If you’re planning a trip on the Alaska Highway next year (2017 is its 75th Anniversary), you’ll want to watch the US Army Engineers’ documentary Alaska Highway Construction, produced in 1944.

The short film features excellent black-and-white footage from the actual road work and a good narrative that explains the reason why the Americans — and Canadian civilians — carved a path through about 1,500 miles (more than 2,400 kilometres) of frontier wilderness.

Understanding the Alaska Highway’s origins is key to a full appreciation of what many travel writers call the ultimate road trip. That holds true whether you’re rumbling up the Alaska Highway on a Harley Davidson or floating through the wilds in a luxury RV.

It’s key because the short amount of time it took soldiers and civilians to thrash through the bush and finish the road was (as described in the film) nothing short of a miracle.

Against the odds, the men and machinery worked from several directions to connect and finish the highway very quickly (it took them about eight months).
Why? Two reasons:

  1. Pearl Harbour: Without declaration of war, in December 1941, the Japanese bombed and killed 2,403 Americans and injured another 1,178. They also sank or damaged eight battleships, three cruisers, three destroyers, an anti-aircraft training ship, a minelayer and 188 US aircraft.
  2. The Japanese then occupied the US via Attu, an American-inhabited Alaskan island, part of the westernmost Aleutian archipelago.

From Attu, the Japanese might have next developed the capability to fully invade Alaska. They could have then more easily attacked the North American continent. At the time, there was no land access to move US troops – or anyone for that matter – into Alaska to defend it.

The documentary explains how the Japanese threat in the Pacific sparked immediate approvals from the US and Canadian governments for the US Army to construct the Alaska Highway. Those approvals were needed to defend not only Alaska and North America, but also the West against its World War II enemies.

The US Army film helps us understand a little more about world history and the Alaska Highway. If you’re planning to do the drive next year as part of the 75th Anniversary celebrations, do yourself a favour and enjoy the film.