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What U.S. Soldiers Think of Canada, 1944

History of the Alaska Highway

Who served as General O'Connor's aide
during construction of the Alaska Highway
and related projects in the Far North.

    During the past two years, more than 30,000 soldiers of the United States Army have been on duty in the Canadian Northwest. What do these young Americans think of Canada? Of Canadians? How have they been impressed by their country's vast and far-flung ally to the North?, How have Canadians taken to them? What have seemed to be the essential differences - as well as the similarities - between the men of fighting age of the United States and those who wear the uniform of Canada?

    Never in our long history as good neighbors has there been so timely an opportunity to answer these questions.

    Canada is a land bridge between the United States and Alaska, just as Alaska is a land bridge thrusting toward Japan. The 1600-mile Alaska Military Highway, contradicting its name, is mainly on the soil of Canada: so, too, are the airports and landing fields which lead to Alaska and the North Pacific theatre of war.

    The American soldiers stationed in Canada have been engaged in the vital task of transporting planes, trucks, food, military equipment and men to Alaska.

    They include varied units and men of many skills and backgrounds - port battalions at Prince Rupert, air corps mechanics at Watson Lake and Fort St. John, quartermasier truck drivers at Dawson Creek, medical corpsmen at Fort Nelson, railroad battalions at Whitehorse, military police companies at Edmonton and Vancouver, signal corps telegraphers at Calgary, transportation platoons at Waterways and Norman Wells, airplane pilots all the way from the prairies to the Alaska-Yukon international line, 2200 mountainous miles off to the northwest.

    I think that a sergeant in the U.S. Engineer Corps best expressed the universal impression of all these American soldiers as he rode through the Peace River uplands of B.C. in one of Northern Alberta's swaying old wooden day coaches. The sergeant was from Texas, as his drawl and remarks indicated.

    "By golly," he admitted wistfully, "you could even lose Texas in this place. Who'd have dreamed it?"

    Canada's huge dimensions have awed and astounded the visitors serving on her soil. Occasionally, we Americans are inclined to be presumptuous, (Is the way we tend to preempt for ourselves exclusively the description "Americans" a symbol of this?) We take it for granted that the United States is unchallenged on this continent in virtually all particulars.

    At least 90 per cent. of our soldiers have been amazed to learn that Canada exceeds their own country in area, that many of Canada's provinces are several times the size of Texas or California, that Mount Logan, towering above the Alaska Highway in the Yukon Territory, is more than a mile higher than the loftiest point in the United States.

"Longer Than California"

    Twenty months ago I was riding along the narrow-gauge White Pass & Yukon Railroad from Skagway to Whitehorse with my commanding officer, Brigadier-General James A. (Patsy) O'Connor, the United States Army engineer under whose direction the Alaska Highway was completed. On a rocky islet off the shore of Lake Bennett we saw a sign with the legend "B.C. - Y.T."

    "We're a long way north but we must just be coming to the boundary between British Columbia and the Yukon," the general said.

    He got up from his seat in the coach and pulled a map from a briefcase on the luggage rack, He figured for a moment on the margin of the map with a pencil, "British Columbia is 230 miles longer than California," he said, "I think we are going to get some pretty revealing lessons in geography up here in the North country. I had always thought that California was about the longest political subdivision on the continent, but now I see that British Columbia puts California in the shade."

    I nodded understandingly. General O'Connor's home is in Los Angeles, and I remembered my own surprise over the Mackenzie River, of which I had heard little, yet which is 1000 miles longer than the mighty Columbia, on whose banks in Oregon I was born and raised.

    All our lessons have not been on geography. At Government House in Edmonton, Mrs. Ruth Bowen, the daughter of Alberta's Lieutenant-Governor, told me about the soldier from Oklahoma who was their guest shortly after reporting for duty in Canada.

    "He had brought along his university textbooks in French so that he could confab with the people he expected to meet in British Columbia, Alberta and the Yukon," Mrs. Bowen explained. "And in a corner over our teacups he confessed to me, 'Why, you folks talk just as good English as we do - maybe even better!'"

