The building of the Alaska Highway, the only land access route between military bases in the 49th state and the lower 48 states, is a little known chapter of the war that was the topic of the Nov. 21 Onalaska Area Historical Society program.
Dick Campbell of Oshkosh presented the program about the “biggest and hardest job since the Panama Canal.”
“The living conditions were difficult,” said Campbell, a student of history for over 70 years. “They had to contend with black flies, mosquitoes, bears, bogs known as muskeg, and thawing permafrost.”
Along with having to carve a pathway through the mountains, construction crews and engineers had to figure out how to keep the permafrost from thawing and turning into a quagmire. To insulate the frozen ground, crews “paved” the roadway with logs, known as corduroying. Although not the smoothest of rides, the layer of timber did insulate the ground and provided some stability for military vehicles to travel over.
Unlike the Central American canal, crews on the Canadian and Alaskan road project had to cope with temperatures that fell to 50 degrees below zero or lower to build a road through the Canadian Rockies.
“Flesh could be frozen to metal if touched,” said Campbell.
The Panama Canal was 50 miles long, took four years to build and had a price tag of more than $350 million. The Alaska Highway was 1,500 miles long, taking crews from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers eight months to build at a cost of $138 million.
“It was a tribute to the men that the highway was built in record time,” said Campbell.
Twenty-five thousand people lost their lives in the construction of the Panama Canal, while 30 were lost in the building of the Alaska Highway.
It opened a land route from Dawson Creek in the Yukon Territory to Fairbanks, Alaska, providing access to U.S. air bases in Alaska. A supply route to the air bases was deemed essential because of the fear the Japanese would invade Alaska from their base located only 750 miles from the Aleutian Islands. As it turned out, the Japanese did attack a couple of the islands.
The road construction project was not only a marvel of engineering and determination, it played an influential role in the integration of the U.S. military as construction crews were made up of whites, blacks and Alaskan natives.
Because most white soldiers were stationed in the South Pacific, black regiments were called up to assist with the Alaskan construction project.
“There were three all black regiments working on the construction,” said Campbell. “It was almost the first time black and white regiments performed the same tasks. White engineers didn’t think the black crews were smart enough to do the work, but the black soldiers proved them wrong. It resulted in a practical lesson in racial equality.”
The white soldiers worked on the road from the south to meet up with the black soldiers starting in the north and working south. On Oct. 25, 1942, a black soldier operating a bulldozer from the north nearly collided with a white soldier operating a bulldozer from the south, connecting the two sections of the highway.
The black soldiers’ part of the achievement has mostly gone unrecognized until this year, on the 75th anniversary of the highway’s completion. The Alaskan government held ceremonies to commemorate the soldiers’ contribution. The black soldiers’ presence in Alaska proved to be remarkable in other ways.
“A group of soldiers went to visit one of the nearby native villages to see what they were like,” said Onalaska Area Historical Society Vice President L. John Sagen. “Ten years later, the villagers were interviewed about the encounter and one of them said, ‘My first chance to meet a white man and he was black.’”
The Alaska Highway, now known as the Alaska-Canada Highway or ALCAN Highway, is now a paved road, providing a thoroughfare for commerce and tourism.
Sagen informed those attending the program that the society hopes to have Campbell present other programs about the research he’s done on WWII and other “Great Moments in History.”