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Building the Alaska Highway | Article

Interview with Experts

Alaska's Population in the Early 1940s

Ruth Gruber, journalist: "In that huge territory, a fifth the size of the United States, there were only 60,000 people. Thirty thousand of them were white settlers, and 30,000 were divided among Indians, Eskimos, and Aleuts... You almost felt like an explorer when you went along, when you took the riverboats and went down the Yukon, and when you got to small villages."

Ruth Gruber

"The important thing was to try to populate Alaska... For instance, we brought in farmers from the Dust Bowll, and they were put in a place called Matanuska... I spent a lot time there finding out how they were doing, these farmers, and the women said to me, 'We were so depressed living in Oklahoma, you know, with the dust, and the Depression, and our children starving. This is wonderful here. We can raise vegetables, we can sell our produce, and we can have a good life here.'"

Planning the Highway Route

Ken Coates, historian: "They very quickly settled on the idea of building from Edmonton, Alberta to Fairbanks, Alaska. And since the Highway's here now everybody thinks, 'Well, that's a very logical thing to do.' But... at the time it was not... The logical place to build the Highway was from Prince George, British Columbia, to Dawson City in the Yukon, and from there to Fairbanks. That route would've been faster, cheaper, and of far more benefit to the people of British Columbia, the Yukon and Alaska..."

"What happened in the 1930s was a group of politicians from North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta had been organizing to have the American government build a highway that linked up Florida and Alaska. They had basically said, 'This highway would connect up North America and be an engine for economic activity, it would be a new version of Route 66,' which is a very famous American highway. And they promoted this really heavily."

"When the war broke out... the Prairie Highway supporters rushed down to Washington, D.C. and put all sorts of pressure on the War Department and on the American government... The British Columbia, Washington State people just assumed the Highway would be built so that Seattle would be the staging area, up to Vancouver, up to Prince George, and from Prince George up to Alaska. And they were very complacent about it. They just said, 'Well, of course it's going to go there.' The surveys were all done, they'd already taken lots of tests in the area, they knew the engineering information they required. It was the logical place to build it. But before they knew it, the decision had been made to build the Highway from Edmonton, Alberta, to Fairbanks, Alaska, along a route that had not been surveyed, that was little known, had virtually no population in the area whatsoever, was of unknown economic importance or value."

"...The second explanation for building it this particular way is that the airfields of the Northwest Staging Route were already in place and they went from Edmonton up to Whitehorse, and from Whitehorse up to Fairbanks. And it made sense to link these particular routes by highway."

The Japanese Threat to Alaska

Charles Hendricks, military historian: "The Japanese posed a serious threat to Alaska -- or could have, had they decided to focus in that direction, right after Pearl Harbor. They were really focusing toward Southeast Asia, toward the Dutch East Indies, and possibly toward Australia. But Alaska's defenses were woeful. General Simon Bolivar Buckner, who was up commanding the Alaska Defense Command, was sending wires back to Washington saying, 'If the Japanese come here I can't defend Alaska, I don't have the resources.' He had maybe, a dozen, 20 bombers... a similar number of fighter planes, a few more fighter planes. And he needed to get reinforcements. And, in January, 1942... the War Department proposed to send up about a force to maybe double his air strength. And... I think five of the bombers crashed, and six of the fighters crashed."

"Now, that wasn't the fault strictly of the airfields and the cold weather. The pilots were not that well trained. But it was clear that it wasn't that easy to re-supply Alaska. And so, there was a serious need to get access to those airbases, the hop-skip-and-jump airbases through Canada from Edmonton on up through Whitehorse and into Fairbanks, down to Elmendorf. There were a string of bases at small, small places, like Fort Nelson and Watson Lake. If they couldn't drive supplies in, drive bulldozers in, expand those airfields, they were going to have continued problems getting planes to Alaska. Did they also see, Hey, this is an excellent opportunity to put through a project that they had wanted to do even before? I think that they must've realized that they had political capital with the Canadians, having helped defend the east coast of Canada, building bases... So the Canadians were not in a good position to say, 'Well, we're not inclined to approve that.'"

