By ALEXANDER DOLITSKY
Part III: The first Soviet envoys arrive in Nome in 1942; eventually up to 600 were stationed in Alaska
On Aug. 26, 1942, the first Soviet envoys, Colonel Piskunov and Colonel Alexey A. Anisimov, members of the Soviet Purchasing Commission, arrived in Nome.
On Sept. 3, 1942, the first Soviet aircraft arrived in Alaska, bringing more mission members to set up permanent command stations at Ladd Army Airfield, in Fairbanks, and at Nome. By the summer of 1943, many Soviets had been stationed at Fairbanks, Nome, and Galena; at the height of the program anywhere from 150 to 600 Soviet pilots and other personnel resided at Ladd Army Airfield alone.
Bill Schoeppe, an airplane mechanic and a technical representative for North American Aviation (the manufacturer of the B-25 bomber), was stationed at Ladd Army Airfield, and then in Nome, from 1942 to 1945. According to his recollection, Soviet servicemen were stationed only in Alaska.
“No big thing, but it should be known there were no Russian service men stationed at any of our bases in Great Falls, Edmonton, Whitehorse and Yukon. While on assignment with North American Aviation, I traveled many times to our air bases in Canada and Alaska and never met or never heard of Russian personnel along the ferry route.“
Soviets assigned to work on American soil were ideologically drilled to maintain loyalty to their motherland. Separate facilities were built in Fairbanks and Nome for Soviet officers and other staff, and the Soviet government preferred to use its own interpreters and office personnel—predominantly women in uniform who had passed security clearance procedures in the Soviet Union before coming to the United States. “I never saw any female Russian transport pilots [in Alaska],” wrote Bill Schoeppe, “and I flew many hours in Russian [-crewed] B-25s from Fairbanks to Nome.” In fact, at the time, women pilots in the USSR were allowed to fly in combat. Many distinguished themselves and earned the country’s highest medal for combat valor: Hero of the Soviet Union.
Although the Soviet airmen who were sent to Alaska to pick up the Lend-Lease aircraft were guests in Alaska, and in the Soviet Union the Alaskan mission was regarded as a “rest from combat,” they tended to remain aloof from U.S. personnel. On those occasions when Soviets would socialize with Americans, they sometimes expressed their ideological views, but reluctantly and with great caution. For the most part, the Soviets and Americans were cordial toward one another. Some became close acquaintances during and after the war, leaving a lasting mark of good memories and affection for one another.
As Bill Schoeppe wrote:
“Whenever there was a gang of pilots in town waiting for airplanes, they roamed the streets of Fairbanks, some buying women’s silk stockings and underwear. Most unusual was their use of perfume! Some rough-bearded guys in britches and fine leather boots, wearing heavy perfume while partying, which we did every now and again. All men, only lots of drinks and smoking, and all these guys loaded with perfume! Some said it was because they had no antiperspirant! We’ll never forget that high consumption of liquor. All Alaskans and U.S. military personnel drank excessive quantities of alcohol, but the Red Army men beat us by far. Without fail, the Russians laid on the greatest variety and quantity. Each party table in mess halls, most seating 4 to 6 men, contained lots of spiced food and at least 5 to 6 quarts of liquor.
“The Russian hosts always kept the liquor flowing, so the big restaurant-size glasses were seldom empty. “Down the Hatch” was the constant order as toasts were proposed to Stalin and Roosevelt! These parties usually ended in 2 to 3 hours. We were always amazed how the Russians could put away so much more liquor than Americans.
“A few times we were entertained by some fine male dancing: wild whirling and jumping, the Gypsy dances were outstanding. Remember especially the pace the musician kept—until they had to step out because they were exhausted!“
Schoeppe also recalled his occasional meetings with the Soviet Captain Mikhail Gubin, an engineer of the Nome permanent garrison, when both were stationed in Nome. Evidently, Bill Schoeppe did not know at that time that Captain Gubin was a Soviet intelligence officer.
“Captain Gubin: engineer-officer in Nome, very friendly, nice fellow; he and his wife and two children lived off base in a small house near the city’s center. I lived in a hotel with 3 other factory representatives, and I spent several nice Sundays in the Gubins’ home for dinner and drinks. Remember one Sunday so well, friendly conversation with many husky drinks; he spoke good English and we spent many hours talking politics and comparing our forms of governments. Stalin, of course, was a big hero, always a toast for Stalin and Roosevelt!
“The captain’s wife didn’t speak much English but she kept apologizing for the poor furnishings, dishes, and silver.
“On Sunday, I remember so well, following several drinks we came to the table and large bowls of soup were served, and I assumed that was it! But then the main course was served―a huge beef tongue and vegetables, and dark bread! This is a rich meat, and everyone had to be served seconds. I did not think I would be able to stand up!
