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American airmen held as POWs in Far East Russia during World War II.

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One of the lesser known stories of World War II concerns the internment of American aviators in the Soviet Union. In the China-India-Burma (CBI) Theater of Operations, American and British engineers built or upgraded airfields to accommodate B-29s around Kharagpur, India, sixty-five miles west of Calcutta. These bases were located along the Bengal-Nagpur Railway or off spur lines from the main railway network. The bases--Chakulia, Dudhkundi, Kharagpur, Pirdoba and Charra--were home for B-29s in the CBI when not forward deployed to Chinese built bomber airfields. Chengta was the Chinese part of the Very Heavy Bomber (VHB) deployment against strategic targets in the Japanese home islands. The forward air bases--Hsinching (40th Bombardment Group), Pengshan, Kunglai and Kwanghan--became operational on May 1, 1944.

On July 29, 1944, B-29s of the 771st Bombardment Squadron (BS) took off to attack the Japanese Iron and Steel Works at Anshan, Manchuria. The squadron launched eight B-29s, with seven hitting the primary target with excellent results. One B-29 bombed a target of opportunity when it was unable to reach the primary target. One crew was reported missing, aircraft number 42-6256, called "Ramp Tramp." (1) The squadron debriefing report of returning B-29 aircrews indicated "Ramp Tramp" headed for and landed in Soviet territory. (2)

"Ramp Tramp," commanded by Captain Howard R. Jarrell (crew consisting of Pops Bailey, Early Lewis, Keat Paul, Frank Sommers, Jerome Zuercher, Frank Carney, Herbert Bost, Mike J. Losik and George Hummel), was badly damaged. Jarrell decided to head toward Vladivastok, believing they could not make it back to a base in China. Once Soviet mechanics repaired and refueled the aircraft, they could take off and return to China. During the flight to Vladivostok, the B-29 suffered several electrical systems failures, with the radio able to receive but not transmit. However, once the B-29 landed at Vladivostok, the Russian air force retained the aircraft and interned the crew. "Ramp Tramp" was one of three intact B-29s, that landed in Russia. (3)

On August 21, 1944, sixty-one Chengtu, China based B-29s assigned to the 40th BG attacked the Imperial Iron and Steel Works at Yawata on a daylight mission. Yawata, one of the B-29s primary targets flown from the forward air bases in China, was located on Kyushu Island near the Shimonoseki Strait at the north end of the island. The raid cost fourteen B-29s (one to AAA, four to Japanese fighters, one to ramming by a Japanese fighter, and one to aerial bombing from a Japanese aircraft above the bomber formation). (4)

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The crew of a 40th BG aircraft 42-24829 assigned to the 395th BS, "What Happened?" bailed out near Vladivostok. The pilot, Maj. Richard McGlinn, rescued forty-four days later, had nearly starved to death. The crew consisted of:

Aircraft cmdr/pilot, Maj. Richard M. McGlinn

Co-pilot, 1st. Lt. Ernest E. Claude

Flight engineer, 1st. Lt. Aiman W. Conrath

Bombardier, 1st Lt. Eugene C. Murphy

Navigator, 2d. Lt. Lyle C. Turner

Radar operator, SSgt. Melvin O. Webb

CFC/gunner, SSgt. William T. Stocks

Tail gunner, SSgt. Charles H. Robson

Right gunner, Sgt. John G. Beckley

Left gunner, Sgt. Louis M. Mannatt

Radio operator, Sgt. Otis Childs

The crew had flown to the CBI from the United States, landing at Chakulia in April 1944. They flew over the Hump (Himalayas) a few times and completed two combat missions. Their plane was lost in July 1944, in a crash shortly after takeoff from Chakulia, when two engines failed. They received a replacement aircraft, 42-24829 in early August 1944. Major McGlinn kept a diary of the mission and exploits of his crew that began on August 20, 1944.

