Pipeline to Freedom

By David L. Sears

Mahrt’s aircraft and crew were new replacements for Navy Bombing Squadron (VB) 135. The unit, though just in the early stages of its second Aleutian deployment, already had lost more than a third of its crews, killed or missing. VB-135 flew daunting 1,500-mile round-trip missions from Attu to Japan’s Kurile Islands.

Just days before the crash, en route to Attu from Southern California, Mahrt had stopped for fuel at Whidbey Island, Washington, where King happened to be stationed. The Minneapolis native (one of five siblings, including a sister, serving overseas) had dropped out of Yale to qualify as a Navy flyer; like all aviators, he had navigation training. As King recalled: “The guy who was doing the navigating [on Mahrt’s crew] ‘bailed out’ . . . he wasn’t going to go. . . . I don’t know what happened to him, but I was OOD [officer of the day]. They said, ‘Ok, you can take his place.’ That’s how I got [to Attu.] I was the third pilot and navigator.”

The cause of Mahrt’s crash, according to historian Otis Hays Jr., was the errant siphoning of 500 gallons of fuel from one of the PV-1’s main tanks. King recalls only that when “we started heading home . . . we didn’t have enough [gas] to get back to Attu.” Mahrt instead veered to Kamchatka.

“When we came out of the clouds we clipped the tree tops,” continued King. “We were landing in a field out in the boonies. We just slid [wheels up] into a bunch of tall grass. . . . Like belly landing on a lawn. . . . As I remember the tail came off. . . . Nobody was [injured]. We could open the [cabin] door. It was very windy.”

Interned American Aviators

Mahrt’s crew had crash-landed into a complicated, but not unprecedented, international predicament. The Soviets, intent on avoiding Japanese attack, maintained strict neutrality in the Pacific war. Nevertheless, as Lend-Lease recipients—and allies in the fight against Germany—they colluded with the United States to establish a repatriation pipeline.

First through the pipeline were five U.S. Army Air Forces (AAF) crewmen from a Doolittle Raid B-25 that had touched down in Vladivostok in April 1942. After spending the winter in the remote mountain village of Okhansk, they were relocated to Ashkhabad (present-day Ashgabat, Turkmenistan) on the Soviet-Iran frontier in the spring. Soon the men were secreted by truck past Iranian border guards. After contacting British Vice-Consul R. M. Hadow in Meshed, the raiders were transported to the U.S. embassy in Karachi (then part of India). Flown on to Washington, D.C., for debriefing, the airmen were sworn to secrecy.

On 12 August 1943, AAF Second Lieutenant James R. Pottenger and the eight-man crew of his 404th Bomb Squadron B-24 crash-landed on Kamchatka and became the second of 26 AAF bomber crews to enter the pipeline. Early the next month, Pottenger and his men—less one lost to crash injuries­—embarked by flying boat and DC-3 for a series of continent-spanning hops that landed them in Tashkent (in present-day Uzbekistan) on 14 September. Two weeks later, they moved into a former school compound in a small village southwest of Tashkent—the permanent camp for American internees.

There they awaited the arrival of crews from seven more AAF bombers—two 404th B-24s, five 77th Bomb Squadron B-25s—that had sought refuge at or near Petropavlovsk after an ill-fated 12 September Kuriles bombing mission. By mid-October, the camp housed 60 Army airmen.

After their June 1944 crash-landing on Kamchatka, George Mahrt’s crew learned they were not the only Americans at the Soviet naval base. VB-135 crews led by Lieutenants Russell Bone and Howard Schuette preceded them into internment by six days. (Mahrt’s crew had reached Attu so recently they hadn’t yet met any of these squadron mates.)

One mainstay of the Kamchatka experience was Red Army Lieutenant Mikhail Dondekin. “Mike,” as the Americans called him, had suffered a crippling head injury from a land-mine explosion near the Manchurian border. Chronically palsied, Mike spoke only faltering English, but he served as minder and day-to-day interpreter.

