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Student, professor investigate untold story of WWII

July 7, 2008

Student, professor investigate untold story of WWII

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 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 established a student-faculty research project in investigative journalism and recruited Shannon Schrecengost ’09 to help. The two quickly set to work poring over thousands of documents and conducting hundreds of interviews.

All of this was compiled into a film documentary, “Building Connections: Reclaiming the Lost Narratives of the Alaska-Canada Highway,” which premiered at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma. 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.

Commonly referred to as the ALCAN, 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.

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.

Buy as Wells and Schrecengost dug deeper into the highway’s history, the 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 the experience gave 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 reign,” 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 quickly caught the attention of regional and national press, as well as the academic community.

Along with showings at the history museum and the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle, the film was broadcast on Tacoma public television station KBTC and the city’s cable network Click!. The pair presented their findings at the Association of Canadian Studies in the United States in Toronto and the Pacific Northwest Canadian Studies Consortium in Vancouver, B.C.

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.”