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We were in the air before dawn. We enjoyed good weather all along the route; in fact, it was excellent bombing weather over the target in Japan. Just before the IP, radio operator Sgt. Childs indicated his radio was inoperative. I gave a visual hand signal for an echelon to the right, Captain Woolsey in aircraft number 42-93466, which took the lead, replaced in turn by Captain Doyle in aircraft number 42-93237. Japanese anti-aircraft (flak bursts) were really intense and coming right at us. We had dropped our bomb and started a right turn when, bingo, number two engine was hit, and it did not keep its oil very long so we feathered it. We again took the lead, being a cripple, and Japanese fighters were waiting for just such a set up. We waded through the attacking fighters, but this did not end our troubles in going such a distance to our destination. We concluded that if we could get to Vladivostok, a good airplane delivered to our friends, the Russians, even though they were not at war with Japan. En route, we could dispose of the airplane in the sea, if necessary, rather than let the Japanese get their hands on it. We waved goodbye to members of our formation, ducked under number two aircraft, and headed north. We had good cloud coverage as far as protection from Japanese fighters, but this later worked toward our disadvantage up the Korean coast. While on instruments, we saw that we were flying a difference of some 50 degrees between Flux Gate and Magnetic, which threw us off course and our direct route to Vladivostok. Now, we did not know exactly where we were.

Darkness had set in, and when we altered course and came upon lights, we were not certain if they were our friends or Japanese. We flew over a lighted area and on one occasion, and there were searchlights playing, but we could not prove it was not a Japanese ruse. We therefore flew on a course of 360 degrees for 40 minutes, hoping we would be near a railroad spur running northeast from the Trans Siberian Railroad. Plans for abandoning the aircraft were carried out, and our base was so informed even though it was going from QDM's (used to request a magnetic heading toward a radio station with wind effect disregarded) back to A-1 (BG staff operations). I went aft and explained the situation to the men. They were in excellent spirits. We were pretty well equipped for a bailout in a temperate climate but not into a heavily forested area.

Cloud coverage below gave us no hint of lights, which was not too pleasant! Lt. Turner went to the rear and we were on the intercom with him giving an account of the men leaving. Those in the front dropped through the nose wheel door before I went down the hatch after cutting the master switch. McGlinn and his crew bailed at 11,000 feet. The "CAIT" (control and instrument trim) left on AFCE (Automatic Flight Control Equipment) with nose turned down in hope she might land somewhat intact, and we could get equipment such as radios, life rafts, additional food and water, plus 101 other items that would aid us in keeping us alive until rescued.

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What a predicament, being hung up in the forest of Siberia with nothing to do but sit in the rain and sweat out daylight. The ground was hardly visible because of the density of the trees. Off to the west I could make out a canyon running northward. I used my trench knife to cut short pieces of shroud line to make a safety belt to hold me against the tree. I dropped my jungle kit to the ground and cut the shrouds to start the silk canopy on the way down, with the help of the wind and rain. The ordeal of extraction from the tree was very tiring. It took me six hours of hard work to go down 60 feet. About eight feet from the ground, I stopped and became hung up and was actually choking. I managed to hack the shroud belt and drop to the ground. I made a temporary camp of my chute, but it was soaking wet, as were my clothes, and it seemed impossible to get a fire going to dry out. (5)

The crew landed in three scattered groups. Nine of the eleven-crew members landed on the western slope of a mountain range and found their way to a river valley below. McGlinn and Charles Robson, the tail gunner, landed on a mountainous highland and together they marched north. They hoped to find a rail line that ran to the coast. Instead, they wandered deeper into the wilderness. (6)

On 21 August, the scattered crew was slowly collecting in the dense forest, the largest being a seven man party. On 24 August, since we lived off the land, we supplemented our meager rations with anything that crawled. We had several good messes of frogs, which were boiled in our skillets and eaten whole, sometimes we used the frog heads as fish bait, however, it was the only part we wasted. (7)

In September 1944, Russian engineer Alexander Pobozhy Supervisor of a State Railway Survey Team working in the Sikhote-Ann Mountain Range evaluating and laying out a route for a second line to the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Pobozhy:

On 20 September 1944, late in the evening, a Russian radio operator and guide arrived at the camp of Major McGlinn and First Lieutenant Caudle on exhausted horses. The radioman handed the Major a sealed packet, which contained a printed letter in English. "This is a government mission to rescue two men who, along with nine men already rescued (2nd Lt. Lyle C. Turner, 1st Lt. Eugene C. Murphy, 1st Lt. Aiman W. Conrath, Sgt. Otis Childs, SSgt. Melvin Webb, SSgt. William Stocks, SSgt. Charles Robson, Sgt. John Beckley and Sgt. Louis Mannatt), parachuted from an Allied B-29 into the vicinity of the Khodzyai Ridge, about 60 miles from Khabarovsk."

