Building the Alaska Highway

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the United States government decided that an inland route to Alaska was vital. Building it would be a massive undertaking: the 2400-km route led through rugged and largely uncharted terrain, crossing five mountain ranges.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would build the preliminary road through the wilderness. Since most engineer regiments had already been deployed, the U.S. War Department organised battalions of Black engineers. At that time the U.S. Army was segregated, and the new regiments were comprised of Black soldiers, commanded by White officers.

Few of the new Black recruits had any training in engineering. Many of them came from the southern United States, and had never experienced a northern winter. They had to contend with a stereotyped view of Black men as poor soldiers who performed badly under stress. Most White officers were not happy to be commanding Black regiments, and resented their assignments. Despite all these handicaps, the Black soldiers managed to help push through a pioneer road in only eight months.

Black Canadians have served in military units since the colonization of Canada. In World War II, Black Canadian soldiers refused to serve in segregated units and were fully integrated into the army, navy and air force.

“We had worn out all our vehicles and heavy equipment, most of our tools and practically all of our clothing.”

Robert Platt Boyd, Me and Company ‘C’