. 15.
Lee, Ulysses. The Employment of Negro Troops. Wash. DC: U.S. Office of the Chief of Military History, 1982 (reprinted from 1966 issue).
Lee, Ulysses. Citation from “The Alaska Highway,” A Report Complied for the CG ASF (May, 1945) II. OCMH, p. 609.
Lane, Albert L., Colonel, C.E. Commanding. Letter of Commendation, Headquarters, Dawson Creek, British Columbia. April 26, 1943.
Mason, Walter E. Roundtable of veterans on June 13, 1992. Washington, DC.
Morgan, Lael. “Miles and Miles” brochure for the exhibit February 1-March 15, 1992.
Newberry, Robert C. “Party planned for blacks who built Alaska Highway.” Houston Post, September 19, 1990, p. 21.
Nolan, Donald. Interviews, January 18-19, 1992, Tallahassee, FL
Oubre, Hayward. Phone Interviews, May 15-22, 1993; Interview, Roundtable of veterans on June 13-14, 1993.
Overstreet, Louis. Black on a Background of White: A Chronicle of Afro-Americans’ Involvement in America’s Last Frontier! Alaska. Anchorage, AK: Alaska Black Caucus, 1988.
Roberts, Henry. Interviews, April 10, 1993; July 18, 1993, Washington, DC
Smith, E., Valerie. “Background Paper.” Press release paper for “Miles and Miles” Pentagon Exhibition. June 5, 1993.
Sturdevant, C.L., Letter dated April 2, 1942.
Twichell, Heath. Northwest Epic. NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.
Special thanks to veterans H. Oubre, D. Nolan, A. France, E. Long, J. Prejean and I. Smith for providing interviews; veteran S. Land for sharing his personal documents and photos; Bishop E. Carroll and H. Roberts for the interviews and for sharing personal photos; veterans R. Beverly and L. Freeman for providing photos; and to all of the veterans of the ALCAN Highway. Thanks also to my close colleagues in this research project – Cal White, Andrew Malloy of HQDA, Dr. C. Hendricks of Archives, Corps of Engineers, and Ambassador R. Palmer for assisting this researcher in locating materials and many veterans.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group