I explored the valley of the Khoso River, a tributary of the Khungari with selected men in a search party. Two planes flew reconnaissance the next day, and after preparing a first aid kit, five of us left in two boats. At daybreak on the 25th, Sasha, Kilya and I set out making rapid progress, as we only had to clear ourselves occasionally. Often we would come out on the bank to examine it and shout. By noon, I was hoarse. We had already decided to return when suddenly some weak voices nearby seemed to respond to my call. We pushed our poles eagerly; saw a thin column of smoke, and then two men standing near a campfire on the bank. I wanted to yell, we have come for you, and a lot more, but I did not know any English words. Not knowing how to greet those people from far across the ocean, I shouted Mister America. In a few minutes, a most confused conversation started as we tried to gesture with words in English, Russian and Udeghe, but none of us understood a thing. The Americans broke into tears and got on their knees to pray. (8)

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During the war, the Soviet Army interned thirty-seven aircraft crews in Siberia. These included one crew of a B-25 from the Doolittle Tokyo Raid. Out of the sixteen B-25s launched from the USS Hornet, this crew was the only one, which did not crash. Lieutenant Edward York's B-25 developed fuel flow problems when it departed Japanese home island airspace. York decided to alter course and try to make it into Russian airspace, landing at Vladivostok. After landing, the Russian Army impounded the aircraft and interned the crew. (9)

After rescue of the two-downed aircrew by the Russians, McGlinn's crew was reunited. They ended up in a Russian military hospital in Khabarovsk. On October 28, the crew packed their personal effects and were transported to a Russian military officers' rest camp, now holding twenty-six Americans. The camp consisted of rough wood buildings on ten acres along the Amur River. Khabarovsk's security was for great concern to the Soviet Army being twelve miles from Japanese Army troops stationed along the Manchurian border with Russia. During the first week of November, McGlinn's crew received warm winter clothing: shirts, pants, jackets, gloves and shoes (Lend Lease shipments of clothing produced in the United States for the Russian military). On November 11, another twenty Americans arrived. On November 15, thirty-nine Americans (leaving a seven-man crew of a B-24 in the camp) boarded a military troop car on the Trans Siberian Railroad for the trip to Tashkent. The Russian troop car was fitted with narrow, short benches for sitting, as well as sleeping. Tashkent was 5,000 miles east of Khabarovsk. Most of the rail trip was over double tracks, which allowed east and west trains without creating rail car backups. Russian soldiers guarded each bridge, protected by barbed wire and sand bag machine gun emplacements. The Americans also noticed large barbed wire enclosures with watchtowers and lights. These were Soviet political prison camps. The train stopped at some of the larger Russian cities along the railroad line: Chita, Irkutsk and Novosibirsk. At Irkutsk, the train station was as large as New York's Grand Central Station. The Americans saw damaged military equipment on railroad flat cars on sidetracks in the rail yard, from the fierce fighting against the Germans.

The trip across Russia took ten days. On November 19, the train passed Lake Baikal, traveling through forty tunnels during one two-hour time span. The train journey passed through eight time zone changes. On November 21, the train reached Novosibirsk and the large train station there, reported by the Russians on the train as the largest in the world. On November 24, the train passed close to Lake Balkhash. The train transited the Soviet Republics of Mongolia, Siberia, Kazakhstan, and entered Uzbekistan and its capital, Tashkent. The group of thirty-nine joined sixty-two additional Americans at the camp. Some of these Airmen landed in Soviet territory as early as June 1944. This brought the total of interned Americans to 101. The Americans upgraded the internment camp with baseball diamonds, along with basketball and volleyball courts. Supplies arrived from the American Embassy in Moscow, including English reading materials and a radio. On November 27, the Americans sent cablegrams and letters to their families in the United States. On November 30, the U.S. Army Military Attache to Moscow, Lt. Col. Robert McCabe, arrived at the camp. McCabe brought the Americans proof their relatives in the United States knew of their condition. He also brought mail sacks of letters for those in the camp before the train containing thirty-nine Americans arrived.

