During World War II, the U.S. and the Soviet Union put aside their ideological divide and collaborated on a remarkable initiative to fight Nazi Germany. 70 years later, historians, war gaming enthusiasts and military veterans retrace the famed Alaska-Siberia air route.
The Alaska-Siberia air route symbolizes a rare moment of friendship between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. during the fight against Nazi Germany. Photo: TASS
The article is first published at The Guardian's The New East network.
U.S.-Russian relations may have sunk to Cold War levels according to the latest opinion polls, but that hasn’t stopped a group of Russian and American World War II enthusiasts from remembering a time when the U.S. and Russia were actually united against a common enemy.
On a windy summer afternoon at Great Falls airport in Montana, two Douglas C-47 planes replete with Red Army insignia – and an all-Russian crew on board – roar down onto the runway.
Along with two AT-6 Texan aircraft, they’re here to re-create the Alaska-Siberia (AlSib) air route, a perilous journey across some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet once made by pilots during a rare moment of friendship between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. during the fight against Nazi Germany.
For a generation now used to decades of ideological sparring between the two superpowers, it may come as a surprise that before the Second World War the two nations were largely open to each other: U.S. engineers helped modernize parts of Russia’s economy while prominent Soviet pilots were greeted as heroes in the U.S. as they set records for flying non-stop from Moscow, via the North Pole, to California.
But as Cold War tensions peaked during the 1950s and 60s, the route – and its history – fell into oblivion. Now, in a bid to remember this forgotten friendship at a time when tensions between Russia and the West have once again cooled, American and Russian enthusiasts have united to retrace the route in a collection of original war-era planes, supported by Wargaming, a video game company keen to use historical reenactments as a way to bring its products to life.
“How can we improve our relationship as nations if we don’t even know our common history?” asks Craig Lane of the Bravo 369 flight foundation, the American organizers. “This is an opportunity to have an open conversation, a handshake, and to start telling the untold story.”
As Nazi Germany invaded the U.S.S.R. in 1941, America under President Franklin Roosevelt was quick to provide a significant amount of aid to the allies, including Russia, in the form of nearly 8,000 warplanes to fight the common enemy.
The initiative was known as “Lend-Lease”; a scheme that not only provided the U.S.S.R. with machinery, ammunition, clothes and canned foods to support the war effort, but also ensured that it would be American warplanes that would win back the skies from Nazi domination on the eastern front.
More than half of the fleet of military planes was delivered – by both men and women – along one of the most complex and challenging routes ever flown: first, from factories across the U.S. over to Great Falls, and then on across western Canada to Fairbanks in Alaska where Soviet pilots inspected the planes and took them over the final leg to Chukotka and Yakutia in Russia’s far east, and on to Krasnoyarsk, in the middle of Siberia.
According to Arnold Swanberg, a Seattle-based military aviation expert, Roosevelt gave high priority to the Soviet lend-lease supplies. “Whenever the Russians had problems, they didn’t need to talk to the military, they just talked to Harry Hopkins who was Roosevelt’s right-hand man, and he could make a phone call to solve everything,” he explained.
Jeff Geer, of Bravo 369, only found out about the route’s history in 2007, when tracing an amateur flight from U.S. to Russia over the Bering Strait that separates North America from Eurasia.
The Alaska-Siberia (AlSib) air route was a perilous journey across some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet once made by pilots during the U.S.-Soviet collaboration in the times of the fight against Nazi Germany. Photo: TASS
Inspired by this little-known history, Geer decided to repeat the journey. In 2013, his plan to recreate what become known as the “AlSib” flights was endorsed by business mogul Sergey Baranov, owner of Rusavia, a leading Russian aviation company. The two agreed their pilots would jointly fly a clutch of original lend-lease era planes from Great Falls to Krasnoyarsk, repeating the historical trip in a bid to raise awareness of the two nations’ collaboration.
Preparing for the event was a challenge, Geer explained. Political wrangling and logistical difficulties meant the group struggled to get the permissions they needed to allow American pilots access into Russian airspace while flying warplanes.
Nevertheless, Geer remained confident. “The Russian government was very supportive of this project, culturally,” he said. “Bravo 369 requested some additional support from them: permissions to be able to fly in Russia with our aircraft, to be able to place fuel in some strategic locations along the route, and for some other logistical matters. They worked hard, they tried to get this to happen, but it couldn’t – because, I think, politics got in the way.”
‘No ceremony, just business’
Also at the launch was Bill Bronson, the Great Falls councilor, whose maternal grandfather was a federal official during the war. One of the consequences of the program was a high number of Soviet air force personnel and pilots came to settle in Great Falls permanently, his mother told him.
