Whitehorse in the
Yukon Territory, to the west, the stunning
St. Elias Mountains pierce the sky with Mount Logan (5950m), Mount Vancouver (4828m) and Mount Hubbard (4577m) forming a snow-capped, granite trilogy that complements the
Big Salmon Ranges to the east. I try to imagine constructing a road through this pristine wilderness with Japan as its author.
The bombing of the naval base at
Pearl Harbour, Hawaii on December 7, 1941 was the springboard for American entry into
WWII. Attacked by 353 Japanese fighters, bombers and torpedo planes in two waves launched from six aircraft carriers, all eight U.S. Navy battleships were damaged, with four sunk. The Japanese also sank or damaged three cruisers, three destroyers, an anti-aircraft training ship and one minelayer.
To make matters worse, the Japanese attacked the
Dutch Harbor on June 3, 1942 seizing two islands, and for the first time since the
War of 1812, foreign forces occupied U.S. territory. Alaska was now exposed to great danger as well as most of the U.S. western coastline.
I ponder these events as I drive along the result of the Japanese aggression - 2,414 km of
Alaska Highway that stretches from
Dawson Creek, British Columbia all the way up to
Fairbanks in Alaska to serve as a U.S. military supply line and support for an air corridor to Alaska.
Time Magazine referred to this engineering marvel as "a task for
Paul Bunyan." Nevertheless, on February 11, 1942, construction was approved by
President Roosevelt who demanded completion in less than a year!
In March 1942, engineers arrived by boat via
Skagway, and on April 11, 1942, construction began with accidents bound to occur. I visit a memorial at Charlie Lake where on May 15, 1942, a pontoon barge loaded with a weapons carrier and a D-4 Caterpillar was suddenly hit by a squall and capsized. Twelve men drowned. Five were saved.
By the end of June, only 579 km of road was constructed, and by July, 1,223 km of road were in use, the precarious route surveyed by men slightly ahead of the work crews.
Food was largely pancakes, tinned sausage and chili as staples.
Spam was a main dish! The men were ill trained, most not familiar with the heavy equipment, and unprepared for the harsh climate featuring the 3 M's: mountains,
muskeg and mosquitoes. They were forced to endure grueling schedules and work 12 hours at a time under extreme conditions with no running water, and they slept in tents.
October 1942 ushered in one of the coldest winters on record, and only two out of the original seven regiments were left working, one white and one black. The equipment became brittle. Nonetheless, working from both ends towards the middle, on October 25, 1942, just south of the Alaska-Canada border, the last gap was closed with an African American soldier and a white bulldozer driver shaking hands.
In the summer of 1943, U.S. forces reclaimed the captured Aleutian Islands, and with the highway now intact, over 8,000 aircraft were lend-leased to Russia, using the Northwest Staging Route (and Alaska Highway), to assist the Russians with victory over Germany.
The U.S. Army was not desegregated until 1948, and of the 11,000 men sent north in 7 regiments of Army Corps of Engineers, 3 regiments with over 4,000 African Americans arrived with 250,000 tons of materials & equipment. The camps were racially separate. Blacks were considered less capable, and many from warm southern states such as Mississippi and Alabama were exposed to hostile weather and working conditions. In a museum, I view a head shot photo of an African-American soldier, his black face almost totally encrusted in ice, creating a bizarre visual effect.
The route was carved through sheer wilderness and mountainous sub-Arctic terrain.
Permafrost slowed down the progress in late summer. Muskeg was extremely hard to build on - frozen hard in winter, but sponge-like in warm weather. Heavy equipment sunk, and soldiers had to "corduroy" the road with cut trees set lengthwise, and logs laid across the width of highway which was then covered with fill.
I view the 91-metre long
Sikanni Chief River Bridge, built by one African American regiment in 3.5 days, the men standing in an ice-cold river while working! And when done, they sang hymns at a Sunday service by the riverside.
Along the highway, besides truly spectacular mountains, lakes and panoramic vistas observed earlier by the soldiers, fellow RVers and I also view an impressive array of wildlife - bears, black and brown eating dandelions, bison alone and in herds, Stone's sheep, mountain goats, elk, and even moose. It's the Serengeti of the North, better than a zoo, and for the most part, the wildlife could care less as countless cars and trailers break to abrupt stops, disgorging people who jump out, cameras in hand. The mammoth-sized bison often claim the entire road, moving unhurriedly and licking up salt deposits. The bears are thin and hungry, moose speedy, and mountain goats display great dexterity as they navigate the steep rock.
February is designated as
Black History Month. Few are aware of the dedicated and courageous WWII African-American soldiers and their splendid success in the building of the Alaskan Highway, now a scenic pathway for tourists like me to visit and enjoy its spectacular landscape.
RV Caravan Photo by Mike Keenan
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review, Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine.