Eugene Long and his wife Josephine were flipping through the TV channels one December evening five years ago when they came across a documentary on PBS. Titled Alaska at War, the film covered the role of America’s northernmost territory in World War II. Because Long had spent the first year of the war in Alaska, building the 1,400-mile road from British Columbia to Fairbanks now known as the Alaska Highway, he watched with interest.
The film spun through the major events of the war in Alaska: the opening of the oil fields, the Japanese bombing raid on the Dutch Harbor settlement, the struggle to recapture the Aleutian Islands, and the construction of the highway. Originally called the Alaska-Canada Military Highway, or Alcan, it was intended to provide an overland supply route from Canada to Fairbanks and the Bering Strait at a time when Japanese subs threatened coastal shipping.
The highway project had been a formative experience for the 18-year-old Long, who’d been drafted out of his freshman year at Howard University. But as he watched the TV movie, it gradually dawned on him that something—someone—was missing.
“Not one black soldier was shown,” says Long, 69. “Everybody on there was white.”
Long’s outfit, the 95th Engineers, was one of three black regiments deployed to the highway in 1942. The 1,225 enlisted men of the 95th were commanded by some 52 officers, all of whom were white except the chaplain. Black troops comprised more than a third of the 10,000 soldiers who worked on the road. It was a thankless job: They built day and night, all summer, through deep mud, surrendering their blood to savage mosquitoes. Winter turned the landscape into a frozen wasteland. When the road was finally finished, none of the soldiers was sorry to leave. And now this film slighted their contribution, Long felt.
“Not one black soldier,” Long repeats. “My wife immediately dispatched a letter….” On cue, Josephine Long digs in a drawer and retrieves a worn typescript addressed to the documentary’s producer, Garry Goldin of Aurora Films in Juneau. He holds it for a while, reading, then puts it down.
“They never answered,” he says.
It was one of the more bizarre chapters of the second world war: Thousands of black troops, most drafted from small towns in the Jim Crow South, were plunked down amid the remotest northern wilderness on the continent and set to work building a highway. Yet this episode of the war, and of the segregated Army of old, has lingered in obscurity for almost a half-century, forgotten except by the men who were there.
Numerous magazine articles and guidebooks and documentaries have been produced about the Alaska Highway, but few of them mention the contribution, or even the presence, of black troops. The Army, too, has been reluctant to dwell on the racial inequities of its past. Only in the last two years has the black troops’ role emerged from the shadows. Now, thanks to the tireless efforts of an Alaskan journalist and a handful of black historians, this decidedly unglamorous episode has made its bid for a place in the pantheon of black history, alongside the Buffalo Soldiers and the Tuskegee airmen.
The blacks’ role in the highway’s construction was controversial from the get-go. As the troop train carrying Eugene Long and the rest of the 95th Engineers snaked northwest from Washington, D.C., curious citizens of tiny Northern Plains towns turned out for the spectacle. They’d seen maybe one or two blacks at a time, but not thousands. “We’d stop every, I’d say, 15 hours, more or less,” says Long, “get out and march around the city. I guess they knew ahead of time, ’cause most of the people would be out there watching.”
At one stop, recalls Long’s friend Henry Roberts, the locals were treated to musical entertainment. “In North Dakota or South Dakota,” he says, “they got all the black soldiers out, had us stand in line, and wanted us to sing ‘Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.’ ”
The commander of American troops in Alaska, Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, nursed a bad case of Negrophobia, perhaps because his father had surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. He didn’t want the blacks to come at all, and he expressed his fears in a letter to Brig. Gen. Clarence Sturdevant, the Army Corps of Engineers official in charge of the highway project. “The very high wages offered to unskilled labor here would attract a large number of them and cause them to…settle after the war,” Buckner explained, “with the natural result that they would interbreed with the Indians and Eskimos and produce an astonishingly objectionable race of mongrels that would be a problem here from now on.”
“I have no objection whatever to your employing them on the roads,” he grudgingly concluded, “if they are kept far enough from the settlements and kept busy and then sent home as soon as possible.”
In late May 1942, the 95th arrived in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, the small Canadian settlement at the end of the railway line. Meanwhile, another black unit, the 97th Engineers, was arriving by boat in Valdez, Alaska.
“I remember up there when we got that regiment…in at Valdez,” recalled Gen. William Hoge, Sturdevant’s subordinate, in a debriefing interview conducted by Army historians upon his retirement in 1974. “Those niggers just looked at all that snow—it was all white…and they got worried about whether they were going to get out of there….I told them…“The only way you’re going to get home—back to Alabama or Georgia—is to work down south. Head down south and keep working.’”
The intervening three decades had not softened Hoge’s view of his black troops: “They were practically useless,” he told the debriefers.
The Army seemed to feel the same way. As prewar mobilization commenced late in 1940, the Army’s official policy was to keep blacks separate but equal. That is, black soldiers would be deployed to the same range of duties assigned to whites, including infantry, artillery, and the relatively glamorous signal corps and air corps, but in separate units. That was the policy, anyway.
At the time, the NAACP and other civil rights advocates saw the war as an opportunity to advance their cause. As the U.S. battled fascism in Europe and Asia, the nation could not condone racism at home. The war would allow American blacks to show their ability and their patriotism—if they were given a chance. Eliminating segregation, they argued, was of a piece with defending democracy.
