Military policy during World War II decreed that Blacks would not be sent to northern climes or active duty, but after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the need for an inland route to Alaska appeared vital. Manpower was scarce, and segregated troops were shipped north under the leadership of white commanders... despite protest from the U.S. Army commander in Alaska, Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, son of a Confederate general whose negative attitude toward Blacks was legendary.
The construction of the 1,522 mile long road from Dawson Creek, British Colombia, to Fairbanks, Alaska through rugged, unmapped wilderness was heralded as a near impossible engineering feat. Many likened it to the building of the Panama Canal. There was much praise for soldiers who pushed it through in just eight months and twelve days. However, Black battalions were seldom mentioned in publicity releases, despite the fact that they numbered 3,695 in troop strength of 10,670.
According to the testimony of their commanders, these men did an exceptional job under duress. Ill housed, often living in tents with insufficient clothing and monotonous food, they worked 20 hour days through a punishing winter. Temperatures hovered at 40-below-zero for weeks at a time. A new record low of -79 was established. The majority of these troops were from the South; yet, they persevered. On the highway's completion, many were decorated for their efforts and then sent off to active duty in Europe and the South Pacific. The veterans of the Army's Black Corps of Engineers were members of the 93rd, 95th, 97th and 388th units.
Due to the fine showing of these Black troops and others, the U.S. military integrated all units during the Korean Conflict, becoming the first government agency in the United States to do so.
The road, originally
called the Alaskan-Canadian Highway quickly adopted the shortened name
Alcan Highway. Today, this road, known as the Alaska Highway, still provides
the only land route to Alaska.
(Black Archives Research Center Museum, Florida A & M University)