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Book Review: The Alaska-Siberia Connection

by Otis Hays, Jr.

Reviewed by Murray Lundberg

Because the airplanes were usually flown at high altitudes - between seventeen and twenty-two thousand feet - in very low temperatures, the pilots wore oxygen masks in unheated cockpits. Pilots were further hampered by frosted cockpit windows that limited visibility. Portions of the route were flown by instrument when forest fire smoke in summer and heavy fog and clouds in winter obscured terrain features.

Cover of 'The Alaska-Siberia Connection'     Otis Hays, Jr. has a solid reputation as an aviation historian, and I was looking forward to my long-delayed reading of his 1996 book about the ferrying of Lend-Lease aircraft through Alaska during World War II. The stories of the brave men and women who successfully flew almost 8,000 aircraft - bombers, fighters, transports and trainers - across thousands of miles of subarctic wilderness deserve more notice than they have ever received.

    Between September 1, 1942 and September 2, 1945, the Soviet Union accepted a total of 7,924 Lend-Lease aircraft at the official transfer point, Fairbanks, Alaska. From the staging area at Great Falls, Montana, those aircraft had been flown 1,900 miles by American pilots through Edmonton, Fort Nelson and Whitehorse to Fairbanks on the Northwest Staging Route. Once transferred to Soviet control, Russian pilots took them another 3,500 miles through Nome, Uel'kal and Yakutsk to Krasnoyarsk on the Alaska-Siberia Air Ferry Route (known as ALSIB, a term often used for the entire route from Great Falls to Krasnoyarsk). There were many accidents during the operation, and many people died. According to Mr. Hays, 133 planes were lost before reaching Fairbanks, and another 73 planes and 140 aircrew members between Fairbanks and Krasnoyarsk, but given the conditions on the two routes, I can't help but think that the Soviets were greatly under-stating their losses.

    "American and Soviet airmen shared subarctic flying hazards in which men died." Despite my enthusiasm for northern aviation history, that single sentence on the first page of the Preface to this book almost caused me to put the book back on the shelf - the author was off to a bad start. What about all the Russian women who flew (and those who died) on the route? Those women are only mentioned in one sentence in the entire book: "[at] the request of Soviet officials, minor changes were made in some of the P-39 cockpits, apparently for the convenience and comfort of women pilots who were reported to be ferrying the planes in Siberia."

    Unfortunately, not only do women aviators not get mentioned except as a trivialized rumour, male pilots don't fare much better. The paragraph that begins this review is one of the few that give information about the fliers or the flying. This history looks at the air route largely though the eyes of several members of the Russian section of the Alaska Defence Command's Interpreters and Interrogators (I&I) Detachment, based at Nome or Fairbanks. Their family histories, details of both their military and social lives during the war, and their subsequent careers, are quite well documented. Threaded in with those biographies are details of both the public and the back-room politics, the bureaucractic and military manouevering that occurred as this crucial part of the American Lend-Lease program was developed. The sixteen photographs that are reproduced in the book follow that theme, with only two showing aircraft and only one pilot appearing among the officers and other people in the remaining photos.

    Mr. Otis served as the staff supervisor of the Alaska Defence Command's foreign liason operation in 1943-1944, and after the war, kept in contact with several of the people featured in this book. That background makes his historical focus understandable, and has been backed up by archival and other research, as evidenced by twenty pages of citation notes. That detailed research, however, primarily relates to administrative issues such as a list of about 160 Soviet personnel based in Alaska (including pilots and crews) or explanations of command structures and personnel. When it comes to strictly aviation issues, you are usually left to do your own research - how many aviators were there in total and how many were killed, for example, how many planes/personnel are in the division, wing, squadrons or flights he mentions, or what is involved in the aircraft winterization that the author says was a contentious issue in the early days of ALSIB operation.

    Despite his focus on a very small geographical and operational slice of ALSIB history, Mr. Otis takes many sideroads that have very little or no relevance to the Lend-Lease air route. Several of them appear to have been included for no reason other than to make the Soviet government or individual officials look bad in one way or another. Of particular note, two entire pages are used to describe the defection of a Russian man and his son from Siberia to Alaska in 1945, and the short description of the Russian invasion of Manchuria in 1945 focuses on the mass execution of White Russian men that occurred.

    The Alaska-Siberia Connection will likely disappoint any reader who buys the book due to the title and the Soviet PBY flying boat on the dustjacket, expecting to read about pilots and aircraft. I have no doubt that the publishers felt that packaging it as a book for aircraft history enthusiasts would provide a larger market than if it was correctly marketed as a military and political history. A photo of a small military office would be more appropriate for the cover, particularly given the fact that no PBYs were transferred via ALSIB - although they are mentioned several times in the text, they don't even appear in the book's index.

    Despite all the negatives stated above, however, The Alaska-Siberia Connection, looked at as a reference volume that adds military/political information to other books about this aspect of northern history, may well deserve a place in your library, as it does in mine.


The Alaska-Siberia Connection: The World War II Air Route
by Otis Hays, Jr.
Texas A&M University Press, 1996