Top Army officials, on the other hand, felt that a war was no time to change established ways. “The Army is made up of individual citizens of the United States who have pronounced views with respect to the Negro,” Col. Eugene Householder told an audience of black newsmen the day after Pearl Harbor. “Just as they have individual ideas with respect to other matters in their daily walk of life. Military orders, fiat, or dicta will not change their viewpoints.”
The case against racial integration sounds a lot like the arguments now used against the inclusion of gays in the military. “The Army is not a sociological laboratory,” Householder declared. “To be effective it must be organized and trained according to the principles which will insure success. Experiments to meet the wishes and demands of the champions of every race and creed…are a danger to the efficiency, discipline, and morale and would result in ultimate defeat.”
This official lack of confidence in blacks was apparently based on anecdotal evidence from World War I, when some black units had performed poorly under fire; therefore, the thinking went, all blacks would do so.
Rather than “experiment,” the Army allocated black troops based on time-honored cultural stereotypes. The overwhelming majority of black troops were concentrated in rear-guard service regiments such as quartermaster and engineer units; the latter being but a glorified term for a pick-and-shovel brigade. At the beginning of 1941, the proportion of blacks in these branches roughly approximated their numbers in the population. One in four engineers was black, as were one in six quartermasters, according to Ulysses Lee’s 1965 tome on blacks in WWII, The Employment of Negro Troops.
By April 1942, as inductees flooded into the Army, black soldiers piled up in these units: the Army Corps of Engineers was 42 percent black, and the Army Quartermasters Corps 34 percent, even though blacks made up only 10 percent of draftees. In early 1943, there existed a backlog of some 300,000 blacks who qualified to be drafted but hadn’t been for some reason, according to Morris MacGregor’s 1981 study, The Integration of the Armed Forces.
The Army didn’t seem to want them, and with some reason. Blacks scored poorly on the Army General Classification Test (AGCT), the standard measurement of a soldier’s learning ability. Between March 1941 and December 1942, some 84 percent of black inductees tested below average or well below average on the AGCT. The blacks’ low scores undoubtedly reflected their inferior educational opportunities and the test’s cultural bias, but the scores also served to justify further discrimination. Perhaps they explain why a 1942 Army plan recommended using blacks exclusively for such duties as supply, stevedoring, bakery, and laundry, so as to free the putatively more reliable white troops for combat.
Many individual blacks felt they were fighting two wars, one against the Axis and a second against segregation. In Army camps, strict separation prevailed; blacks on one side, whites on the other. The irony was not lost on the black soldiers. “We had to fight the white soldiers,” says Long. “Fight for your country, and then, when you would come on furlough if you got one, come out and be mistreated.” Some black units had black officers, but most were commanded by whites; black officers, it goes without saying, never commanded white enlisted men.
To the Army, the leadership of black troops presented a particular problem. “As an individual the Negro is docile, tractable, lighthearted, carefree and goodnatured,” wrote a group of white majors and colonels in a 1936 study quoted in Heath Twichell Jr.’s history of the highway, Northwest Epic. “If he is unjustly treated he is likely to become surly and stubborn, though this is usually a temporary phase….He is careless, shiftless, irresponsible, and secretive. He resents censure and is best handled by praise and with ridicule. He is unmoral and untruthful and his sense of right doing is relatively inferior.
“On the other hand the Negro is cheerful, loyal and usually uncomplaining if well fed. He has a musical nature and a marked sense of rhythm. His art is primitive. He is religious. With proper direction in mass, Negroes are industrious. They are emotional and can be stirred to a high state of enthusiasm….Bad leadership in particular is easily communicated to them.” To make up for their alleged shortcomings, black units were usually assigned top-notch white officers. “We had a manual that said it was a feather in your cap” to be chosen to lead black troops, says Dewitt C. Howell, who was a company commander on the highway.
In a way, segregation and its underlying theories became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Army considered black troops unreliable and incapable, so they were given few chances to prove otherwise. Their assignments tended to be both undesirable and peripheral to the outcome of the war. Those few black units that were given substantive or high-profile duties, such as the famed Tuskegee airmen, were “trained” endlessly before they were deemed ready for action. The Army, after all, was not a social laboratory.
While some black units saw combat, notably the airmen and the 93rd Infantry, which fought in France, the majority of black troops were relegated to behind-the-lines service chores.
“My feeling is that the War Department authorities at the time did not feel they could fully rely on, or did not have full confidence in, African-American troops,” says Charles Hendricks, a historian with the Army Corps of Engineers. “They wanted to put them in an area that was not as critical to the outcome of the war. There was a shortage of troops, and a lot of work to be done. If it wasn’t for the shortage, they might have been slow to send some of these units anywhere. They looked around, and they felt this Alaska highway project was fairly safe.”
Four white engineering regiments had already begun work on the road in the spring of 1942, when war planners decided to speed its completion by adding three more regiments. Much to Gen. Buckner’s dismay, and contrary to his specific request, those units were black: the 93rd, 95th, and 97th Engineers.
He treated them accordingly.
