Connecting Alaska to the World And the World to Alaska
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Fort Greely, Delta Plan Big Celebration of Alaska Highway's, Airfield's 75th anniversary

U.S. Army/University of Alaska Archives

Fort Greely and Delta Junction officials are planning a daylong celebration next month to mark the 75th anniversary of the construction of the Alaska Highway and Allen Army Airfield. The June 3rd event will emphasize the role of African-American soldiers who helped build the highway.

Anchorage, Fairbanks, Tok and several communities in Canada are all planning events to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the construction of the Alaska Highway. But Fort Greely deputy garrison commander Craig Cugini says post officials and their civilian partners in neighboring Delta Junction are planning what’s shaping up to be state’s biggest celebration.

“There’s some ceremonies, there’s some recognitions, there may be some dedications,” he said, “but we’re the largest event in Alaska celebrating the Alaska Highway’s 75th.”

Cugini says it’s only appropriate to hold the celebration next door to Delta, the community at the end of the Alaska Highway.

“We are at the recognized historical marker of the Alaska Highway’s end,” he said.

Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC
Local, state and Army officials sign proclamations on April 24 to be presented during the June 3 Alaska Highway 75th anniversary celebration. From left, state Rep. George Rauscher; state Sen. Mike Dunleavy; Delta Junction Mayor Pete Hallgren; Lt. Gen James Dickinson, commander of U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command; and Lt. Col. Michael Foote, Fort Greely's new garrison commander.

And, he said, it’s fitting to stage the event at Allen Army Airfield, which also was built 75 years ago as one of the so-called “lend-lease” airfields, where American aircraft were handed over to pilots flying for the old Soviet Union, a U.S. ally during World War II.

Delta city and Chamber of Commerce officials also are planning observances of the anniversary in town. But the big celebration on June 3 will be at the airfield about three miles south of Delta just off the Richardson Highway. Cugini says there’ll be exhibits of World War II memorabilia and modern-day military materiel, along with music, food and family fun.

“It’s just going to be a great celebration!” he said.

Credit (Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers/Alaska Highway Project
At left, Pvt. Refines Simms Jr., a bulldozer operator with the Army's 97th Engineer Battalion, exchanges a handshake with Pvt. Alfred Jalufka, an operator with the 18th Engineer Brigade, when soldiers working from the north and south met Oct. 25, 1942 at Contact Creek, Yukon Territory – eight months after work on the project began.

Cugini says the event also will serve as a way to tell a largely untold story: that is, the hard work by African-American soldiers in segregated Army units that built much of the highway. And he says that one of them, 97-year-old Leonard Larkins, will be at the event to tell the story in his own words.

“This was one story that probably should have been told that hadn’t,” says Elliott Ross, a Fort Greely anti-terrorism and force-protection officer who’s helping organize the celebration. “And now the opportunity has presented itself for the story to be told.”

Ross, Cugini and other event organizers say the black soldiers’ work on the project has largely been overlooked. And they say that, and the difficult conditions in which they worked, are an injustice that Larkins will talk about during the event.

Credit Larkins Collection, Leonard Larkins
Pvt. Leonard Larkins, not long after he joined the Army in 1941, and today. Larkins, 97, was among the approximately 10,000 U.S. soldiers who build the Alaska Highway. About a third of those soldiers were African-American.

“They talked about their sacrifices, of being as cold as what it was they had to endure, without having proper equipment,” he said, “being denied equipment that they should have had to actually construct the highway.”

Ross says despite those hardships, the soldiers got the job done. And he says historians believe their role in the project helped convince U.S. leaders to end the practice of separating soldiers according to race, which finally happened in 1948.

“Their contributions really helped desegregate the armed forces,” he said.

Ross and Cugini say organizers of the Fort Greely event are working with their counterparts around the state to bring Larkins to other communities that also will be observing the Alaska Highway anniversary.

They say they’ll provide more details of the June 3 event at Greely in the coming weeks.

Editor's note: Members of Anchorage-based Alaska Highway Project have been working for years with local, state and federal officials to ensure historical accounts will include the work of African-American soldiers on the highway during World War II.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.