AS A FORMER COMMANDER of Company E, 97th Engineer Regiment, a black unit, during the construction of the ALCAN Highway, “The Great Black North”(10/8) was of great interest to me. I was disappointed in your coverage. You can’t apply the political correctness of the ’90s to the realities of the ’40s.
By using disjointed anecdotal quotes, your story is one of extreme racial prejudice against the black engineer soldiers involved in construction of the highway. There is no denying that some racial prejudice existed, but it was mild in relation to the prevailing civil laws and public opinion of the general populace of the United States at that time. The magnificent performance of the black troops during the construction of the ALCAN did much to enhance the perception of blacks in the Army and throughout the nation.
The harsh environmental conditions caused hardship to black and white soldiers, enlisted men and officers alike. There was no discrimination there. What is seldom noted is that the 97th Engineer task force included white enlisted men in a medical and a signal detachment. They were treated identically to the black soldiers.
As a result of its performance during the highway construction, the 97th Engineer Regiment (General Service) was awarded the Meritorious Unit Citation, the highest unit award for other than combat action, by the Army. This hardly seems to be the action of a severely prejudiced Army.
It might be of interest to note that the cadre of the 97th Engineers came from the Ninth and 10th Cavalry, the fabled Buffalo Soldiers. They were the key noncommissioned officers that maintained discipline and made the unit what it was.
P.S. to Bill Gifford: Eugene Long and the 95th Engineers spent no time in Alaska. During construction of the highway, they spent the entire time in Canada. The recollections of 50-plus years ago by someone who didn’t know what country he was in are suspect. I believe that the different experiences of the 95th and 97th Engineers were due to the fact that when they went north to work on the highway, the 95th was a newly established unit and the 97th was an experienced unit who had completed all training and had been doing construction work at Elgin Army Air Base. Also, Maj. Gen. Buckner was not in the chain of command over troops on the ALCAN.
Col. DeWitt C. Howell, U.S.A. (Ret.)