Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Alaskan Highway and WWII

Seventy-five years ago this month, the Alaskan Highway (or Al-Can) was completed after eight months of back-breaking work in temperatures that ranged from ninety degrees above to seventy degrees below zero. In fact, a recruiting notice warned “men will have to fight swamps, rivers, ice, and cold. Mosquitos, flies, and gnats will not only be annoying, but cause bodily harm. If you are not prepared to work under these and similar conditions, do not apply.”

Obviously not a job for the faint of heart!

Al-Can workers camp
Discussions about the necessity of a road connecting Canada and the United States had been held on  and off since the mid-1920s, with the idea first coming to light during the Yukon gold rush in the 1890s. Feasibility studies were conducted during the 1930s to determine possible routes, but it wasn’t until the attack on Pearl Harbor that work begin in earnest. The U.S. government had grave concerns that the Japanese would follow their destruction of the Pacific Naval fleet with an invasion of Alaska.

There were four routes considered for the highway, but each had serious drawbacks. As a result, a fifth route that combined the best features of A, B, and C was devised. The catch? The path had not been surveyed, so the Army Corp of Engineers would have to work out the details as construction occurred. Once the political details were nailed down (the U.S. and Canada had to decide who paid for what, who owned what, etc.), the project commenced on March 8, 1942.

Colonel (later Brigadier General) William Hoge was put in charge. A West Point graduate and veteran of WWI, he later handled putting in bridges and roads on the jungle-filled Bataan Peninsula. The plan for the Al-Can was to start at each end and meet in the middle. Winter still held Alaska in its grip when construction commenced, and progress was slow. Until the big equipment could arrive, supplies were brought in by dog sled, and workers used shovels and pick-axes to carve out the road.

With the Japanese attack on the Aleutian Islands in June 1942, and realizing the project needed more men if it was to be completed on schedule, the War Department sent African America troops to fill the staffing void. At a time when the army was still segregated, this was a highly unusual decision and not made lightly. Ultimately 11,000 troops and 7,500 civilians were assigned to the project.

The two road segments were linked on October 25, 1942, creating a road nearly 1,700 miles in length. (With repaving and rerouting, it has been since reduced to 1,387 miles). A ribbon-cutting celebration was held on November 20th, and supply trucks and other vehicles began to rumble up and down its length. Permits to travel the road were required, and it was not open to civilian use until two years after the war. Deemed a “modern wonder of the world” at its completion, the project cost over $138 million dollars.

A freelance writer for over ten years, Linda Shenton Matchett is the author of several romance novellas. Under Fire, the first in her trilogy about WWII War Correspondent/Amateur Sleuth Ruth Brown was released in July by eLectio PublishingAmazon, or your favorite independent bookstore. Visit Linda at www.LindaShentonMatchett.com.


  1. So interesting that the huge project started in the middle of WWII...a piece of our history that I did not know. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Wow! An amazing and informative post about the Alaskan Highway right in the middle of WWII. Thank you for sharing this historical endeavor.

  3. I was also unfamiliar with the timing of this project. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Fascinating post. I had no idea this happened. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Thank you for sharing your interesting post. My husband and I are thinking of driving to Alaska next summer.