Miles and Miles of Miles and Miles
The Alaska Highway ranks as one of the greatest engineering feats of modern times: 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometres) of pioneer road, punched through the sub-Arctic frontier of the northwest corner of North America in less than eight months. Working under tough conditions of bitter cold followed by the long days of a northern summer, the United States Army Corps of Engineers managed to build a rough road linking the railhead at Dawson Creek, British Columbia with Delta Junction, Alaska. The Americans completed the highway under the pressures of war, believing that the project could play a pivotal role in the conflict that spanned the globe and had the Japanese poised to attack the Pacific coast.1
The passage of time has softened our collective understanding of the experience of the Second World War. This is particularly true of the home front which, unlike the battlegrounds, has rarely been memorialized in high profile movies and public celebrations. As a consequence, North Americans have lost much of the memory of the fear that gripped the continent in 1941 and 1942. Japanese planes had destroyed much of Pearl Harbor, damaging American power in the Pacific. In a series of bold attacks, Japanese forces overran Hong Kong and Singapore, adding to their hold on much of East Asia. The European theatre was just as alarming. Axis troops controlled the continent and much of North Africa and were poised to expand eastward toward the Soviet Union. In the early months of 1942, German U-boats attacked targets on the east coast of North America, bringing the threat of war closer to home.
Throughout the winter and spring of 1942, the real prospect of an enemy invasion cast a dark pall over the Allied world. Australia had plans to retreat to the urban rim in the south and southeast corner of the country, should the Japanese attack. New Zealand feared an airborne assault and prepared for the worst. Coastal defenses were improved and, where missing, hastily erected on the east and west coast of North America, and plans went forward for the internment of Japanese-Canadians, who were viewed as potential agents of or sympathizers with Japanese aggression. When the Japanese occupied the Aleutian Islands of Kiska and Attu in June 1942, the threat of an invasion seemed all that much more real, raising the level of fear across the continent.
1 There is a large and growing literature on the construction of the Alaska Highway during the Second World War. Health Twitchell. Northwest Epic: The Building of the Alaska Highway. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992 provides the most comprehensive narrative of the construction period. See also Ken Coates, North to Alaska. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1992; Ken Coates and W. R. Morrison. The Alaska Highway in World War II: The U.S. Army of Occupation in Canada's Northwest. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992, Ken Coates and W.R. Morrison, Working the North: Labor and the Northwest Defense Projects, 1942-1946. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 1994. Stan Cohen Alcan and Canol: A Pictorial History of Two Great World War II Construction Projects. Missoula, Montana: Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, 1992, S. Cohen, The Trail of '42: A Pictorial History of the Alaska Highway. Missoula, Montana: Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, 1979, William Griggs, The World War II Black Regiment That Built the Alaska Military Highway: A Photographic History. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2002, David Remley, Crooked Road: The Story of the Alaska Highway. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1976, Ken Coates, ed. The Alaska Highway. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1985.