Black soldiers who helped construct the Alcan, like these men hauling logs down a cleared section of road, are often considered instrumental in the integration of the U.S. Army. U.S. Army Photo courtesy of Office of History, HQ, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
When the United States government decided to build a highway to Alaska in an effort to bolster the country’s defense following the attack on Pearl Harbor, a handful of engineer regiments were selected to take on the monumental task. Among the troops were segregated regiments totaling nearly 4,000 Black soldiers who helped construct the Alcan. This Black History Month, The MILEPOST is remembering the contributions of those hardy men.
The segregated regiments were only selected for the job because the Army was short-handed. Many other engineeing regiments were already deployed. These Black soldiers faced discrimination from the beginning of their service. Many of the enlisted men were from the south and had never left home before joining the Army. Officers instructed the Black soldiers to keep their blinds drawn on the train trip north, so that townspeople along the route couldn’t see them. When they reached the Canadian border, crowds gathered to see their first glimpse of a Black person.
The regiments deployed to various sections of Alaska and Canada. Some white officers who oversaw the troops expressed disdain for the men they led. At the time, the head of the Alaska Defense Command was a white supremacist and son of a Confederate general. He forbad non-white soldiers from residing in Alaskan communities for fear they would stay.
Once work started they faced the same challenges as everyone constructing the highway: bitter cold in the winter months, insects and boggy terrain in the summer. On top of those circumstances, the Black regiments were given subpar equipment to accomplish the job. The segregated camps were provided less comforts than white camps. White officers believed the men were incapable of handling heavy machinery, so many Black soldiers were forced to work only with hand tools. “Racist logic dictated that black men possessed brute strength and were biologically suited to muscular work, a trope rooted in the nation’s history of enslavement,” writes Ian Hartman in the publication Black History in the Last Frontier. When Black soldiers were allowed to operate heavy equipment, it was often the machines in the worst condition.
In spite of these bigotry, the men worked hard. At times they toiled around the clock. One regiment famously constructed a bridge over Sikanni Chief River in just three days, about half the time expected. The task required them wading chest deep in the frigid water.
The last stretches of the road were linked in October 1942, when a Black soldier driving a bulldozer south intercepted a white soldier driving a bulldozer north. The men stood on their machines and shook hands in a moment captured on film. The photo was distributed widely and captured the public’s attention.
The Black soldiers’ accomplishments are often credited as a factor in the integration of the Army. Before the project, Black soldiers were often thought incapable of front-line duty and relegated to menial tasks, author Lael Morgan told the Associated Press. Their feats on the Alcan helped proved otherwise.