How the bombing of Pearl Harbor shaped the Alaska Highway

Cpl. Refines Sims Jr., left, and Pvt. Alfred Jalufkamet of the US Army Corps of Engineers meet in the middle as they complete construction of the Alaska Highway in 1942.
The USS Arizona under attack by Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941. (Photographer unknown, National Archives and Records Administration ID 195617.)

It is 75 years since the Dec. 7, 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Alaskans, many of whom are a transient lot by nature, don’t often reflect on what the surprise attack did for the development of our state. Call it a silver lining, if you will, because if not for the attack, there might be no road to Alaska.

The surprise bombing went on for 110 long minutes, with 353 Japanese fighter planes, launched from six aircraft carriers sinking four U.S. battleships and heavily damaging four others, along with a litter of other planes, ships and infrastructure. Some 2,403 Americans died that day and 1,178 others were wounded.

Pearl Harbor attack
In this photo taken by a pilot of a Japanese fighter plane as the attack on Pearl Harbor was underway, a torpedo had already hit the USS West Virginia on the far side of Ford Island, in the center of the photo, and other ships and planes are on fire. Note the Japanese script at the bottom of the photo, indicating it is an official government document.

The shock of having our own territory attacked brought the U.S. officially into World War II. We had already been quietly helping our allies in Europe, to be sure, but Pearl Harbor changed everything.

The very next day, Dec. 8, the US declared war on Japan. Decisions during wartime come quickly.

One such decision came two months later, when Congress approved the US Army’s plan to build a highway to Alaska through Canada, with the United States bearing the complete cost of the project. The Canadians were to take over the Canadian portion of the highway at the end of the war.

The project had languished for decades but gained urgency because of the growing aggressiveness of Japan. Already, the Imperial Japanese Army had occupied the islands of Attu and Kiska in the Aleutians. The Japanese had breached both Alaska and Hawaii.

On March 8, 1943, road construction began, and the entire route was essentially rough and ready for military use by Oct. 28, 1943. It was barely passable and has been a work in progress ever since.

It took nearly 16,000 soldiers and civilians to push through 1,700 miles of wilderness from Dawson Creek, British Columbia, to Big Delta, Alaska, where the pioneer road met the Richardson Highway, which itself was not much more than a trail for gold stampeders.

Seventy-five years later, it takes decades and thousands of permits to build roads in America. Alaskans rightfully complain that the federal government won’t allow an 11-mile one-ane gravel road from King Cove to the all-weather airport at Cold Bay. The King Cove City Council has been trying to get the road since 1976.

As a state, Alaska has not built a major new highway in half a century.

But during World War II, the U.S. and Canada built an international highway in eight months.

Alaska Highway
A caterpillar tractor-grader building the Alaska Highway in 1942.

The hardships of building the Alcan through the wilderness of Canada are almost unimaginable today. The men arrived in still-frozen territory and had to wait until the ground thawed just enough to get started.

Cpl. Refines Sims Jr., left, and Pvt. Alfred Jalufkamet of the US Army Corps of Engineers meet in the middle as they complete construction of the Alaska Highway in 1942.
Cpl. Refines Sims Jr. and Pvt. Alfred Jalufkamet of the US Army Corps of Engineers meet in the middle to celebrate the completion of the Alaska Highway in 1942, the biggest North American project since the building of the Panama Canal.

Then came the rivers of mud and ice that swamped the equipment, the floods, the forest fires, the mosquitoes and the exhausting pace of work. None of the hardship is visible today to the traveler who takes on what is one of the greatest road trips in the world — the Alcan Highway, and feels quite victorious when reaching the historic milepost at Mile 1520 in Fairbanks.

This project from hell in 1942 was the road to the future. A  National Geographic documentary on the construction of the Alcan tells the story with footage that reminds the viewer how, once upon a war, Americans believed they could do just about anything.