WWII and the Alaska Highway
In early 1942 the United States found itself at war with the Empire of Japan. Its leaders looked north and panicked. The Aleutian island chain, extending in a broad arc across the North Pacific from the remote territory of Alaska almost to Japan’s Kurile Islands, offered the Japanese an obvious path to North America.
Outpost Alaska had 15,000 miles of undefended coastline and no transport route other than the sea existed between Alaska and the contiguous United States. The Navy had suffered grievous losses and a flood of new commitments stretched its resources to the breaking point. Clearly the Navy could not guard the sea lanes leading to Alaska and the Aleutians and at the same time ferry men, weapons and supplies there.
America desperately needed a land route to Alaska and her leaders launched the Army Corps of Engineers into the vast, forbidding subarctic wilderness of Northern Canada and Alaska to build it. The Corps had four white regiments; not enough. They reluctantly added three segregated black regiments to the lineup; resolved to keep them in the woods, out of sight and away from the local population.
The regiments and their support units jammed sea lanes, ports and railroads. They conquered permafrost, muskeg, and mud. They bridged rivers–some small, some really big. They installed culverts and corduroyed muskeg. They crossed massive mountain ranges from Dawson Creek, British Columbia to Delta, Alaska–1500 miles. And to their everlasting glory, they did it in just 8 months.
From spring to fall temperatures ranged from 60 below to 90 above. The soldiers survived in tents. Mosquitoes, gnats and no-see-ums plagued them. They suffered from serum hepatitis, food shortages, broken bones and frostbite. Many of them died. And they worked around the clock. The black soldiers endured everything their white counterparts endured during the spring, summer, fall and winter of 1942. On top of that, they endured the torment of mindless prejudice.