Best of Scene

Student and professor team up to investigate an untold story of World War II

By Barbara Clements and Megan Haley
In the spring of 1942, 10,000 soldiers were sent to the Yukon. Their task: construct the 1,500-mile military road, the Alaska-Canada Highway, to be used to repel a possible invasion by the Japanese during World War II.

Sitting in a lecture at the Yukon Archives, as part of a Canadian fellowship program two years ago, Assistant Professor of Communication Robert Wells had never heard that such a road even existed. When the archive manager mentioned nearly half of those 10,000 troops were African-American, Wells decided it was time to dig into this relatively unknown story.

“This really made my ears perk up. I had no knowledge of this history until then,” he said.

Wells pitched researching the idea to several of his colleagues, but no nibbles. So he decided he’d undertake the research project and create a video documentary. He recruited junior Shannon Schrecengost to help. Wells opted for a faculty-student research project in order to train a student in investigative journalism, and for the more practical consideration of having help while “lugging the camera equipment around.”

The thousands of documents and hundreds of interviews by the pair were compiled and edited into the documentary that premiered in November at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma. Called “Building Connections: Reclaiming the Lost Narratives of the Alaska-Canada Highway,” the film chronicles the lives of the soldiers who built the highway, as well as the residents and First Nations people who were irrevocably changed by the project.

The yearlong odyssey took the pair to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., up the Alaska-Canada Highway twice, and to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers archives in Virginia. Their time was split between looking at photos and written archives, and interviewing World War II veterans and their families, Native peoples of Canada and Alaska, U.S. and Canadian government officials, and historians.

This year marks the 66th anniversary of the highway, commonly referred to as the ALCAN. When the road was built in 1942 to help protect Canada and the United States, optimistic estimates indicated the project could take three years. It was completed in just eight months.

Inspired to bring attention to this story, Wells originally planned to focus on the racial implications associated with the African-American soldiers. This key part of the story is covered in the film.

In the winter, all the soldiers had to face temperatures that often dipped to 40 below. In the summer, it was mosquito swarms. Long days and low pay were
a year-round phenomenon. The African-American soldiers dealt with the added burdens of racism and isolation.

The military wouldn’t allow the African-American troops into nearby towns. The soldiers had to contend with inadequate clothing, as many of the troops were from the South, along with insufficient housing and equipment. For example, many resorted to cutting arms in their sleeping bags and wore them while working to keep warm in the freezing temperatures.

“I think it was a slap in the face at how segregated the army was at that time,” Wells said.

As Wells and Schrecengost dug deeper into the history of the highway, their original topic evolved to encompass how the road touched those who constructed it and the communities it connected.

“It’s all the implications that one road really can have,” Schrecengost explained. “I experienced the growth of one idea into a whole other thing.”

Schrencengost added that the experience has given her a new passion for research. It is another example of PLU’s continuing commitment to the creation of opportunities in which students and faculty can work closely together on research and creative projects.

While at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., she was in awe of the huge building and the documents she was able to access.

At 20 years old, she held files stamped “Top Secret.” While the documents she looked at have since been declassified, the experience of seeing high-level government documents firsthand was amazing, she said.

“Rob and I were in hog heaven,” she said. “It made me feel very official and was a lot of fun. I had no idea that research could be so fun.”

At all the archives the pair visited, from the small one in the Yukon to the immense building in Washington, D.C., the staff was more than happy to have them poke around.

“We were pretty much given free rein,” Wells said. “There was no problem with access. It was ‘Here are the white gloves, take good care.’”

To find the men who worked on the highway, Wells and Schrecengost contacted World War II veterans and African-American soldiers organizations. This is where the investigative journalism kicked in.

There were the blind phone calls, asking if so-and-so lived here or if the person on the other end of the phone was “the family of” so-and-so.

“We were trying to find people who had more or less dropped off the radar screen,” Wells explained.

Fortunately, the pair managed to track down three former soldiers in Baltimore, all living within 15 minutes of each other. One of those soldiers, William E. Griggs, even lent them use of the photographs he took during his tour of duty in Alaska as the official Army Corps photographer.

The documentary film has quickly caught the attention of regional and national press, as well as the academic community.

Aside from showings at the history museum and the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle, the pair presented their findings at the Association of Canadian Studies in the United States in Toronto last fall and the Pacific Northwest Canadian Studies Consortium in Vancouver, B.C., in February.

The Public Broadcasting Service, Seattle public television station KCTS and Tacoma public television station KBTC have all shown interest in broadcasting the film. Tacoma’s cable network Click! already broadcast the documentary in January.

And the honors keep coming, as Schrecengost won a regional first place award from the National Broadcasting Society.

“I never thought I would have the opportunity to do something like this,” Schrecengost said. “I was very fortunate.”

Photo top: Historical photos courtesy of William E. Griggs.