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The Alaska Highway in World War II.

Old-timers still call it the Alcan Highway, but the road officially is known as the Alaska Highway. Many Americans pride themselves for having driven its 1,500 miles from Edmonton, Alberta, to Fairbanks, Alaska. They tell hair-raising stories of car troubles, but rave about the scenic mountains, pristine lakes, wildlife-spotting, and, above all, the spirit of adventure they felt heading up to the nation's last frontier.

Today, I can attest that the terror, but not the adventure, has been taken out of the drive, as both small and large towns dot the way with service stations, restaurants, motels, and souvenir stands. The highway, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1992, is paved, although permafrost still plays havoc with an occasional uplifting of the road.

Coates and Morrison focus on the period between 1942 and 1946, as they analyze the influence and consequences of the "army of occupation" that struggled against all odds to finish the road in one year. Canadians were and remain wary of their giant neighbor to the south and had mixed feelings about a project that was born of U.S. fears of a Japanese invasion from the north. After all, some of the Aleutians were closer to Tokyo than to Seattle. (Indeed, the Japanese did invade them later.)

The Canadians were very cooperative, however, for their own interests were at stake as well. This sparsely settled northwest corner of Canada had been neglected badly by Ottawa, and the sudden impact of an army of workers, both military and civilian, was bound to exert change in the economy, lifestyles, mores, and almost anything else one could name.

The U.S. demanded and received legal jurisdiction over all non-Canadian laborers on the highway. While an affront to Canada's sovereignty, the point was conceded in the interest of good will. Workers were allowed to cut timber and take gravel from wherever convenient, without paying for these materials. (One can imagine that the project never would have gotten off the ground if today's environmentalists had been around. First there would be impact studies, millions of forms to be filled out, quota systems, and lord knows what else bureaucracy would have dreamt up!)

About 40,000 military and civilian laborers were engaged in the project. Work progressed in various areas simultaneously, then the parts of the highway were joined and its completion was celebrated at Soldiers' Summit, where a signpost now marks the spot. This portion, however, was only a pioneer road to be used principally by military trucks. Other vehicles could not negotiate its mud holes, steep ascents, and shaky floating bridges. Army trucks sometimes only could move at a mere 30 miles in a single day. In fact, the next several years required continuous rebuilding of the road and even changing its site in various places. In 1946, the army moved out and the Public Works Administration finally completed it for civilian use. Today, mostly buses, trucks, and recreational vehicles use the road. Relatively few cars travel the highway, but for those who make the trip, remnants of old bridges and road sections are still evident.

The Alaska Highway in World War II is a tribute to the Canadians and Americans who followed the motto: "The difficult we do immediately; the impossible takes a bit longer."
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Author:Kreyche, Gerald F.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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