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At midnight, on December 5, the Americans left Tashkent. McCabe told them of the plan. On December 7, the Americans headed toward Tiflis. Late in the afternoon, the troop car was disconnected from the train and shuttled onto a railroad siding. Russian Army trucks were supposed to pick up the Americans and take them to the border. However, it did not go as agreed. The problem was that the American columnist Drew Pearson wrote a story claiming one of the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders, who landed in Russia, was released at the Russian/ Iranian border. The Russians feared trouble on the Manchurian border with Japanese Army units. Russia was not at war with Japan, because of the newspaper article, the Russians stopped the movement of interned Americans from Russia into Iran.

Thirty-four Americans attempted to cross into Iran anyway, but only seven evaded Russian troops, with thirty-seven returning. At 9:00 AM, on December 11, the Americans left for Tashkent, only thirty miles from the Iran border. The following day, the seven Americans were caught by Russian troops at the Iranian border and returned to Ashkhabad, arriving on December 17. Back at the camp, Russian troops threatened the Americans with transfer to a Prisoner of War (POW) camp if anyone else tried to make it to the Iranian border. (10)

Premier Joseph Stalin feared an attack from Japan, would have required the movement of Soviet troops engaged in combat against Germany to the Far East. U.S. diplomats in Moscow convinced Stalin that the interned American Airmen were vital to the U.S. and the Allied war effort, especially the war against Germany. The diplomats told Stalin there was no time to train replacement aircrews, complicated by the decreasing pool of qualified men for pilot and aircrew training from America's shrinking manpower pool due to a two-ocean war. The Russians had to keep the transfer of the interned Americans secret from Japanese diplomats in Moscow. The Narodnyi Kommissariat Vnutrennikh Del (NKVD) or People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) arranged four separate escapes. Many Russian troops involved were not told of what happened other than that Stalin had ordered the transfer. U.S. diplomatic traffic made formal complaints about conditions the Americans held in Siberia, demanding changes for health reasons. Stalin agreed to move the interned Americans to camps in Central Asia, where warmer climate would make them more comfortable. The Americans moved through a series of camps until reaching Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan. From these camps, agents assigned to the assisted in their escaping from Russian control to cross the border into Iran. Once into Iran, the Americans became the responsibility of U.S. Army personnel for movement home to the United States. (11)

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The Americans were worried about getting out of Russia. On December 16, twenty-nine Americans arrived at the camp in Tashkent. On January 8, 1945, supplies arrived from Moscow. On January 17, Major Paul Hall arrived from Moscow with a bag of mail. The Americans had to swear to secrecy about the plans and trip. On January 24, the Americans turned in their extra clothes, indicating a departure was imminent. On January 26, the Americans signed pledge of secrecy about their Russian captivity. They were loaded into covered Russian Army trucks for the trip to Teheran. They did stop long enough to eat and relax, taking a swim in the Caspian Sea, even though the water temperature was cold. The Soviet Army delayed the Americans at the border crossing point for one hour. They rode all night, stopping at 1:30 p.m. to eat their second meal. They crossed the mountain terrain during the night, enduring the drop in temperature.

From January 30-31, the Americans traveled 900 miles, arriving at a U.S. Army run hospital. Hospital personnel dusted them with insecticide to kill the Russian bugs picked up during internment. They took a hot shower, a shave, a good meal and slept in a warm bed. In two days, 131 Americans were loaded into five C-46s, flown to Suez, Egypt. They spent ten to twelve days in an isolated tent camp while arrangements were made for their final shipment home. They boarded C-46s for the flight to Naples, Italy. The Americans were loaded into trucks for an hour trip to the dock area. They walked up the gangplank of the Liberty ship USS John Sullivan for the sea voyage to New York City and home.