First came interrogations conducted by a Red Army colonel via an interpreter. Not surprisingly—given the colonel’s insistence on extracting information, interpretation difficulties, and the airmen’s reluctance to offer little more than name, rank, serial number, and the claim they’d been on a training flight—the sessions were prolonged and inconclusive.

Afterward, perhaps to solicit more information or simply as a friendly gesture, Mike supplied Bill King with a small booklet whose first pages contained the Russian alphabet plus some English words and Russian equivalents. On the remaining pages, using a pencil Mike also supplied, King began a diary. Most of his entries—he seldom missed a day—were brief and perfunctory: litanies of meals and routines. To his recollection, the Soviets neither censored nor confiscated his diary. As a result, the entries provide on-the-spot descriptions of internment as King experienced it.

The Pipeline Is Activated

On 23 June 1944, the Bone, Mahrt, and Schuette crews relocated northwest to a more remote Soviet naval base on the shore of a lake. The “comrade Americans” slept late, took baths, ate heartily, learned smatterings of Russian, watched Russian movies, sunbathed, fished in the lake, and played volleyball, horseshoes, chess, and cards. “They always talk about when we shall leave,” wrote King of his squadron mates, “but for me I’ll just await events as they happen.” Virtually all were restive; boredom, combined with vodka consumption by unseasoned youngsters, exposed ragged edges. “Vodka days are really something to see around here,” King quipped on 20 July.

A month later, two more VB-135 crews—one led by Lieutenant (junior grade) Jackson W. Clark, the other by Lieutenant John P. Vivian—joined them. The new arrivals brought cheering news: “Tojo out,” noted King. “Hitler’s life attempted. Vodka. Good day.”

As senior officer, John Vivian assumed command of the swollen, sometimes unruly 34-man contingent. Crowded conditions taxed resources (“Three shifts for meals now”) and exposed new tensions (“Many fights had to be stopped”) but created new recreational possibilities (“football with flight boots and it was really rough”). On 13 August, yet more Navy airmen shoehorned in, the crew of a PV-1 from sister squadron VB-136, piloted by Lieutenant Carl W. Lindell.

Fortunately, plans already were under way to activate the pipeline. On 23 August, the VB-135 airmen boarded a truck for Petropavlovsk Harbor, where they were ferried by rubber boat to a waiting flying boat. Once fog cleared, the aircraft flew west across the Sea of Okhotsk. Lindell’s crew stayed behind temporarily, as did Vivian, who suffered from severe dehydration. Within days, however, another VB-136 crew, led by Lieutenant (junior grade) Jack R. Cowles, joined them. These 15 airmen would follow the VB-135 contingent’s itinerary beginning on the 29th.

After an “excellent landing” on Sakhalin, a large Soviet island just north of Japan, King’s contingent enjoyed a sumptuous meal of “wine, vegetable salad with tomatoes, soup, bread, cake, rice with meat, and sliced pineapple for dessert.” But then, after turning in, came the “first experience with bed bugs . . . kept most up all night.”

On 24 August, they continued west to Khabarovsk, where the Doolittle crew had lingered ten days in the spring of 1942. The Navy airmen’s stay was brief. “We were going to Tashkent next.” They arose before dawn on the 26th. “Some of the fellows are pretty sick today,” but all boarded a DC-3 for a 10½-hour flight that “followed the Trans-Siberian railroad awhile” into Irkutsk. The next day they continued west to Novosibirsk, overnighting at a small hotel.

Weather briefly delayed the next day’s flight; this time south “along Turkish-Siberian railroad . . . with high mountains to our left, ALATAY [Alatau] range of the Himalayas.” On the 29th, after a night spent in Alma Ata (Almaty in present-day Kazakhstan), it was a three-hour hop to Tashkent and a Ford bus trip onward to “our abode.” Camp housing conditions looked satisfactory: “It is fixed up well with nice beds, stool and small cabinet apiece, and one large table.” There was the prospect of good food, the chance to write—and receive—letters, and even “a clean toilet for a change.”