The troop trains carrying Eugene Long, Henry Roberts, and 1,200 other members of the 95th arrived in Dawson Creek in the last week in May 1942. The unit had already been together for more than a year, an extraordinarily long time at that stage of the war. A white unit, the 341st Engineers, was already resident, waiting for its equipment. The blacks set up camp well away from the whites, just out of town; Long and Roberts shared a pup tent.
“Dawson Creek was the last outpost,” says Long, sitting with Roberts in the vividly carpeted dining room of the Longs’ Northeast split-level townhouse. “The train stopped,” he continues. “End of the line.”
“Far as you could go, right there,” Roberts echoes.
Eugene Long, it must be said, has a penchant for putting things dramatically, which undoubtedly proved an asset in his postwar career selling stocks and bonds. His friend Roberts is older and in somewhat less robust health. At 75, he suffers from bad legs and walks with difficulty, leaning on a cane. If his speech is sometimes halting, his memory is clear. The son of a Pennsylvania coal miner, Roberts was drafted in mid-1941, after his first year at Lehigh University; he was sent to join the 95th Engineers at Fort Belvoir, Va.
As a Belvoir regiment, the 95th drew most of its members from the surrounding region, including Baltimore, Washington, Virginia, and North Carolina. Like Roberts and Long, nearly all the men were draftees. Some had been to college; many had finished high school, but many more had but grade-school educations. One white officer who commanded blacks on the highway says his colleagues estimated the average soldier’s IQ to be in the 70s.
The division of labor was crude and arbitrary: The soldiers were classified according to their hometown and educational level. Country boys and the poorly educated were assigned the hardest physical labor. College boys and city kids were made sergeants or assigned to headquarters, according to E.C. Marshall, a Georgetown native who was a personnel clerk with the 95th.
“I was a high school graduate, in college,” says another personnel clerk, James Taylor. “So they figured, “No point putting this boy out here to do this [manual labor]. Let him stay in here to handle this kind of stuff.’” As collegians, Long and Roberts qualified to be supply sergeants, thus avoiding the hard labor of construction. “Me and Long, we had it easy,” Roberts says.
One member of the 95th stood out: the Rev. Edward Carroll, the unit chaplain. A captain, he was the unit’s only black officer. His education at Union Theological Seminary and Yale Divinity School, not to mention Dunbar High School, was light-years beyond that of his peers. At 32, he was the oldest black member of the 95th. One other thing: He wasn’t drafted, he volunteered. Carroll joined the army not out of patriotism, but to fight against racial discrimination on behalf of his fellow blacks.
“When I was teaching at Morgan [State University, in Baltimore],” Carroll says, “and a lot of the men were either being drafted or going in, I thought I’d like to go in to help them keep their perspective: What are we fighting for?”
Pictures of Carroll on the highway show a slight, bespectacled, intellectual-looking young man. Even then, this son of a Washington minister was stoop-shouldered and serious. Now in his 80s, the white-crowned Carroll could be mistaken for Bishop Desmond Tutu.
“There was a lot of ignorance concerning the Negro, the black,” he says, in the front room of his West Baltimore townhouse. “A lot of people didn’t know about that—there were vicious stories people told, that black people grew tails and so forth. At first, you know, there was a suspicion that the Negro was not capable either in intelligence or physical stamina to endure what was required in the building of that highway. I was able to point out that this wasn’t always true—that we had men who were very talented.”
“I’ve always been an advocate of an inclusive society,” Carroll says, “and I was pleased to be able to straighten out some false beliefs people might have had.”
The chaplain was perhaps the loneliest man in the unit. His lofty philosophizing was lost on the enlisted men, as were his refined tastes. The men listened to jazz and blues; he had a library of classical records. In a craps-and-poker crowd, Carroll was an avid player of chess—a man of the mind among manual laborers.
“Carroll was not popular with the troops,” says historian Twichell, “basically because his education was of such a level, his outlook was of such a level, that he really didn’t relate to these poorly educated Southern blacks. My sense was that he talked over their heads a lot. Not that he didn’t care for them, but he just didn’t really connect.”
As befit an officer, the Rev. Carroll had his own tent, and a driver as well. But he was not permitted to dine in the officers’ mess, a circumstance that disturbed some of the black noncommissioned officers. After many months on the road, the discontent bubbled over into a full-scale protest. The regimental commander, Col. Heath Twichell Sr. (the father of author Twichell) called a unitwide meeting to discuss the matter, and he decreed that Carroll was thenceforth allowed to dine with the officers.
“That relieved some of the tension,” Carroll says. “And it let them know that we are fighting for democracy, after all. When we came back to the States, came back to Louisiana, where there was strict adherence to separation, of course, the commander said, “Now Chaplain, I want you to come into the officers’ mess with me.’ As a matter of fact, he was very helpful in that he invited me to room with him, and that, too, was a demonstration of wanting to be inclusive.”
Nothing could have been further from the minds of the highway’s commanders; they were not interested in proving the worth of the Negro or in building an inclusive society. They had to build a highway.
They also had two regiments, one black and one white, stranded in Dawson Creek, waiting for road-building equipment. The white 341st Engineers had arrived more than a month ahead of the 95th, but its equipment sat on a dock in Seattle, lost in the logistical chaos of the early war. This was the war, after all, that gave us the word “snafu.”
