President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the construction of the Alaska-Canada Highway (ALCAN) in 1942 to connect Alaska to the continental United States. In the event of a Japanese invasion, the ALCAN highway would be necessary to protect Alaska. Civilian contractors and the Army Corps of Engineers were responsible for building the highway. Due to World War II, many members of the Army Corps of Engineers were in the South Pacific assisting with war efforts. This led to the need for more manpower to complete the administration’s ambitious Alaska Highway project. As a result, the War Department led by Colonel William M. Hoge, took the historic step of deploying African-American regiments of the Army Corps of Engineers. Approximately one-third of the 11,000 troops assembled were Black.
There were four regiments of African-American engineers involved in building the Alaska-Canada Highway, the 93rd Engineer General Service Regiments, the 95thEngineer General Service Regiments, the 97th Engineer General Service Regiment and the 388th Engineer Battalion.
Their greatest accomplishment was Sikanni Chief River Bridge. The Sikanni Chief River is a fast-moving river that is over 300 feet wide located about 162 miles outside of Dawson Creek, Canada. The African-American engineers built the bridge without heavy equipment, utilizing minimal supplies and in miserable conditions. They used hand tools, saws, and axes to build the bridge in less than three days using lumber from nearby trees. During some phases of the construction they had to plunge chest deep into the river’s freezing and rapidly moving waters to set trestles. The soldiers used the headlights of trucks to keep working at night while singing work chants and chain gang songs. Despite the military still being segregated, after witnessing this amazing feat, Col. Heath Twichell Sr. ordered his white officers to eat with the black enlisted men.
Many people attribute the success of these African-American engineers during the Alaska-Canada Highway project as one of the events that led to eventual desegregation of the military in 1948. Some call the ALCAN Highway the “Road to Civil Rights” for this reason.
An estimated 30 men died during the Alaska-Canada Highway construction project. Memorials for these soldiers are scattered along the highway. One of the memorials is Black Veterans Memorial Bridge which was dedicated in 1993 to the African-American engineers who died during the construction project.
During this ambitious Alaska Highway Project the African-American regiments of the Army Corps of Engineers had to overcome many examples of racism and adversity. All of the units were segregated. African-American regiments were often denied their allotment of equipment even though they were more qualified and better trained than some of their White counterparts. At times they only had hand tools to work with. Some of the officers didn’t want them to participate in the construction project in any capacity and considered them useless mongrels and unskilled labor. For this reason, many of the soldiers felt they were fighting two wars, one against the Axis (Japan, Germany and Italy) and a second against segregation.
The African-American regiments that built the Alaska-Canada Highway established a reputation for excellence especially in the field of bridge building. However, their accomplishments were consistently ignored by mainstream media and press. It took decades for them to receive proper recognition for their achievements. Some say they were as “legendary” as the Tuskegee Airmen and the Buffalo Soldiers.
The Alaska-Canada Highway is still considered one of the biggest and most difficult construction projects ever completed by the US Army Corps of Engineers. It stretches 1,422 miles from Dawson Creek, British Columbia in Canada to Big Delta, Alaska. The project cost about $138 million dollars and was the most expensive World War II construction project. The soldiers and civilians assigned to this project had to endure the most extreme conditions imaginable. The temperatures ranged from 90 degrees above zero in summer to 70 degrees below zero during the winter. They had to fight swamps, rivers, ice and cold.
Reverend Edward Carroll was one of the few African American commissioned officers that participated in the construction of the Alaska-Canada Highway. He served as the 95th regiment’s chaplain. He wasn’t drafted. He volunteered out of the hope of fighting against racial discrimination on behalf of his people. Rev. Carroll had his own tent and a personal driver, however, he was not allowed to dine with other commissioned officers. This disturbed the Black non-commissioned officers to the point that they launched a full-scale protest. Col. Heath Twichell Sr., the regimental commander, had to step in and issue a decree that from that point forward Rev. Carroll would be allowed to dine with the other commissioned officers. For more information please refer to this article: The Great Black North
The legacy of these African-American soldiers wouldn’t be known today nor would they have received official recognition from the military if not for the work of Heath Twichell Jr. (Historian), James Eaton (Curator of the Black History Archive at Florida A&M University), Ted Stevens (U.S. Senator), Andrew Molloy (Head of the Pentagon’s Affirmative Action Office), Colin Powell (General) and most importantly the relentless work of University of Alaska Journalism Professor Lael Morgan. For more information please refer to this article: The Great Black North
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Building the Alaska Highway
In Road Building, Black Soldiers Defied Prejudice
Honoring Black Soldiers Who Helped Build the ALCAN Highway
Alaska Highway: The Biggest and Hardest Job Since the Panama Canal
A Photographic Record of a Black Regiment's Contribution to Safeguarding Alaska from Japanese Invasion
Great Black North