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The Winds of War Have Shifted

The Winds of War Have Shifted

By late 1942, the dynamics of war had changed. The fearsome prospect of invasion of a year earlier had been transformed by a series of major Allied victories. The defeat of the Japanese fleet at Midway paralyzed their advance in the Pacific, and the recapture of the Aleutian Islands of Kiska and Attu eliminated the fear of a Japanese assault on the continental USA. Although the war in the Pacific was far from over—the bloody island hopping battles were just underway—the tide had clearly turned in the Allies’ favour. The Russians stopped the German advance, paying with the blood of hundreds of thousands of their soldiers. Rommel was turned back at El Alamein, beginning a long retreat across North Africa. The Japanese reached as far as the Philippines, Thailand, and Malaysia and took over dozens of Pacific Islands. But they stopped short of invading Australia, save for a few bombing runs on Darwin on the country’s north coast, or moving toward India.

Stripped of the military imperative that governed the original decision to build, the Alaska Highway project quickly wound down. The Corps of Engineers reduced their commitment to the project and began shipping their soldiers overseas. The Public Roads Administration’s work on relocating the pioneer road was slowed and, in some places, halted. The PRA was directed to build the best road possible under more stringent financial and logistical constraints. Put simply, the war had moved on, and the highway project had been downgraded. With attention shifting to the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific and with fear of an invasion of North America all but gone, the Alaska Highway lost its priority ranking. The rough pioneer trail was converted into a rough highway. The road was not perfectly sited; many bridges and culverts were not replaced, and planned work was postponed. The highway still served a useful purpose—allowing easier supply of the airfields along the Northwest Staging Route—but it was no longer seen as a principal means of defending the continent.

The US Government offered to hand the highway over to the Canadian authorities well before the end of the war, but the Canadian government refused, well aware of the state of the road and the high costs of repair and maintenance. The Americans were compelled to operate the Alaska Highway until the agreed upon date: six months after the end of hostilities. As a result, Canadians had limited access to the highway, requiring permits to use the road. George Black, Yukon Member of Parliament, said of the restrictions:

Some people are inclined to complain at the restricted use of the highway. I always remember that it is an American army road, built in a fit of hysteria brought on in the “home of the brave and land of the free” by the Japs at Pearl Harbour, built at enormous cost and with shocking waste and until after the war it is not a Canadian possession, and our dear cousins have the exclusive privilege of using and paying for it.1

Canadian concerns about sovereignty and future American claims on the highway convinced the federal government to repay the US for the cost of construction, even though the road did not go where Canadians wanted it to go, did not serve Canadian economic interests and, most importantly, had not been built to the agreed-upon civilian standards. But such concerns were petty in the context of a successful war effort and the Americans' willingness to build a highway across Canadian territory at a time when the Canadian government could not and would not tackle such an assignment.

Canadian armed forces personnel began to arrive in Whitehorse late in 1945, in anticipation of the takeover of the Alaska Highway on 3 April 1946. Brigadier General J.A. O’Connor, a key figure in the construction project, left town in February 1944 as work wound down. The official transfer took place under the supervision of Canadian General A.G.L. McNaughton and, most fittingly, Major-General William Hoge of the United States who returned to the North for the handover. Almost all of the Americans in the far northwest had already left the region, and the remaining 1,800 (almost half in Edmonton) departed within a few months.

1 Coates and Morrison, The Alaska Highway in World War II, p. 213.

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