So when the equipment intended for the 95th rolled into town two weeks later, sector commander Col. James O’Connor had to make a decision. There was only enough heavy gear—Caterpillar D-8 bulldozers, dump trucks, and road graders—for one regiment. The 95th was more experienced, having been together for more than a year. It had participated in maneuvers in North Carolina, and had worked construction at Camp A.P. Hill in Virginia. The 341st had come to Dawson Creek fresh from basic training and had been together less than two months. Nevertheless, Gen. Hoge’s work plan called for the 341st to break trail, and for the 95th to follow behind it, improving the road.
“A good case could also have been made for letting the more experienced 95th Engineers keep their equipment and take over the mission of the 341st,” writes Heath Twichell in Northwest Epic. But O’Connor stripped the 95th of its best equipment, according to Twichell and military documents, leaving it just a few token dump trucks. The blacks would have to make do with shovels, picks, handsaws, and wheelbarrows.
“The morale of one or the other regiment was bound to suffer, whatever ColonelO’Connor decided to do about the 341st’s missing bulldozers,” Twichell writes.
“The conventional wisdom in the U.S. Army of his day was that most blacks made poor soldiers and that black units tended to fall apart under stress,” Twichell goes on. “Most likely O’Connor based his estimate on a careful estimate of the relative efficiency of the two regiments, with no conscious intent to keep blacks “in their place.’ Nevertheless, his decision conveyed a blatantly familiar message to the soldiers of the 95th: We don’t think you’re as good as whites.”
Even in tiny Dawson Creek, the segregation-minded Army managed to keep the white 341st away from the black 95th. To a man, the six veterans of the 95th interviewed for this story all believe that they were the ones putting in the pioneer road from Dawson Creek.
“We were the only outfit from Dawson Creek,” insists E.C. Marshall. “We put that pioneer road through; there were no other outfits up there. After we got the road going through there good, then a civilian outfit came along behind us, which was a white outfit. We put the pioneer road in, and I think they widened it a little.”
“There coulda been some white units up there,” allows James Taylor, “but I can’t recall seeing them.”
Memory has a way of smoothing over the past; also, the highway units were spread out over almost 1,500 miles of utter wilderness. It’s possible, though, that the officers concealed the humiliating truth from their black enlisted men.
At any rate, the isolation of the black troops on the highway was not accidental, given Gen. Buckner’s insistence that blacks be “kept far enough from the settlements” to avoid interbreeding. Not only were black units assigned to remote parts of the highway, but the soldiers were forbidden from setting foot in the local hamlets, except on official business.
The assignments of the 93rd, 95th, and 97th reflected Buckner’s dictum and other generals’ concerns about the troops’ reliability. The 95th and 93rd were given fail-safe tasks—following behind white units, making minor improvements to the muddy track. Only the 97th was allowed to build a section of actual road, and it far exceeded the commanders’ low expectations.
THIS IS NO PICNIC” warned an advertisement seeking civilian workers for a Canadian-American oil pipeline, which was being built in conjunction with the highway. The ad is reprinted in Heath Twichell’s book: “Men hired for this job will be required to work and live under the most extreme conditions imaginable. Temperatures will range from 90 degrees above zero to 70 degrees below zero. Men will have to fight swamps, rivers, ice, and cold. Mosquitoes, flies, and gnats will not only be annoying but will cause bodily harm. If you are not prepared to work under these and similar conditions, DO NOT APPLY.”
The soldiers on the nearby Alcan didn’t have any choice in the matter, and they certainly didn’t earn the civilians’ high wages. But they were well outfitted for the harsh north country. In Dawson Creek, they were issued heavy parkas and thick fur hats and mittens, with a double set of long underwear. They had pyramidal tents that slept six. As for bedding, each man received not one but two heavy down-filled sleeping bags. At the depth of winter, they tucked one inside the other and crawled in fully clothed.
Most importantly, at least for the Alaskan summer, were the mosquito helmets and mud-worthy boots. Rain fell constantly during the month of June, according to headquarters reports. The rain turned the sodden ground into a quagmire that grabbed vehicles and held them by the hubcaps. Upon their arrival, the troops had wondered why Dawson Creek had wooden sidewalks; now they knew.
Mud was the common denominator of life on the highway, from Dawson Creek to Fairbanks, for black units and white. You walked out of your tent, and you sank into mud. When you re-entered your tent, you brought mud in with you. Mud grabbed the wheels of any vehicle that dared negotiate the roads; mud swallowed tools. As a ubiquitous backdrop to daily existence, mud dominates the photo albums of highway veterans.
The mud made an impression on a writer named Froelich Rainey, who traveled up and down the road while it was under construction. “We were six hours traveling less than 15 miles,” he wrote in National Geographic magazine in 1943, “and everyone was wet and plastered with mud from head to toe.”
“This awful country,” a black soldier from Virginia complained to Rainey. “Nothing but cold rain, mud, and trees!”
The American soldiers had to contend with two wholly new species of mud, native to the far north: permafrost, which was really frozen mud; and muskeg, a gloppy substance that abounded in great swampy patches. “Muskeg was just like quicksand,” says Eugene Long. “It was on up to here,” he says, indicating the level of his chest. Capable of immobilizing the mightiest bulldozer, muskeg proved a major obstacle to road building. Only a mosquito could have loved the stuff.
