It was a miracle the men and machines were able to bash through and scrape out the Alaska Highway route in eight months.
The US Army and Canadian civilians fought sub-Arctic weather, permafrost, thick forests, mountain ranges, bog that sank their equipment, killer mosquitoes (aka bush bombers) and pesky grizzlies in order to construct the Alaska Highway.
From a print ad recruiting Alaska Highway workers, quoted at the HISTORYNET website:
‘Men hired for this job will be required to work and live under the most extreme conditions imaginable… Temperatures will range from 90 degrees above zero to 70 degrees below zero. Men will have to fight swamps, rivers, ice and cold. Mosquitoes, flies and gnats will not only be annoying but will cause bodily harm. If you are not prepared to work under these and similar conditions, do not apply.’
Total construction spending in Alaska by the US Army during the war was approximately $2 Billion. The Alaska Highway was the most expensive project of the war, coming in at $138 Million.
It began in March, 1942, after hundreds of pieces of construction equipment were moved on priority trains by the Northern Alberta Railways to the northeastern part of British Columbia near Mile 0 at Dawson Creek.
Here’s some of the equipment that was arriving at Mile 0 in Dawson Creek:
- 174 steam shovels
- 374 blade graders
- 904 tractors
- 5,000 + trucks
- large numbers of bulldozers, snowplows, cranes and generators.
At this time of the year, the winter weather was stormy. Army personnel and civilians sometimes arrived in Dawson Creek with no place to stay and nowhere to set their sleeping bags other than snow drifts. Construction in the extremely low temperatures was slow going, to say the least. Most of the equipment sat idle at first, awaiting the thaw.
From the HISTORYNET account of the ordeal:
“Warmer weather only brought new hardships. Rivers flooded. Truck wheels were trapped in dense, grasping mud. Equipment became caught in forest fires. And Alaskan mosquitoes — ‘bush bombers,’ as the soldiers nicknamed them — proved far more troublesome to the men than the Japanese Zeros they’d been warned might breech the Pacific coastline at any moment. ‘You had to eat with your head net on,’ Hoge recalled, ‘you would raise the head net, and by the time you got food on the spoon up to your mouth it would be covered with mosquitoes.”
Under the command of a tough Army General, William Hoge, construction moved along during the Spring and into the Summer months. In June, the Japanese bombed Dutch Harbour in the Aleutians. Construction regiments working on the Alaska Highway were spurred on after reports of the Japanese invasion of Kiska Island and Attu Island.
There were personnel changes in the Fall, as soldiers were called to the Pacific front (the Aleutians) to defend against further Japanese occupation of Alaska. General Hoge was taken off the project because it was moving too slowly and his men weren’t ready for winter (he said it was retaliation for an earlier rivalry). Several regiments of African-American soldiers had been brought up from the Lower 48 and they worked effectively to finish the job.
The Alaska Highway was finished on October 28, 1942 and there was a celebration at Soldier’s Summit on November 21.
It was 1943 before the highway was usable by the public and non-military vehicles. It was still rough, a bit of a wild ride, with many steep grades and a challenging surface. There were thousand-foot drop-offs with no guardrails. Pontoon bridges were upgraded in 1942 to temporary log bridges, which, in turn, were replaced wherever possible with steel bridges. The easing of the Japanese invasion threat resulted in no more contracts being given to private contractors for upgrading of specific sections.