Student locates segregated compound on WWII map

AREA N: Aleutian post housed the last all-black military unit.

February 23, 2009 

Black soldiers eat in the mess area of their segregated Army post on Attu Island during World War II.

PHOTO COURTESY OF ANCHORAGE MUSEUM

An unfamiliar notation on an old map of Fort Glenn in the Aleutians had Chris Roe puzzled.

The University of Alaska Anchorage student had obtained a copy of the long-classified World War II document for a project in pursuit of his master's degree in anthropology. An army veteran and military history buff, he knew the jargon well enough to decipher most of what he saw. "AE" designated the quarters and facilities for Company A of the Engineering Regiment. "ME" was medical personnel. "CV" indicated civilian contractors.

But area "N"? That baffled him.

"The map shows a concentration of buildings -- barracks, mess hall, officers quarters, PX -- surrounded by a dashed line, set apart from everything else," he said.

It was bordered by a stream and a marsh. "Not a particularly good place to live," he noted, even by the standards of the U.S. Army at war.

So he checked the Post Diary, an official synopsis of day-by-day activities. "I saw an entry that in April 1943 the 'Second Battalion of the 93rd Engineering Regiment (Colored)' had arrived."

The 93rd Engineer General Service Regiment was one of the African-American Army units that built the Alaska Highway. The battalion sent to Fort Glenn would have been about 600 soldiers.

Counting the barracks, Roe calculated that some 600 men would have been housed at this isolated encampment. Putting two and two together, he made "an educated guess" that area N was Fort Glenn's compound for black soldiers, placed a discreet distance from white troops in what was at the time a segregated fighting force.

On Thursday, he'll describe his research in detail in a lecture at the Anchorage Museum.

TREASURE MAP

Fort Glenn on Umnak Island had its origin shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor sent America into World War II. Originally called Cape Field, it was the Army's most westerly airfield when Japanese forces captured two Alaska islands and bombed Dutch Harbor in 1942.

General Simon Buckner, the territory's military commander and an unabashed segregationist, had opposed bringing black soldiers to Alaska. But, writes historian Charles Hendricks in the authoritative "Alaska at War," "after the Japanese attack on Dutch Harbor, Buckner became eager to obtain more engineer troops, black or white."

Buildup at Fort Glenn came quickly, spreading across 100,000 acres on the eastern half of the island. At its peak, more than 10,000 people were stationed there.

Decommissioned in 1950, Fort Glenn has been left to the elements, its buildings slowly but steadily disintegrating in the Aleutian winds.

For Roe, it's a potential treasure trove.

"I am specifically interested in what is called historical archeology," he said. "Landscape analysis, how does a culture imprint its values on the land? In this case I'm looking at how did the U.S. Army place its buildings, roads and other structures at Fort Glenn -- and how did that reflect the values of the Army?"

Roe visited the ruins of Fort Glenn, now a National Historic Landmark, some years ago on an environmental cleanup project, though his planned nine-day visit was shortened to only a few hours because of bad weather. "A lot of stuff is still standing there," he said. Hands-on inspection could tell a trained investigator more.

For the time being, he's limited to written records and maps, including the Fort Glenn maps, classified until the 1970s, which revealed area N.

Black troops were probably not officially confined to that area, he said, though they did not regularly mix with white personnel.

"That was pretty much War Department policy, to locate African-American soldiers away from white units," he said. "It was all contained, with their own mess halls and dispensary. They had no reason to go anywhere else."

BARRIERS

Roe, 61, is not a typical student. After his military service he became an environmental engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers. Now retired, he's gone back to school to study how historical archeology can be applied to Alaska's wartime sites.

"I've been interested in World War II since I was a kid," he said. "My dad was in Europe during that war, and he didn't throw anything away. Eventually I accumulated a lot of it and added to it."

From his collection, he supplied the uniform, rifle and other authentic equipment that sculptor Joan Bugbee Jackson followed to make the soldier's statue on the Park Strip at Ingra Street. He often attends local gun shows presenting displays on military history ranging from the horse cavalry to the Army in Alaska at the time of statehood.

Researching black soldiers presents special barriers, however. Histories and photos were compiled by white officers. As a result, Roe said, it can seem that "anything that happened in Alaska was all white soldiers. It's only been in the last 10 to 15 years that information has come out that there was a significant number of African-American soldiers working on the Alcan Highway."

Once the highway was open, black soldiers went on to build roads, barracks and port facilities in other places in Alaska and served in quartermaster units. However, Roe lamented, "it's not well-documented."

Or rather, it was reported in the way that the government wanted with press releases targeted at black newspapers but also distributed to mainstream media. Time magazine applauded "U.S. Negro engineers" who bridged a "cold Alaska river" in two days. The best-known photo from the Alaska Highway construction shows black and white cat skinners shaking hands at the point where they met, connecting the north and south legs of the stupendous project.

"The War Department wanted everyone to fight the fight as much as they could," said Roe. Part of his talk at the museum will include a screening of a 1944 documentary titled "The Negro Soldier."

"They were trying to reaffirm to African-Americans that they were contributing a lot," Roe said, "and trying to let white soldiers know that African-Americans were a vital part of the war effort."

DOUBLE Vs

That wasn't always an easy sell. Prejudiced whites were not willing to set their biases aside, even for the sake of wartime solidarity. Many black soldiers wondered aloud why they were fighting to liberate Europeans when their own freedoms were denied. Some wore "double V" tattoos -- one V for victory over the enemy abroad, the other for victory over segregation at home. Melees and mutinies "of a racial character" afflicted the forces.

But not here, according to "Alaska at War."

It has been said that the integrated military had its roots in the Alaska campaign. Novelist Dashiell Hammett, editing the post press in Adak, recruited black newspapermen onto his staff. Equipment operators from the 93rd Regiment were sent to work with all-white units in Adak.

Not until 1948 did President Truman issue his executive order mandating equal opportunity for troops throughout the armed services. But it took years to implement.

Roe has discovered that the last segregated American military unit remained active until 1954. Ironically, it was the 93rd Engineers -- the same outfit once stationed in Fort Glenn.

His research to date has whetted Roe's appetite to learn more. "I was so intrigued that I decided to do a much more expanded map analysis," he said. "I'd like to see if, at Fort Glenn, there were any WACs and if they were restricted.

"I still have a lot of research to do."


Find Mike Dunham online at adn.com/contact/mdunham or call 257-4332.

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