Alaska lauds black sol­diers’ work on famed WWII high­way

The Washington Times Daily - - NATION - BY RACHEL D’ORO

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.

Mr. Larkins, now 96 and liv­ing in New Or­leans, ap­plauds law­mak­ers for fi­nally rec­og­niz­ing their role.

“It’s way past time,” said Mr. 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 from Ja­pan.

Mr. 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 neg­a­tive 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, Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

WWII vet­eran Leonard Larkins was one of the d’Oro who worked on the Alaska High­way. This year marks the 75th an­niver­sary of the high­way’s con­struc­tion.

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