In Search of Missing U.S. Warplanes

In October 1942, people in Siberia were surprised to see unfamiliar-looking aircraft appear seemingly out of nowhere. That was the beginning of the Soviet Aircraft Ferrying Division. Some of these aircraft crashed en route to the Soviet-German Front
Although it was impossible to search for missing aircraft and pilots during the war, hunters sometimes came across human skeletons and wreckage in the taiga (boreal) forests, but kept silent because they were scared. Decades after the war ended, volunteer squads of young people found many of the missing planes. The first U.S. aircraft was located in the Irkutsk Region in the summer of 1987.

Operation ALSIB was unique - no aircraft had been ferried over such vast distances before. Under the Lend Lease Act, the United States supplied the USSR with Boeing B-25 Mitchell and Douglas A-20 Boston bombers, P-39 Air Cobra and P-63 King Cobra fighters, as well as Douglas C-47 Dakota transports. All of them began their epic journey at Great Falls Air Force Base in Montana, subsequently flying to Edmonton and Whitehorse, Canada, and on to Ladd Field near Fairbanks, Alaska.

According to war veterans, the planes were flown by hastily-trained young pilots using wildly inaccurate maps that sometimes showed lakes 100 miles from their actual positions. In some cases, mountains had a height of 4,921 feet, rather than 3,937 feet as was indicated on the map. Moreover, the Alaskan climate is notorious for its rapidly changing weather; clouds over 600 feet high could envelope Nome Air Base in just 20 minutes. Such clouds were a major in-flight icing hazard. High-altitude temperatures are considerably higher in winter; thermometers can register minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit at a ground level but zero degrees at an altitude of 1,968 feet.

The winter of 1942 was the worst in 25 years. Eleven American soldiers servicing the ALSIB route died when their transport plane crashed into a mountain and was buried by an avalanche.

Another aircraft tried to reach Lake Watson in a snowstorm but also crashed, killing the crew. Two badly injured survivors had to spend two weeks sheltering alongside the dead before they tied skis to their broken legs, put fur boots on their hands and crawled away. The men, who managed to cover four miles at minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit, were rescued four days later.

Another transport plane climbed to 14,108 feet en route to Fairbanks in order to escape ice clouds. The pilots and passengers had to use blowtorches to warm up their frozen legs.

That terrible winter animals froze to death. Many people suffered from frostbite. Tooth fillings fell out whenever one breathed too deeply. Airfield crews worked 20-minute shifts out in the open. Fingers froze stiff whenever mittens were taken off, and it took two hours to replace a spark plug while wearing mittens. People lost fingers; one unfortunate captain had to have his frozen lip cut off.

A fallen tree had to be heated by blowtorch before a nail was driven into it. Spilled gasoline froze on the hands like liquid air. People vanished several yards from the runway when snowstorms reduced visibility to zero and special rescue teams with tractors had to be called in. Frost turned engine oil into stone, and even high-octane gasoline would not ignite.

Soviet technicians, who lived in heated log barracks built by GULAG inmates, would work two-hour shifts, drink a cup of pure alcohol and fall asleep for a short respite only to wake up two hours later.

Rubber hoses and metal pipes broke like matches, and rubber crumbled in subzero degree temperatures. The American had to eliminate production defects in no time at all. To help them, the Soviet Foreign Trade Department eventually provided the Americans with a frost-resistant rubber formula.

Hydraulic fluid turned into jelly when the thermometer dropped well below zero and could not be pumped to activate landing gear and air brakes. Colonel Mikhail Ma­chin, head of the Soviet Procurement Commission, asked Brigadier General Dale V. Gaffney, "The Screaming Eagle of the Yukon" and the wise and forceful commander of Ladd Air Field near Fairbanks, for help. Gaffney immediately contacted the University of Alaska, which found a replacement for one of the formula's components in just two days. After that, it became possible to produce cold-resistant hydraulic fluid.

I recently visited a small town near Irkutsk and saw a steel sheet bridge spanning a local creek. There are many other similar bridges in northern Russia - the United States delivered thousands of tons of this sturdy material, which can withstand the weight of a heavy bomber, to the USSR during the war.

At Ladd Air Field, a Soviet mission accepted the American planes, and Soviet pilots from the Aircraft Ferrying Division's First Regiment climbed into the cockpits and flew over to Uelkal Air Field on the Chukchi Peninsula, via Nome and the Bering Strait. From there, the Second Regiment flew the planes to Seymchan, about 217 miles north of Magadan in East Siberia. The Third Air Force Regiment then ferried the planes via Oimyakon, the Pole of Cold in the Northern Hemisphere where temperatures drop below minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit in winter. Then the planes had to fly over the Verkhoyansk Range, with their crews wearing oxygen masks.

The headquarters of the Aircraft Ferrying Division and its Fourth Regiment were located in Yakutsk. The Fourth Regiment flew all the planes to Kirensk where the Fifth Regiment took over and ferried them to Krasnoyarsk.

In Krasnoyarsk, the fighters had their wings removed and were placed aboard freight trains bound for the Soviet-German Front, and the huge bombers flew directly on to their combat units.

The Aircraft Ferrying Division's pilots boarded C-47 transports in Krasnoyarsk and returned to their respective bases.

Russian archives, declassified only in recent years, suggest that 113 pilots of the Aircraft Ferrying Division were killed in the line of duty. In 1987, our expedition traveled 15 miles into the taiga, reached a crash site and established the names of three pilots.

The crash site is overgrown with flowers, resembling a burial mound. One can see pine-trees with broken tops there; fragments of metal are strewn all over the place. Birch-trees sprout through holes in the wings. Faded red or white stars can be seen among the rivets. To be frank, it makes no difference which; both Soviet and U.S. Armed Forces had the same insignia.

The engine was still working when the plane hit the ground. The propellers ploughed through a snowdrift and the frozen ground underneath. The cockpit disintegrated, and the rest of the fuselage was also badly damaged. Over the decades, a foot-deep layer of pine needles covered everything.

Several hours later, I found a Plexiglas fragment and a large-caliber red-rimmed armor-piercing or tracer bullet. We found several canned-food tins and spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to open them. One tin contained nice-smelling processed cheese, which we fed to the dogs.

We also found a spoon, a coffee bag, an adhesive plaster, interphones and a piece of the plane's skin bearing the number 13587. Our expedition eventually found the remains of the pilots and placed them in a plastic bag.

Later on, we learned that the aircraft had been crewed by first pilot Dmitry Lobarev, navigator Mikhail Yershov and radioman Vasily Nechipurenko. The latter was only 18 when he took off on his first and last flight from Yakutsk to Kirensk. We located the relatives of the pilots and buried their remains in a solemn setting.

The plane crashed on March 24, 1943 due to bad weather and crew fatigue. Long distances also contributed to the disaster; in extreme conditions, flying non-familiar aircraft, Russian pilots often found it hard to convert miles into kilometers (speed), feet into meters (altitude) and gallons into liters (to calculate remaining fuel).

The Allies supplied over 14,000 aircraft to the Soviet Union during World War II. In fact, British and American planes accounted for roughly a third of all aircraft flown by Soviet Air Force pilots during the war. In all, 8,000 planes reached the Soviet-German Front via Alaska and Siberia. Almost 150 of them failed to reach the frontline. Nonetheless, these sacrifices were not in vain - they contributed to our common great victory over the enemy. -

Mikhail Deniskin, a writer from Novosibirsk, has been searching for missing pilots for many years. In 2006, a Siberian publishing house printed his memoirs about numerous expeditions in the Siberian taiga and Alaska.

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