The Corps of Engineers had, from the beginning, the challenging task of punching through a rough pioneer trail. Charged with completing the assignment in eight months—by the fall of 1942—the Corps had little time for road design, careful location, bridge construction, and the placement of proper culverts and other elements of a finished highway. They were to blast their way through the sub-Arctic forest and, with a surprising amount of attention from the North American media, reach Alaska in the shortest possible time. And blast they did, moving with impressive speed along hastily surveyed routes. They faced formidable barriers, ranging from frigid late-winter temperatures to swarms of mosquitoes and black flies in the summer time. The Corps worked without a break during the short and intense summer season, struggling to cope in the northern sections with miles of permafrost, frozen ground that was transformed into knee-deep summer mud when the overburden was stripped away by bulldozers. The Corps improvised, building long corduroy roads, using logs and tree branches as a foundation for the road surface, thus providing an insulating cushion which prevented the permafrost from melting. Quickly-built bridges were designed to last a single season, with little expectation that they would be pressed into permanent use.
Brigadier General Sturdevant offered a succinct description of the road-building enterprise:
In a typical operation of a regiment engaged in breaking new trail through the forest, we find in the lead, of course, the locating party which indicated the centre line by blazes or pieces of cloth. The clearing crew with three shifts of tractor operators followed. One large bulldozer ran along the marked centre line clearing a narrow trail. Other large machines were then assigned tasks along this trail. Pushing the trees laterally to both sides, they made a clearing from 60 to 90 feet wide. Having finished a task, a bulldozer would leap-frog forward to its next similar task. On much of the route the forest growth was dense but the trees were usually not large nor deeply rooted. Where the ground was firm, 10 or 12 bulldozers could clear two to three miles through solid forest each day. The smaller bulldozers were used to follow the large tree movers cleaning off moss, muck, and lesser debris. The clearing crew was generally several miles beyond the reach of tracks and had to be supplied by pack train or tractor drawn sleds of Athey trailers. The men slept in pup tents and moved camp nearly every day.
A crew consisting generally of a company following the clearing crew constructing log culverts and small bridges and was followed in turn by another crew engaged in ditching, corduroying if necessary, and rough grading sufficient to permit passage of truck traffic in weather not too wet.
The remainder of the regiment, perhaps two or three of the six companies, might be distributed along the road thirty to forty miles in rear of the clearing crew and be engaged in widening the narrow places, reducing the worst grades, gravelling soft sports and smoothing with motor patrols. This operation completed the pioneer road which was generally 18 to 24 feet wide. As means permitted later in the season, still further improvements in grade and alignment were undertaken both by Army and Public Roads Administration forces and the entire road has now [as of 1943] received a light surfacing with gravel.
Two light pontoon companies each equipped with 675 feet of floating bridge material were parcelled out to the regiments. The pontoon detachments promptly put in floating bridges over streams that could not be forded or ferries where available material was insufficient for bridges. Pile or trestle bridges were constructed as soon as possible to release the pontoon equipage.1
The work bogged down repeatedly. Supply snafus left vital equipment stranded on the docks in Skagway, at Whitehorse, Dawson Creek, or several Alaskan shipping points. Construction crews working west of Whitehorse spent several weeks without heavy equipment and began working on their section of the road with hand tools. Long and warm northern summers provided ample light to extended work days, but also brought hordes of mosquitoes and black flies and melted the permafrost exposed by the construction activity, leaving quagmires of mud and water where there had once been a passable road. Ensuring a steady supply of oil and gasoline proved a logistical challenge, and regular equipment breakdowns forced mechanics to cannibalize their fleet of bulldozers and trucks into order to keep work going. Life for the workers was difficult, due both to the sub-Arctic conditions and the urgency associated with the project. The soldier-workers toiling for the US Army Corps of Engineers received only basic Army pay and provided a cheap and dependable workforce. The civilian workers, in contrast, received northern bonuses and overtime, and were generally well-treated companies anxious to keep them in the region. For all of the men, however, conditions were far from pleasant:
Tents averaging seven occupants were overcrowded for men who carried two full barracks bags and the usual gear, plus sleeping bag… We slept without pillows on canvas cots without mattresses, in which condition the cot has about the same ‘give’ as a concrete floor. We jammed what gear we could under our bunks, the rest we hung in the air. A soldier’s closet is the air and our tents were full of strings, ropes, and miscellaneous rigging holding clothes, rifles, anything we wanted to keep off the ground. We found a place to hang a picture of the ‘girl at home,’ or pin-ups. A stove dried the ground until the floor was deep dust.2
The workers complained about the isolation, the climate, the limited recreational opportunities, and, most consistently, the food. Occasional deliveries of beer, or visits to a liquor store in one of the highway towns provided a much-needed break in the routine, which consisted largely of many hours of work broken by brief snatches of sleep. Even better were the very sporadic visits of the USO entertainers, whose tours along the highway vied with movie nights as prime distractions for the workers.
The work was hard and the conditions often brutal. In later years, the soldiers and civilian workers would often reflect fondly on their highway experience. Black soldiers, barred from most combat situations and facing extensive discrimination in the Army, contributed greatly to the construction of the Alaska Highway and other Second World War projects in the North. Since most of them came from the American South and had had little experience with cold weather before arriving in 1942, the Black soldiers survived particularly brutal adjustments to sub-Arctic conditions. Soldiers and civilian workers alike endured the hard work and difficult circumstances partly because of their enthusiasm for the project, their desire to contribute to the war effort and, for some soldiers, the fact that their time in the far north kept them out of the combat zones of Europe and the Pacific. Accidents were commonplace, however, some causing fatalities, from the sinking of a pontoon raft on Charlie Lake, near Fort St. John, to roll-overs on the dangerous grades that were commonplace along the route. There was little time to sit back and appreciate the more beautiful parts of the route, such as the region of southwest Yukon that is now Kluane National Park.