Permafrost was even worse. It lurked beneath seemingly solid ground. In fact, it was solid, until American bulldozers stripped away the protective layers of topsoil and vegetation. Exposed to the sun, the frozen ground melted. When the bulldozers scraped away the resulting mud, the permafrost melted even deeper. The result: “You got a canal of mud,” says Walter Mason, a white lieutenant with the 97th.
The fault lay not with the permafrost itself but in the Army’s construction methods. The Florida highway contractor who commanded the 97th saw no reason why techniques that worked in Tallahassee wouldn’t work on permafrost, too, until a native scout set him straight. The scout pointed out that rather than dig, it would be better to pile the roadbed on top of the permafrost, thus insulating the ground and ensuring that it stayed frozen solid.
The muskeg was defeated in a similar fashion. In the worst spots, the crews laid logs crosswise atop the muck, sometimes four or five layers deep. The resulting “corduroy” road surface was bumpy, but at least it was solid.
Once it hit its stride, the 97th quickly proved itself the equal of any other outfit on the highway. Starting from the port of Valdez, Alaska, the engineers worked inland 75 miles, improving a rough trail over a snowy mountain pass. Then they started on the highway, working south across permafrost and muskeg. In all, they built 235 miles of pioneer road, of which 85 miles was corduroy.
They were supposed to meet a white unit, the 18th Engineers, at the border of Alaska and the Yukon Territory. The 18th was coming up from Whitehorse, capital of the Yukon. As they neared the border, the two units began to race against each other. But the 18th, working north, was bogged down in permafrost, so when the black 97th reached the border and found no white troops to greet them, they continued south.
On Oct. 25, 1942, more than 20 miles into Canada, the 97th finally met its white counterpart. A black “cat-skinner” named Cpl. Refines Sims was out breaking trail in his heavy bulldozer when, according to legend, he saw trees falling toward him rather than away. He threw his Cat in reverse just as another Cat burst into view, driven by Pvt. Alfred Jalufka of the 18th. The supposedly “useless” black troops had outraced their white counterparts.
The breakthrough closed the last gap in the highway between Fairbanks and Dawson Creek, and it narrowed some other gaps as well. A young journalist named Richard Neuberger was on hand, and he saw to that.
Neuberger had strong integrationist feelings, and he used the moment to further his cause. He arranged a photo of Sims andJalufka shaking hands, and their grinning, grimy countenances splashed across the front pages of hometown papers across the country, a hopeful image of racial rapport.
Neuberger also penned a fulsome article on the breakthrough for Yank magazine, paying special attention to the high qualifications and the valor of the black Alcan troops. At the time, he also happened to be working as a flack for Col. O’Connor, but the line between journalism and public relations was blurry in those days. On the highway, Neuberger found a kindred spirit in the Rev. Carroll, and the two remained lifelong friends. He later was elected to the Oregon legislature, where he pioneered anti-discrimination laws, and he ultimately served in the U.S. Senate.
Down on the southern leg of the highway, the men of the 95th were in somewhat less triumphant spirits than the 97th. This wasn’t surprising, since they had been given little more than pick-and-shovel work; they hauled dirt with wheelbarrows and felled trees by hand.
“Morale was bad,” says Henry Roberts. But escape was almost impossible. A few men simply walked off the job, but they didn’t get far in the great white north before they were captured. The better-educated soldiers redoubled their efforts to enter Officer Candidate School (OCS), which was opened to blacks to amend the Army’s dearth of black officers.
“We didn’t want to get into OCS before then,” says Long. “But after we got on the highway, everybody was trying to get into OCS; they did everything they could do to get off that daggone highway.”
Admittance to OCS required two things: a certain minimum AGCT score and connections to the right people in Washington. Herbert Tucker was a protege of Brig. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis, the highest-ranking black in the Army. Tucker got in, and left the highway in September 1942; Long and Roberts stayed up north, as did Taylor and Marshall.
The lack of black officers was the greatest source of friction in the 95th. The commander, Col. Twichell, was racially liberal, but some of his underlings were not, as excerpts from censored letters show. “We have a few officers in our company that are a disgrace to the service,” wrote one Lt. Joseph Sincavage to his wife on July 15. “I still can’t get over that awful sight I saw in my own tent of an officer lying in bed and giving his [black] platoon sergeant orders for the day while the lazy scum loffed in bed.”
He continued: “Strange as it seems these dastardly punks are Southerners. The Army works for them, and the colored man is still his slave. I’d like to line them against a stone wall and then convert them into fertilizer….If this despicable corruption was in the enlisted men, they’d spend their life on the bull gang.’ ”
Army censors excised all the troops’ mail of information that would be helpful to an enemy, and passages indicating poor morale and hardship. The offending bits were snipped out with scissors.“You had to write only on one side,” says Henry Roberts, since whatever was on the other side would be lost, too.
If a letter indicated a serious morale or discipline problem, the censor conveyed excerpts to unit headquarters. A memo quoting Sincavage’s letter now reposes in a file in the basement of an Army Corps of Engineers office building at Fort Belvoir, where the 95th originated. If the men of the 95th were disgruntled, not many of them wrote home about it, for the 95th’s file contains only a half-dozen such memos, including one excerpting a letter from Roberts.
