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Monday, February 25, 2013

The Alaska Highway

Nice piece thanks to St. Catherine’s Standard, a Canadian News Source. A link to their site is provided below:

NIAGARA REGION - South of 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 Dec. 7, 1941, was the springboard for American entry into the Second World War.
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 Aleutians at 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, B.C., 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.
In 1942, Time Magazine referred to this engineering marvel as “a task for Paul Bunyan.” Nevertheless, on Feb. 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 and 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 the Second World War. 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.
Read Mike Keenan’s Niagara Blog at:


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