Why did the USSR detain American pilots who bombed Tokyo?

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After the famous ‘Doolittle Raid’, one of the American bombers that had taken part landed on Soviet territory. The crew hoped to leave the USSR immediately but, instead, ended up embarking on a 13-month journey across half the country.

On April 18, 1942, the U.S. Air Force attacked Japan for the first time in World War II. Sixteen B-25 Mitchell bombers launched surprise air strikes on military and industrial targets in Tokyo and several other cities. The so-called ‘Doolittle Raid’ (named after Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle who led it) was in retaliation for the perfidious Japanese attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s naval base at Pearl Harbor on December 7 the previous year. 

As a result of the Japanese Imperial Navy patrol ships’ early detection of the U.S. aircraft carrier group covertly moving towards Japan’s shores, the bombers had to be scrambled much earlier than planned. The aircraft were loaded with additional gasoline reserves which, however, might still not have been enough - the bombers were to return not to their aircraft carrier, the USS Hornet, which had already left the dangerous waters, but to faraway airfields in allied China.

Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle (left front) poses with USAAF aircrew members on Hornet's flight deck.

Not all of Doolittle’s planes tried to find their way back to the territory controlled by the forces of Chiang Kai-shek. The crew commanded by Captain Edward J. York, having figured out that the remaining fuel was not enough to get them to China, decided to land on the territory of another U.S. ally - the Soviet Union. The only problem was that the American pilots had been prohibited from doing so in the strictest terms.

Unexpected guests

At that time, the USSR and the United States did indeed enjoy allied relations, but they extended exclusively to the war against Nazi Germany in Europe. Having signed a pact of neutrality with Tokyo on April 13, 1941, Moscow was staying out of the armed conflict in the Pacific and was obliged to immediately intern any troops of the states fighting in the region and who, for some reason, ended up on its territory.

After flying along the Soviet coastline and bypassing Vladivostok, York’s B-25 veered into Soviet airspace in the area of Cape Sysoyev, where it was detected by the air defense forces of the Soviet Pacific Fleet. They failed to raise the alarm, however, mistaking the American plane for a Soviet Yak-4 bomber returning to base.

Army Air Forces B-25B bombers parked on the flight deck of USS Hornet.

It was only at half past five in the afternoon, after the American warplane had appeared over Unashi military airfield a few dozen kilometers from the port of Nakhodka, that two I-15 fighters scrambled to intercept it, poised to attack. However, they did not prevent the bomber, whose fuel tanks were empty at this point, from landing.

The Soviet servicemen were extremely surprised to see the five Americans (two pilots, a navigator, a flight engineer and a gunner), but they nevertheless gave them a warm welcome, put them up for the night and fed them. Soon, Colonel Gubanov, deputy commanding officer Air Forces, Pacific Fleet, arrived at the airfield with an interpreter.

Initially the Americans said they had flown in from Alaska. Gubanov, however, happened to be well informed about the Tokyo bombing and the pilots had to admit that they had been part of the raid. “I asked him if he would fix us up with gasoline and, if he would, we would take off early the next morning and proceed to China. He agreed,” York recalled in 1943.

I-15 fighter.

It wasn’t that simple, however. The USSR could not let the pilots who had bombed Tokyo go without provoking a fierce response from Japan, whose position in the Far East was then stronger than ever. On the other hand, Moscow didn’t want to quarrel with a new ally who had just started supplying arms and raw materials to the Soviet Union under the Lend-Lease program.

In the end, the B-25 was seized and its crew interned and William Standley, the US Ambassador to the USSR, was handed a formal protest. At the same time, Moscow informally assured Washington that it would try to find a way out of the situation that would suit everyone and that, in the meantime, the U.S. servicemen would be treated well and held in comfortable conditions.

