Black GIs helped carve a road across frozen hell

July 04, 1992|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Staff Writer

When they arrived in Alaska 50 years ago, Albert E. France and Donald W. Nolan Sr. were two seasick soldiers from Maryland. Within a week, they were among hundreds of black troops carving a highway through the frozen wilderness, a road that many presumed these poor Southerners were not worthy to help build.

Eight months and 1,442 miles later, the Alaska Highway opened. More than 10,000 American soldiers battled blinding snow and temperatures as much as 70 degrees below zero to finish the road. But, at the time, little was mentioned of the 3,695 blacks who participated in the engineering feat.

Today, when the city of Anchorage celebrates the Fourth of July, Mr. France and Mr. Nolan will be riding in a parade down main street. They are among a handful of black veterans invited to the 49th state to celebrate the Alaska Highway's 50th birthday and to recognize the African-American soldiers who helped build it.

The blue skies and balmy 75 degree temperatures predicted for the festivities will be a welcome surprise for these two septuagenarians who have never forgotten the cold.

"It was awful cold and it snowed for days," recalled Mr. France, then a 25-year-old sergeant in the 93rd Engineers Company and today a 75-year-old retired railroad worker from Cooksville. It was the coldest winter on record in the territory.

"Leather would freeze," recalled Mr. Nolan, a 72-year-old retired postal worker from Northwest Baltimore. "We'd take galoshes, rubber galoshes -- we called them 'Arctics' -- and we'd wear three, four pairs of socks. We would double up on pants. We slept on the ground in pup tents."

Food was never plentiful. C-rations, bittersweet chocolate and "hardcracks" might be all a soldier would get to eat after the harsh climate cut off supply routes.

"We did kill a bear, a huge black bear," said Mr. Nolan, "about 9, 10 feet high, and those chops were delicious."

When the snow stopped, the rains started and the rivers swelled. In summer, mosquitoes droned like airplanes and the "muskeg," a uniquely Alaskan bog, swallowed tractors.

The project, known as the Alaska-Canada Military Highway, cut across five mountain ranges and 100 rivers. Besides the troops, 16,000 civilians worked on the road. Known as the Alcan, it snaked from Dawson Creek, British Columbia, to Delta Junction, Alaska, south of Fairbanks. The highway was commissioned to ensure a secure land route between the United States and its most western shore in case of a Japanese invasion.

In that barren landscape, the off-work hours could seem exceptionally long. This was a segregated Army. And the U.S. commander for Alaska, Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., after grudgingly agreeing to accept black troops on the project, ordered them barred from towns and cities.

The men entertained themselves shooting craps and throwing horseshoes and playing ball when the weather broke.

"Our commander told us, 'Men don't worry, every tree you'll see, you'll see a woman behind it," said Mr. France. "He didn't tell no lie because there were no trees."

When a bridge along a section of the highway in British Columbia was completed in a record 4 1/2 days, the chaplain, the Rev. Edward S. Carroll, brought out his Victrola to celebrate.

Mr. Carroll, today a retired Methodist bishop from Baltimore, was the only black officer among the troops. While ministering to the 95th Engineers, he stressed to the men that although "they were considered a labor battalion . . . they had just as much to contribute as any soldier, any person."

"They were men of intelligence," said the 82-year-old clergyman, who "could endure the rigors of that climate."

On Nov. 20, 1942, the road was dedicated. When Mr. Carroll left Alaska that year, he was sent to an Army camp in Louisiana where it "was 100 in the shade."

After spending another two years building runways and roads on the Aleutian islands of Attu and Kiska, Sergeant France shipped out to the Burma Road in Southeast Asia; Corporal Nolan found himself on a ship bound for the lower 48 states.

The Army offered him other opportunities, but Corporal Nolan had already decided, "No more Army." The discrimination he suffered as an enlisted man was enough.

And yet, Mr. Nolan, with his manila envelope full of snapshots of snow-covered Quonset huts, frozen roadbeds and spindly pines clawing at the moon, was glad to be counted among the Alcan highway troops: "You have something to tell your kids."

The contributions of black soldiers first gained recognition through the efforts of Lael Morgan, a journalist and professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage. While researching a magazine piece, Ms. Morgan discovered that more than a third of the troops were black. She set out to find them.

"I was told originally I wouldn't find any because black men don't live as long as white men," Ms. Morgan said.

With the help of the Black Archives Research Center and Museum at Florida A&M University, Ms. Morgan initially tracked down 70 of the 1,300 soldiers. A museum exhibit on the blacks who worked on the Alaska Highway was created. It is among the special events -- from dog sled races to a golf tournament on the frozen Bering Sea to a fiddling festival -- heralding the highway during this year-long celebration.

Today, the highway that took eight months to build can be crossed in five days in a car. And, when Donald Nolan is finished parading down main street, he hopes to get in a van, with a camcorder in hand, and drive.

"I just want to see how that road looks," he said.

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