African-American soldiers who helped build Alaska Highway honored

96-year-old Leonard Larkins, one of more than 3,000 African-American soldiers who helped build the Alaska Highway is honored at Ft. Greely. Credit: Tim Ellis/KUAC

Fort Greely and Delta Junction celebrated the Alaska Highway’s 75th anniversary Saturday – and one of the soldiers who helped build it. Gov. Bill Walker and other state and local leaders attended a tribute to 96-year-old Leonard Larkins, one of more than 3,000 African-American soldiers who helped build the highway.

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Leonard Larkins says he vowed to never return to Alaska 70-some years ago, after serving two grueling tours of duty up here.

“I can’t remember way back when, because I actually tried to put all this behind me at one time, after I left the service,” Larkins said. It was pretty rough here.”

Larkins and 11,000 other soldiers had to carve a 1,500-mile road out of wilderness in just over eight months to open an overland supply route to deter or repel a Japanese invasion. Larkins and about 3,500 African-American soldiers serving in segregated units had to build their sections of the road with little support and under hardships like enduring months of winter weather while living in tents.

“The cold – y’know, that was the biggest thing, the cold weather,” Larkins said.

But after a five-day whirlwind tour of Fairbanks and the Delta-Greely area over the past week, Larkins’ son, Bert, says his dad was feeling a lot better about coming back to Alaska.

“The people here in Alaska – I mean, it’s so nice, Bert Larkins said. “They have been so wonderful here.”

Among those offering tributes to Larkins at Saturday’s ceremony on Fort Greely was Gov. Bill Walker, who felt personal connections with him based on his parents having shared related wartime experiences.

“Meeting Mr. Larkins is like meeting a member of my family,” Governor Walker said. My mother came to Alaska to work with the (Army) Corps of Engineers on building the Alcan Highway. ”

Alcan is a contraction of “Alaska and Canada,” and it’s the name by which many refer to the Alaska Highway. Walker says his father also served in the Aleutian Islands during World War II, as did Larkins, who was sent there with his unit after they’d completed work on the highway in October 1942.

“Building the Alcan Highway was not enough for Mr. Larkins,” the Governor said. “He stayed in Alaska, went on to the Aleutians, in Attu and Kiska. And my father was in the Aleutian Islands at Attu and Kiska, as part of the Alaskan Scouts, part of Castner’s Cutthroats.”

The Alaskan Scouts, a.k.a Castner’s Cutthroats, were a small covert unit of Army intelligence soldiers whose reconnaissance and guerrilla tactics helped forced the Japanese to retreat from the Aleutians in 1943 — a year after they’d invaded and occupied three islands.

Walker said the Alaska Highway promoted development of Big Delta Army Airfield, later re-named Allen Army Airfield, and Fort Greely itself, where Walker went to grade school for several years while his family lived in the area.

The service rendered by Larkins and his fellow African-American soldiers not only helped win the war; it also helped end segregation in the U.S. military and promoted civil rights nationwide in the years that

“We don’t have African-American regiments, or Mexican-American units, or all-white battalions,” Greely garrison commander, Lt. Col. Michael Foote said. “We don’t have those anymore because men like Mr. Larkins served their country and demonstrated the value of every American fighting man.”

At the end of the ceremony, Foote and Delta Mayor Pete Hallgren presented Larkins with a key to the city and framed proclamation thanking him for his service.

Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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