“I’ve often thought how rough those times were for the captain’s wife―unable to speak English, with two young kids in a small house, no running water and no sewer system, going from house to house with horse drawn sled in the winter.“
Despite occasional friendly meetings between Soviet and American personnel, Soviet insistence that the planes be in perfect condition before being flown to Siberia caused constant delays and some antagonism between the two commands. Bill Schoeppe also noticed the appearance of many FBI agents, particularly when Soviet top brass were visiting. He recalled:
“So many things happened in those times and sabotage was blamed too often. For example, the P-39 and P-63 pursuit planes were powered with V-12 liquid-cooled Allison engines; so much trouble was encountered, especially during extremely cold weather. These engines had to be warmed at a very high idle; if not, the spark plugs would foul badly. When the temperature is minus 40–50º … there are many problems. Each engine has 24 spark plugs. 24 x 30 = 720 plugs to be changed, and it causes lots of trouble. Usually these plugs would be sand blasted and checked, but for a time the Russians thought they were sabotaged and demanded all replacement plugs be factory new …
“I recall one comical incident: a P-39 had been grounded in Edmonton; the V-12 engine was mounted behind the pilot, and a big carburetor mounted on top―between banks and cylinders. One of the mechanics placed a silk cloth over the carburetor to prevent parts falling into the engine. When repairs were complete, someone put the cowl-cover over the engine and forgot to remove the silk-cover. When the pilot reported low power on arrival to Fairbanks, he joked, “Sabotage again!”
Tragically, many aircraft operated by both Soviet and American pilots crashed, mainly by because of weather conditions, but also due to poor maintenance, overloading, lack of fuel, and pilot error—sometimes traceable to over-consumption of hard liquor by Soviet pilots the day before a long and dangerous journey. As Bill Schoeppe recalled, the winter of 1942–43 was extremely cold in Alaska. In order to prevent mechanical failure, planes had to be winterized—in very difficult working conditions—before they could be flown out.
“We had no idea of the number of aircraft that were lost along the ferry route from Edmonton to Whitehorse and Fairbanks due to heavy smoke from forest and muskeg fires, which went wild during the war. Zero visibility was common day after day. Our radio aids to navigation were very poor or nonexistent; this, with low-time, inexperienced pilots, made a tough combination. It was found that many airplanes had ended up 180 degrees off course and out of fuel, so a system of flying in ever-widening circles by rescue planes was initiated, and is still used today in wilderness areas.“
Between September 1942 and September 1945, 133 planes were lost in North America, and 44 in Siberia, along the Northwest and ALSIB air routes, due to severe weather conditions, mechanical problems, and pilot error—a total of 2.22 percent of the 7,983 planes that were delivered to the Soviets from Great Falls.
In his memoirs, Victor Glazkov, a Soviet radio operator on Li-2 and C-47 aircraft who worked along the ALSIB route from 1942 to 1945, writes:
“There could have been fewer plane crashes if our [Soviet] ferry pilots had followed strict flight manual rules and instructions in flying Lend-Lease aircraft. If they had more thoroughly studied the technical characteristics of the American planes which, in fact, were very reliable and of good quality, and had properly used them, fewer lives would have been lost. The severe weather conditions of the northern latitudes also contributed to accidents, especially during the fall and winter period… The practice of consuming alcohol before and after flights by some [Soviet] ferry pilots led to fatigue on the ALSIB route and caused many accidents and deadly losses of the planes.“
Alexander B. Dolitsky was born and raised in Kiev in the former Soviet Union. He received an M.A. in history from Kiev Pedagogical Institute, Ukraine, in 1976; an M.A. in anthropology and archaeology from Brown University in 1983; and was enroled in the Ph.D. program in Anthropology at Bryn Mawr College from 1983 to 1985, where he was also a lecturer in the Russian Center. In the U.S.S.R., he was a social studies teacher for three years, and an archaeologist for five years for the Ukranian Academy of Sciences. In 1978, he settled in the United States. Dolitsky visited Alaska for the first time in 1981, while conducting field research for graduate school at Brown. He lived first in Sitka in 1985 and then settled in Juneau in 1986. From 1985 to 1987, he was a U.S. Forest Service archaeologist and social scientist. He was an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Russian Studies at the University of Alaska Southeast from 1985 to 1999; Social Studies Instructor at the Alyeska Central School, Alaska Department of Education from 1988 to 2006; and has been the Director of the Alaska-Siberia Research Center (see www.aksrc.homestead.com) from 1990 to present. He has conducted about 30 field studies in various areas of the former Soviet Union (including Siberia), Central Asia, South America, Eastern Europe and the United States (including Alaska). Dolitsky has been a lecturer on the World Discoverer, Spirit of Oceanus, andClipper Odyssey vessels in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. He was the Project Manager for the WWII Alaska-Siberia Lend Lease Memorial, which was erected in Fairbanks in 2006. He has published extensively in the fields of anthropology, history, archaeology, and ethnography. His more recent publications include Fairy Tales and Myths of the Bering Strait Chukchi, Ancient Tales of Kamchatka; Tales and Legends of the Yupik Eskimos of Siberia; Old Russia in Modern America: Russian Old Believers in Alaska; Allies in Wartime: The Alaska-Siberia Airway During WWII; Spirit of the Siberian Tiger: Folktales of the Russian Far East; Living Wisdom of the Far North: Tales and Legends from Chukotka and Alaska; Pipeline to Russia; The Alaska-Siberia Air Route in WWII; and Old Russia in Modern America: Living Traditions of the Russian Old Believers; Ancient Tales of Chukotka, and Ancient Tales of Kamchatka.