Canada's Attitude Towards the Highway

Ken Coates, historian: "The construction of the Alaska Highway was one of the greatest acts of international partnership and friendship that you can imagine. For Canada's government to turn over effective control of massive amounts of its territory to an invading force of... American soldiers and civilians, in an area that had a population maybe of six to seven thousand Canadians in the whole region, and to say, 'We trust you to use this in the best interest in the defense of North America,' is an act of incredible friendship."

Racism in the U.S. Military

Charles Hendricks, military historian: "The military leaders were challenged by the thought of [drafting] large numbers of Americans generally, but more so in relation to African Americans. They recognized that African Americans had lower levels of education and were less ready to do some of the work that the Army wanted done. They felt that they were going to more difficult to train. Now, if they'd looked at the history, and seen what the black troops had done in World War I fighting with the French, they would have realized that they could fight perfectly well given good training and good circumstances. But many of the leaders were not only ignorant of the capabilities that the blacks had shown, but were prejudiced."

Segregation in the South in the Late Thirties

Hayward Oubre, Army Engineer: "I'm from New Orleans...You ask me what it was like? Blacks were not permitted to drink water from white fountains... I didn't ever go to the Sanger Theater, or the Loew's Theater, I went to the Orpheum. And we had to go upstairs..."

"I never... broke their laws...They had what we call the white fever, and white people would accept blacks because they didn't know they were black in the Sanger Theater... And they would find out a [black] person they couldn't tell by sight was there and they'd say, 'We're going to give this person who's passing for white a chance to leave. If you don't leave... we're going to put the spotlight on you. We're going to give you a chance to go out without the spotlight.' This is what it was like."

"Yet we could stay next door on a shotgun house to white people. The neighborhoods were integrated. Until the white kids reached puberty... And then because of the hormones we couldn't associate any more. I didn't know why -- but I know why now."

Expectations for African American Soldiers

Alvin Schexnider, historian: "[The African American soldiers] were under enormous pressure. Number one, they had been placed in situations where they had to perform, they were under a looking glass, there were severe doubts about their ability to perform. And in many cases, the officers who were assigned to their units -- because they were very few African-American officers leading black troops, the officers were mostly white — and they were not at all excited about having to lead black troops. Indeed, some viewed an assignment to lead a black unit as almost the kiss of death."

"I'd like to, if I may, quote for you something from [a student-written document from] the Army War College. This is advice to white officers in command of black troops. Quote: 'As an individual, the Negro is docile, tractable, lighthearted, carefree and good-natured. If unjustly treated he is likely to become surly and stubborn, though this is usually a temporary phase. He is careless, shiftless, irresponsible and secretive. He resents censure and is best handled by praise than ridicule. He is unmoved and untruthful, and his sense of right-doing is relatively inferior.' Now, this was in the Army War College Handbook. The Army War College is a finishing school for officers... And this is what they were being taught. And so you can imagine the kinds of stereotypes that the officers entered this experience with, and how difficult it was for the troops, because almost anything that they did was likely to be severely scrutinized if not criticized."

White Officers and Black Regiments

Heath Twitchell, historian: "[My father] started as the executive officer, number two, in an all-white regiment... He was, I think, perfectly satisfied to be the number two in that organization. However, getting a command of any sort in the military is not something you turn down. Particularly in wartime... "

"The fact that [his new] troops were black I think gave him pause. I mean, he had the same negative stereotypes in his head that all of his contemporaries and most Americans had at that point about black soldiers... [and the unit] had serious morale problems because when they arrived in Dawson Creek in May of 1942 with most of their equipment, and were expecting to be given a serious job building a highway, because one of the other engineer regiments was short equipment, they took all the major, heavy pieces of equipment — bulldozers, and trucks, and cranes — away from the black 95th, and gave them to a white unit so that they could be up to strength. And that put the 95th Engineers in a position of doing pick and shovel work with wheelbarrows..."

"[My father] decided that what they needed to do was to be given an assignment that was within the capability of the equipment they had, that would be something worthwhile and important... and it so happened that up ahead... was a river that had a temporary bridge across it, a pontoon bridge, and it needed to have a semi-permanent wooden bridge put in. That bridge was scheduled to be built by a white engineer regiment."

