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1942 - Great Black North

In the early days of World War II, thousands of black U.S. Army soldiers built the Alaska-Canada Highway, defeated mosquitoes, mud, and miles of wilderness in just six months. Breaking the silence of history took another 50 years.

Eugene Long and his wife Josephine were flipping through the TV channels one December evening five years ago when they came across a documentary on PBS. Titled Alaska at War, the film covered the role of America’s northernmost territory in World War II. Because Long had spent the first year of the war in Alaska, building the 1,400-mile road from British Columbia to Fairbanks now known as the Alaska Highway, he watched with interest.

The film spun through the major events of the war in Alaska: the opening of the oil fields, the Japanese bombing raid on the Dutch Harbor settlement, the struggle to recapture the Aleutian Islands, and the construction of the highway. Originally called the Alaska-Canada Military Highway, or Alcan, it was intended to provide an overland supply route from Canada to Fairbanks and the Bering Strait at a time when Japanese subs threatened coastal shipping.

The highway project had been a formative experience for the 18-year-old Long, who’d been drafted out of his freshman year at Howard University. But as he watched the TV movie, it gradually dawned on him that something—someone—was missing.

“Not one black soldier was shown,” says Long, 69. “Everybody on there was white.”

Long’s outfit, the 95th Engineers, was one of three black regiments deployed to the highway in 1942. The 1,225 enlisted men of the 95th were commanded by some 52 officers, all of whom were white except the chaplain. Black troops comprised more than a third of the 10,000 soldiers who worked on the road. It was a thankless job: They built day and night, all summer, through deep mud, surrendering their blood to savage mosquitoes. Winter turned the landscape into a frozen wasteland. When the road was finally finished, none of the soldiers was sorry to leave. And now this film slighted their contribution, Long felt.

“Not one black soldier,” Long repeats. “My wife immediately dispatched a letter....” On cue, Josephine Long digs in a drawer and retrieves a worn typescript addressed to the documentary's producer, Garry Goldin of Aurora Films in Juneau. He holds it for a while, reading, then puts it down.

“They never answered,” he says.



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