Juneau artist Wallen subject of documentary

'Sanibel to Siberia' will air on Oct. 11 and 12 on public television

Posted: Thursday, October 09, 2008

A new documentary about Juneau artist R.T. "Skip" Wallen that airs nationally this week helps highlight the importance Alaska played in the Allies' victory in World War II.

Courtesy Of Skip Wallen
Courtesy Of Skip Wallen

"Sanibel to Siberia," which debuted in Alaska on Wednesday, Oct. 8, documents Wallen creating a monument that commemorates Alaska's little-known role in the Lend-Lease Program, in which the United States sent roughly 8,000 airplanes to the Soviet Union air force that had been ravaged by the Nazis.

"The providing of these war planes at a critical time for the Soviet Union helped turn the course of World War II in favor of the Allies and so Alaska played a role in that," Wallen said in a phone interview from Florida.

The documentary is scheduled to play at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 11, and again at noon on Sunday, Oct. 12, on statewide public television station 360 North.

The Juneau-based Alaska-Siberia Research Center approached Wallen to design and create a monument to honor the ties the two nations shared during World War II, he said. A monument was commissioned that depicts an American and a Russian pilot in cold-weather gear and it now resides in a park along the Chena River in Fairbanks.

While Wallen was sculpting the 10-foot airmen in a studio in Florida, his artist friends convinced him the undertaking should be documented. They went to the local public television station at Gulf Coast University and presented the idea. A donor came forward with some seed money and eventually the film was made, Wallen said.

Wallen said he felt it was important to help people remember a little-known program that helped defeat the Nazis.

"This operation that took place during World War II was highly secret at the time. Partly because of that and partly because of how long ago it occurred, this astonishing undertaking is fast fading from public memory. The research center thought it would be good to commemorate Alaska's role in the war and they approached me to design and sculpt a monument."

Between 1942 and 1945 the U.S. Army 7th Ferrying Group flew thousands of winterized planes to Fairbanks where Soviet pilots trained on them and would eventually fly them across the Bering Strait and Siberia to be used on the war fronts.

"The Alaska Highway was built concurrently to service these air fields and that had a major impact on Alaska, but also a major impact on the wider theater of the world in World War II," Wallen said.

Award-winning producer Joel Banow, formerly of CBS, produced the 30-minute documentary, which has already won two national Telly awards.

Wallen is presently back in Florida working with a fellow artist on a series of glass panels on behalf of former President Jimmy Carter to be given to major donors of The Carter Center.

•Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.

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