Recounting U.S.-Russia relations, Alaska's war years

Posted: Friday, September 08, 2006

On Sunday, Aug. 27 a momentous celebration took place in Fairbanks. Dignitaries came from Russia and the United States. From Russia came Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov. Many believe that he will succeed Putin as the next president. Also present was Yuri Ushakov, the ambassador to the U.S.

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From our country came Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Sen. Stevens.

The ceremony commemorated the cooperation between the U.S. and Russia during World War II. Skip Wallen, of Juneau, created a massive bronze monument of 10-feet-tall airmen, one from each country, standing side by side.

Fairbanks was at the heart of the transfer of aircraft, particularly the P-39 Aircobra fighter plane which carried a 37-millimeter cannon in the nose cone. This became a favorite of Soviet pilots, used to attack ground targets particularly tanks. Almost 8,000 bomber and fighter planes crossed over from Alaska.

The journey began in Great Falls, Mont., where the red star was painted on the fuselage. The planes were flown by American pilots to Fairbanks, where Russian crews took over, to fly the planes to Siberia and on to the fighting front lines.

When I was in St. Petersburg about 10 years ago, I had dinner with a man who had fought in the war. He had been in a small artillery unit, that moved rapidly. They had five American-built, 2.5-ton trucks to pull the guns and carry the ammunition.

As John Keegan, the historian, said in his book, "The Second World War," on page 218: "At the end of the war the Soviet forces had 665,000 motor vehicles of which 427,000 were Western ... and a high proportion the magnificent 2 and one-half ton Dodge truck, which effectively carried everything the Red Army needed in the field."

He added that shipments via Vladivostok, Murmansk and the Persian Gulf provided five million tons of American agricultural foods, sufficient to provide each Soviet soldier with a half-pound of concentrated rations every day of the war. And much more, including 2,000 railroad locomotives, 11,000 freight carriages and 540,000 tons of rails, with which the Russians laid more track than in the pre-war years from 1928 to 1939.

The best book I've ever read about the war years in Alaska was by Henry Varnum Poor called "An Artist sees Alaska." He spent many months at Ladd Field in Fairbanks painting the visiting Russian and American pilots and crewmen.

He tells this poignant story on p. 73 and 74.

"One Sunday afternoon a P-39, after circling the field, left its convoy, tried to land again, but plunged into the river which flows by only one hundred yards from the end of the runway. The pilot, a 20-year-old Russian boy, and one of their best, had radioed that his oil pressure was dropping.

"Wrecking trucks and crew, cables, rubber boats, all were rushed to the river, and the personnel of the field, both Russian and American, gathered on the bank. The plane was located just under the surface in the middle of the swift icy current.

"At last the wingless, torn fuselage was drawn to shore, the tail heaved up like a whale, and in the transparent nose, crushed against the instrument panel, was the pilot. American boys in the icy water to their necks pulled the body out."

I once saw the original of Poor's painting of this scene as the Americans attempted to gently pull the body of the dead pilot from the cockpit. My friend, art dealer Bill Winn, carried many of Poor's originals for sale during the 1970s and '80s, and I shared in the artist's vision of Alaska's war years with Bill at his home.

• Lifelong Alaskan Elton Engstrom is a retired fish-buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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