93rd Regiment History

Black soldier operating a bulldozer at Dead Man's Creek in 1942
DEAD MAN’S CREEK. Timberlake Collection

The armed services of the United States expanded as fast as possible during the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. Few among the country’s civilian and military leaders doubted that war was imminent.  Among thousands and then tens of thousands of new recruits who poured into the Army were thousands of black men, and they presented special problems. Black Soldiers had been part of the army since Civil War times, serving in segregated units, typically commanded by white officers.  New black troops would serve in similar units.

Black soldiers unloading a barge at Morley Bay, Yukon Territory 1942
UNLOADING SUPPLIES AT MORLEY BAY. Timberlake Collection
Black soldiers boarding the Rock Island RR on their way to build the Alaska Highway 1942.
BOARDING ROCK ISLAND RAILROAD TO CAMP MURRAY, WASHINGTON. Timberlake Collection

Furthermore, the officer corps all but unanimously assumed that black troops were inferior.  Black regiments would be “general service”, organized to provide unskilled labor in support of their betters.

Black soldiers boarding the Rock Island RR at Camp Livingston, LA on their way to build the Alaska Highway 1942.
BOARDING THE ROCK ISLAND RAILROAD FROM CAMP LIVINGSTON, LA. Timberlake Collection

Shortly after Pearl Harbor, when it became obvious that defense against the Japanese required a land route to Alaska, building that route became the Corps of Engineers most urgent priority.  And building 1500 miles of pioneer road through some of the most difficult climate and terrain in the world was going to take a lot of engineers–seven regiments. This was exactly three more regiments than the Corps had available.

So they organized and manned three general service regiments.  All were black regiments. During eight incredible months in 1942, courageous, dedicated ordinary men built an extraordinary road.  The effort demanded every ounce they had to give and, white or black, they all gave it. The only difference was the amount of credit the corps, the army and the early historians of the road gave back to the black men.  And that difference was grotesquely unfair.  For decades the men of the three black regiments that conquered mud, mosquitoes and mountains to push the ALCAN through were ghosts.  No one knew they were there. The 93rd Engineering Regiment was the least visible regiment of them all.

A Black Soldier operating a D8 bulldozer onto a barge crossing the Tagish River 1942.
93rd ENGINEER OPERATING A D8 DOZER ONTO A BARGE. NARA Bureau of Public Roads
Black soldiers using logs for corduroy to free a D8 bulldozer stuck in the mud 1942.
BLACK SOLDIERS ATTEMPTING TO FREE A D8 STUCK IN MUD.Timberlake Collection
A black dozer operator driving a dozer hauling a carryall over a culvert. 1942
BLACK DOZER OPERATOR MAKING ROAD. Timberlake Collection

A small cadre of white officers and black NCO’s, commanded by Lt. Col. John Zajicek, ‘became’ the 93rd Engineering Battalion at Camp Livingston, Louisiana in February of 1941.  The first large group of new inductees joined them in April.  Zajicek had never commanded black troops, and, given the attitudes of his time, it’s doubtful that he considered his new command a great career opportunity.

Of the officers in the original cadre of the 93rd, First Lt. Robert P. Boyd who became and remained commander of Company C became especially important years after the Corp left the Yukon.  His memoir–Me and Company C–was, and is, one of the few sources of information about the history of the 93rd.  The cadre did their best to turn the flood of new recruits into soldiers–and engineers.

Capt. Traback and a black engineer setting explosives under a boulder in the path of the Alaska Highway. 1942
SETTING DYNAMITE CHARGES TO REMOVE BOULDER. Signal Corps
Capt. Trabeck and a black soldier setting dynamite under a boulder blocking the path of the Alaska Highway. 1942
CAPT TRABECK SETTING UP DYNAMITE CHARGE TO BREAK UP HUGE ROCK BOULDER. Timberlake Collection

And they succeeded well enough that the Battalion played an important part in the Texas-Louisiana Maneuvers during the late summer and fall of 1941.  The 93rd established water points, built and repaired road and bridges, constructed POW facilities…They also blew up bridges and received a letter of commendation for their successful demolition activities. The only black officer in the 93rd came to them in October of 1941.  First Lt. Finis H. Austin served as regimental chaplain–and spokesman for the black enlisted men–throughout their time in the Yukon.

