In late spring 1942, 10,670 American troops arrived in Alaska ready to begin a project one of their officers later described as “the biggest and hardest job since the Panama Canal.” Their assignment: Carve more than 1,500 miles of highway out of an unmapped wilderness through Canada connecting to the Lower 48. Formerly shoe clerks, insurance salesmen, farm boys and other workers, they were put behind the wheels of bulldozers and dump trucks with little or no training and told to clear their way through a frozen wasteland. The environment in which they worked was unrelentingly hostile, but their biggest obstacle was time, because America—in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor—was suddenly and dangerously vulnerable.
America had sporadically explored the building of a road through Canada to Alaska since 1865. Western Union was the first to consider it as part of its short-lived plan to connect the United States to Siberia with a telegraph line. As automobiles became popular in the 1920s, business associations and auto clubs in the American Northwest promoted the development of an Alaskan highway. Yet their attempts were derailed by disagreements over proposed routes and Canadian fears that the highway would lead to American dominance in the Northwest. In 1929, the Great Depression ended any discussions of the proposed highway. Ten years later, Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland resurrected the idea, as military strategists considered how to best defend North American interests in case of war. Even as late as the summer of 1941, American military planners considered an Alaskan highway to be “desirable as a long-range defense measure” but rated it less important than building the chain of military airfields across western Canada and Alaska known as the Northwest Staging Route.
That position changed on Dec. 7, 1941. In the days following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, as the Japanese took Guam and then Wake Island, Americans feared the enemy would continue across the Pacific and attack the West Coast. The Alaskan Territory, in particular, seemed vulnerable; its Aleutian Islands were only 750 miles from a Japanese base. The territory’s military resources were stretched thin: 12 medium bombers, 20 pursuit planes, and 21,945 troops were stationed in 11 garrisons across an area four times the size of Texas. Col. Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., the officer in charge of the Alaska
Defense Command, made the point sharply in a telegram to Washington: “If the Japanese come here, I can’t defend Alaska. I don’t have the resources.”
Suddenly the ability to transport men and supplies to the airfields of the Northwest Staging Route and to U.S. military bases in Alaska was a strategic imperative. After the losses at Pearl Harbor, many feared the U.S. Navy would not be able to defend sea-lanes to the Gulf of Alaska. Of the first 38 American warplanes to fly the Northwest Staging Route, 27 crashed before arrival. The need for a more secure military supply line to Alaska turned thoughts once more to the long-proposed highway.
The horror of Pearl Harbor eliminated the kind of political wrangling that had stalled earlier highway construction efforts. On Jan. 16, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed a commission to study the feasibility of an overland route through the densely forested Canadian Rockies to Alaska. Twenty-six days later, Roosevelt issued a directive for the Army to build a highway across Canada and Alaska, connecting the airfields of the Northwest Staging Route. On March 5, the Canadian War Cabinet approved the construction. The highway was going to be built.
Creating political consensus had been almost easy; the real hard work was still to come. The task of construction fell to Gen. William M. Hoge, a West Point graduate with a degree from MIT in civil engineering and 26 years of experience with the Army Corps of Engineers. He had earned the Distinguished Service Cross for courage under fire in World War I. He had built roads and bridges in the jungles of the Bataan Peninsula and designed flood-control measures on the Missouri River. His new assignment was to build this massive, primitive road through a heavily wooded, often swampy wilderness from Dawson Creek, British Columbia (the last stop on the Northern Alberta Railway) to Delta Junction, Alaska.
Because of the difficult terrain and the urgent need for the road, the Army planned to build it twice. The Corps of Engineers would first cut a rough road through the vast wilderness. The Public Roads Administration would follow behind them, converting the “pioneer road” into a paved, permanent highway. The Army only had eight months to build its road before the deadly Alaskan winter began, so Hoge began construction simultaneously in three separate, easily accessible locations: Dawson Creek, Delta Junction and Whitehorse, areas that were hundreds of miles apart. When the work began, only the sketchiest engineering plan was in place and a route through the Rockies had not yet been identified.
Construction teams began to arrive in March 1942, bringing with them more than 11,000 pieces of heavy equipment. The arrival of the engineers caused the population of the tiny towns along the planned route to boom. Massive tent cities grew up around Dawson Creek, Fort St. John, Watson Lake and Big Delta. Dawson City was the largest town in the region with just over 1,000 permanent residents; within weeks its population grew to more than 10,000.
As the realities of his task became apparent, Hoge called for more men and more resources. With most of its engineers deployed in the South Pacific, the Corps of Engineers took the unprecedented step of assigning engineers from three all-black regiments to work with the four white regiments already deployed to Alaska. At first the black men were given menial support jobs, described by Hoge as “pick and shovel work.” But it soon became clear that every soldier would have to be put to work road building if it were to be finished before winter. Thus, for almost the first time in the history of the U.S. Army, black and white regiments performed identical tasks—though not with identical equipment. Black regiments were provided with fewer bulldozers and therefore were forced to use wheelbarrows and shovels more frequently than their white counterparts.
The Corps of Engineers knew how to build infrastructure quickly under wartime conditions, but not in Alaska’s subarctic environment. Simply getting the troops to their assigned locations was a challenge. After taking the train to Dawson City, units reached their locations by air, water, truck and their own two feet. Many units remained stranded in Skagway for weeks with little to do, waiting for their equipment to catch up with them. One regiment’s first task was to cut access trails through the wilderness to allow other units to reach their work locations.
