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 (2,400-kilometer) 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."
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.
Before the project, black soldiers were considered incapable of front-line duty or sensitive deployments and were largely relegated to housekeeping and clerk duties, said historian and author Lael Morgan, who researched the project for its 50th anniversary. However, a shortage of men prompted the deployment of black soldiers to help carve out the initial route, said Morgan, who is largely credited with introducing their story to modern audiences.
The gravel road opened to supply trucks and other vehicles in November 1942. The following year, contractors worked on the permanent road, following much of the original route. A 1944 military documentary called it "one of the wonders of the modern world." The highway, which runs from Dawson Creek in British Columbia to Alaska's Delta Junction, opened to general civilian traffic in 1948.
But little more than a historical footnote mentioned the black soldiers, with only a fraction of photographs showing them.
"I'm delighted that credit is finally going to where credit is due," Morgan said. "We owe them for a job well done."
The recognition didn't come without dissent. Several people testified in favor of honoring all who worked on the highway — a stance adopted by Republican state Rep. David Eastman of Wasilla, who cast the only no vote. Singling out a group for their race is another form of segregation, in his view.
State Sen. Tom Begich said the point of the recognition was not to minimize anyone's work but to acknowledge a group that played a role in the battle for integration, whose contribution was historically downplayed.
"We often acknowledge the construction of the Alcan," the Anchorage Democrat said. "This is simply going a step further and saying there was a contribution made by African Americans as well."