In November, when Zajicek fell ill and transferred out, Capt. Arthur Jacoby took command of the battalion.  And in the first week of April 1942, the wave of decisions in far off Washington rolled over Jacoby and his battalion. On the 6th they were ordered to transform themselves into a general service regiment and on the 7th they received orders to prepare for immediate overseas duty. It would fall to Jacoby to lead them through the early stages of their reorganization as a regiment–even as he led them to the North Country. And an advance party under First Lt. Frank R. Holtzapple entrained for Prince Rupert, British Columbia the very day their travel orders arrived.

Five days later the rest of the regiment loaded their heavy equipment and their confused selves aboard the Rock Island Railroad and followed. Holtzapple’s detachment transferred from railroad to SS Princes Louise in Prince Rupert and made their way directly to Skagway, Alaska. The rest of the regiment paused at Camp Murray, Washington just long enough to receive their new regimental commander–Colonel Frank M Johnson (Jacoby, promoted to major and became Johnson’s Exec).

Two ships docked in Skagway Harbor, a challenging task with the 20 foot tides. 1942
SKAGWAY HARBOR AND DOCK. Signal Corps
Train tracks run down Broadway Street in the city of Skagway, Alaska. 1942
TRAIN TRACKS RUN DOWN BROADWAY STREET IN SKAGWAY, ALASKA. Signal Corps

From Camp Murray the still organizing 93rd made their way north in three groups.  First away, Company C and part of Company D followed the route of the advance party by rail to Prince Rupert and by luxury liner SS Prince George to Skagway.  Company E and the remainder of D sailed directly from Seattle to Skagway on the SS Princess Louise.  Headquarters and the rest of the regiment followed them on SS Columbia. By April 24th Col Johnson had his regiment in bivouac at the airfield in Skagway and was finally free to set about organizing them into a functioning team. The regiment was headed for Carcross, Yukon Territory and the only was there was the primitive, narrow gauge railway – The White Pass and Yukon Territory Railroad (WP&YT).

Looking from drydocked Steamboat Tutshi at railroad bridge and Lake Bennett, Carcross, YT. 1942
CARCROSS, YUKON TERRITORY. RAILROAD BRIDGE CROSSES THE NARROWS. Timberlake Collection
Looking out WP&YT train window at Tutshi Steamboat and Nares Mountain in Carcross, YT. 1942
LOOKING OUT TRAIN WINDOW AT CARCROSS, YT. Signal Corps
Black soldiers working with handtools clearing path for Alaska Highway. 1942
WORKING WITH HANDTOOLS CLEARING THE ROAD. Timberlake Collection
Black soldiers using handtools to build a culvert for drainage along the Alaska Highway. 1942
BUILDING A CULVERT USING HAND TOOLS. Timberlake Collection

It took until May 10 to get the entire regiment to Carcross.   And their heavy equipment hadn’t arrived yet. Undaunted, Johnson, who a few weeks earlier had started organizing by meeting with his junior officers and NCO’s in a Skagway schoolhouse, now sent his battalions out to make do with what they had.

The 93rd set to work with hand tools and two borrowed dozers. The fate of the 93rd in Canada was inextricably bound up with that of the 340th Engineers.  The 340th was tasked with building the highway from Nisutlin Bay over the Continental Divide and on to Lower Post where they would connect with the 35th Engineers, building north from Ft. Nelson in British Columbia.

Pile driver in the background setting posts for a bridge across Nisutlin Bay. 1942
NISUTLIN BAY LOCKED IN ICE. NARA Bureau of Public Roads

But Nisutlin Bay lay far in the interior, so the problem facing the commander of the Northern Sector, Brigadier General Hoge, was getting them there.  His plan was to send half of the 340th to Whitehorse and carry them on boats via the Yukon River, the Teslin River and Lake Teslin to Morley Bay, their new home.  But on May 1st that route was still locked in ice.  That half of the 340th would have to wait several weeks.