Greeting them was a second mainstay personality: Nona Solodovinoa, the camp’s chief interpreter. “Mama,” as the Americans called her, was an elegantly dressed widow with expressive blue eyes who encouraged the airmen to confide in her. “Mama is really making a play for [Russell] Bone,” observed King. No surprise that some internees suspected Solodovinoa had NKVD—Soviet internal security—connections.

Despite the relatively acceptable living conditions, the aviators remained restless, especially after one piece of news: “We found out Army men had left which gives us hope of getting away in at least six months.” What King and the other new Tashkent residents didn’t learn were the exact circumstances—or the risks involved.

Army Aviators’ ‘Escape’

What Otis Hayes characterizes as “The Second Escape” had occurred in February 1944, four months before the first Navy PV-1 diverted to Kamchatka. Having reached Tashkent in the fall of 1943, just as the internment facility was being established, the 60 AAF men, commanded by senior internee Major Richard Salter, endured inadequate food, sanitation, and medical care. Internee forays outside the poorly guarded perimeter revealed that local conditions were even worse. Systematic escape plotting began. Unwilling to wait, a few men, alone or in pairs, impulsively ran off, only to be captured and returned.

Meanwhile, convinced that secrecy surrounding the release of the Doolittle crew in “The First Escape” had not been breached, an NKVD-engineered second escape plan went into motion. Army Lieutenant Colonel Robert McCabe, assigned to the Moscow-based U.S. mission, was designated escort officer. The cover? The internees were being moved by train to Ashkhabad to assist with ferrying Lend-Lease airplanes inside the Soviet Union.

The move began on 14 February 1944. En route, on the pretext of “dangerous conditions” in one of the passenger coaches, both internee coaches were shunted to a siding. Next, under cover of darkness, the Americans transferred to tarpaulin-covered Lend-Lease trucks. The trucks traveled a circuitous mountain and desert route to reach the Iranian border. Once across, the caravan skirted south of the Caspian Sea to reach Tehran. At 0700 on 18 February, the Americans debarked at the U.S. Army’s Camp Amirabad outside the city.

A week later, the former internees, now designated “War Department Special Detachment No. 1,” flew west in C-54 transports. After a month in Tunisia, the men boarded the new troopship Gen. Billy Mitchell bound for Newport News. Secrecy prevailed back stateside: None of the men were to be reassigned outside the continental United States; their military records noted only that each had been “missing in action.”

The May 1943 First Escape had been small-scale. The February 1944 60-man Second Escape, required more planning and logistics but went off almost unerringly. Bad luck, however, would finally catch up with the “Third Escape.”

Anticipation and Disappointment

In the waning months of 1944, as both weather and camp conditions deteriorated, the American internee population in Tashkent ballooned to 100 men. Several of the new AAF crews had reached Soviet territory on board Boeing B-29 Superfortresses flying east out of China. The Soviets were thrilled to get their hands on the new advanced aircraft. The PV-1, B-24, and B-25 flyers were no less intrigued. “We asked them the speed of the 29,” wrote King, “and they said it was secret. That brought a laugh . . . so much here in Russia is secret to us.”

Once more, with the pipeline terminus crowded, escape planning got under way. On 29 November, a combined Soviet-American team reached Tashkent: “Great excitement, Lt. Col. McKabe [sic] and two Russian officers came in from Moscow.” Expectations rose on 2 December (“Lots of scuttlebutt floating around”) and then on the 5th: “Getting packed. Left camp about 8:30 in five trucks. Got to train at 9:15.”

Embarked into three cars, the internees began their journey to Ashkhabad. Other cars were packed with refugees, apparently Jews from Poland. “Ragged clothes, poverty, single legs and rugged people.” When internee cars were detached to a siding east of Ashkhabad, conditions adjacent to the tracks were even worse: “Little kids in rags, fighting with dogs for crumbs.”

