1941 was one of the darkest years in the history of the world. The United States had not yet entered the war and Nazi Germany had overrun Europe. In November of that year, Hitler’s army attacked the Soviet Union in one of the bloodiest and most devastating campaigns ever, known as Operation Barbarossa. Within the first two weeks, over half of the Soviet Air Force, which at the time was the largest in the world, was destroyed. In the end, between 23 and 27 million men, women, and children were killed in what the Soviets call “The Great Patriotic War.”
To put the loss in context, imagine a foreign invasion of the United States and the total annihilation of Boston, New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Atlanta, and Miami to name just a few.
In an effort to aid our friends and allies, which included the Soviet people, Franklin Delano Roosevelt built the framework for the Lend-Lease Act of 1941. This included a secret program to transport nearly 8,000 military aircraft from Great Falls, Montana, through Canada and Alaska, and across the Bering Strait to Siberia, known as the Alaska-Siberia air route (ALSIB).
As part of this effort, airfields needed to be built and supplied every few hundred miles along the route. This was the catalyst for the Alaska Highway in Canada, one of the most challenging and brutal transportation projects of its time.
As the ALSIB route was being completed, the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) began ferrying planes from the manufacturers throughout the continental United States to the various staging areas throughout the country, including Gore Field in Great Falls, MT which was the staging area for the ALSIB program. There were 38 casualties among the women pilots directly related to the ferrying effort.
Men from the 7th Ferrying Squadron located in Great Falls then began flying these aircraft year round, without the aid of modern avionics or cold weather gear, through some of the most treacherous country in North America on their way to Fairbanks, AK.
Upon arrival in Alaska, the aircraft were handed over to the Soviet pilots who were waiting in Fairbanks. From there, they were flown an additional 3,000 miles across Siberia to Krasnoyarsk, Russia and on to the fighting fronts. In all, there were 177 fatal crashes among the United States and Soviet pilots.
It was one of the greatest logistical efforts of the 20th century – and a vital support network for the Soviet Union during World War II – something the Russian people celebrate to this day. It is an epic story of cooperation between the United States, Canada, and the Soviet Union and a chapter of history that is untold in modern documentaries to this day.