1942 Yukon Nuggets
African-Americans building the Alaska Highway
"Miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles. Temperatures of sixty below zero and dropping ...and the people... where are the people?"
So asked an African American soldier who worked as part of the military construction team during the building of the Alaska highway in 1942.
There were three black regiments, consisting of three thousand six hundred and ninety five soldiers, on the job in 1942. They made up one third of the American troop total of just over 10 thousand soldiers. The US army was not integrated then, so the black regiments - or coloured as they were then known – were led by white officers. Many of the young men had been drafted off farms in the southern states and had little schooling. But the soldiers made a major contribution to the war effort.
The 93rd Regiment arrived at Skagway in April 1942, took the train to Carcross and worked on the pioneer road from Tagish, north and then southeast to the Teslin River. Because of the lack of heavy equipment, engineers of the 93rd began their work using only hand tools. But soon bulldozers were pushing down the forest, much to the surprise of Teslin residents who had never seen an African-American, nor heard that a road was coming through.
The 95th black regiment reached Dawson Creek in May 1942 and worked on the section between Ft. Nelson and Fort St. John. At the Sikanni Chief River in the deep valley below Suicide Hill, black troops bet that they could build the bridge in record time and offered their paychecks as the wager. The original Sikanni bridge took them eighty-four hours to build – or about one-half the usual time.
The northern Alaskan section of the highway was built by the 97th black regiment, which arrived by ship at Valdez, then the southern terminus of the Richardson Highway. This regiment was faced with the harshest conditions of any of the regiments. The Alaskan interior was bitterly cold, had the most snowfall, and the most drastic temperature variation. As the pioneer road neared completion, the 97th was to meet the 18th Regiment working in the Yukon at the Alaska-Canada border. On October 24, 1942, the 97th black and 18th all-white regiments met at Beaver Creek. When the bulldozers driven by black troop Refines Sims, Jr. of the 97th and Private Alfred Jalufka, lead driver of the white 18th regiment finally broke through the bush and muskeg at the Yukon-Alaska border to close the last gap in the pioneer road, the meeting between white and black drivers symbolized the cooperation between black and white American races that was difficult to achieve in the contiguous 48 states.
The essential role played by black troops in Alaska Highway construction was celebrated on June 14th, 1993 when the ALCAN veterans were honored at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The ceremony was followed by the opening of an exhibit called "Miles and Miles."
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.