On the second or third day of the sea voyage to New York City after joining a convoy at Oran, the Liberty ship passed Gibraltar. The Liberty ship's alarm sounded to crew and passengers to General Quarters. The escorts reported a German submarine to be prowling around another convoy outbound from the United States, approaching the homeward bound convoy. One of the Liberty ship's officers briefed the Americans onboard that German submarines did not attack westward sailing, empty Liberty ships. After witnessing the sinking of the eastern bound Liberty ship, the trip returned to a pleasant journey, warm and calm weather, even in February. Only the last two days of the ocean trip to New York City turned cold and stormy as the Liberty ship neared the U.S. Atlantic coast. Twenty-three days after leaving Naples, Italy the Liberty ship dock in a heavy fog in Brooklyn, New York on March 6, 1945. The Americans went to Fort Hamilton, New York. Within a few days, all of the repatriated Americans were on their way home on thirty-day leaves. (12)

NOTES

(1.) "Flight of B-29, aircraft number 42-6256," 771st Bombardment Squadron, Office of the Intelligence Officer, APO #220, Aug. 4, 1944. Montgomery, Ala.: Air Force Historical Research Agency, (AFHRA) Maxwell AFB RSA97/4269.ahc., March 26, 1998.

(2.) HQS., 462nd Bombardment Group, Aug. 1, 1944. AFHRA, RSA97/4269.ahc., March 26, 1988.

(3.) Von Hardesty, Curator, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C. to author, Feb. 2, 2001.

(4.) Kit C. Carter and Robert Mueller, The Army Air Forces in World War II, Combat Chronology, 1941-1945 (Montgomery, Ala..: Albert F. Simpson Historical Research Center, Air University, Maxwell Air Force Base and Washington, D.C.:, Office of Air Force History, Headquarters United States Air Force, 1973), p. 430.

(5.) 40th Bomb Group Association, Memories, "Bailout, survival and rescue in Siberia, 20 August 1944," Wilmette, IL., September 3, 1991.

(6.) Richard McGlinn typed a summary of his WWII experience in the Siberian wilderness and after his death in 1973; his nephew, Fred Schacht, obtained the ten-page summary. A short version was printed as "Bellingham pilot endured WWII ordeal in Siberia after B-29 crash," The Bellingham Herald, Bellingham, Washington, November 8, 2010. Provided courtesy Julie Shirley, editor, August 25, 2011.

(7.) 40th Bomb Group Association

(8.) 40th Bomb Group Association, Memories, Wilmette, Ill., Dec. 1991.

(9.) "B-25 Gathering at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, The 68th Doolittle Tokyo Raiders' reunion," The National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio, April 17-19, 2010.

(10.) 40th Bomb Group Association, Memories, "The saga in Russia of the crew of #829," Wilmette, Ill., May 1992.

(11.) United States Foreign Service Institute.

(12.) 40th Bomb Group Association.

Lt. Col. George A. Larson, USAF (Ret.), graduated from Iowa State University at Ames, Iowa, with a BS in history and commissioned a USAF 2d lieutenant in May 1969. He earned an MA in history from the University of Stanislaus at Turlock, California, in June 1978. Larson served as an intelligence officer with the Strategic Air Command and the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff, Defense Intelligence Agency, Pacific Air Forces with assignment to the Republic of South Korea Air Force, Alternate National Military Command Center, Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon. He was assigned as Commandant of Cadets with Air Training Command's Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Lt. Col. Larson completed: Air Force Squadron Officers School, Air Command and Staff College, Air War College, Industrial College of the Armed Forces, Naval War College, Foreign Service Institute program on the Middle East, Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe. He has written six books and more than 300 magazine articles on military history, aviation, naval and general history. His next book, Great Plains Warriors, is due out in 2013.
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Author:Larson, George A.
Publication:Air Power History
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Jun 22, 2012
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