Unsung heroes of World War II: The black servicemen who engineered a highway linking Alaska to the continental United States

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Unsung heroes of World War II: The black servicemen who engineered a highway linking Alaska to the continental United States

I suspect few people are aware that the Japanese actually attacked and held US territory during World War II.  While hundreds of books and movies have discussed the attack on Pearl Harbor, comparatively less work has gone into the Japanese threat to Alaska.   (Worth noting is Alaska at the time was a territory, and wouldn’t become a state until 1953.  CORRECTION, 1959, not sure if I read something wrong or it was a trpo, thanks to commenters for the heads up.)

In fact, Japanese forces actually attacked and held the islands of Attu  and Kiska in the Aleutian Islands:

On June 7, 1942, exactly six months after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, that drew the U.S. into World War II, the Japanese Northern Army invaded and occupied Attu, a remote, volcanic island in the North Pacific, about 1,200 miles west of the Alaskan Peninsula, at the far western end of the Aleutian Islands chain. The day before, on June 6, the Japanese had seized the island of Kiska, located approximately 200 miles from Attu in the Aleutians, which had belonged to America since its purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867.  […]

Many historians believe Japan seized Attu and Kiska primarily to divert the U.S. Pacific Fleet during the Japanese attack on Midway Island (June 4–7, 1942) in the central Pacific. It’s also possible the Japanese believed that holding Attu and Kiska would prevent the U.S. from attempting to invade Japan’s home islands by way of the Aleutians.

Americans were shocked that Japanese troops could take any U.S. soil, no matter how remote or barren. Some Americans also feared that Japan’s occupation of Attu and Kiska might be the first step toward an attack against mainland Alaska or even the U.S. Pacific Northwest. However, at the time of the Japanese army’s occupation of the two islands, the U.S., still reeling from the Pearl Harbor attack, was in the process of building up its forces in the South Pacific and preparing for the war in Europe against Nazi Germany. Although Americans were incensed that Japan had seized U.S. territory, American war planners at first paid relatively little attention to the Japanese garrisons at Attu and Kiska. In fact, in the initial months after Japan occupied the islands, the U.S. military conducted only occasional bombing raids from nearby Aleutian Islands.

There’s a fairly decent propaganda film dating back to when US Troops retook the islands after some fighting in the summer of 1943:

The threat that the Japanese might create a foothold in Alaska and then push on down into the continental US appears to have been more threat than based on actual Japanese plans to do so.  But at the time, clearly this was a great concern.  So much so that it was decided to build a road linking Alaska to the continental US, through some of the roughest possible terrain, and through the most inclement weather imaginable.   With most US troops occupied in Europe and in the Pacific Theater, work fell to troops underutilized in our war against the Axis powers, the then-segregated units of mostly black engineers.

Finally they are getting some recognition, as this excellent article from Military.com discusses today:

Leonard Larkins and nearly 4,000 other segregated black soldiers helped build a highway across Alaska and Canada during World War II, a contribution largely ignored for decades but drawing attention as the 75th anniversary approaches.

In harsh conditions and tough terrain, it took the soldiers working from the north just over eight months to meet up with white soldiers coming from the south to connect the two segments on Oct. 25, 1942. The 1,500-mile (2,400-kilometer) route set the foundation for the only land link to Alaska.

The project to build a supply route between Alaska and Canada used 11,000 troops from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers divided by race, working under a backdrop of segregation and discrimination. The soldiers connected the road in Canada's Yukon Territory east of the border of what was then the U.S. territory of Alaska. A photo of a smiling black soldier shaking hands with a cigarette-dangling white soldier became emblematic of their effort.

And if you think your deployments were hard (and Afghanistan was no picnic in the park) just try to imagine this:

The soldiers slept in tents or in military metal structures called Quonset huts between duties like road cleanup and bridge building, Larkins said. He wasn't directly touched by the racial discrimination of the time, although he remembers black soldiers doing all the work, while white officers supervised them.

His most vivid recollection remains the bone-chilling temperatures — shocking to the young man from Louisiana.

"So cold," Larkins recalled in a phone interview. "You can't stand there too long, you know. It's entirely too cold."

