William Griggs and the 97th Engineers
A Soldier’s Perspective
William E. Griggs (born Baltimore, Maryland, 1917) was the official regimental photographer of the US Army’s 97th Engineers Battalion. The 97th was an all-Black battalion responsible for the construction of the Alaska Highway north from Slana, Alaska to the Tanana River and south to the Alaska-Canada border, a task accomplished with such efficiency that the battalion actually pushed well into the Yukon. Griggs took over 1,000 images of the construction of the Highway, as well as his battalion’s training at Elgin Field, Florida and their journey northwest by rail to Seattle and then north by ship to Valdez, Alaska.
Of the 10,670 troops assigned to Alaska, 3,695 of them were African-Americans; they were seldom, however, mentioned in US Government press releases. Growing up in Baltimore, one of the most resolutely segregated cities in America during much of his lifetime, Griggs was certainly not surprised by the official policy that separated American soldiers into racially defined units. The assignment of many African-Americans to engineering and labour units also reflected an unfounded period concern for their ability to perform active combat duty. In addition to other all Black units in the Army Corps of Engineers (the 93rd, 95th and 388th) Griggs’ unit made a major contribution to the completion of what was, at the time, a military undertaking of the most pressing nature.
At the end of the War, all of Griggs’ original negatives and prints were forwarded to Washington as records of the construction. Sadly, all of this material has subsequently disappeared. Thankfully Griggs had the foresight to produce one set of prints for his own records. This rare collection of photographs (presented here in digital format copied by Griggs from his album of original prints) provides a unique document of the construction of the Highway’s northern section and, more importantly, is a lasting record of the major contribution of African-Americans.
Following his experience in the north, Griggs received the support of his commanding officer and entered the Officer Candidate School at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, where he trained as a field radio specialist, becoming a Second Lieutenant. He was subsequently stationed in the Philippines and ended the war in Japan. Included here are several images shot by Griggs’ on his Brownie camera of these later postings. At the end of the war he was promoted to the rank of First Lieutenant and then completed a Masters degree in Education at NYU. Griggs lives in Baltimore and remains an avid photographer. In 2002, his photographs of the Alaska Highway were published by the University of Mississippi Press.