"My father went to the commander of the southern sector and said, 'We can do this. You know, let us do it.' And basically they said, 'Okay, we'll give you a try. But if it's not done within five days we're taking you off the job and somebody else will come in.' So, he got the regiment together and explained the situation to them, and they started working on a day in July, and three days later they had a bridge across. It's called the Sikanni Chief River. It's about 300 feet wide, and at that time, because of the spring melt and the snow, it had about a 20 mile an hour current in it. So it's not a small river. And they had to drive pilings into the riverbed, they had to cut down huge spruce trees and sawmill them into planks and boards, and pilings, basically all by hand. They built a bridge in three days and not in five. And the other thing about that bridge is that it lasted longer than any other bridge on the Alaska Highway -- withstood several winter seasons, and ice, and snow. It was well built."

"Time magazine ran an article about the building of that bridge by the black troops in July of 1942. And they got some credit for that — but tended to get forgotten in the aftermath."

Deployment to Alaska

Chester Russell, Army engineer: "We didn't find out what we were going to do until we got Edmonton. That's when we found out that we were going up there to build a road... All we had was our winter clothes and knew we were going someplace where it's cold. But that's where we ended up, Dawson Creek. At 21 years old, I wasn't prepared, I guarantee you... In fact, I imagine today or then, if someone had asked where Canada was, I'd probably wouldn't hardly know it... But, it didn't take us long. We fit right in with the rest of them in the cold weather..."

First Impression of Alaska

John Bollin, Army Engineer: "We did not know where we were going when we left Camp Livingston in Louisiana... When we got to Seattle, or Tacoma, Washington, up at Camp Lewis, or Fort Lewis, and when we boarded the ship, you had to ask yourself, were we on a pleasure trip, or were we on a troop ship?... We had dinner with china, silverware, white tablecloth, and napkins, and the waiters with the gong going through the ship telling us dinner is being served..."

"Our first look at Alaska was in Skagway... to see a mountain close up is a very fascinating thing... and to go up it is the thrill of a lifetime... There's more snow up there than you've ever seen. We eventually had to move out of that base camp and go to our stretch of the Highway that we were supposed to work on. And to see nothing but trees, trees, and more trees, and then be told that you're going to put a road through that, was quite a big deal for us."

"Most of the soldiers were from a much warmer climate... One of the things that we had to do, daily, we had to look in every man's face, and if we saw any white spots in his face we sent him back to the -- there was no barracks, there were tents that we lived in. But we'd get him out of there, the sub-zero weather, and send him back to base camp."

Adapting to Working in Alaska

Billy Connor, civil engineer: "Many of the folks that came up there had never even seen snow, and suddenly they were thrown into a terrain that has a lot of snow, temperatures ranging down to 70 below zero... Simply taking your glove off can cause a loss of fingers..."

"All of the work that the Army had ever done had been in temperate climates, in Europe, in the Pacific, in the United States, so they didn't really know how to deal with cold regions engineering. They sent their people up there with clothing that was only good down to about 40 degrees. The tents didn't have bottoms in them, and so these guys were basically on dirt floors, with stoves in the cabin to try to stay warm."

"The metals that they had back in 1942, at 40 below zero became very brittle and broke very, very easily. So they had to deal with equipment breakdowns. Simply keeping equipment running in the cold is also a challenge. For example, if a vehicle quit and sat for a few hours, you could not start it again, and, and so they were actually building fires underneath the vehicles to get them started. And if they knew they were going to have to shut down a vehicle overnight, they would drain all the fluids, the oils, the water out of the radiator and take that inside with them and put it on the stove the next morning and heat it up, and then pour it back in so they could get the vehicle started."

Highway-Builders' Resourcefulness

Alden Hacker, Army engineer: "Our biggest problem... was a lack of parts. We were criticized in the papers at that time for cannibalizing vehicles -- that is, taking parts off of one to keep others going. But if you had a vehicle that was broken down, let's say a bulldozer, and you had a part that couldn't be repaired, and it couldn't operate without that part, there's nothing wrong with taking another good part off of it to keep another tractor going. Ultimately, when you got the parts in you'd put the original one back together."