Rough graded tote road from Carcross heading toward Teslin River. 1942
ROAD OUT OF CARCROSS HEADING TOWARD TESLIN RIVER. Timberlake Collection
340th Engineers move 70 miles from Carcross to Teslin River on road built by black soldiers of the 93rd Regiment. 1942
340TH ENGINEERS READY TO MOVE 70 MILES FROM CARCROSS TO TESLIN RIVER ON A ROAD BUILT BY THE 93RD ENGINEERS. NARA Bureau of Public Roads
Troops and operational equipment travel on a road built by the black soldiers of the 93rd Regiment.
340TH ENGINEERS TRAVEL ON A ROAD BUILT BY 93RD REGIMENT TO TESLIN RIVER. Signal Corps

The rest of the 340th, he proposed to transport to Carcross via the WP&YT and then travel 73 miles over a supply road from Carcross to Teslin River.  The men would board barges or sternwheelers and float south to Morley Bay.

Soldiers of 340th marched to Teslin River, boarded on a barge and headed up Teslin Lake to Morley Bay. 1942
THE 340TH ENGINEERS MOVING UP TESLIN LAKE TO MORLEY BAY. Signal Corps

The problem with that plan was that there was no supply road between Carcross and Teslin River.  Hoge’s answer to that was to send the 93rd to Carcross immediately and have them build one. Why he didn’t simply send the 340th to Carcross and have them build the road as they went, is not immediately clear.

But one suspects that it had to do with the fact that the 340th was a white regiment. Somebody was going to spend several weeks in Skagway, waiting for the road.  Whoever that was would be as useful as possible, but they would be basically, killing time in close company with the citizens of Skagway.

A Black soldier operated his D8 dozer, grinding it through the mud, but it became mired in knee deep muck. 1942
D8 GRINDING THROUGH THE MUD. Timberlake Collection
Along the Alaska Highway, one dozer is stuck in mud as a second dozer attempts to pull it free. 1942
EQUIPMENT STUCK IN MUD. Timberlake Collection
Two dozers grading Alaska Highway 52 miles from Carcross heading toward Johnsons Crossing. 1942
TWO DOZERS GRADING ROAD FIFTY TWO MILES FROM CARCROSS. Signal Corps
Black soldier operating D8 dozer and carryall along Alaska Highway.
MAKING ROAD. Timberlake Collection

The white men of the 340th stayed in Skagway and the black men of the 93rd headed for Carcross.  Their first and very urgent mission was to construct the supply road for the 340th –Carcross to Teslin River.  They built that 73 miles of road in exactly one month and 12 days. They pushed 23 miles to Tagish by June 4.  The blew by Jakes Corner at mile 33 and by June 17 they were on Squanga Lake at Johnson’s Crossing. A battalion of the 340th marched and drove over that road to join their fellows in camp at Morley Bay (adjacent to their starting point at Nisutlin Bay).  And their official history describes that trip.  It makes no mention of the 93rd.

The PRA built the Alaska Highway south from Whitehorse along Marsh Lake while the black engineers of 93rd Second Battalion built 44 miles of highway north to McClintock River. 1942
M’CLINTOCK RIVER IN FOREGROUND AND MARSH LAKE IN BACKGROUND. NARA Bureau of Public Roads.

From Johnson’s Crossing, some of the 93rd moved back to Jakes Corner and started a connecting road that would run northwest to the M’Clintock River and on to Whitehorse.  The rest kept building south and east to the location on Nisutlin Bay where the 340th had started their construction eastward toward Lower Post. Getting the 340th to Nisutlin Bay had taken significantly longer than Hoge had planned.  Worse, their heavy equipment took even longer. By mid-July their D8’s were finally arriving, but they’d only built 15 miles of highway.  They were clearly not going to be at Lower Post anywhere close to on schedule.

Hoge changed his plan–and the mission of the 93rd.  He ordered the 340th to forget about Pioneer Road standards after mile 15, to build a single lane path through the wilderness just as fast as they could.  And he turned the 93rd around to follow them south, reconstructing bridges, building bridges, installing culverts, grading and widening the road.  The 93rd would convert the rough trail to a Pioneer Road.  The PRA would complete the road to Whitehorse.

Company C, 93rd Engineers, loaded equipment on a barge, crossed Nisutlin Bay and began improving the pioneer trial of the 340th Regiment. 1942
LOADING EQUIPMENT ON NISUTLIN BAY FERRY. Signal Corps

By August 10th the 93rd had completed 100 miles of road to Teslin Village at Nisutlin Bay.  Crossing the bay they fell in behind the 340th.  The First Battalion did final grading, Company D and Company F laid ‘corduroy’ and spread gravel. In late September, his schedule restored, Hoge modified his plan again.  He split the 340th, sending half on to meet the 35th and turning the rest back toward the oncoming 93rd, upgrading their own road as they went.

