When President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the building of the Alaska Highway in February 1942, the problem of who would actually do the construction quickly arose. The government hired civilian contractors to work on the roadway, but much of the task fell on the shoulders of the Army Corps of Engineers, the branch of the military responsible for tasks such as repairing roadways and flood control.
Nearly all of the Army's engineer regiments were already assigned elsewhere in the war effort, mainly in the South Pacific. In order to provide the manpower needed to fulfill the Roosevelt administration's ambitious highway-building plan, the War Department took the unusual step of deciding to employ regiments of African American engineers. Adding three African American regiments of engineers to the four white regiments, Colonel (soon Brigadier General) William M. Hoge assembled roughly 11,000 troops, about a third of whom were African American.
Era of Prejudice
In that era, many people in the military felt that the African American engineers, because of their race, could not be as skilled and industrious as Caucasians. At a time when segregation and Jim Crow laws were commonplace, using white and black troops on the same project was seen as experimental. Another military rule that was bent was the stipulation that African Americans were not to be sent to cold climates.
Although they worked on the same highway, the units were kept strictly segregated. The African American engineers were often shortchanged in their allotment of equipment. In one case, the 95th Engineer Regiment, the final African American unit transferred to the highway, was left without bulldozers and other machinery. Although the 95th had more experience operating the equipment, the machinery was given to the all-white 35th Regiment. The African Americans were given hand tools to use.
Regardless of race issues, the War Department's plans required enormous effort from everyone who worked on the highway. The grueling schedule and extreme conditions were tremendous challenges. Most of the men had never been in extreme cold. Many of the regiments were from the South or from other warm climates, such as Fort Ord in California, and working in Alaska and northern Canada came as quite a shock. To add to the difficulties, most of the men lacked much experience handling heavy machinery.
On October 25, 1942, an African American soldier and a white bulldozer-driving soldier shook hands, cementing the final link of the Alaska Highway. Although the success of African American engineers on the highway would largely be forgotten, the situation for African Americans in the military was changing, leading to the eventual desegregation of the military in 1948.
Celebrating All Workers' Contributions
The photograph of the two men became an iconic image for the engineers. Although all veterans of the highway project had a lot to feel proud about, the photograph was particularly important for African American soldiers. The two men had been photographed as equals, working together to beat the Axis powers. "One of the things the American Army was trying to do was to prove to the black soldiers -- to prove to America at large -- that there was a very important role for them within the American armed forces," according to historian Ken Coates. "This episode along the Alaska Highway stands out... as an example of actually celebrating the activities of black troops. They did work that nobody thought they could do, they did it in an area that nobody thought they could survive."
Upon the highway's completion in the fall of 1942, the engineers who had labored so intensively were transferred to other arenas in the war, including the South Pacific and Europe. An estimated thirty men had died during the construction of the highway. Memorials for the veterans are scattered in spots throughout the highway, including the Black Veterans Memorial Bridge, dedicated in 1993.