Northward, across Canada’s Staging Route, stream fighting planes for Russia in one of the most momentous mass movements of aircraft in history
Sky Road To Russia
IN THE pilot’s seat of the trim little American fighter plane built to hold just one man sat a Russian pilot. Behind him, lying on his stomach, feet tucked uncomfortably above the level of his head and his mouth close to the right ear of the Russian, an American Army pilot yelled directions about how to fly the craft. They took off from the great Ladd Field at Fairbanks, sweated it out together up in the skies, and finally brought the machine down safely.
Such was the start of one of the most momentous mass movements of aircraft in history.
The records don’t give the Soviet pilot’s name. The American was Capt. Nicholas S. de Tolly, former Hollywood artist, once staff man for Walt Disney. He was born in White Russia and could speak Russian. That was why he had the honor of introducing the Russians to the first of what has become a flood of lend-lease bombers and fighters which have flown— and are still flying—up Canada’s Northwest Staging Route to Alaska and on to Siberia and to the fighting fronts of the Soviet.
From the great plane factories of North America fighters and bombers, with the proud Red Star of Russia painted on them as they roll from the assembly lines, have been hiding the sun on the great flyway to Russia, one of the longest, busiest ánd toughest air routes in the world. Through the heat of the summer, in winter cold 50 and 60 below zero, the flow, which started in September, 1942, has never ceased.
Canada’s contribution to this greatest of aerial delivery systems has been to provide the route between the U. S. border and Alaska and to guide the traffic on it. Canada operates the radio beams which keep the planes “on course” and owns and controls the fields they use en route.
The stream of planes is funnelled through Great
Falls, Montana, to Edmonton, Alta., and then over the Staging Route to Alaska. At Fairbanks, Alaska, the Russians take over, fly on to Nome, and then across the Bering Sea and over the mighty stretches of Siberia. It is about 500 miles from Great Falls to Edmonton; another 1,500 from Edmonton to Fairbanks.
Thus has the back door to Russia become an aerial front door. Thus has war developed the main aerial route from North America to the Far East. And it has proved the thesis of pre-war Canadian aviation enthusiasts, such as Grant McConachie, that the easiest way to get to Moscow by air is via Edmonton and Alaska. It was McConachie’s dream to build a peacetime skyway to Russia. War’s necessity has made the dream come true.
The Northwest Staging Route was in operation before the Pacific war started, although it wasn’t named then. Canada had a string of airfields on the route which had been hacked laboriously out of the bush. They were hard to reach, except by air, and when the United States decided to build the Alaska Highway the road followed the airfields because it would help to service them. When the road was finished bigger machinery moved to the airfields and they were enlarged until today they can handle anything the airplane designers have yet created.
MILLIONS of dollarsthe exact figure hasn’t been announced—have been spent on improving the fields in Edmonton, Grande Prairie, Fort St. John, Watson Lake, Nelson and White Horse. Once they were gravel-topped. Now they are hard-surfaced and the runways have been lengthened. There are smaller
fields in between, and there are “flight strips” at half a dozen spots right along the Alaska Highway to take care of planes with sputtering engines. Both Canadian and American money has gone into the improvement of the fields, but Canada will reimburse the American Government for its share.
All along the route the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes fly side by side. At each base the Canadians and the Americans have their own installations. The “local government” of each field is by a committee representing citizens of both nations. Sometimes the chairman is an American; sometimes he’s Canadian. But the final authority rests with Canada.
From Great Falls to Fairbanks the planes are flown by ferry pilots of the United States Army Air Transport Command. Sometimes the pilots are members of the Wasps— the organization of American women fliers—but the women have never flown north of Edmonton.
At Fairbanks the Russians take formal delivery of the machines and fly them another 543 miles over American territory to Nome, then over the 70 miles of water which separates Alaska from Siberia. Beyond that point the travel of the planes is shrouded in Russian secrecy so great that the Russians at Fairbanks just don’t talk about it.
For two years the story of the ferry route has been hidden in a tangled mesh of censorship. To every Edmonton resident and everyone along the route it was no secret. Even the children knew it, would shout, “There go some more Russian planes!” as the sky armadas soared northward.