Black soldiers operating a dozer pulling an Adams grader over the Alaska Highway. 1942
BLACK SOLDIERS OPERATING A DOZER AND ADAMS GRADER. Timberlake Collection.
African American engineers operating a 23 ton bulldozer making the Alaska Highway. 1942
BLACK ENGINEERS MAKING ROAD. Timberlake Collection

By October 16, the 93rd had not only upgraded miles of road but also built culverts and four bridges.  And the pioneer road connected Whitehorse to Carcross and Carcross to Teslin River, Teslin, Lower Post and beyond. Colonel Johnsons’s farewell letter presented the statistics of accomplishment.  Between June 5 and October 1, the 93rd built 240 miles of road through mountains and deep canyons and muskeg swamps and mud.

The beautiful Pelly Mountains along the Alaska Highway. 1942
PELLY MOUNTAINS, YUKON TERRITORY. Timberlake Collection.

 

Boyd's Canyon, named after Capt Robert Boyd, was 60 feet deep about five miles south from Johnsons Crossing on Alaska Highway heading toward Teslin Village.
D8 DOZER PULLING LOADED OSGOOD SHOVEL THROUGH BOYD’S CANYON. Timberlake Collection.

 

Black soldiers working on freeing a D8 dozer buried in mud on the Alaska Highway. 1942
D8 DOZER AND CARRYALL MIRED IN MUD. Timberlake Collection.
Black engineers continue to fight the road and the mud on the Alaska Highway. 1942
MORE KNEE DEEP MUD. Timberlake Collection.

Chief Engineer Corps General Sturdevant later called it the best stretch of road on the highway. The official history of the 340th lavishes loving attention on their highway building from Nisutlin Bay to Lower Post.  And the contribution of the 93rd is, again, ignored. Through October and early November, the regiment scattered to do a number of “end of the project” jobs. They built barracks, relay stations and installed drainage stations.  One platoon ran a sawmill at mile post 204.  A detachment from Company C actually began work on the ill-fated Canol Road that the Corps expected to connect Johnsons Crossing to the oil well at Norman Wells.

In December with temperatures of 40 to 50 below the Black Regiment packed up equipment for their next assignment, the Aleutians. 1942
SNOW AND 40 BELOW, BLACK SOLDIERS PACK UP FOR NEXT ASSIGNMENT. Timberlake Collection.
Crane used to load crates for the Black Regiment's next assignment, the Aleutians. 1942
LOADING CRATES FOR NEXT ASSIGNMENT IN ALEUTIANS. Timberlake Collection

On October 18, Col. Frank Johnson transferred to command the 18th Engineers and Lt. Col. Walter Hodge assumed command of the 93rd.  Hodge immediately began planning to move the regiment to winter quarters at Chilkoot Barracks.  But the move took time to organize and implement extended well into a frigid Yukon December.  The 93rd found itself spread throughout Yukon territory from Judith Creek, Robinson, Whitehorse, Squanga Lake and back to Carcross.

The 93rd African American Engineers completed their section of the Alaska Highway. They boarded a ship for Haines, AK and stayed at Chilkoot Barracks, a much needed rest.
LOADING UP AT CARCROSS FOR SKAGWAY TO BOARD A SHIP FOR CHILKOOT BARRACKS IN HAINES, ALASKA. Signal Corps

 

Both the officers and black enlisted enjoyed heated barracks, a regular bathroom with showers and a bed at Chilkoot. 1943.
CHILKOOT BARRACKS IN HAINES, ALASKA. THE 93RD WELCOMED THE HEATED BARRACKS INSTEAD OF TENTS. Timberlake Collection.

Operations of the 93rd Regiment in Yukon Territory officially terminated on December 10, 1942.  And on Christmas Day the 93rd sailed to Chilkoot Barracks in Haines, Alaska.  From Chilkoot the regiment was aimed at a new assignment in the Aleutians, so on Christmas day, 1942 their successful assault on the Yukon came to an end.

Ordinary Men Build A Legendary Road