“In this unit we have a new major, from Texas,” he wrote on July 14, 1942. “The boys really almost got out of control. They disobeyed, object, and showed what would happen if he kept saying and acting as he did.
“Any day I’m looking for a report to come in stating that the major had been killed. The boys really hate him and he knows it. When the major was at Belvoir he was a Lt. Col. One day Gen. Davis visited the post and the major wouldn’t salute him. Because of this incident he was reduced to major and he has hated colored every sence.
“Then, we have a captain just the same. One day he told a boy if he didn’t be quite, he make him. The boy told him that the first time he tryed to close his mouth he would cut his throat. The boy really meant it.”
Roberts barely remembers writing the letter about the major from Texas; he has no idea to whom it was addressed. And like the other Alcan veterans interviewed, he recalls only the sharpest racial wounds. Segregation was such a part of life then that it was almost unremarkable, except perhaps to the Rev. Carroll. “There was no great shock,” says Herbert Tucker. “From grade school through college, you had always been in a segregated situation.”
“It wasn’t the people,” Long concurs. “It was the policy.”
The white officers had three things in common with the black enlisted men of the 95th. They slept in tents, subsisted on Spam, and rarely if ever saw a female with less than four legs. Building the highway demanded seven-day weeks of 12-hour workdays, which didn’t leave much time for rest and relaxation. Still, the soldiers’ camps attracted a few professional women.
“I had to try to resolve an issue of black solders dating white girls, which caused a conflict between officers and men,” recalls the Rev. Carroll, choosing his words delicately. “There was one situation where one of the soldiers was dating a gal that one of the officers had. It violated his standards, you know, being in competition with a black soldier.
“This person was a prostitute,” says Carroll, “and [the officer] got her to say that she had been raped or attempted raped by a black soldier. And I was able to come to the aid of this man, giving a character witness [at the court martial]: “No, I don’t think he would do that.’ And they freed him from it.”
The only other source of relief was alcohol, and even that was scarce. Since the towns and their expensive whisky were off-limits to blacks, the troops made do with lemon extract or vanilla extract from the kitchen, both of which contain about 20 percent alcohol.
By August, Col. Twichell recognized his unit’s morale problems and concluded that the men needed more challenging work than digging ditches and road-grading, according to his son’s book. He assembled the 95th’s best woodsmen on the banks of the swift-flowing, chest-deep, 300-foot-wide Sikanni Chief River, and gave them their orders: Bridge it.
The men gave themselves an added incentive: Conventional wisdom said that such a bridge couldn’t be completed in less than a fortnight. They bet their week’s wages that they could do it in a week. Working night and day, they felled trees, laid beams, waded into the chest-high waters. The bridge was finished in 72 hours.
“The woods rang with the sound of axes and were lit up by headlights of vehicles used to illuminate the work,” Col. Twichell penned in his unpublished memoir of the highway. “There are some Negro work chants….The woods resounded with these songs and when it was finished, all the regiment’s troubles had been washed away in the bracing waters of the Sikanni Chief.”
When the bridge was completed, the regiment held a dedication ceremony by the banks of the Sikanni Chief. “General O’Connor, who was one of those who felt the black soldier was incapable, came to the dedication,” remembers the Rev. Carroll. “I had some recordings of Marian Anderson singing ‘Ave Maria,’ and I had that up in the trees; I mean the speakers, you know.”
A photo of the bridge appeared in Time magazine on Aug. 31, 1942. “A cold Alaska river,” the caption read, although the river was actually in Canada: “Bridged in two days by U.S. Negro Engineers.”
When Refines Sims and Alfred Jalufka closed the last wilderness gap in the highway, the road was still far from passable. Winter had already arrived, and small bridges were being washed out daily as ice floes careened down slate-swift Yukon rivers; the Sikanni Chief bridge was among the few to withstand that subarctic autumn. The road was officially opened a month later; the menu, at the Nov. 20 dedication ceremony, featured “Moose Steaks.”
Unfortunately for the men, they couldn’t just eat their moose steaks and drive home. They had done their job, which was to break a rough trail across the northland; the next summer, civilian contractors and the U.S. Public Roads Administration would assume the job of improving the road: straightening its curves, replacing its wooden bridges, taming its 17-percent grades. But someone had to stay and maintain the road over the winter.
Winter brought a whole new set of hardships. The first snow fell in August. Temperatures dropped past freezing and kept going; 1943 would be the coldest winter on record, with lows around 60 below. It was a challenge just to keep the supply trucks running.
“We had road graders, and we graded every day,” says Long. “And it snowed every day.”
“We had a rule,” says Walter Mason of the 97th. “We didn’t work if it was less than 40 below.”
The men’s parkas and fur hats kept their bodies warm, but their feet suffered. “They tried several types” of boots, says Long. “Regular boots were no good. I tell you why: They freeze up. The oil in ’em freezes, and they get stiff. The only way we got any satisfaction was when we saw the Indians walking out there in that snow with moccasins on. And I thought they would freeeeze. But we started getting some moccasins from the Indians, and those were the things that kept us warm.”
The men ate the Spam they had subsisted upon since May, but their lodgings were upgraded for the winter.
