1942 Cpl. Refines Sims Jr., left, and Pvt. Alfred Jalufkamet in the middle.
By CORNELIA DEAN
Published: July 23, 2012
In 1942, the Army Corps of Engineers assigned more than 10,000 men to build the Alaska Canada Military Highway. About a third were black soldiers: members of three newly formed “Negro regiments” the corps accepted for the job because it had no choice, other engineering units having been dispatched to the Pacific theater.
The black soldiers faced vicious cold, heat, mosquitoes and mud, like everyone else. But they also had to contend with relentless racism.
The Army was still segregated; black units were led by white officers. As late as 1936, a manpower assessment produced at the Army War College described black soldiers as shiftless, dishonest and lazy. “Say what you will,” the report declared, “the American Negro is still a primitive human being.”
It was a view the Army as a whole embraced. The officers in charge were usually Southerners who supposedly “understood” blacks but in fact disparaged and despised them. Senior commanders of the road-building effort, one of them the son of a Confederate general, declared that blacks (often they called them something else) might be able to wield picks and shovels, but not the heavy equipment the job required.
So when they were issued heavy equipment, black units sometimes received vehicles otherwise headed for the scrapheap. And sometimes they lost even that to white units whose equipment was delayed or damaged.
Heath Twichell, a historian and retired Army colonel who wrote “Northwest Epic” (St. Martin’s Press, 1992), a history of the highway, known as the Alcan, said in an interview that his father, Col. Heath Twichell Sr., was assigned to the roadwork and was “heartsick” when he was given command of a black unit. He thought the assignment would kill his chances of a promotion.
But he soon realized that all his men needed was a hard job they could do well and get credit for. They found it at the Sikanni Chief, a fast-flowing river through a gorge 300 feet wide in the mountains of British Columbia.
In what the elder Mr. Twichell wrote later was “72 hours of ceaseless effort,” at times by the light of their truck headlights, the men felled trees, squared timbers, assembled trestles and waded chest deep into the ice-cold river to float them into position. They cut and assembled wood to form the bridge’s decking, and built and installed heavy timber cribs to protect its footings from ice and driftwood.
A photograph of this bridge, with a caption saying who built it, appeared in Time magazine in August 1942. More important, the unit had won a reputation on the ground as fast workers who produced sturdy bridges under highly adverse conditions, and who could operate and maintain their heavy equipment in the Alcan’s cold, heat and mud.
As the elder Mr. Twichell wrote in a letter home, “We hear less and less about the supposed deficiencies of Negro troops.”
In October, two crews, one moving north and one moving south, completed the road’s last link. Later, The New York Times reported what happened when they “met head-on in the spruce forests of the Yukon Territory.”
“Corporal Refines Sims Jr., a Negro from Philadelphia, was driving south with a bulldozer when he saw trees starting to topple over on him,” the account said. “Slamming his big vehicle into reverse, he backed out just as another bulldozer, driven by Private Alfred Jalufka of Kennedy, Texas, broke through the underbrush.”
It continued, “Immediately after this Yukon version of driving the golden spike, Sims and Jalufka turned their bulldozers around and began widening the opening.”
The story captured the public’s imagination. The Engineering News Record called it “two races, working together to build a lifeline to Alaska’s beleaguered defenders amidst the most spectacularly rugged terrain and horrendous weather conditions imaginable.” The Army even promoted the story in Yank, its magazine for the troops.
When the highway was officially dedicated, Corporal Sims, Private Jalufka and two other soldiers, one black and one white, were there to hold the ceremonial ribbon.
Six years later, President Harry S. Truman ordered the Army desegregated, and many historians cite the Alcan experience as helping make that possible. On its Web site, the Federal Highway Administration calls the Alcan “the road to civil rights.”