Needing to help Stalin's ill-equipped army against Hitler, the Allies secretly delivered 8,000 aircraft to Russia from Great Falls Montana between 1942 and 1945. The sub-Arctic airline that linked Moscow with Fort Nelson and Fort St. John is the subject of Blake W. Smith's Warplanes to Alaska (Hancock 1999 $47.95). Based on interviews with Soviet, American and RCAF airmen, Smith's illustrated history reveals how and why the 'Aleutian solution' provided a 7,900-mile lifeline to Moscow via British Columbia.

"The veterans who lived this history are fast disappearing," says Smith, "and it gives me great satisfaction that I was able to hear their stories and collect their photographs and share them."

In 1940 President Roosevelt campaigned on a platform of not involving America in another European war. After FDR's re-election, he devised unpopular 'lend-lease' legislation to supply Britain with armaments instead of troops. FDR soft-pedalled his aid program, likening it to "loaning your neighbour a fire hose when his house is on fire."

In June of 1941, Hitler launched a surprise attack on the Soviet Union, code-named Operation Barbarossa. Ten days later Churchill and Roosevelt agreed to extend their lend-lease program to help Stalin. The Soviets were at first reluctant to consider a trans-Siberian route for aircraft deliveries. But the success of German U-boats in the north Atlantic and the logistics of a route via Africa forced serious consideration of the ALSIB route. ALSIB, a contraction for Alaska and Siberia, was formally agreed to by American and Soviet officials on August 3, 1942. By this time Japan had attacked Pearl Harbour; America had declared war on Japan; and Hitler had declared war on America four days later. FDR no longer needed to soft-pedal American involvement.

Aerodromes were built at Fort Nelson, Watson Lake and Fort St. John in 1941. Eventually a 'string of beads' stretched from the American terminus in Montana --including Lethbridge, Calgary, Edmonton, Grand Prairie, Fort St. John, Beaton River, Smith River, Pine Lake, Teslin, Whitehorse, Snag, Northway, Tanacross, Big Delta, Fairbanks, Galena and Nome --across Siberia to Moscow.

Blake Smith, a recreational pilot in North Vancouver, first became intrigued by ALSIB when he stumbled upon the wreckage of a lend-lease P-39 Airacobra on a Yukon mountain top. He began to scour military archives and engage historians from Finland, Ukraine and Russia to unravel stories. "Russians who participated in lend-lease were expressly told to erase this period of cooperation from their memories on the threat of imprisonment," he says.

A Soviet pilot named Nikolai Sladkov, for instance, recalls that pilots who took part in the lend-lease program were later treated with suspicion by the KGB during the Cold War. While piloting an American-built C-47 transport against Japan, Sladkov made the mistake of recording the identity of his American-built plane in his personal flight log.

"I was called before the KGB and it was explained to me that America had never sent airplanes to the USSR which meant that I could never have piloted them. They advised me never to speak to anyone about the subject and took away my identification card verifying I was a war participant. It was finally returned to me in 1991."

Blake Smith followed Warplanes to Alaska with another book based on the same subject, Wings Over the Wildnerness. He explained to BC BookWorld, "The books differ in that my first book focussed heavily on the back-story of the circumstances that led to the need to extend Lend-Lease aid to our Soviet ally and delved more deeply into the need for creating a wilderness airway over the top of the world and the hardships faced. It seemed to me that it was essential in my first book to include the organizational and administrative history of both the airway and the Lend-Lease Program. These topics are described briefly in Wings Over the Wilderness but in this latest book my aim was to rely more heavily on the first hand accounts of those that were a part of this experience and expand into several previously unmentioned aspects of the Alaska-Siberia airway. Both American and Soviet pilots and ground personnel contributed many terrific stories and photographs and my personal challenge was to weave them together in an interesting and coherent framework. One area in which I expanded the topic was to include a substantial amount of content on the experiences of the search & rescue pilots. These men flew small bush planes into remote areas providing many essential duties beyond their search & rescue responsibilities and were part of many interesting adventures. With the publication of my first book ten years ago many veterans who read that book responded with stories of their own, added additional details to the stories I had mentioned, or suggested I write about a previously untold aspect of their private bush war on top of the world. This I did in Wings Over the Wilderness."


Warplanes to Alaska (Hancock 1999 $47.95). 0-88839-401-2

Wings Over the Wilderness: The Flew the Trail of '42 (Hancock 2007 $49.95) 978-0-88839-595-5

[BCBW 1999 / 2008] "War" "Transportation"