A Meaningful Task

Heath Twitchell, historian: "I think once [my father] got over the surprise that he was going to Canada and Alaska and not to the Pacific, which was where his unit was being trained to go... He said, this is the chance of a lifetime. We're being given the biggest and hardest job the Army's had since the building of the Panama Canal. Speaking as an Army engineer that was true. And he felt thrilled to be a part of that and really excited about the potential, and also very much aware of the possibility that it might not happen, or at least it wouldn't happen quickly. He was aware of the problem of finding a place to go over the Rockies..."

"I know my mother was relieved that he wasn't being shot at. He never said anything one way or another about it, but nobody likes to be shot at. I know I certainly never did. So I think he was probably glad at least to have a worthwhile job to do that was meaningful, and still be relatively safe and close to home."

Daily Life on the Highway Project

Henry Geyer, Army engineer: "In the summer you had long days, and it was nice and warm. And you'd be able to take a bath in the rivers and stuff like that. You should've seen some of the tubs that they made out of 50-gallon drums and things like that -- because we didn't have any bathrooms or anything like that, you know."

"A typical day was, you woke up in the morning and did whatever you had to do, drive a truck, or a tractor, or move this. And then in the winter they sent up Quonset huts to put together to live in. And you had all these little bolts to put together. And I can still, in the winter I get [something] like frostbite on the tips of my fingers because even -- how many years? -- 60 years, [it's] as if they're still frostbitten. But hey, we built all kind of buildings and everything else. I remember we were building a big, wooden drill... and I'm up on two-by-fours, just walking back and forth as if I was down on the ground. Crazy things."

Cold Weather Camping

Chester Russell, Army engineer: "You've got a regiment of men up there, no water, no toilet facilities, and you've got to make up this camp, toilet facilities... garbage pits. And you've got to dig through this ice, and you've got one air compressor, and all the rest is picks. And you hit that old ice with a pick and it'd just bounce back in your face."

"The main camps, every time they moved camp they had to dig out the garbage pits... and then when they'd move they'd cover them all up and put a sign up, [saying] what it was, garbage pit, or a latrine... Nine times out of ten the next morning you'd go out there the garbage pit was dug up by the bears."

Aerial Surveys and Bush Pilots

Alden Hacker, Army engineer: "I understand that the original route was laid out based on aerial surveys that were done... Somewhere in the course of our construction, the officers went back to the airfield and took a flight with [a] bush pilot so that you could see and visualize what you were up against and what was coming, what you're facing. And this was the first flight I ever had in an airplane and it was quite an experience, 'cause those little old planes, those little bush planes, and those pilots -- they bounce around quite a bit and believe me, bush pilots, you had to admire them, they were crazy or they wouldn't be doing that. But they could do an awful lot with an airplane, landing in some of the streams and some of the lakes, and then taking off from them and many times not knowing, of course, when they landed on the lake if they'd hit some kind of a snag or something underneath, and be miles from where they should be."

Soldiers Feelings About Alaska

Ruth Gruber, journalist: "I tried to tell [soldiers] how important it was to be in Alaska, what a service they were doing and, and I hoped they would feel the same passion that I felt for this huge, beautiful territory. And some did, but some didn't. Some said, 'If the Japs captured Alaska they deserve it.' Others said, 'If the Nazis come over and take Alaska they deserve it,' and 'We'd like to get out of here.' But they changed. After a while they began to feel differently and I began to get, when I got back to Washington, hundreds of letters, every week, from many of the G.I.'s who said, 'When this war is over I want to come back and homestead.'"

Locals and the Highway Project

Alice Summer, Canadian resident: "The Army was based out at Mile 49. They were putting up a base camp out on Charlie Lake at J-8. There were American soldiers everywhere. We had board sidewalks. We did not have electricity. We did not have... gas. So we were still pretty primitive..."