It was in September, 1942, that a war-battered, war-weary camouflaged Russian transport plane
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Northward, across Canada’s Staging Route, stream fighting planes for Russia in one of the most momentous mass movements of aircraft in history
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landed at Fairbanks. American mechanics wondered how it had managed to stay in the air. From it stepped a Russian military mission, whose job it was to receive the badly needed fighting aircraft which President Roosevelt had promised to send to them.
Two days later, screaming out of the skies from the south, came the fighters and the bombers with the American White Star painted on their sides. There had been no time to paint on the Russian insignia. Out came cans of paint and the White Stars became red. Russian and American mechanics checked the engines. When they couldn’t talk each other’s language it didn’t matter because the feel for mechanics is universal. The Americans called out the names of the parts as they pointed them out to the Russians.
The planes were ready to go on to Russia. Time was pressing. The Germans were at the height of their assault on Russia. But the Russians, experts with their own craft, didn’t know how to fly the American-built machines. That’s when De Tolly folded himself behind the pilot’s seat in one of the fighters and pointed to the gadgets to tell the Russian how to fly it. The Russian learned quickly, then taught several of his countrymen. Within days the first group of airplanes, with Russians at the controls, were on their way to Moscow and the front to confound the Germans.
Barriers of Language
Training the Russians to fly the planes didn’t solve all the difficulties, however. The Americans tell the story of a Yankee control tower man who yelled over his radio at a Russian pilot who couldn’t talk English and did a beautiful job of cussing when the Russian came in the wrong way. Since then the control tower has been bilingual—it is staffed by men who can talk both English and Russian.
For months the airplanes arriving at Fairbanks carried White Stars on their sides. These stars had no background. Then, to save time, the stars were painted red at the factories, still with no background. Still later the full Russian insignia was carried right from the assembly lines: A Red Star on a
solid white circle, with the rim even with the points of the star.
When the Russians took over the first planes they had to struggle with English-language markings on the controls. They learned from memory which control was which. Now the planes carry signs printed in both English and Russian.
The Russians now have a colony of aviation people at Fairbanks and a smaller one at Nome. Out at Ladd Field at Fairbanks, Americans and Russians live together, eat together and are gradually overcoming the barriers of language. You now find more and more Americans who talk Russian and Russians who talk English. Sometimes conversation is in a curious mixture of both languages. The
favorite English term used by the Russians is “okey-dokey.”
“If anyone needs proof of international co-operation and comradeship you’ll find it right there,” is the way Maj.-Gen. W. W. Foster, C.M.G., D.S.O., V.D., special Canadian commissioner for northwest defense projects, puts it. “The Americans and Russians are friends. I’ve seen them. They pat each other on the back. They tell each other their favorite jokes.”
Wherever you go at Ladd Field there are Russians. If you play one of the row of slot machines in either the U. S. officers’ mess or the enlisted men’s mess, you usually are flanked by Russians or perhaps share a machine with them. The Russians are fascinated by these contrivances, long outlawed in many parts of Canada but officially okay on American Army bases. And when they’re not at the slot machines they’re at the billiard tables or the chess tables. Their billiards are terrible but their chess is strictly championship.
They play billiards hard and furiously. There are no soft’taps to coax a ball gently into a corner pocket. They smack the balls hard, like to see them bounce from cushion to cushion. Billiards to them is “poosh-ball.” The term tickled the Americans so the Russians let it go at that and don’t try to say “billiards.”
They’ll sit for hours playing chess with a patience which amazes the Americans. They think out each move deliberately, then suddenly make the play—just as they do in the bigger, grimmer game of war. Many a friendship has sprung up over the chess tables. Lieut. William T. Sledge, special services officer for the American Army at Fairbanks, sometimes plays five or six Russians in a row. When he tells them: “You guys don’t know
when you’re licked. Just like at Stalingrad,” the Russians love it. There have been several United StatesRussian chess tournaments. Sledge smiles about that. “They let us win the first tournament and then they went to town and licked the pants off us.”