“When you winterize the tent,” explains Long, “you put boards on the floor, something around the sides, and that was winterizing the tent. Believe it or not, ice is an insulating factor, and it was iced in the tent, just like when they had the old refrigerators that you had to defrost.”
For heat, each tent had a small pot-bellied stove that burned wood. The little stoves couldn’t quite defeat the chill, so some soldiers in Long and Roberts’ company fashioned crude gasoline heaters out of old steel barrels. One night, a stove exploded in a tent, and a man named Woodson was badly burned.
“He got caught in the sleeping bag,” says Long, “and he just couldn’t get out of it. See, the sleeping bag was in two parts, ’cause these were what you might call arctic sleeping bags. In other words, youd take one bag, get in one, then get in the other. They sent me to check on Woodson, ‘cause Woodson was in the hospital. I looked at him and I knew he wasn’t going to make it. They had him all wrapped up.”
“I went in there one day to look at him,” says Roberts, “and I couldn’t go back.” The man died in an Army hospital near the highway.
“I tell you one thing,” Long says. “I got stuck in it one time. I decided every time I go in that sleeping bag I’d have a knife with me. ‘Cause the zipper on one bag is on the one side; the zipper on the other bag is in the middle. So if you turn over, you in trouble, because there’s no hole.”
For all the urgency that surrounded its construction, the highway was never needed to help thwart a Japanese invasion. By the time the road opened to traffic in 1943, the Japanese had been driven out of the Aleutians, and the war in Alaska was basically over. The 95th returned to Camp Livingston in Louisiana, then shipped out to the jungles of New Guinea. “From one extreme to the other,” Long says.
The rough track forged by the American soldiers was widened and upgraded to a smooth, scenic roadway, and its name changed from the military Alcan to a more tourist-friendly Alaska Highway. The highway brought tourists and truck drivers and oil-field roughnecks to join the miners and fur trappers of the far north country. The only signs of the soldiers’ presence were a few leftover Quonset huts that became rest areas. The story of the highway, racial unpleasantness and all, would have been lost to history if not for Heath Twichell and a University of Alaska journalism professor named Lael Morgan. Their efforts, especially Morgan’s, to revive the blacks’ story is a case study in how history can be fashioned where none seems to exist.
In 1989, National Geographic assigned Morgan to write an article about the highway. She had driven the highway as a young bride in 1954, and settled permanently in the state in 1959. As she researched the road, she became fascinated by its history, especially the Army’s use of black troops. But those black soldiers had scattered to the winds. The Pentagon could provide no troop lists or regimental directories. None of the three black regiments had ever held a reunion, although such events are common among white units. The 18th Engineers has held regular reunions since the war, and the 340th published a lavish picture book. The blacks had no group history; their memories of military service were undoubtedly less pleasant.
Morgan wanted to interview blacks who had worked on the highway, but she couldn’t find any. Then she unearthed an old Stars & Stripes clipping that listed some of the men’s names and hometowns. With the help of directory assistance, she managed to locate three Alcan veterans. They led her to others, and Morgan eventually talked to seven blacks, including the Rev. Carroll, for her Geographic article. But the magazine wasn’t interested in their stories, and her article was killed.
Morgan was furious, but her contract forbade her from using her material in another publication. Yet she felt the blacks deserved recognition, since they had been deleted from most accounts of the project. The Trail of ’42, the most popular history of the highway, includes only three grainy photos of blacks, with no close-ups. She found that the official U.S. Army history of the Corps of Engineers covers the contribution of blacks in a single footnote. Since she couldn’t write her own article about the black Alcan troops, she set about making them into a news story.
The highway’s 50th anniversary provided the hook she needed. Previous anniversaries had celebrated “the same old stuff, with white soldiers shaking hands,” says Morgan, a self-described “pushy broad.” “I decided, this time would be different. It would not go down in history as just these white soldiers who built it.”
Working with James Eaton, curator of the black history archive at Florida A&M University, Morgan assembled a small network of highway veterans. Some were willing to talk, she says, while others refused even to discuss it. In January 1992, Florida A&M held a small reunion at its Tallahassee campus that drew a smattering of veterans—and equally importantly, some press coverage. Buoyed by the success, Morgan began a campaign to win the men official recognition, however belated.
At about the same time, Heath Twichell was collecting material for Northwest Epic. He wanted to include the black troops, so he placed ads in black newspapers across the country. About 60 veterans responded, but only six had actually served in Alaska. He interviewed them for his book, which devotes a chapter to the black soldiers’ travails. Twichell sent their names to Morgan and Valerie Smith of Florida A&M, offering to collaborate, but they never responded.
That spring, Morgan staged an exhibit at the University of Alaska depicting the blacks’ hardships. She called it “Miles and Miles.” As fate would have it, Gen. Colin Powell happened to pass through Fairbanks that summer, but by the time he did, in April, “Miles and Miles” had been taken down. The enterprising Morgan reassembled the display in a conference room of the hotel where Powell was staying, and arranged for a special showing.
“I had no idea black men had ever done anything like this,” Morgan says Powell told her. “And they, too, are deserving of recognition.” Powell has long extolled the achievements of the Buffalo Soldiers. Here was a less glamorous, but probably more representative, slice of the black military experience. Powell told her he wanted the exhibit in the Pentagon, and Morgan took him at his word.
