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Alaska Highway 75th Anniversary: A Tribute to Vets Who Helped Build ‘Road to Civil Rights’

Larkins Collection, Leonard Larkins

Alaskans will celebrate the Alaska Highway’s 75th anniversary this year, and organizers of those celebrations plan to include tributes to the African-American soldiers who helped carve the road out of rugged wilderness. On Tuesday, a roomful of people at the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce meeting got to meet one of them.

Leonard Larkins was a skinny 21-year-old buck private from Louisiana when he arrived in Skagway in May 1942, along with about 1,200 other black soldiers with the Army’s segregated 93rd Engineer Regiment. They were part of a force of more than 10,000 U.S. soldiers who hacked their way through wilderness to build a 1,500-mile overland supply route to help defend Alaska from attack by Japan.

“The 93rd worked on the road until it was completed in October 1942, and then they had the pleasure of spending the winter in Interior Alaska in tents,” said Meadow Bailey, a state Transportation Department spokeswoman who introduced Larkins in a talk she gave on the Alaska Highway’s 75th anniversary during Tuesday’s chamber meeting at the Carlson Center.

“So they worked on the road until it was complete, and then they were sent to the Aleutian Islands because of that threat from the Japanese,” she said. “And Leonard remained in the Aleutian Islands for the rest of World War II.”

Credit Greg Martin/Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce
Larkins talks with reporters after Tuesday's chamber meeting, as program presenter Meadow Bailey looks on.

Historianssay despite harsh treatment and lack of equipment, the 3,500 or so black soldiers in four segregated Army units excelled in their work on the highway, a project some say rivaled the Panama Canal.

“According to historian Douglas Brinkley, the Alaska Highway was not only the greatest engineering feat of the Second World War, it was also a triumph over racism,” Bailey said.

But the black soldiers’ role in the project and its role in desegregating the military remained an historical footnote until recent years, when prominent national leaders such as former Sen. Ted Stevens and former Secretary of State Colin Powell began to insist the soldiers be given their due.

Related: Alaska Gov. Bill Walker signs bill recognizing black soldiers who helped build the Alaska Highway.

Credit National Film Board of Canada
Black soldiers serving in the Army's segregated units often didn't have enough heavy equipment, so they had to work with hand tools and their ingenuity for such tasks as building "corduroy roads" with logs to stabilize the roadway through boggy muskeg areas.

“The achievements of these soldiers set the stage for the desegregation of the armed forces in 1948,” Bailey said, “and thus earned the Alaska Highway that distinguished nickname of being the road to civil rights.”

After the meeting, Larkins told reporters he didn’t have any idea that he’d be working on such an historically significant project. The soft-spoken 96-year-old veteran says he was cutting sugar cane in Louisiana for 5 bucks a ton and enlisted in the Army to get a job that would pay better.

“At that time, about $20 a month,” he said, referring to his soldier’s salary.

Larkins says after he got out of the Army, he worked at a U.S. Public Health Service hospital in New Orleans until he retired.

Credit Greg Martin/Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce
Larkins and his sons are visiting the state to take part in events commemorating the 75th anniversary of the construction of the Alaska Highway. From left, Kirby, Leonard Sr., Bert and Errol.

And like a lot of veterans, he really didn’t talk much about his Army service, according to his son, Kirby, who along with two other brothers accompanied their father on his return trip to Alaska.

“He told me, ‘I didn’t talk to you all much about that because I tried to put that behind me – because it was so rough.”

But Kirby Larkins says his dad has been sharing more memories about the highway project over the past year, since he was visited and interviewed by a couple of authors who are writing a book about the project.

The Larkinses will travel to Delta Junction later this week to take part in Alaska Highway 75th anniversary celebrationSaturday at Fort Greely. Then they’ll travel to Anchorage next week for more commemorative events to be held there.

Editor's note: This story was revised to correct Leonard Larkins' age. He's 96, not 97.

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.