    I asked Mrs, Bowen, who is informational representative in the Northwest for the Wartime Prices and Trade Board, where she lodged the blame for such a misconception.

    "Well," she ventured hesitatingly, "there probably are several reasons, One is the fact that our Canadian literature hasn't especially glamorized Canada as yet. The American is firmly grounded in his own history because it has been glamorized. What young American can't recite the Gettysburg Address or tell all the dramatic details surrounding it?

    "And substantial numbers of Americans from all sections of the United States have really visited Canada as a nation and not just gone to Banff or Jasper, or to the antique shops in Victoria, or dropped in for the Quebec skiing season.

    "Your soldiers in Calgary and Whitehorse and Prince Rupert are seeing our nation and her people and their customs and traditions, not just the resorts and tourist centres of the old palmy days of unrestricted pleasure jaunts."

    And, of course, this last is particularly true. Many of us in the United States Army have now seen far more of Canada than the great majority of Canadians. We are familiar with your land from the American border to the Arctic Circle.

    Consulting my ftinerary of the past two years, I find that I have journeyed approximately 29,000 miles in the Dominion by truck, jeep, dog sled, bus, boat, plane and train, I have shared moose cutlets with a half-breed family on Teslin Lake in the Yukon, and, together with General O'Connor and our Northwest Service Command chief of staff, Colonel Kenneth B. Bush, I have had the honor of sampling lobster and salmon from the Maritimes with the ministers of the Canadian cabinet at the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa.

    These pilgrimages to the distant corners of Canada have convinced me, as they have convinced thousands of other members of the American Army, that the people from the opposite sides of the longest unfortified boundary in the world are basically the same.

    There are differences, to be sure, but down underneath the contrasting customs, habits, attitudes and ceremonies one finds similarity in the great important matters which decide the destiny of mankind.

    I recall our dinner with the Canadian cabinet and other leading parliamentarians. For some time I have been a member of the legislative assembly of my state, and seated between Hon. James G. Gardiner, minister of agriculture, and Capt. George Black, M.P. for the Yukon, I was struck by the brotherhood between the men who direct the government of Canada and those who sit in the Congress and legislatures of the United States.

    They used many of the same phrases, they relied on the same metaphors and anecdotes, they had the same disputes and controversies. And when the toasts had been given and the speeches commenced, I realized that they even told the same jokes!

    Yet there are differences between Canadians and Americans. What are some of them? A likely place to enquire, I decided, was at the Post Exchange office in Whitehorse, where both Canadian and American soldiers buy candy, razor blades and knick-knacks at the army store operated by the Northwest Service Command, Here is What one of the exchange officers said to me:

    "Yes, captain, we have noticed differences between our Canadian and American customers. They are not profound differences, but they are differences, nevertheless.

    "My clerks tell me that the Americans are quicker to wait on but a good deal more demanding and impatient. The men from the R.C.A.F. base deliberate longer before making their purchases, They weigh values more cautiously.

    "The American soldiers seem more impetuous, a little more reckless, and considerably more nervous and higher strung, Standing in line at the counter, they become more restless and irascible than the Canadian soldiers and aviators, who appear capable of being able to wait their turn graciously and quietly.

    "By and large, I would say that the American soldiers show evidence of having lived their lives at a faster and more carefree tempo than their Canadian counterparts."

    This was an American viewpoint. What was the opinion of Canadians? I asked a prominent merchant in Edmonton, who had sold much merchandise to both Canadian and American troops in the past two years. This is what he said:

    "Not only have I seen Canadian and American soldiers in my store, but my wife and I have entertained them at our home. They share many qualities - and, happily, these are the best qualities - but they are different, too.

    "Americans are more ingenious and original. They devise their own amusements and games, They improvise, The Canadians stick mainly to what is at hand. The Americans will turn laughingly to bizarre and unusual things, but the Canadian boys harbor a greater caution and conservatism.

