It didn’t take long after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour and invaded the Aleutian Islands (Pacific) for Canada and the United States governments to agree (in 1942) to build the Alaska Highway to help defend the continent. According to historians, it did, however, take some time for the U.S. Army to involve black soldiers in World War II.

They played an important role in the Alaska Highway construction.

Historians often call the building of the Alaska Highway one of the 20th century’s greatest engineering feats. That’s because the specific path was previously a swath of inhospitable bush hosting swarms of mosquitoes and dangerous grizzlies and, yet, the 10,000 soldiers slashed through the wilderness frontier in about eight months! In doing so, they established a road for equipment and troops to defend against the Japanese.Reporting on the planning of events to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the Alaska Highway, Tim Ellis of Fairbanks, Alaska-based KUAC Radio (University of Alaska) had the following to say:

Reporting on the planning of events to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the Alaska Highway, Tim Ellis of Fairbanks, Alaska-based KUAC Radio (University of Alaska) had the following to say:

“Among the most ardent supporters of Alaska Highway commemorations is author and historian Lael Morgan. She’s researched and written extensively about the highway, and helped organize and support celebrations of its 50th anniversary.” Morgan said while researching the history for a National Geographic article, she learned that thousands of African-American soldiers played an important but largely unheralded role in building the highway.

“I discovered a lot more about the blacks who built the Alaska Highway,” Morgan said, “and that they’d been completely written out of history.”

Blacks comprised about one-third of the 10,000 soldiers assigned to build the highway. They served in three segregated regiments, consistent with U.S. military policy at the time that required black soldiers to serve in segregated units that typically were assigned to menial work, out of a notion they were unfit for more important missions.

“They were consigned to warehousing and stocking shelves and maybe doing long-shore jobs,” Morgan said.

But Morgan said a shortage of military manpower in the early going of World War II, and the need to establish an overland route to supply Alaska in the face of Japanese aggression, forced military leaders to send black soldiers to help build the Alaska Highway.

“All of a sudden, the road became very, very important,” Morgan said. “And they had nothing left but black troops.”

Morgan said the black soldiers were assigned mainly to units in Alaska that worked their way south into Canada to meet up with units comprised mainly of white soldiers, who were working their way northward on the road sometimes referred to as the “Alcan,” a conjunction of Alaska and Canada. Morgan said the black soldiers proved themselves every bit the equal of their white counterparts as they endured bitter cold and snow, then torrential rain and mud and swarms of mosquitoes. And despite a chronic lack of supplies and equipment, they got the job done.

“What they did with the Alcan was truly amazing,” Morgan said. “They couldn’t have built it without them.
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The black troops met the white soldiers units on Oct. 25, 1942 at Contact Creek, near milepost 590 in the Yukon Territory.

A photo of two soldiers, one black and one white, who’d climbed down from their bulldozers to shake hands at Contact Creek captured what Anchorage history buff Jean Pollard said was a breakthrough in race relations for the military – and the nation.

black soldiers Alaska highway handshake

“This is a picture where you see a black soldier and a white soldier shaking hands where their bulldozers met,” Pollard said. “That picture went worldwide back then.

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Morgan and other historians say the black soldiers’ work on the highway helped convince U.S. military and civilian leaders to desegregate the armed services in 1948 and contributed to the nation’s broader civil rights movement.

Tim Ellis, KUAC, Fairbanks (Source)