Alaska salutes black soldiers' work on highway during WWII
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — 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 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.
State lawmakers voted this year to set aside each Oct. 25 to honor black soldiers who worked on the Alcan Highway, now called the Alaska Highway. They note the soldiers' work became a factor in the integration of the Army in 1948.
With the anniversary of the highway's completion approaching, its history is gaining attention with multiple events in Alaska this summer.
Larkins, now 96 and living in New Orleans, applauds lawmakers for finally recognizing their role.
"It's way past time," said Larkins, who recently was back in Alaska for commemoration events.
A road link between Alaska and the Lower 48 was long a dream for territorial officials, but disagreements over a route and necessity caused delays until December 1941. The Japanese attack on Hawaii's Pearl Harbor sparked an urgency to build the link out of concern that the U.S. territory and West Coast shipping lanes also were vulnerable. The southwest tip of Alaska's Aleutian Islands chain is just 750 miles (1,206 kilometers) from Japan.
Larkins worked on both sides of the border with the 93rd Engineers, one of several black regiments sent north to help cut and hack through virgin wilderness. Along the way were clouds of mosquitoes, boggy land, permafrost and temperatures ranging from 90 degrees to minus 70 during one of the coldest years on record.
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."