Lt. Colonel Chris Chronis
Fort Greely Commander's Speech
Wednesday, the "28th of October," 2009
Delta Junction, AK
Good afternoon ladies, gentlemen and distinguished guests.
I am very proud and privileged to take part in this historical and important observance today.
We are here to honor Soldiers who are not often mentioned when discussing construction of the great Alaska Highway.
10,607 U.S. Soldiers built the 1,522-mile long road in just 8 months ... nearly 4,000 of these Soldiers were African American ... members of the Army's Black Corps of Engineers ... the 93rd, 95th, 97th and 388th Regiments.
We are here to salute them!
In 1942, Black Battalions were seldom mentioned in publicity releases about the road construction project in the Canadian and Alaskan wilderness.
Well, this is 2009, and they deserve to be recognized at every mention of the construction and history of this great highway - the first great transportation artery in Alaska.
I would like to give you just a brief history of the now-famous highway. Proposals for a road to Alaska began as early as the 1920s, but a road to "nowhere" wasn't economically feasible. It wasn't until the attack on Pearl Harbor and Japanese threats to the west coast of North America and the Aleutian Islands that national priorities changed and the project was finally viewed as worth the cost.
On February 6, 1942, the construction of the Alaska Highway was approved by the United States Army and the project received authorization from the Congress and from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Construction commenced on March 8, 1942.
But, the nearly 4,000 African-Americans who helped build the ALCAN had a tough journey even before the first bulldozer began moving dirt.
The Military of the early 1940s was much different than the Military of today. The Military policy during World War II decreed that Blacks would not be sent to northern climes, it was believed that they could not endure cold temperatures, but all that changed after Pearl Harbor.
Manpower was scarce, and segregated troops were shipped north under the leadership of white commanders ... despite protest from the U.S. Army commander in Alaska at the time.
Like so many people of color of their generation, these proud African-American Soldiers overcame discrimination, adversity, racism and they persevered. They forged through the most rugged, hostile, and unmapped wilderness in North America.
A note by a black soldier from the national archives described what working on the Alaska Highway was like:
"It's miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles!"
Temperatures hovered at 40-below-zero for weeks at a time. A new record low of minus 79 was established. The majority of these troops were from the South; yet, they pressed on.
They overcame a near impossible engineering feat that many likened to the building of the Panama Canal and completed the highway in November, 1942 ... only eight months after starting!
According to the testimony of their commanders, these men did an exceptional job under duress. Ill housed, often living in tents with insufficient clothing and monotonous food, they worked 20-hour days through a punishing Winter and clouds of mosquitoes in Summer.
Many were decorated for their efforts and were then sent off to active duty in Europe and the South Pacific. Due to their efforts, and the efforts of other Colored Units in WWII, the U.S. Military integrated all units before the Korean Conflict, becoming the first government agency in the United States to do so.
The Alcan Highway built by these brave men is directly connected to the history of the installation I now command ... Fort Greely. The road's final route was built to link the airfields of the Northwest Staging Route that conveyed lend-lease aircraft from the United States to the Soviet Union. Fort Greely was originally established in 1942 as Army Air Corps Station 17, Alaskan Wing of the Air Transportation Command and was a refueling and staging point for aircraft sent to Russia under the Lend-Lease Program. Soviet Aviators and ground support personnel lived and worked on what is now Fort Greely's Allen Army Airfield.
When the road was formally dedicated in 1942, Brig. Gen. James A. O'Conner, head of the Northwest Service Command, said "that someday the accomplishment of these colored Soldiers, achievements accomplished far from their homes, will occupy a major place in the lore of the North country."
We are here today in Delta Junction, Alaska at the historic end of the Alaska Highway to honor these Soldiers phenomenal efforts and achievements and to ensure they are not forgotten. The road that they built potentially deterred a Japanese invasion of mainland Alaska, assisted in our Lend Lease support of the Soviet Union as they battled the Nazis, opened up interior Alaska for Cold War military expansion at Fort Greely, Fort Wainright, and Eielson AFB, it set the conditions for Delta Junction and the Tanana River Valley to blossom into a community, and lastly - it has brought millions of tourists from around the world to Alaska and the Yukon - a feat of inestimable economic impact.
Thank you all for being here today and for helping to honor the soldiers who built the ALCAN. May God bless them, their memory, our Army, and the United States of America.