The monument at the starting point of the Alaska Highway
Ten years ago, WWII veteran Henry Geyer came to the Veterans Breakfast Club and told us about building the Alaskan (Alcan) Highway with the Army Corps of Engineers in 1942. He didn’t have fond memories of the Yukon wilderness.
“I hated it!” he said.
“We’d wake up and start building or driving a truck or tractor. We lived in tents until they gave us Quonset huts in pieces. He had to build them ourselves in the middle of winter. All these little bolts. I got frostbite, we all did. My fingers still go numb in cold weather.”
Only 60 years later did Henry come to appreciate his role in the largest construction project of World War II and “one of the top 10 construction achievements of the 20th Century.”
Nine days before Pearl Harbor, Henry left his home in Pittsburgh for the Army. He was one of the first men drafted from Allegheny County in anticipation of a war many expected. With no experience in building or engineering, Henry landed in the Army Corps of Engineers, the 35th Engineer Battalion. In March 1942, he was sent to Alaska, a critical front in the war against Japan.
The western tip of the Aleutians lay only 650 miles from the Japanese mainland. If the Japanese were to invade the United States, strategists reasoned, they would probably start with Alaska and follow the Great Circle Route to the West Coast. The reverse was also true. Alaska and its 1,000 mile Aleutian archipelago was nature’s shortest path to a direct strike against Japan.
The problem was that in 1942, this strategically critical territory had no roads leading to it from the lower 48 states. All supplies for Alaska’s defense had to come by sea or air. So President Roosevelt approved a crash construction project to carve a 1,500 mile highway in the Yukon in one year. The final route—the most forbidding of the five possible ways north–would cut through the Rocky Mountains, from Dawson Creek, British Columbia, to Big Delta, Alaska. To get the job done, the Army sent 11,000 men, Henry Geyer among them.
The logistical problems were legion. How do you bring thousands of trucks, tractors and other heavy equipment into a wilderness without roads? The answer was to build a “pre-road” or “pioneer route” out of “corduroy”—thousands of spruce timbers laid side-by-side over boggy soil called “muskeg.” Then, trucks would roll in on the corduroy and start work on the finished, gravel highway.
The work was tedious, heavy and, of course, cold. It was the kind of cold that ruined equipment under ordinary use. Trucks that jerked suddenly snapped axles and broke in half. Henry drove one of those trucks before getting himself assigned to an indoor job as a typist. His typing prowess saved him from the minus-30 degree temperatures and, later, combat.
The United States paid the full cost for the construction, minus timber and gravel, which the Canadian government supplied. Canada also waived any taxes, duties, or immigration rules while the GIs worked on the project.
To complete the project in time, the War Department reluctantly sent thousands of African American soldiers—members of the 93rd, 95th, and 97th Engineer Regiments—to work alongside the white soldiers. Jim Crow was the order of the day, even in the Army-occupied Yukon, and the black soldiers were shunted out of frame when camera crews came up to document the project.
The final cost of the Alaska Highway will never be completely known. The official tab was $138 million, though that didn’t include the cost of the GI labor. A few politicians denounced the treasure spent on this lonely Arctic road. None howled louder than the flinty Senator from Missouri Harry S Truman, whose Senate subcommittee was dedicated to fighting waste and profiteering in war contracts.
Decades after the war, Henry, who became a long haul truck driver, had little to remind him of what he had accomplished in Alaska but his winter-numbed fingertips. Then, in 2003, residents of Fort Nelson, Alaska, invited Henry and other veterans of the 35th Engineer Battalion to come back to the Yukon and celebrate what they had built 60 years earlier.
In 1942, Fort Nelson was a small, poorly supplied, and isolated community where travel was only possible when the mud paths froze solid. The Alaskan Highway transformed the quality of life, and Fort Nelson became a thriving town.
Henry’s hatred for Alaska evaporated within minutes of his return. He was amazed at the road, how it was used, and how it transformed the community. “I forgot all about the aches and pains I had.”
The town’s people held a parade, presented Henry with gifts at a ceremony, and some even asked for his autograph. The local Ramada Inn insisted that Henry and his wife stay for free in the bridal suite throughout his 12-day visit. “If it wasn’t for guys like you we wouldn’t be here,” the hotel’s manager told Henry.
Many Alaska’s residents remember, while most of us in the lower 48 forget, that Japan captured some Aleutian islands there in 1942, the first time since the War of 1812 that American soil was under foreign occupation. The Alaskan Highway was seen as a lifeline to the United States.
“I used to complain it was a waste of time,” says Henry. “When I finally got back to see what we had made, it was all different. We did a beautiful job. It’s beautiful.”
Henry appears in the PBS’s American Experience documentary on building the Alaskan Highway.
Read a wonderful interview with Henry about his work on the highway at the Royal British Columbia Museum website.