From Alaska to Siberia. Planes packed with weapons for Uncle Joe

The Russians didn’t know antiperspirants but did know the market value of other goods. Anchorage was left without aspirin, thimbles, sewing needles, as well as – here comes the gallantry of Soviet officers – tights, stockings and women’s underwear: haberdasheries were besieged by shoppers.

The romanticism of air travelling – still better in the Far North! – appeals to everyone’s imagination: the best evidence for that is our classic author Janusz Meissner who – once he returned form foggy England to the people’s homeland in 1946, hastily abandoned his writings about “G – for Genevieve” and took up descent, social realistic prose about the best Soviet air ambulance which, amidst freezing wind and darkness of a polar night, covers a distance hundreds of kilometers to get to a complex case of Arctic tetanus. („Na Tajmyrze umiera człowiek” [A man is dying on the Taymyr Peninsula] MON, 1952).

But what are the exploits of Lieutenant Gonar compared to those of the five Soviet air transport regiments that were transporting fighters and unpacked cargo planes from Fairbanks, Alaska to Krasnoyarsk and further to the front? It is a gigantic trail, scarcely recorded in the annals of World War II. Everyone remembers the sailing across the “cruel sea” (the North Atlantic from the USA to Great Britain, the Arctic Ocean from the USA, and with time also from Great Britain to the USSR). The airdrops over occupied Europe are remembered, the “Iranian route” on which deliveries traveled north from ports in British Iraq and India. But only by military historians remember about the route from Alaska to Siberia (“ALSIB”), initiated eighty years ago, on September 29, 1942.

Alaska stop, Yakutsk stop

After all it was an extraordinary undertaking. The ALSIB route from Fairbank, Alaska to Krasnoyarsk was 6500 kilometers long, out of which over 5000 above the Soviet territory. In order to reach the front from US factories, the plane had to fly more than 15,000 kilometers. Flights at such distances were out of the question at that time: the route was divided into five parts: the first Soviet regiment was transporting planes from Fairbanks to the Yakustk airport Uelkal next to Aanadyr, subsequent aircraft were covering the following distances: Anadyr – Seymchan, Seymchan – Yakutsk, Yakutsk – Kirensk, and further already to Krasnoyarsk… SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE

For the good of backup routes and airfields in Siberia a total of 16 airports, three radiolocation stations, a network of hangars, fuel storages, hotels and training centers were built. The civil aviation in the Far East being successful – which was a leitmotif of the postwar Soviet propaganda to a large extent was owed to the infrastructure designed by the hated Yankees.

And there was traffic! Between 1942 and 1945 nearly 8,000 aircraft were transported from Fairbanks to USSR. Gulag prisoners from Kolyma were but craning their heads: 729 B-25 bombers, 2,396 P-63 spitfires, 2,616 P38 spitfires, 707 pieces of the then biggest Si-47 transport aircraft.

Besides, they weren’t flying empty: they were loaded with jeeps and (in parts) locomotives, machine tools and concrete mixers, sewing machines and typewriters, office supplies and anti-tank mine primers, powdered and frozen eggs, surgical needles and carcasses from Chicago slaughterhouses, as well as Ambassadors Maxim Litvinov and Anatoliy Gromyko. And, as chronicles report, 506 tons of mica (for isolators).
1) The crash of an American fighter jet in Nome, Alaska. The red stars on the fuselage and wing help identify the aircraft as having been flown as part of the Lend-Lease programme to the USSR during WWII. Photo: Library of Congress/Wikimedia
There were slip-ups too. To be more precise – 279, out of which 39 crashes in which whole crews died. Adding to that nearly 100 forced landing (crackle of breaking pines, gulag prisoners crane their heads again), 49 serious engine failures – while the statistics don’t include forced stopovers in Fairbanks, where Soviet supervision inspectors were pushing around the American personnel, interpreting every scratch on stabilizers as an act of sabotage. But rewards were considerable too: for flying a spitfire on the route from Anadyr to Seymchan and further, to Yakutsk the pilot would earn 700 rubles and was exempted from a mandatory war loan, the radio operator would receive 450 rubles. Therefore they were falling all over themselves to fly even before the stage of decoration started. And the orders were given generously: five air force regiments were awarded the Order of the Red Banner.

