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The best kept secret of WWII

ACROSS OUR STATE by Jerri Honeyford

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Jerri Honeyford

This past Thursday morning I attended a presentation of one of the great stories of World War II that few know of. From 1942 to 1945 American-made war planes were secretly flown into the Soviet Union to help them in their fight against the Nazis.

This is the story as we were told it.

Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June of 1941. Half of the Soviet air force, the largest in the world at the time, was destroyed in the first two weeks of the invasion.

Although the United States was not in the war, President Roosevelt wanted to send aid, especially to Britain and Russia in their struggle to survive. Most of the rest of Europe was already under Axis domination.

The Lend-Lease Act was begun to send assistance, especially in planes and armament. Roosevelt called it our “arsenal of Democracy.”

In order for the planes to reach Russia, an air route had to be found and airfields had to be built every few hundred miles along that route for fuel, food and rest. The route chosen was the Alaska-Siberian route, which began in Great Falls, Mont., wound up to Calgary, then Edmonton, which became the hub of activities, then through Alaska, and across the Bering Strait to Siberia, then to Krasnoyarsk in the central Soviet.

So also the Alcan Highway was built to have ground passage to the airports along the route. What a dangerous transportation project that was!

The danger wasn’t confined to ground transportation. The men and women flew the planes throughout the year, with no cold weather gear, no survival kits and no avionics as we have today.

This was done in complete secrecy. If there was a crash, there could be no rescue, no glory for their sacrifice.

Airplanes were built in several places in the United States. From those manufacturers, women in the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots known as the WASPS would singly fly the planes to the staging area in Great Falls. Almost 1,100 women pilots participated in the program. There were 38 casualties.

In the first months of this secret assistance, the laws about notification of flying across the Canadian border hadn’t been lifted, so horses towed the planes over the border. After that, men from the 7th Ferrying Squadron flew the planes to Nome, Alaska.

There, Soviet airmen took the planes - which were already painted in Soviet colors - the 3,000 miles to Krasnoyarsk. Among the men aviators there were 177 casualties in the 3 ½ years of the program. Eight thousand war planes were delivered in this way.

The code name was Bravo 369.

A Bravo 369 Foundation has been formed by two pilots from Bellingham - Jeff Gear and Craig Lane. They are going to reproduce these flights this year on the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. They have the full cooperation of the Russian government and hope to help foster good relations between our countries.

Another goal is education and inspiration for today’s young people. They predict a great shortage of pilots in the next 10 years.

Presenting the story Thursday morning were Craig Lane and Allan Snowie from B.C. Craig is part of the production team that will film this re-enactment, which will be made into a movie. Allan is the chase pilot for the project.

They want to get their story into schools. They also need more financial backing. If you are interested in this story and in their effort, Craig’s email is craig.lang@bravo369.org.

Through the Lend-Lease Act, 53,797 airplanes were distributed to our allies, 33,985 to Great Britain and a little more than 14,000 to the Soviet Union. We know now how 8,000 of them were secretly flown under great personal risk into Russia. The world would be a much different place if that hadn’t been done and if those sacrifices had not been made.

‑ Jerri Honeyford, wife of Sen. Jim Honeyford (R-Sunnyside),

provides her “Across our State” columns while the couple

is in Olympia during the legislative session.

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