But holding the Pentagon to Powell’s promise proved to be almost as great an undertaking as the highway itself, involving much strategic maneuvering and a few bureaucratic skirmishes. Morgan called the Army’s public-affairs office and sought permission to install “Miles and Miles” in the Pentagon. Although she believed that Gen. Powell had indicated his interest in both an exhibit and official recognition, her requests were ignored at first.
The public affairs office could think of no more imaginative response than to shunt Morgan’s inquiries over to—of course!—the affirmative action office, headed by a gentle civilian named Andrew Molloy. The bureaucratic battle lines were drawn. Molloy’s military superiors had two objections: First, the episode typified an era which today’s military brass are eager to bury. Second, the black soldiers’ ditch-digging and road-building work was just a little too close to the chain gang for comfort.
“There was concern about raising the social injustices of the past,” says Molloy, who refers to the exhibit and ceremony in military terms, as an “action.” “Then it was, “What’s the minimum we can do?’ If it hadn’t been that Ms. Morgan was armed with that comment from General Powell, the action wouldn’t have gone anywhere.”
Only after Morgan enlisted Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) did the “action” move forward, Molloy says. Molloy’s higher-ups, who had been reluctant to disgorge the $8,000 he initially requested for the exhibit, now coughed up more than $20,000. That money paid for a handsome display case for “Miles and Miles,” which now stands in a Pentagon corridor. Once Stevens became interested, the Pentagon scheduled a special ceremony honoring the black Alcan units on June 14, the Army’s traditional birthday.
Even then, Molloy charges, the Pentagon was stingy with the blacks. He had to fight more bureaucratic battles to get his command to buy lunch for the attendees, expected to number only a few dozen. He was unsuccessful at securing for them the mementos that are commonly given out at such ceremonies, such as Pentagon paperweights. At the ceremony, the generals in attendance nearly outnumbered the 31 veterans of the black engineer regiments, six of whom were white officers. Each veteran rose as his name was called, and was presented with a special “Certificate of Appreciation” designed by Molloy.
“They were moved that the Army was big enough and humane enough to say, “We’re sorry you were treated this way,’ ” Molloy says.
Strangely, though, none of the veterans interviewed seem especially resentful about their Alcan service. “We didn’t realize how important it was,” says Long. “We didn’t realize what we were going through, at the time.” Adds E.C. Marshall, “There’ve been so many hurts, you can’t remember each one.”
“It’s really strange. I don’t think the men carry any bitterness about it,” says Amelie Oubre, whose father worked on the highway. “I do. I’m kind of upset it got done to them. I think it was buried for a reason: because they didn’t really want to acknowledge that this had happened. Why, when the Pentagon had this ceremony, why were black people who were drug addicts on the news?”
Walter Mason disagrees that the highway project constituted an injustice to black troops. “I don’t think there was a single man that went up there whose life wasn’t enhanced by this adventure,” he says. “By that I mean they got skills. In the last year or two, I’ve come into contact with a lot of them. Most did a lot better than they would have without the military. I’m a great believer in the military.”
The men of the 95th had, in fact, received official recognition of their wartime service in the form of the Meritorious Unit Commendation, which is given to outfits that distinguish themselves in service other than combat. “That’s the appropriate award,” says Corps historian Hendricks.
Nevertheless, Morgan counters, many of the soldiers did not actually receive their commendations, because they had transferred to other units or were otherwise scattered during the course of the war. Whether a token award can make up for the injustices of the past—or the present—is another question.
After they left the Army—and well after segregation in its official forms ceased to exist—the black men of the Alcan did not escape segregation. The life of each one has been touched and even shaped by the American racial dementia; they worked in “black” jobs, lived in mostly black neighborhoods.
Herbert Tucker stayed in the Army as an ROTC instructor, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He then served in Mayor Walter Washington’s cabinet as head of the Department of Environmental Services (now part of the Department of Public Works); he got the job when striking sanitation workers demanded that a black person be put in charge of their department.
Eugene Long became a stocks and bonds salesman and went to work for a firm that had transferred from white ownership to black. Henry Roberts started a D.C. laundry with four brothers. Empire Laundry prospered, cleaning linen for Howard University and the Department of Justice until the riots of 1968, when its Sheriff Road NE plant was burned and looted. The business never recovered. He and Roberts live not far from each other in Northeast. The Rev. Carroll rose within the United Methodist Church, where he took it upon himself to heal the church’s racial divisions, he says, “interpret[ing] the white churches for the black and the black for the white.”
It didn’t escape Carroll’s notice that last June’s Pentagon ceremony honoring the black units—and the black units only—was itself a vestige of segregation. “Honoring Afro-American veterans in a separate location is tantamount to a segregated celebration,” he said, before delivering the ceremony’s invocation to the assembled Pentagon brass, the 31 veterans, and their relatives. “There should have been a total celebration honoring the achievement of all the engineers who built the road.”
In a literal sense, the Pentagon ceremony honored this group of men, now fading with age, for what they had done long ago. But in another, more bittersweet sense, it marked what they could have accomplished, given proper equipment and training—and, most importantly, if something more had been expected of them.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.