Alaska Highway: Frozen Life-Line to Victory

Since the 1920’s, ideas for an Alaska Highway connecting mainland America, Canada and Alaska had been proposed by the American and Canadian governments.  However, the financial collapse of Great Depression and the Canadian government’s unwillingness to spend money on the highway precluded any construction.

alaska highway

An Army Bulldozer works on the Alaska Highway

In the 1930’s, President Franklin Roosevelt, realizing the military importance of a joint highway again put pressure on Canada to help with construction. But with a possible war between America and Japan looming on the horizon, the Canadian government feared the highway would prevent Canadian neutrality.

alaska highway

Typical terrain faced by the Army Engineers

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and a series of defeats in the Pacific that threatened Alaska and the west coast of North America, Canada agreed to authorize construction of the highway under the conditions that America pay the full cost of construction and turn over the highway to Canada after hostilities ceased.

alaska highway

An engineer in the sub-zero temperatures of Alaska

Construction of the Alaska Highway began on March 8, 1942. To complete the job as quickly as possible the Army assigned nearly 11,000 engineers, of which over 1/3rd were African American, to work on the highway.  The monumental task of building a 1,700 mile road was made more difficult by the harsh weather conditions.  Army engineer’s battles sub-zero temperatures, snow and ice as well as muddy quagmires of melting permafrost, and swarms of mosquitos during the summer months. Maintenance crews worked 24 hours a day retrieving overturned vehicles and other equipment stranded in ditches or mud.

The Army’s policy of segregation also shortchanged some African American units working on the Alaska Highway, relegating them to work with hand tools while white engineers received bulldozers and other heavy equipment.

alaska highway

Army Engineers shake hands after linking up and completing the Alaska Highway

The Alaska Highway was finished on October 28, 1942, with a formal completion ceremony taking place on November 21. However, the road was not opened for use until 1943 after private contractors had worked to resurface unpaved roads and replace temporary Army pontoon bridges with permanent structures.

An estimated 30 men died building the Alaska Highway. Many of the surviving engineers were later shipped to battle stations in the Pacific and European Theaters.

For More Information on the Alaska Highway See:

The Black Soldiers Who Built the Alaska Highway: A History of Four U.S. Army Regiments in the North, 1942-1943

American Experience – Building the Alaska Highway

For Related Articles See:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Past and Present WWII History Posts