The Al-Can Highway

Since we’re on an Engineer kick, we might as well talk about one of the more impressive feats of engineering during World War II.

With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the defense of US possessions in the Pacific took priority. Among the many outposts of America that were to be defended, and late serve as a springboard for attacks on Japan, were installations in Alaska, then a territory of the US. There was no overland route to resupply our forces there. The only method of supply was via ship. This method was thought vulnerable to Japanese surface raiders and submarines, and further imposed requirements on the already strained shipping available. Accordingly, the US entered into an agreement to build a road from British Columbia, through the Yukon to Alaska.

Construction began in March of 1942 on a route that would stretch almost 1400 miles. Incredibly, by October of that same year.

Now, this wasn’t exactly a modern superhighway. It was in the vernacular of the day, a “pioneer road.”  Most of the road was a simple dirt scraping through the forested wilderness.  Many stream crossings were simple fords, or at best, expedient log bridges. Travel along the route would be possible for 2-1/2 ton 6×6 trucks, but your family car would be helplessly bogged down. Nevertheless, a road route was now available to support the buildup of forces in Alaska, as well as to support the transfer of airplanes to the Soviet Union for Lend-Lease.

As soon as the route itself was finished, improvements along the most troublesome parts of the route began, principally replacing  fords with bridges and grading some of the worst steep spots.  Gravel roadbed was laid along many stretches, particularly those areas that had been subject to permafrost, and other troublesome sections of road were replaced with “corduroy” road.  Corduroy road is a roadbed of logs laid spanwise across the roadbed to support vehicles to prevent them from sinking into a quagmire of mud. It if from this bumpy surface texture that the pants take their name.

Under the agreement signed with Canada, immediately following the war, the road was transferred to Canada, and has been improved and paved almost continuously since then. It is still the only road route from America’s lower 48 to Alaska.

Demographics meant that the Army in World War II would draft large number of African Americans. Policy dictated that they would serve in roughly proportion to their population in the US, about 10 percent. Ergo, roughly 10 percent of the Army in WWII would be comprised of African Americans. But the policy of barring blacks from serving in combat units (with the exception of a relative handful of all black units) meant that supply and support services such as the Engineers would have disproportionately large numbers of black units. Again, the near ban on black combat units meant that divisional engineer combat battalions would be white, so those general service engineer regiments and separate battalions were often all black units. The majority of engineer general service regiments (EGSR) tasked with the construction of the Al-Can Highway were Negro units. Comprised mostly of unskilled laborers (due to poor literacy in the pre-war black population), they still managed to operate every bit as well as the all white EGSRs they served alongside.

4 thoughts on “The Al-Can Highway”

    1. Yes, but watching all too few history segments during the show, they note that “ice road” trucking came about as the military needed to move supplies during the winter for the Al-Can.

  1. My grandfather worked on “Can” part of that road. He’d leave his wife and four kids for 3/4ths of the year at a time to do so, just to have a job.

    I wonder if today’s generation is up to such a task…

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