By Luke Carothers
On February 11, 1942 President Roosevelt approved a plan that had been in motion since at least six years prior: the Alaska Highway. After the U.S. joined World War II on the side of the Allies, there was a sudden need to reinforce defensive installations along the Western Alaskan coast against attacks from the Japanese Navy. The territory covered by the highway was considered inhospitable to many and featured a daunting stretch that traversed the width of the Canadian wilderness. The engineers faced down an endless wilderness of sub-arctic forests, swampy fields, and snowy tundra. On top of this, the project had a very short window. The highway had to be completed over the course of the Spring and Summer of 1942 lest the harsh Northern snows impede all progress.
To compound these problems, the Japanese had begun to attack and invade American defensive positions along the Aleutian Islands on Alaska’s Western coast. The United States needed these bases secure and sufficiently provisioned if they were to continue shipping and patrolling the Northwest coast.
Such a massive undertaking required manpower and technological prowess unlike any transportation and infrastructure project to that point in the history of the United States save the construction of the Panama Canal. With most of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers helping allied forces in the Pacific, President Roosevelt made the decision to eschew tradition; he sent three regiments of Black engineers—the 93rd, 95th, and 97th Engineer General Service Regiments— to complete the project along with four regiments of white engineers.
The three Black regiments were given the task of starting on the Northern end of the project and working south to meet up with the white regiments. Beginning in the late Alaskan winter, these engineers had to first fight through the harsh cold. On top of that, when the snows finally subsided, the regiments had to deal with stifling humidity and bloodthirsty mosquitos.
At the time of the highway’s construction, the United States Army was strictly segregated, and there was a strange law that forbade Black regiments from being deployed to anywhere but warm climates. These engineers had to face challenges that their colleagues at the time could never have imagined, on top of dangerous terrain they were working on. Along with the prevalence of Jim Crow laws and racist sentiments amongst the units they labored alongside, these three regiments of engineers had to deal with obstacles created by their own command chain. Many white officers believed the regiments unfit for this work, and, as such, sought to passively and actively hinder their progress by providing them with less support and resources.
In one famous example, the 95th Engineer Regiment, which was comprised solely of Black engineers, was forced to tackle the same sub-artic forests and jagged peaks with nothing but hand tools. The equipment was available, and the 95th was extremely experienced in using it, but it was instead given to the all-white 35th regiment, who had far less experience operating it.
Despite the odds stacked against them, these three regiments chipped away at their task for nearly a year. In less than eight months, the project was nearly complete. On September 24th, 1942, the two ends of the highway met in what is known as Contact Creek. Although minor work would continue on the highway for years to come, this is largely celebrated as the completion of the highway and there was a ceremony the next month. It was memorialized in United States newspapers with a clear image that stuck in the minds of many Americans at the time—a Black engineer shaking hands with his white colleague, grinning.
The hardships faced by the Black engineers working on the Alaska highway should not be forgotten. Their ability to rise above circumstance and elevate the world around them had an indelible effect on not only the country, but the continent as a whole. Although their efforts have been memorialized in structures such as the Black Veteran’s Memorial Bridge Fairbanks, Alaska, it is important to keep these men in our hearts; they are the paragon of bravery, work ethic, and professionalism; their legacy is our legacy.
Luke Carothers is the Editor for Civil + Structural Engineer Media. If you want us to cover your project or want to feature your own article, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.