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"Nuclear deterrence element." New facts about ALSIB airfields

After 1942, ALSIB was used to ferry to the USSR from the US of about 8,000 aircraft
C-47 Douglas engine Svetlana Latynina/TASS
C-47 Douglas engine
© Svetlana Latynina/TASS

MOSCOW, August 4. /TASS/. In 2022 we mark the 80th anniversary of the Alaska - Siberia (ALSIB) air route. During World War II, the route was used to ferry from the US to the USSR Lend-Lease aircraft for the front. Members of the ALSIB expedition found during the Chukotka stage American aircraft engines, an aircraft tractor, a snow-throwing plow and other unique objects. Quite soon the objects from the airfields or crash sites will become exhibition objects.

After 1942, ALSIB, which was 6,500km long, was used to ferry to the USSR from the US of about 8,000 aircraft: fighters, bombers, training and transport aircraft. ALSIB was specifically created for this purpose. Its airfields were built incredibly quickly - in just five to eight months, despite the severe northern climate and the hard-to-reach locations.

However, not all aircraft managed to reach the final destination successfully. For various reasons, including bad weather, some crashed and have remained at the crash sites. Some of the ALSIB airfields remain only in the past, but their traces, like the traces of crashed crafts, still can be found.

In 2021, an expedition of the Russian Geographical Society (RGS) with the support from the Defense Ministry explored ALSIB after thorough studies in archives. In 2022, RGS has organized another expedition to continue studies of the legendary air route, to transport some of the objects, and to install at crash sites commemorative plaques to pay tribute to deceased pilots, as well as to take care of their burials.

Chukotka airfields

The exhibition’s one of the stages was in Chukotka - in the place, where life depends entirely on weather conditions. In that region, ALSIB had a few intermediate aerodromes, so that aircraft could maneuver and wait for better weather, the expedition’s scientific leader Pavel Filin said.

The ALSIB explorers, like the pilots ferrying the aircraft, had to work in extreme conditions. They had to live in mosquito-packed tents amid the tundra - ALSIB’s all aerodromes in Chukotka are far from the mainland, they are hidden among wild trees of willow and cedar. Getting to some of them was not a simple task. The travelers had to use an ATV to push way through the trees.

The expedition participants were brought to the location from Anadyr’s airport onboard a cargo Mil Mi-26 of the Russian Aerospace Forces. When onboard the helicopter, we could see bears wandering the Bering Sea shore searching for food, and the uninhabited cold tundra stretching apart for many kilometers. In the hottest summers, the night air temperature drops to zero. Another thing - in case of bad weather, travelers may get stuck in the tundra for a week.

Alexey Nikulin and his team are working on a documentary about ALSIB. Alexey has taken to the expedition a family relic - a Swiss watch, inherited from grandfather.

"The watch’s history is interesting. It at least once has traveled the route from Fairbanks (in Alaska) to Krasnoyarsk and then to Moscow. The family legend says my granddad got the watch from a pilot, who ferried the aircraft. But I have reasons to believe granddad was delivering diplomatic mail from the US to Krasnoyarsk and chose not to tell everything about how he had got the watch. His file, which I have studied, is top secret between 1942 and 1945. And I know that at NKVD (Soviet Union’s intelligence service) he worked with the courier service and, quite possibly, used the route to deliver diplomatic mail," he said.

Alexey has another WWII watch on him. A Waltham watch. The reverse side’s inscription reads: "To heroic people of USSR."

"Such watches were supplied to Russia during the war and were given to the Red Army’s distinguished soldiers and officers. In fact, the inscription shows the attitude the American people had towards the Russians. I’ve bought it at an auction, it was a set of parts, and a skillful master has managed to restore it. He had to make anew a significant number of parts, because the watch is quite rare, and no spare parts were available," he said.

Skeletons, waste, artefacts

ALSIB’s base aerodrome was in Eskimo’s Uelkal. It is located on the Bering Sea’s shore. "This is the main destination, to which the aircraft arrived right from the US. That is - it was the first transportation stage," Pavel Filin said.

Last year’s expedition members - military topographers, geophysicists, historians - studied thoroughly remains of the wooden runway in Uelkal. They found in the village captured barrels of aviation gasoline, on which "Wehrmacht" was written. This season, the researchers have come to Uelkal to shoot a film, a documentary, as well as to visit the memorial at the burial of pilots who died in crashes along ALSIB. For example, the crew of a C-47 Douglas military transport aircraft is buried there. According to archival documents, the aircraft crashed on May 28, 1943, near the village of Neran. The crew commander was Senior Lieutenant Spiridonov.

The expedition has found fragments of wings, and two engines from that aircraft, Filin said. Some fragments from the crash site may be transported.

Remains of military unit in Uelkal Svetlana Latyninia/TASS
Remains of military unit in Uelkal
© Svetlana Latyninia/TASS

According to the historian, there were many buildings around the airfield in Uelkal. "We wanted to see whether anything has remained since World War II. Unfortunately - not. After the war, the airfield was used by a big air division - until the 2000s. Right now, there’s much waste at the former airfield. Here are airfield slabs, which, by the way, may be from the war times," he said, pointing to a pile of rusty metal.

In the waste, which still remains after the military unit, including on the runway, the expedition participants saw whale bones. Next to the village there is a whale ‘burial’ - a part of the coastline is covered with the mammals’ skeletons. The village’s name originates from the main occupation of the locals - sea hunting. Some versions claim the name Uelkal means "someone having jaws", or "whale’s lower jaw." It is quite probable that amid those whale skeletons and waste still may remain war-time artefacts.