    "The American soldier has more of a sense of humor also. His funnybone is sharper. He will put a "No Parking" sign on top of a 12-foot snowpile. His barracks is plastered with joking slogans and pin-up girls.

Much Mutual Admiration

    "The Canadian soldier may have one pin-up girl, or even two, but the American's wall will literally be papered with them."

    Looking over these answers to my question, I was struck by one thing. The impromptu spokesman of each country had tried to give the other country the best of the bargain in his reply.

    There is much mutual admiration hetween Americans and Canadians. This admiration is at its height where American and Canadian troops have served together in the Canadian Northwest,

    A Canadian military police corporal on the long upland train ride from Prince Rupert to Jasper told me, "Sir, Americans sometimes bash Americans, and every so often I have to pull Canadians apart, but Canadians and Americans get along together as smooth as silk, I've never had to officiate at a brawl between 'em."

    Many of the American soldiers associated with the construction of the Alaska Highway have been decorated, but no presentation at our headquarters at Whitehorse stirred half the enthusiasm among our men as the posthumous award of the U.S. Army air medal to the late Leslie Cook, famed Canadian bush pilot.

    I think Cook came to be a symbol to us all of the friendship between our two countries, No weather was too bleak or forbidding for him to take off. He flew through a fierce Arctic blizzard to bring medical aid to a sergeant on the Donjek River stricken with appendicitis, and landed his plane in the darkness guided only by truck headlights.

    He braved countless storms to survey the wild fastnesses penetrated by the Alaska Highway and telephone lines. "Les" was admired by every American soldier from Fort St. John to Fairbanks.

    I venture to predict that, many years from now, American-Canadian bonds of understanding will be strengthened by Americans who still think of Canada in terms of "Les" Cook and the other Canadian bush pilots who blazed the air route to Alaska.

    Our soldiers have acquired a real respect for the North Country. Like the people in Goldsmith's poem, many of them came to scoff but have remained to pray.

    I will not soon forget my first trip on the Northern Alberta railroad, which meanders circuitously from Edmonton to Dawson Creek. The soldiers across the aisle spoke contemptuously about the ancient Pullmans with their tattered seats and stubborn doors. The jolting roadbed and the one-choice meals in the diner were also subjects for ridicule.

    After a year in the North I travelled again on the Northern Alberta, this time toward civilization instead of away from it. The dilapidated Pullmans looked dilapidated no longer. I marvelled that a standard-gauge railway could function at all that far to the North.

    With deep appreciation, I sank into my berth, reveling in the sheets and woollen blankets. What if the cushions did not rival the Twentieth Century Limited? What if the creaking ventilator would not close? Here I was north of the latitude of the Aleutian Islands and tucked away in a Pullman berth.

    By this time I had some slight notion of what it means to build and operate a railroad where blizzards grip the land and the thermometer drops to 60 degrees below zero,

    I think Canadians still fail to realize the joint nature of the partnership which has resulted in such phenomenal developments in the Far North. Canadians have played a major role in the accomplishments of the American Army.

    Consider the bus service which has been put into operation on the Alaska Highway with notable success. Buses now travel the 1600 miles between Dawson Creek and Fairbanks in 66 hours. Their headlights pierce forests where a short time ago the baleful eyes of the lynx and bobcat glistened.

    Jean Louis Coudert, Catholic bishop of the Yukon, told me recently that he now can complete in 10 hours in a Greyhound bus on the Alaska Highway a journey which in 1942 required three weeks of rugged effort by canoe, pack train and on foot.

    The men driving these buses are all Canadian civilians, recruited from Greyhound runs in western Canada, They are volunteers and have not seen their families for six or eight months. Most of them come from Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon and Vancouver.

    Many times I have sat in the front of buses threading through the wilderness from Whitehorse to Fairbanks and listened to the drivers trading shop talk. They work in pairs, and not one of these men has failed to be gripped by what General O'Connor calls "the spirit of the road."

    To them the principal lure of their task is a chance to co-operate with their American allies in the winning of the war.

    I have seen drivers stay at the wheel 16 out of 24 hours to get a busload of soldiers to an air base on schedule.