Back in America, meanwhile, garbled press accounts of the Soviet release of the five Doolittle Raiders—one account by columnist Drew Pearson, the other by the Associated Press—made headlines. Learning this, the Soviets scuttled the escape plan even as the internees waited on the siding just short of Ashkhabad. “McKabe [sic] told us he had bad news,” King recorded on 10 December; “since the Russians are scared stiff of a war with the Nips, our plan could not go through.”

The reversal hit hard: “Everyone started to talk of escape because we are nearer the border than we ever will be again. . . . Little groups started forming . . . it became a matter of mass psychology.” Soon, “despite every available man in Askhabad [sic] out as guards,” 34 internees “hit the road to T. [Tashkent] or train to Caspian [Sea].” Few got far; by the next morning, all but seven (six of them Navy) had been rounded up. That evening at “about 6:30 we hooked up to a train going east” back to “that hell hole Tashkent.”

From Tashkent to New York

The American internees, now numbering 130 with the addition of three more AAF crews (and the return of the seven fugitives), lingered in Tashkent through subdued holiday celebrations. “After dinner on Christmas Eve,” wrote King, “we sang ‘God Bless America’ and it filled my breast with an abundance of longing I have seldom felt before. When I got outside I sang it over and over to myself. . . . Although my body is here my mind is more and more on those at home. A prayer for John [the youngest King sibling] who might even be on a battlefield now.”

To resuscitate the escape plan, it took a personal pledge from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to censor any subsequent press reports about the fate of American internees. On 7 January 1945, Major Paul Hall, an officer fluent in Russian who took over McCabe’s role, finally arrived in Tashkent bearing sacks of mail. “I got 37 letters,” wrote King, “and boy was it good to read them.” This time there would be no cover story. Hall told the internees exactly what would be happening. Afterward, though, “Vivian gave everyone a lecture on keeping their mouths shut.”

Reboarding the train on 25 January, the men again set off for Ashkhabad. Three days later: “Got on trucks and pulled away on what was supposed to be four-day ride.” The caravan “stopped around 3:00, pulled off the road . . . and waited for dark to cross the [Iranian] border seventeen miles away.” To everyone’s relief, “got over the border without mishap.”

Now traveling south, then striking west, the men stopped for lunch on the shores of the Caspian Sea. Although “everyone tired, sore, dirty,” they briefly basked amid “warm sun, sandy shore and snow-capped mountains.” Along the mountain roads that followed, however, “Got colder than hell, couldn’t sleep, sore of body.” The trucks reached Tehran on 30 January, where, after two more wrenching but short delays, the “haggard and worn out” men finally debarked into the hospital wing of Camp Amirabad. “Got deloused. Had eggs and coffee and nothing has ever tasted better.”

The Tehran stay proved brief. On the 31st, decked out in “new issue of clothes complete so we all look like little G.I.’s,” the 130 Navy and Army airmen of the Third Escape began the trip west, first stop Cairo. Exulted King: “I feel like a kid just experiencing a lot of these things for the first time.”

William King’s diary closed with his arrival in New York on board a Liberty ship on 6 March 1945. As expected, his extended family soon reveled in the repatriation of one of its sons after eight months of uncertainty. However, as so often happened in the war—even during the home stretch—joy soon enough mingled with pain. Brother John, an Army infantryman serving in Western Europe, was killed in action that April.

Meanwhile, though the Third Escape proved the largest and most complicated and controversial internee release, it was by no means the last. By war’s end, two more groups—the first numbering 43, the next 51—emerged from Soviet internment, courtesy of U.S. collusion with the NKVD. Altogether, according to the most accurate accounting, 291 Navy and Army Air Forces aviators traversed this long, secretive repatriation pipeline.

Sources:

Otis Hays Jr., Home from Siberia: The Secret Odysseys of Interned American Airmen in World War II (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1990).

William A. King, phone interviews with the author, August 2016.

William A. King, wartime diary, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.

 

 

 
 

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