Rare exhibition object

The Tanyurer airfield on a river, bearing the same name, was ALSIB’S second airfield. It was built record quickly, and besides - in a heavily waterlogged area. Nowadays, the area, where aircraft used to land and take off, is the tundra, where mosquitoes and wild animals are the natives. However, nearby is a meteorology station, where two people live.

"Imagine - 80 years ago life was booming here. The town’s population was 400 people," the expedition participant Oleg Podkletnov told us. "We have found certain equipment, which prompts that here used to be various services. Planes used the landing searchlight, the rack of which we have found, then an aircraft tractor pulls up to it, hooks it on the chassis, lifts, and drags along the strip to the right place. Then, the airfield’s commander or commandant drives up in a Willys, the pilots get out, get into a Studebaker truck, which takes them to the hotel, that existed here at that time. Pilaf is being cooked — we’ve found a bowl of about 300 liters. That is, there used to be a good collective kitchen at the airfield."

The expedition participants have found more than a dozen interesting objects near Tanurer. The war-time objects. For example, fragments of aircraft wings. They could be the wreckage of a C-47 Douglas. "Aircraft of the kind were transported along the Alaska—Siberia route, and at the same time they performed as shuttles to have pilots back in a relay to transport other fighter-bomber aircraft. Additionally, as we were making way through swamps here, we found two C-47 Douglas engines. The tundra here is rather weird - when you look at it, it seems the regular tundra, though the lower layer is a blanket of tall cedars and willows. The conditions are tough, we had to climb, and yet did not seem to see any equipment. We had to be searching for equipment like for mushrooms," Pavel Filin said.

C-47 Douglas engine Svetlana Latyninia/TASS
C-47 Douglas engine
© Svetlana Latyninia/TASS

In addition to the aircraft wreckage, the expedition has found in Tanyurer other Lend-Lease equipment. For example, a hinged device for an ATV - a so-called snow plow to remove snow from runways.

A most unique object found in Tanyurer is an American Reo airfield tractor. It was found a year earlier, and during this season, a Mi-26 helicopter has taken it, along with the C-47 Douglas engines, to the mainland. The tractor was used at the airfield to transport aircraft, to lift them by the chassis. Such trucks are not to be found in Russia. Moreover, they are very rare in the United States.

"We have run into it, like all other objects, when we were combing the territory taking pictures from a drone. This year, we have prepared it for transportation, have lifted all the parts, which had been inside the soil," Podkletnov said.

Reo airfield tractor Svetlana Latyninia/TASS
Reo airfield tractor
© Svetlana Latyninia/TASS

The object’s condition is quite good, the expedition participants say. Clearly, the truck had not worked too much. "It may have acted up, and they did not have spare parts, so it was just parked there idly," Filin supposed.

The scientists have found a few American Studebaker trucks, as well as Soviet equipment of the 1940s. According to the historian, all the objects are of great interest, and they may become great museum exhibition objects.

According to Filin, the Tanyurer airfield continued working for the country’s defense even after World War II. For quite a long time. There was the 95th fighter division. There is no much available information about it - the military unit was secret.

"The reason is the air division was to escort strategic aircraft, carrying nuclear warhead. The nearest route to deliver nuclear weapons from the US to the Soviet Union (here the speaker means the delivery of nuclear warheads by the strategic aviation - TASS) is the North Pole via the Arctic. Accordingly, an early interception, if something is flying to us, and escort are to be in the Arctic. Thus, that air division, located here, was actually intercepting aircraft that could fly to us carrying nuclear weapons, and it was escorting T-4 strategic [bombers]. In fact, this airfield in the post-war period after 1949 became an element of nuclear deterrence," Filin said.

ALSIB - route to future

The expedition results will be presented in a documentary and in an exhibition about ALSIB. First publication about the ALSIB route appeared after the 1990s. Available information was only in archives, plus geologists from time to time ran into crash sites, Alexey Nikulin, a documentary producer said. The exhibition will tour Russian cities to present the secret air route to a wide audience.

Some future exhibits require restoration, and others will be exhibited as they have been found. The artefacts will be air delivered from Anadyr to Moscow.

Surely, the expedition does not evacuate from former airfields and from crash sites every object they find - evacuating some of the objects is not reasonable, and besides it may be interesting for tourists to see objects right at the sites where they have been found.

Remains of the wooden runway in Uelkal Svetlana Latyninia/TASS
Remains of the wooden runway in Uelkal
© Svetlana Latyninia/TASS

ALSIB, as Pavel Filin says, is a fundamental input of the Soviet people not only in the victory over Nazism, but also in the country’s post-war development. In the 1940s, a network of airfields existed not only in Chukotka, but also in Yakutia, the Irkutsk, Magadan and Krasnoyarsk regions. The Russian Geographical Society has included those regions in the program to explore ALSIB.

"Before that time, practically no airfields had been there," Filin told TASS. "At the area from Krasnoyarsk to the Bering Strait there had been just a few ground airfields, while over the war time the number of new airfields there reached 26. Thus, the country received a vast air infrastructure in the central part of the Far East and Siberia. This infrastructure was connected with the Northern Sea Route by river routes, and with Trans-Sib [railway line] with by-pass roads. We can say that ALSIB was a significant part of the transport infrastructure that favored greatly the post-war development of the region."

Some of those airfields are still working and even have been upgraded to big airports with concrete runways.

Apparently, ALSIB still keeps a lot of interesting facts. The expedition participants stress certain parts of the air corridor’s history remain classified to date.