Black soldiers also faced racism from military leaders and were kept away from Alaska settlements. The Army's Alaska commander at the time, Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., a Confederate general's son, wrote that he feared the soldiers would settle in the state and have children with "Indians and Eskimos," according to a letter cited by historians.

I’ve been to Alaska, and yeah, it was cold.  Seriously cold.  One day in Ketchikan it was 33 degrees, and the rain was falling sideways from the gale force winds that accompanied it.  I barely came out of my hotel, but for these brave troops, there was no escaping it.

I commend the article to read in full, it is quite excellent.  Also, if you have the time, I found an outstanding “Modern Marvels” episode from the History Channel that discusses the hardships that the troops faced.

I’m glad to see that these men are starting to receive the honors they earned from working in such an austere location, doing what had to be done (and all they were allowed to do) for the war effort, even in the face of commanders who were openly contemptuous of them based only on the color of their skin.

Posted in the burner | 14 comments
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I am extremely happy to read your article about the mistreatment of the Black U.S. soldiers and their dedication to our country. My brother served in Korea in 1950's and was subjected to extreme racism and bigotry. I had another brother that served in Europe in 1940 & 1950 and he was also discriminated against and mistreated. I hope that you will produce more articles about the contributions of the African-American contribution to the U.S. military amid extreme injustice. Thank you.

And I, a T/Sgt, NCOIC of a Precision Measurement Equipment Laboratory which called for a CMSgt and formerly in Airborne Electronic Countermeasures, was bypassed so a black that worked in the Base Gym could be promoted. And you want to talk about discrimination.

If you ever get the chance, drive the entire length all the way to Fairbanks. The scale, raw beauty, and wildlife are breathtaking. You cannot imagine the hardship and the engineering genius needed to complete that road. Those guys were supermen. I did the drive in 2000 and would love to do it again.

Enjoyed reading the account of this historical engineering feat. My thanks to all those for the hardships they suffered both environmental and personal. A correction: Alaska obtained statehood in 1959.

"(Worth noting is Alaska at the time was a territory, and wouldn’t become a state until 1953.)" Date is in Error.
Alaska became a state January 3, 1959.

Contrary to what is stated in the above article, Alaska did not become a state until 1959. And yes, today the Alaska Highway is a very enjoyable and scenic drive, but don't try it in the winter, as many services (gas stations, restaurants, and places to stay) are closed. The soldiers that built this road deserve our respect and admiration.

My Uncle, Col. Lew Garland Lyman, was the Colonel in the Corps of Engineers that led the work on the Alaska Highway.

I am a member of VFW post 2410 in Harlingen, TX. We have a display of medals and insignia of Col. Lew Garland Lyman. Please contact me at csihughes@gmail.com or 956 357 6867

love the aricle!! 1st. cav.

love the aricle!! 1st. cav.

My Heart, Respect, and Salute to ALL the soldier's who took part in building the ALCAN. I had the opportunity to drive it in 1986 when reassigned to Elmendorf AFB, in Anchorage. Then again round trip in 1992 after my retirement, when it was still a dusty dirt road. My final trip was 1993 when I relocated to the lower 48. The sights were awesome and one that I hope to see again soon. My understanding it has been asphalted, but I look forward to traveling it again in Spring 2018. However, this time when I drive thru it, I will have this story of the effort's of African-American Soldier's making it a reality. God Bless them all.

Thank you for your article on the Alaskan Highway. I would ask why not recognize everyone that worked on that project, no matter what race. My father Alvin Guthrie worked on that project and was very proud of his work. I remember hearing stories and looking at the many pictures he had stored in an old box. These men went through a lot of hardships to complete this road and we owe all of them a debt of gratitude. Thank you each and everyone. Jimmy Guthrie

"Americans were shocked that Japanese troops could take any U.S. soil, no matter how remote or barren."
From the article in the American Legion "Burn Pit"about the "The black servicemen who engineered a highway linking Alaska to the continental United States". The Philippine Islands was also a US Territory and invaded by Japan. Did someone forget?

There's always one person who has to make a negative comment that has absolutely nothing to do with the subject at hand. What does being passed over for a promotion have to do with this article!!?? Absolutely nothing!!

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.