Ura for Ruzvielt!

And it didn't have to be so at all, because, as Piotr Zaremba brilliantly describes in the latest volume of his history of the United States, the whole concept of extending a war loan (a loan in name, de facto a donation) to the Soviet Union as well was heavily contested and opposed by a sizable portion of Americans irrespective of party division.

The Soviets marched in... Should they be greeted with rifles or cigarettes, when even Churchill explains that they had to?

Trust ended for Polish officers with bullets in the back of their heads.

see more
But when the decision to grant Uncle Joe Land-Lease was made – the US decided to give it all. We have sketched the inventory above, one has to add to that key decisions for the American military industry of a time of war and – setting up in Fairbanks, previously a sleepy Alaskan town a gigantic transportation base, settled by several hundreds of Soviet flying, translation, engineering and intelligence personnel.

Hence the slightly ironic tone for my part because the decision as much as it turned out to be generous, it was naïve.

To hell though with Fairbanks base although it may require a bit more attention than historians have paid so far. Accounts, collected in “Pipeline to Russia” (Anchorage 2016) a semi-amateur, one of the very few devoted to ALSIB are charming, predictable and comic.

Local trappers and engineers, usually very aged, were questioned in the first decade of the 21st century by the author of the book, Aleksander (Sasha) Dolicki peculiar character: a political emigrant from 1981, who took over the lead of research on the Russian and Soviet presence in Alaska at major universities of this state!) assume predictable tones. The Soviets were cheerful, coarse, highly reserved when it comes to relations with their homeland, but hail-fellow-well-met when it comes to emphasizing the brotherhood of arms.

Toasts to the commanders-in-chief were raised on their initiative – with glasses of Bourbon. “Hooray for Stalin! Hooray for Ruzvielt!” could be heard below low sky when burga from the Bering Sea wouldn’t allow for take offs. “Both the locals and the US Army pilots liked the hard stuff – tells Bill Schoeppe, a retired plane mechanic – but that what Soviet pilots could achieve left us astounded very time. They would seat, four to six by a table and usually drink from 5 to 7quarts of Bourbon, after which they would prepare for departure”.

Unless the burga lasted longer – then they broke into a dance. In the photos from the casino reproduced in the book, you can see pairs dancing hopak, whirling in Little Russian oberek, or non-commissioned officers lively dancing kazachok. And they pretended to be chic. “We were amazed at the amount of perfume they poured on themselves (it’s Schoeppe again): we often sat in masculine-only company, by the fireplace, talking about flight techniques - and they poured women’s perfumes onto themselves right from the bottles. We didn’t know what to think about it. It was not, however, about further strengthening of the relationship; as the author of the relation adds two sentences later in the tone of discrete understatement, “perhaps this was due to the fact that – as we noted – they did not know antiperspirants”.

Left in the lurch

The Russians didn’t know antiperspirants but did know the market value of other goods. Anchorage was left without aspirin, thimbles, sewing needles, as well as – here comes the gallantry of Soviet officers – tights, stockings and women’s underwear: haberdasheries were besieged by shoppers.

Friendships were also flourishing, Schoeppe, a simple-minded aviator, remembers to this day nice Sunday afternoons at “captain Gubin”’s place, an affectionate giant who settled in Anchorage with his wife and two children, gigantic portions of beef broth and tongue in gray sauce, served by his spouse Gubinowa – and from the perspective of several decades, he is not vexed by the fact that captain Gubin (as probably the vast majority of the Soviet inhabitants of the base) turned out to be, in the light of post-war CIA investigations, agents of SMERSH and military intelligence.
3) The Roosevelt administration gave up any control over the destination of the shipped equipment. Pictured: Franklin Delano Roosevelt and “Uncle Joe” Joseph Stalin at the conference in Yalta. PhotoQuest/Getty Images
Because the scope of intelligence work was almost as large as the garter trade. President Franklin D. Roosevelt de facto agreed to establish an extraterritorial Soviet military base on the territory of the United States (Gubinowa invited us for dinners, but the American side was forbidden to enter the hangars, office buildings and Soviet barracks). Yes, Fairbanks is quite a long way from New York and Washington DC, that was an advantage – but the starting point was excellent.