Across half the country

The crew was sent to Khabarovsk, where it had a meeting with General Iosif Apanasenko, the commander of the Far Eastern Front, who told them they were being interned. It was after this meeting that the Americans’ odyssey began - they were taken by train, plane and ferry across the whole of Siberia to the Urals and Volga Region and left for weeks to live in different towns and small villages. The U.S. embassy received regular updates about the internees’ whereabouts.

Soviet general Iosif Apanasenko.

For eight whole months, the American pilots stayed in the small town of Okhansk on the banks of the Kama River with absolutely nothing to occupy them. “About four months after we got there, the last of our guards were taken away from us and we were living in a house by ourselves. We were free to go around the town. By this time, we learned enough of the language that if we were stopped and asked for papers we could tell them who we were. Of course, they knew. Most of the people in the town knew,” York recalled.

The crew were allowed meetings with American diplomats on several occasions. In September 1942, they managed to talk to General Omar Bradley, who, at the time, was in the USSR overseeing the ALSIB (Alaska-Siberia) air bridge, along which military aircraft from the United States arrived in the USSR.

Upon learning that the pilots were contemplating an escape, Bradley strongly advised them to abandon the idea and not to breach the conditions of their internment. The escape would eventually take place, only it would be organized not by the Americans, but by the Soviet special services.

The “escape”

Edward J. York.

The situation with the interned B-25 crew began to change in early 1943. Captain York’s wife petitioned President Roosevelt for the release of the crew and he made a personal request to Stalin. The Soviet leadership itself started to be less touchy about the problem, mainly because it was felt that a tipping point had been reached in the war following the German defeat at Stalingrad and Japanese defeat at the Battle of Guadalcanal.

It, nevertheless, remained impossible to simply release the aviators just like that and the NKVD was instructed to organize an escape for them across the Soviet-Iranian border. The Americans themselves, moreover, were to be made to believe that they were acting on their own initiative. 

In March 1943, the crew were sent to the south of the USSR, where they were supposed to work at an aerodrome in Ashkhabad. On the train to the capital of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic, Major Vladimir Boyarsky of the NKVD, posing as Major Alexander Yakimenko of the Red Army, contrived to make friends with the aviators and then maintained contact with them after they had reached their destination. He rapidly convinced the Americans that he sympathized with their difficult plight and that he quite genuinely wanted to help them to return home.

Town of Okhansk.

“From my first days in Turkmenistan, I was planning with the border guards how the Americans were to cross the border,” Boyarsky recalled. “The main thing was that they should believe that they had planned their escape from the USSR for themselves. To this end, roughly 20 km southeast of Ashkhabad, close to Iran, we set up a fake no man’s land that purported to mark the Soviet-Iranian border.” 

Boyarsky introduced the Americans to another NKVD man, playing the role of a smuggler. For 250 dollars he was to take them by truck to the “border”, which they were to cross clandestinely on their own and then he was to pick them up again on the other side.

“You should have seen the Americans, in the moonlight, looking around and getting on their knees in order to crawl under the barbed-wire barriers set up by the Russians, as they fled to freedom. In an appropriate location we ingeniously staged the authentic-looking scenario of a group of intruders making an illegal border crossing,” was how Boyarsky recalled the night of May 10-11 when the men made their escape. 

Picking up the Americans on the “Iranian” side, the “smuggler” drove them through what were now the real border posts without any trouble, something that was easily done: Following their joint invasion of pro-German Iran alongside Britain in August 1941, Soviet troops were present in the northern part of the country and practically no checks were implemented on the border. On arriving in the city of Mashhad, the unsuspecting crew members applied to the British consulate and were already in Washington by May 24.

Years after the end of his 13-month odyssey through the USSR, gunner David W. Pohl voiced the suspicion that their whole escape had been engineered by the Soviet General Staff and the NKVD. Copilot Robert G. Emmens disagreed, however: “Our escape was too real. It cost us every cent we had… [Yakimenko] kissed each of us when we left him… He had tears in his eyes.” 

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