"These two American soldiers came to this school, was my first sight of a Jeep. And this was really a happening. An open-air vehicle that they could bounce around in and it could go anywhere? I mean, up to that point I was traveling back and forth, I was 17 miles from my parents' home, and I was traveling by horseback. And these young fellows had come out with a Jeep? A four-wheel Jeep, open air. Oh... it was something."

Reassignment After the Highway

Chester Russell, Army engineer: "When we finished pioneering the Alaskan Highway they sent us to Medford, Oregon, which is Camp White. And we re-trained there, took our combat training all over. When we left... we landed on Omaha Beach. And I can tell stories on pioneering the Alaskan Highway but it's hard for me to experience. The fellows who I was with up there who got killed in crossing the Rhine River... It's hard.... The grandson of one of the fellows, he wanted me [to tell] stories. I told him a couple, but I told him it just shakes me, it shakes me up."

Driving the Highway in the 1940s

Ruth Gruber, journalist: "[The highway] had three dangers...The first was the sun. The sun was so blinding that dark sunglasses did you no good... The second was the dust. The car riding on that dust road just threw up hills of dust. They invaded your eyes, your ears, your nostrils, your mouth, everything. And the third great danger were the mosquitoes. My good friend Tom, who was driving the Jeep, kept trying to brush them away from me... And Tom said, 'Well, there's a story here of a soldier who was fueling his plane with five gallons of gasoline when he discovered he wasn't fueling a plane, he was fueling a mosquito.' So those were the three problems I had, but they were nothing compared to the excitement I felt driving on this highway, seeing the beauty of it..."

The Highway and U.S. Morale

Charles Hendricks, military historian: "1942 was not a great year for the U.S. Army. It had entered a war at a time it had not anticipated. It was just beginning to mobilize, just beginning to receive from American industry the armaments that it required. Its manpower was not fully trained, and even in 1943 when it was fighting in Tunisia, it was still in a shakedown, learning process. in 1942 its troops in the Philippines were forced to surrender, on Bataan Peninsula, after horrible fighting and lack of food."

"The Army was not going to be at its peak for several more years. But one thing it could do, and could do very well, was to conquer the North American wildeness. So, the triumph that the Army achieved in putting through a highway was important to the nation in maintaining morale, maintaining the sense that the Roosevelt administration was trying to convey that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, whether it be from Depression or from military threat, by showing what we could do immediately as we prepared for the bigger challenges that we had to accomplish militarily with Normandy and with island hopping in the Pacific."

The Highway and the Allies' Victory

Heath Twitchell, historian: "The road was conceived and built as an emergency supply line to Alaska in case Alaska became a major theater of war. That didn't happen. And yet the road did, in fact, make a major contribution to the war effort. And that has to do with the Northwest Staging Route and the airfields along the road. Shortly after the war began we agreed to supply the countries who were fighting the Germans with supplies and equipment on a program called lend-lease..."

"If you're going to send airplanes to the Soviet Union, there are two ways to get them there. One, you can put them on a ship, and you can ferry them across the Atlantic... But the loss rate to German submarines, in the North Atlantic in 1942 and '43, was pretty bad, and we lost a lot of ships, and a lot of equipment, and a lot of lives."

"There were alternative ways of getting airplanes to Russia and the shortest way was up the Northwest Staging Route to Fairbanks, and then across the Bering Strait, and then all the way across Siberia into Eastern Russia, where the fighting was going on. And that's what we started to do in the second year, third year of the war. We took bombers, and fighters, and transport planes by the thousands, total of about 8,000 aircraft, flew them up the Northwest Staging Route using civilian pilots, and women pilots from the military airlift command -- 'Fairy Pilots,' they were called. They would take those planes and they would bring them in to Fairbanks where they would be winterized, and they'd paint the Russian red star on them..."

"Quite often because the Highway was a good navigational aide in bad weather, these planes would make emergency landings on the Highway, and they certainly got their supplies, and gasoline, and refueling and parts by virtue of the Highway's existence."

"So the Highway made this whole lend-lease program possible, and made it efficient, made it a good way to get airplanes to Russia. Nobody can say what that contribution did in terms of the war outcome. I think it's safe to say that it probably shortened the war and made the defeat of the Germans by the Russians on the eastern front that much more certain."

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