Some military historians (these are only assumptions; the relevant American documents have not yet been declassified) believe that it was through Alaska that the details of the Manhattan Project, i.e. work on the development of the first atomic bomb, were sent to Moscow via Alaska; it was almost certain that via this route stencils for scrap, stolen from a Washington stock company, used for printing banknotes were handed over to the USSR ..

But never mind espionage; “Where there are two Soviets, three you have three spy nets”, says an old Alaskan proverb, the risk was part of the cost of the airlift, and ultimately not all Americans in Fairbanks were as naive as Bill Schoeppe. Much more burdensome for the Roosevelt administration is something else: the fact that right from the start, by designing Lend-Lease, it gave up control over the actual purpose, location, use and wear of the equipment being shipped.

General’s Willys

Willyses, machine tools and spams were sent (duty free) to the Si-47 transport decks, needles, primers and penicillin were stuffed into the hatches of the fighters. And what was next? It wasn’t that few American diplomatic personnel in Moscow were unadmitted to storage facilities: they were not informed about the schedule and quantity of deliveries! Concise (with the passage of time, more and more succinctly) thanks for the “donated equipment, destroyed on the battlefields, which contributed to the victory” – this is actually the entirety of the Soviet reporting.

How the Americans spied on the Soviets. Pre-war US intelligence in Poland and beyond

Washington's agent spent time with white Russian generals, Denikin, Wrangl or Kolchak.

see more
Soon after WWII it was replaced by pretension: still in 1962 secretary general Nikita Khrushchev stated in a speech at a Communist Party meeting that “during WWI American monopolists earned billions of dollars on equipment supplies. They grew fat on Soviet people’s blood!”.

Well, it is also uncertain how was it with that blood. What percentage of the military equipment, shipped from the US was sent to the front, and what – to storehouses, with a perverse thought to use it in future conflicts? B-25s reinforced the air fleet, virtually deprived of bombers. Willyses got stuck in mud, on the trail of the 1st and 2nd Belarusian fronts – the elderly can remember them form photographs or the “Four tankers” series. But the whole rest?

American veterans of the Korean War (1950-1953) with astonishment recalled jeeps and light tanks in which the Koreans and “Chinese volunteers” attacked them, perfectly equipped (and strangely familiar) Korean communications arrays and field hospitals…

Now that all are shocked by Russian museum pieces of technique dragged out from emptying storage facilities of the Russian army, I’m wondering if it is possible that a missile from a HIMARS launcher handed to Ukraine hits armor of a staff car which 80 years ago flew over form Krasnoyarsk form Fairbanks. And if such case should be regarded in terms of friendly fire?

–Wojciech Stanisławski
-translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Main photo: 2) U.S. Douglas A-20 bombers waiting in the city of Nome, Alaska, for transport to the USSR. Photo: Wikimedia
See more
History wydanie 22.12.2023 – 29.12.2023
Pomeranian Crime: Whoever is Polish must disappear
Between September and December, 1939, 30,000 people in 400 towns of Pomerania were murdered.
History wydanie 22.12.2023 – 29.12.2023
Escape from Stalag – Christmas Eve Story 1944
Prisoners sought shelter in a German church... It was a mistake.
History wydanie 15.12.2023 – 22.12.2023
New Moscow in Somalia
The Russian press called him "the new Columbus".
History wydanie 15.12.2023 – 22.12.2023
Anonymous account by Witold Pilecki
The friend with whom they had escaped from KL Auschwitz was killed on August 5. He died with the words: “for Poland”.
History wydanie 8.12.2023 – 15.12.2023
Journalist purge to restore media monopoly
Only “trusted people” were allowed to work; over 100 employees were interned.