    A hefty bus driver from Saskatoon proudly told me one day, "Took 39 air corps mechanics to Fairbanks last Tuesday. That's the way to get this war over in a hurry. Wish I could do that every day."

    Having been associated with both Canadian soldiers and civilians in the North, what are my own obesrvations as to their comparison with Americans! It is perilous to generalize, but I will rush in where angels fear to tread.

    I think Canadians are more devoted to ceremony and stateliness than Americans. Most of us, for example, had never drunk toasts at banquets before until we learned to do so from our Canadian friends. We heard God Save the King played at the conclusion of many Canadian movie performances, an instance in which the American national anthem is seldom rendered.

    Our soldiers at Whitehorse and Watson Lake were keenly disappointed not to find your Mounted Police constables wearing their famous scarlet tunics. "Oh, those are reserved for state occasions," we were informed.

    Just as Canadians are more addicted to stateliness and pomp than their American allies, so have I found them less exuberent. Their enthusiasms run just as deeply, I venture to say, but not quite so noisily.

    On a bus ride between Fort Nelson and Watson Lake, where the Alaska Highway crosses the Continental Divide, I had an opportunity to compare the reactions of some American soldiers with those of a pair of R.C.A.F. corporals.

    As the mountain vistas broke into view, the Americans were volubly enthusiastic. They exclaimed frequently, "Boy, what a peak!" was a common tribute. I glanced at our Canadian passengers. They were looking quietly out the window.

    Finally one of them observed, "That's all right, isn't it?" This comment sounds unappreciative of the scenery of that majestic place, yet from the Canadian airman's expression I am convinced that he was as impressed as his American cousins.

    The commanding general of the Alaskan Wing of the U.S. Army Forces has had much association with the R.C.A.F. men. Men under his command fly the R.C.A.F. staging route between Edmonton and Northway.

    I heard him observe one day that the Canadians, while sharing much of the mechanical and technical skill of the American aviators, were quieter and more perfunctory in the performance of their tasks.

    I have served In the Canadian northwest and Alaska for more than a year-and-a-half, and I am certain that the experience of our soldiers in your country will pay dividends in international good will for many generations.

    The men who built the Alaska Highway have hailed from all our 48 states, Back to those states they Will take stories of the warm hospitality of Canada's people. And their voices will have a ring of admiration when they tell of the Mounties, trappers and bush pilots who have pioneered the North Country.

Americans Like Leacock

    One frosty night in a tent on Kluane Lake in the Yukon Territory, I read several of Stephen Leacock's stories to a group of soldiers. Before we sought our sleeping bags, all of them had asked me for a list of Dr. Leacock's books. I later found out that they got them, too, and those of many other Canadian authors besides.

    Informality is a hall-mark of understanding. And relationships in the Far North between the armed forces of Canada and the United States have been as informal as a trapper's bivouac.

    No example of this is more vivid in my mind than the night before the opening of the Alaska Highway. We were camped at Kluane Lake in a temporary C.C.C. building. Outside, the north wind bit at the frail structure with 27-below fangs.

    Everyone had arrived except Major-General George R. Pearkes, the Victoria Cross wearer, who heads the Canadian Army's Pacific Command, and Major-General H. H. Ganong, who commands the Canadian Eighth Division. Their plane had been grounded by fog.

    At midnight, with the aurora twisting across the sky, we heard a command car at the door. General O'Connor crawled out of his sleeping bag in his long woollen underwear. Colonel Bush followed suit. I got up next, similarly attired.

    With a merry "Hello," Generals Pearkes and Ganong strode into the barracks their red lapels visible through the folds of their parkas. Ignoring our wraithlike appearance, they insisted on producing a nightcap.

    "You chaps look quite nifty," said Captain Bob Sails, General Pearkes' aide-de-camp, as he surveyed our ankle-length union suits.

    If I ever despair of American-Canadian understanding which I know I shall not, I will think of that underwear-bracketed scene in the distant Yukon and be permanently reassured.