Curious About Canada
The Russians are curious about the United States and Canada. In the American officers’ club there is a table loaded with Canadian and United States periodicals. The Russians spend a lot of time on them. The club has a bar, where Russians and Americans stand elbow to elbow and drink to Roosevelt or Stalin. There is a huge map of the Russian-German front and the pins are brought up to date daily on the basis of the news dispatches.
The Russians are free to buy American cigarettes, which they seem to prefer, but vodka is their favorite drink. It comes to them in the transport airplanes which carry ferry pilots back from Russia to Fairbanks to pick up more fighting craft. They drink the potent vodka “straight” as a rule.
If you don’t drink when a Russian offers a glass he feels badly—not offended, just disturbed. On the day of the invasion of France the planes at
Nome were grounded because of bad weather. In the club were 100 Russian fliers. The Russian commanding officer was playing “poosh-ball” when an American walked in and announced that the invasion of France had started.
“Invasion?” shouted the officer. He flung down his cue and shouted the Russian words for “victory party.” The Russians ran out to their quarters and returned with bottles of vodka. There were rapid toasts to Stalin, to Roosevelt, to Churchill, to Eisenhower, to Montgomery. And many an epithet for Hitler. Mutual respect and friendship, warm at Nome anyway, were increased that night in the Arctic. The Russians poured the vodka all night.
The Russians like sport, especially baseball, although they find it hard to understand. Many of them attended the midnight-sun ball game on June 21-22 this year and an American officer, speaking Russian, tried to explain the game to them. There were intricate discussions about pop flies and fielders’ choices.
Most of the Russian fliers are veterans from the fighting fronts, spending their furloughs by helping to get more planes to their comrades. They won’t talk to newspapermen about their experiences. All are cleanshaven and husky, with an average height of about 5^ feet. They wear “riding” boots, green tunics with green hats, and dark blue trousers with a thin gold stripe—something like those a Canadian Mountie wears. Nearly all of them carry automatics in a holster held in place by a black belt. Some of the married Soviet fliers live at the Pioneer Hotel at Fairbanks with their wives and children. The Russian women dress as the Americans do in Fairbanks—summer dresses in the hot weather and parkas in the winter. Some of them are a little on the plump side. They are frequent buyers of canned meat to send to their relatives at home.
These women work as stenographers in the Russian office at the airfield. Early in the ferrying operations there were stories of Russian women pilots who were said to be flying the airplanes from Fairbanks, but officers who have been there for a year say they’ve never seen a Russian woman at the controls. It is believed that Russian women take over some of the airplanes at the first stop in Siberia, but official secrecy shrouds the subject.
The Russians and the Americans have discovered they have common interests and mutual respect. They eat at the same mess. The food is prepared by American cooks. The Russians love it. One of them spoke about the Americans introducing him to celery—he had never heard of it in his homeland. Sometimes the Russians yearn for their homeland cooking and cook borsch, made of beets, potatoes and onions. It’s not infrequent to have Roman Catholic Mass going on in the chapel on the field while next door in the Russian quarters a lusty chorus of Russian voices sings to the strumming of a balalaika at a “borsch party.”
Talk to the Russians and you’ll find war tragedy in the personal histories of many of them. One Russian, stopping at Fairbanks for a day while on his way from Moscow to the U. S., pointed out the position of his home town on the big wall map.
“My muzzer and seester died in Leningrad,” he said sadly. Then a Russian grin broke out and he swept his nand over the liberated areas shown on the map and he proudly declared, “No Fascisti.”
The Russians crowd the Fairbanks movie theatres. At first only the interpreters could understand the dialogue. Now the Russians laugh as hard as we do at Bugs Bunny, Mickey Rooney or Mickey Mouse.
The easygoing familiarity in the American Army is always a source of wonder to the Russians who lean heavily on military niceties. Americans in out-of-the-way places sometimes dispense with the formality of saluting. A Russian always salutes, both his own and American officers.
You can tell at Fairbanks when a Russian is getting ready to go back home. You can find him downtown buying silks and satins and other warscarce materials.
The Americans in Alaska are learning a great deal from the Russians. Discussing postwar chances of continued good relations between the U. S. and the U. S. S. R., an American officer put it this way: “If the AngloSaxons and the Russians don’t jell it’s somebody’s fault, and probably ours.”
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