“Everybody was very nervous and kind of kept [their] distance,” Bronson says of more than 100 Soviets, mostly aircraft inspectors.
Bronson says his mother always wondered what had happened to the pilots she met in Great Falls. “We knew that many Russians who had some contact with the West were viewed by [Soviet] authorities with a bit of suspicion. And because of that, she wondered if any of them were sent to camps, or isolated.”
But Bronson said Americans also faced discrimination for their involvement, being subject to intense anti-communist feelings during the McCarthy era – “but we didn’t send people to camps,” Bronson said.
The Alaska-Siberia (AlSib) air route covered 8,700 miles. Source: The Guardian's The New East network
A few war veterans also attended the event, among them Mark Milkovich, a Yugoslavian who served on the AlSib route and who still lives in Great Falls. Now a clear-minded man in his 90s, he remembers playing baseball all night on the Galena air base’s runways in Alaska, where he served as a financial officer.
He said it was the language barrier that mostly hindered communication: “The American pilots left the planes, got them fuelled, and the Russians – they took off for Russia. No ceremony, just business,” he recalled. “I tried to speak Yugoslavian to them, but it didn’t really work out.”
Milkovich still believes Roosevelt’s lend-lease project was an impressively pragmatic step during a time of tense ideological tensions across the world. “With lend-lease, Roosevelt didn’t hesitate a minute. Because if the Germans took England, he’d be doomed. And the Russians were tough. They barely stopped them at Stalingrad, but even there the weather had more to do with beating the Germans than the Russians did: The Nazis simply weren’t prepared for the frost.”
After the July launch, two DC-47 planes operated by Russian crews and two AT-6 Texans piloted by members of Bravo 369 departed.
But the remnants of Cold War suspicion couldn’t be completely shaken off: The U.S. pilots were only allowed to fly as far as Nome, on the coast of the Bering Sea, after having been denied access into Russian airspace by the authorities. Instead, the Rusavia pilots took over their two aircraft and flew on to Siberia, making four key stops along the way.
First-hand accounts of US-Russian collaboration
Two-and-a-half weeks after they first set off, the planes landed in Krasnoyarsk on August 6, having made a total of 11 stops along the way.
At the other end of the 4,000-mile trip, 91-year-old Valentina Ryakhovskaya remembers her time as a radio operator during the war. Sitting in her apartment in a well-to-do neighborhood in the city, she recounts the harsh conditions at the Yakutsk aerodrome.
There were wildfires in summer and temperatures as low as -60C in winter – and the ground personnel were always envious of the pilots and their equipment.
“[They were all] dressed in fur and leather, even their helmets were made of it, covering all the face except eyes. This was all U.S.-made, we had nothing like it,” she recalls.
“Our pilots were telling us that Americans were different to us. But our guys didn’t have the right to approach the Americans nor to say a word to them: The NKVD officers [a Stalin-era law enforcement agency] were behind everyone’s back.”
A teenaged ground worker at Krasnoyarsk airport during the war, Mikhail Kostyukov, also 91, is still uncomfortable talking about those days. After a while he admits that he was in charge of providing Soviet pilots food and accommodation in Krasnoyarsk during the lend-lease program.
“There were only verbal orders by our commanders,” he says, when asked if he signed any documents instructing him to stay silent about lend-lease. “If you failed to obey, the commanders could just shoot you. We even had the case, one guy did not obey an order. So they withdrew him out of the formation, put him to the wall, plunk! – and that’s it.”
Vyacheslav Filippov, a retired military aviation pilot and a historian based in Krasnoyarsk, was one of the first in Russia to uncover the previously hushed-up story.
Filippov says the rumors that AlSib pilots were targeted by Stalin because of their apparently close contact with American ideology “are a complete lie.” He offers his own explanation as to why only a few of the 3,000 people who served on the route are willing to share their experiences.
“The work was top secret. Deputy heads of airports along the route were NKVD officers. All the personnel took the oath of nondisclosure. That is why many grandfathers are saying, even now: ‘I swore not to tell anything’,” he said.
Filippov says the AlSib route saw more than 150 plane crashes, but the remains of the aircraft – and 160 killed pilots – were only collected if the tragedies occurred near big airfields. Today there still are many spots in the Siberian taiga where the remains of the brave pilots lie, but only sporadic search parties led by aviation enthusiasts seek them out.
But as the last AlSib survivors are drawn into this grand reenactment, the hope is the history of cooperation between America and Russia – later shredded by governments – will find its way into public knowledge.
Mikalai Anishchanka is a contributor to the Guardian's The New East Network reporting from Krasnoyarsk, the city located in Russia's Siberia. The article is first published at The Guardian's The New East network.