Even after the men were in position to begin construction, transportation remained daunting. Supplies, workers and machinery were often stuck in transit—some of them for the duration of the project. Convoys of four-wheel-drive vehicles got stuck in the mud. Half-thawed lakes made it impossible for supply planes to land with either skis or pontoons, forcing the Army to parachute emergency supplies to their men. More than once engineers used pickaxes to carve out the roadbed because equipment or fuel had not arrived on time. To complicate matters, the Army’s radios could not communicate across the Rockies. Direct communication between the command centers at Fort St. John and Whitehorse was limited to erratic mail and passenger runs on the Yukon Southern airline, known locally as “Yukon Seldom.” It was faster for Hoge and his subordinates in Alaska to communicate indirectly through military officials in Washington, D.C.
Living conditions were harsh. With supply trains running erratically, soldiers lived on a diet of canned field rations. Frozen ground made tent pegs useless. Yet the warmth of sleeping bodies transformed frozen ground into mud overnight. Snow-fed mountain streams washed away campsites. As one soldier described it, when the spring thaws came, men often “camped in a swamp and slept in water.” Black flies swarmed the troops by day; brown bears invaded their camps at night, searching for food. In the early days of the project, officers pressured men to work grueling hours due to the continuous sun of the subarctic summer. Isolated in a region one soldier described as “miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles,” monotony made long days even longer.
Equipment breakdowns occurred hourly. Engines ran continuously because it was impossible to restart them in the cold. Engineers waded chest-deep into freezing lakes to build bridge trestles—battling mosquitoes, mud and the moss-laden arctic bog known as muskeg. Frostbite was a constant.
The northernmost construction teams encountered special challenges with permafrost—ground that had been frozen solid for several thousand years. It thawed as bulldozers exposed it to sunlight, creating a deadly layer of muddy quicksand under the seemingly stable roadbed. Some bulldozers sank into a quagmire of half-frozen water and vegetation. Trucks that tried to avoid the morass by driving through the woods simply expanded it.
Permafrost brought construction to a halt for six weeks while the engineers searched for a solution. It was obvious that they needed to insulate the permafrost so it didn’t melt, but no one was sure how to do it. Finally, Hoge borrowed an idea from the past: log roads.
Engineers abandoned their bulldozers and picked up axes to clear the forest. They let the fallen vegetation cover the thin soil of the forest then covered it with a roadbed paved with logs. The technique, called corduroying, had been used as early as the Roman Empire and as recently as the American Civil War. Hoge employed it on a heroic scale. The wooden road insulated the ground, keeping it frozen. But building it was slow. Progress on the road dropped from 14 miles a day to barely one. With the Alaskan winter approaching, Hoge and his crew were running out of time.
Construction gained a new sense of urgency on June 3, when the Japanese attacked Dutch Harbor, an American military base in the Aleutian Islands. Several days later, thousands of Japanese soldiers occupied the islands of Kiska and Attu. America’s worst fears had come true: The Japanese were on U.S. soil. For the rest of the year, B-24 Liberators hammered the islands, hoping to force the Japanese into retreat. In Alaska, the fear that Japan would gain control over the sea-lanes in the Gulf of Alaska gave the Corps new motivation to complete the highway on schedule.
Slowly the gaps between the separate sections of the highway closed. By the end of August, the “pioneer road” between Dawson Creek and Fort Nelson was complete. By the end of September, the highway went as far as Whitehorse—just 166 miles from the American border. Only the toughest section of the road remained.
At the beginning of October, temperatures dropped sharply. What would be one of the coldest Alaskan winters on record had arrived, with temperatures approaching minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Many members of the all-black 97th Engineers, the team assigned to the northernmost stretch of highway, had grown up in the Deep South and had never seen a snowflake. Now they worked in temperatures severe enough to kill a man in minutes. Arctic winds and blizzards slowed construction to a crawl. Snow drifts were often 20 feet high. Soldiers made coats from their eiderdown sleeping bags and constructed heaters for their tents from empty fuel drums. It was so cold it hurt to breathe and metal eyeglass frames froze onto men’s faces. According to staff sergeant Clifton Monk of the 97th Engineers, “Your breath would turn to ice inside your blankets at night. If you touched anything metal with your bare hands, you couldn’t tear your skin loose. We’d have to keep fires burning underneath our trucks all night, or they wouldn’t move in the morning.”
With the end relatively near, two regiments—one black, one white—struggled to finish before conditions grew from horrific to impossible. On Oct. 25, the two regiments met head-on in the forest at Beaver Creek, 20 miles east of the boundary between Alaska and the Canadian Yukon. Refines Sims Jr. from Philadelphia, a bulldozer technician with the all-black 97th Engineers, was driving his machine south when the trees in front of him toppled. He slammed his bulldozer into reverse just as a second bulldozer—driven by Pvt. Alfred Jalufka of Kennedy, Texas, the lead driver of the all-white 18th Engineers—broke through the trees. The two men jumped off their machines to shake hands, a moment captured on film by one of their fellow soldiers. The photograph of the two grinning, grimy soldiers made newspapers across America and Canada—a picture that celebrated not only the triumphant completion of the “pioneer road” but the unintended first step toward desegregation of the American military.
In less than eight months, Hoge’s men, working through extreme weather with sparse training and inadequate supplies, laid 1,523 miles of rough highway through the dangerous wilderness. Although it was never used for military purposes, the Alaskan highway helped unite a nation and connect a continent. At a time when the U.S. military suffered multiple defeats in the Pacific theater, the highway’s construction was a powerful wartime success. The men who built it were seen as war heroes who had battled the harsh environment of the North to protect their country against invasion.
Today the Alcan Highway remains the only land route to Alaska from the lower 48 states.
Pamela D. Toler, PhD, is a member of the World History Association and the American Society of Journalists and Authors and is regularly published in national journals specializing in history and culture.