"It's an arrogant act in one sense, and it's also a very courageous one."
-Ken Coates, historian
It was one of the greatest triumphs of the U.S. Army in 1942, and one of the boldest homeland security initiatives ever undertaken. A job, some said, that was better suited for Paul Bunyan than it was for inexperienced military men. But on November 20, 1942, on a remote vista in Yukon Territory, several hundred men braved the bitter cold to mark the end of an ordeal that few people thought possible: the completion of the Alaska Highway.
AMERICAN EXPERIENCE presents Building the Alaska Highway, the story of nearly 11,000 Army engineers who battled freezing temperatures, ice and snow, mountains, mud, muskeg, and mosquitoes to blaze a 1,500-mile road through one of the harshest landscapes in North America, and take a huge step forward in defending the nation from threats in the Pacific. The program interweaves interviews with historians and engineers who built the highway, and presents archival footage and beautiful cinematography of the sub-Arctic route the road took. The film also features never-before-seen home movies of the Alaska Highway.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, Americans lost the sense of security that they had been granted by virtue of isolation. President Franklin Roosevelt commented on the new reality that Americans faced, saying that we could no longer measure safety in terms of miles on a map.
The U.S. government "needed a high-profile, high-energy, big, dynamic project that said 'We will do anything we have to do to defend North America,'" explains historian Ken Coates in the documentary. But in 1942, the enemy was not terrorism, it was the Japanese, who held a military base just 750 miles from Alaska's Aleutian Islands. The highway would serve as a vital supply corridor and a line of defense in World War II.
When nearly 11,000 military engineers, most of whom had never left the lower forty eight states, arrived in the far North, they were met with temperatures that dropped to fifty below zero, machinery that most had never seen, and the challenge of completing an unprecedented engineering feat that many said was second only to the Panama Canal. The project was to be finished within a year.
One faction of the soldiers was under particular scrutiny and pressure to work well and quickly -- African Americans. At a time when the American military operated under forced segregation, three of the seven regiments sent to the north were black. "In the minds of most senior white officers, black troops were not as capable in terms of their technical efficiency and ability to use the equipment," recounts historian Heath Twitchell. "There was an expectation that they would do poorly." But the black soldiers proved to be tireless workers and made exceptional contributions to the highway's completion. "We can't afford to lose our own personal pride by slipping up," a sergeant said.
Construction of the highway was well underway in June of 1942 when the need for a speedy completion became even more evident -- the Japanese had seized two islands at the far reaches of the Aleutian chain. With Japanese troops encamped on Alaskan soil, the war in the Pacific had come to the doorstep of North America, moving these engineers from a remote corner of the globe to the front lines of the war.
The challenge, however, was not simply a race against time. It was a battle against the elements. "Minor mistakes can be deadly," explains engineer Billy Connor in the film. "If your vehicle breaks down in the Arctic, walking a few miles can actually cost you your life." But even when winter subsided, engineers faced other opponents: spring rains and muskeg -- mud bogs that could swallow bulldozers whole; summer temperatures that soared into the 90's; dust clouds that choked the air; and the most menacing enemy -- mosquitoes.
Despite seemingly endless obstacles, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conquered a forbidding wilderness and built the first overland route from United States to the Alaska Territory. It was completed in under eight months, faster than anyone had imagined possible.
News of the Alaska-Canada Highway -- "Alcan" for short -- reached across America. The engineers were heralded as heroes who waged a war in the woods to defend a nation. And while the Japanese never did advance to Alaska's mainland, the highway did play a vital role in World War II, lending a route to nearly 8,000 aircraft that were flown from Alaska to aid the Soviet Union in its battle with Germany.
For a brief moment, the heroic efforts of a group of engineers uplifted a nation in need of some good news. But the triumph would soon be overshadowed by war news from Europe and the South Pacific.