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From Major Jordan's Diaries


How My Alaskan Report Helped the Russians

     On the day of my departure, Colonel Kotikov came down to the runway to see me off. He saw my “Gaffney” boots, lined with sheepskin, and looked horrified. “You Americans know nothing about cold,” he muttered, hustling me into a car.

     We raced to his quarters, and he insisted on lending me his own Russian boots made of felt with leather soles. Unlike sheepskin, felt never gets damp from perspiration. It also balloons down in a spread, making it possible to walk on snow without breaking through. I had good reason to be grateful to the Colonel for the boots.

     As we drove back to the plane, Colonel Kotikov informed me with a pleasant grin that his wife was on her way from Russia to join him at Great Falls. It had been my experience that only the favored few could get their wives to join them from the Soviet Union; I had more reason than ever to consider that I was working with an important member of the Russian hierarchy.

     Incidentally, Mrs. Kotikov arrived at Great Falls after my return from Fairbanks. She was the most seasick person I have ever seen, and it took all the efforts of most of our medical staff to bring her back to normalcy.

     But it wasn’t the sea voyage from Vladivostok which caused her illness. It was the land voyage, Mrs. Kotikov told us, across Siberia by camel caravan! She assured us that a rocking boat was infinitely preferable to a swaying camel. Since she spoke some English, and quickly learned to use a typewriter, she became Kotikov’s secretary, office manager, and general assistant.

     My flight from Great Falls to Fairbanks – about 1,926 miles – took six days! I kept a day-by-day record of the nightmarish trip, much of it penciled in the air. Also, it was my habit to write once a week to my mother, and some of my letters have helped me to piece out the record quite fully. The first three days of the trip, the easiest leg, brought us to Watson Lake. Here are some diary entries:

     Tuesday, Feb. 2 – Landed at Edmonton, first stop. Weather foggy, but up above the clouds we saw the Rockies and a gorgeous sunset against the mountains. Many Canadian fliers and planes.

     Wednesday, Feb. 3 – Covered very mountainous country at 10,000 feet. Lots of clouds and storm patches. Arrived Grand Prairie O.K. Then fort St. John. Very rugged looking ahead. Arrived at Fort Nelson 3:45 P.M. Too overcast to go on. Went to Hudson Bay trading post. Saw a trapper with frozen whiskers who had come 70 miles through the bush by dogsled.

     On Thursday we arrived at Watson Lake, getting down just in time to avoid the very bad snowstorm which had started. During the afternoon and night of the next day thirteen men perished, and February 5, 1943 became known as “Black Friday” on the American arm of the Pipeline. Everyone aboard the C-49 transport piloted by Colonel Mensinger was lost.

     I had met Colonel Mensinger that Friday morning at Watson Lake. We were all blizzard-bound – about 30 pilots with the weather closed on the north by a frost-bank 10,000 feet high. The outdoor temperature was 35 to 50 degrees below zero. The runway was a strip of solid ice, between furrows of snow.

     That day the sun rose at 10:15 A.M. and set around four o’clock in the afternoon. At midday our pilot, Captain Arthur C. Rush, and I struggled across the field to the weather station. We were protected by three suits of winter underwear, furlined flying jackets, special gloves, chamois face masks and three pairs of heavy socks inside our boots.

     At the weather shack we found an officer who introduced himself as Colonel Mensinger. Of slight figure and medium stature, he was well on the way to fifty years. He was intelligent and courteous, but he grew indignant as messages began crackling off earphones inside the depot.

     “Just listen!” he exclaimed. “All we need to know about weather is coming through from naval stations in the Aleutians and submarines far out at sea. But we can’t understand a word of it. Men are dying because it isn’t protocol for the Navy to share its code with the Army.” He said he had jotted down a notebook full of memoranda on weather intelligence, our worst bottleneck.” When he got to Edmonton, he would prepare a “broadside of a report.”

     Just then it was announced on the loudspeaker that Colonel Mensinger, who was flying south, could go, if he wanted to take a chance; but that Captain Rush and I, who were northbound, had to stay. The Colonel said he would face the risk. For the sake of American lives, he felt that his report could not wait. As we shook hands, he complimented me on the work being done at Great Falls.

     Rush and I were tramping off to lunch when we heard his motors start. The plane dashed along the runway in a spume of ice chips kicked up by the grippers in the tires. Thus Colonel Mensinger, with his ten companions and his notes on weather service reform, vanished into oblivion. His body was not found until five years later.

     This was my diary entry for the next day:

     Saturday, Feb. 6 – Temperature 35 below. Slept last night in sleeping bag. Huskie dog under my bed had nightmare, howled and upset bed. In evening saw old movie, “King of Alcatraz.” Played poker with the boys; won a little. Two of our best pursuit pilots sprained ankles, first time on skis; no more skiing allowed. Magnificent Northern Lights. After sunset beautiful glow in black night from sun below horizon – very strange. Three wolves ran across lake, must be very hungry to come that close. Colonel Mensinger’s plane and another plane reported lost… Others went up, looked for fires or signals. Nothing seen.

     On Monday our enforced stay at Watson Lake ended, but we were in for a much greater ordeal. We began the six-hour flight from Watson Lake to Fairbanks by crossing an area that became known as “the Million Dollar Valley,” because planes worth more than that sum were lost there. It was the 220-mile run from Watson Lake to Whitehorse, the next airfield to the north. We went up to 14,000 feet to break out of the frost-bank. It had been 54 below zero when we left the ground. At nearly three miles up we estimated the temperature at 70.

     Then our heater froze! We knew we were in for it. This is what I later wrote from Fairbanks to my mother:

     That trip from Watson Lake was a horror. I never knew a person could be so cold. I nearly lost a couple of toes, and my heels are still sore. My nostrils cracked when I breathed and the corners of my mouth hurt like a toothache. I shut my eyes because the eyeballs pained so. My shaving brush froze and the hairs dropped off – just like my eyelashes. I ate forty lumps of sugar and lots of candy bars. Your socks were a big help. The pilot couldn’t see out of the window because of his breath freezing on the pane. So we flew by instruments until the end, when we used lighter fluid to wash a hole to land by…

     When our plane put down in Fairbanks, the first person aboard was a Russian girl of middle height, a mechanic, with a flat Slavic face and with the shoulders and torso of a wrestler. She took one look at me and screamed.

     I was told later that my mouth resembled icy slush. My nose and cheekbones were covered with frost and my eyes were staring like glass. I couldn’t stand erect, because my knees were bent as if crippled with rheumatism. So were my elbows. I was almost insensible. After all, I was forty-five years old, and couldn’t take it like pilots in their twenties.

     Without inhibitions, the generous girl seized my head with her brawny arms and hugged it to her warm bosom. She held it there until I could feel “pins and needles,” which showed that the tissues were warming back to life. Then she helped me into her “Bug” – a midget car with tractors for snow-work – and sped across the field to the Russian operations office.

     I was stripped down to shorts and plunged into a tub of cold water, which to my body seemed hot. Cups of cold water were poured over my head and shoulders by Russian men and girls. One of them brought vodka in a paper cup and grinned at me: “Russian medicine!”

     As I sipped it gratefully, my mind began to work again. Through the window I saw our plane, which had been towed across the field. An air hose, blowing out the heater pipe, hurled chunks of ice against the building. Then there was a roar of engines, and the C-47, which Captain Rush had landed only a few minutes earlier, was off for Siberia with a Soviet crew.

     Suddenly the Russians, including a Colonel or so, dropped everything and stood at attention. Over my shoulder, for the first time, I saw the slight, elegant figure of a man about forty years old and weighing 125 pounds. His hair was black, and his dark, ascetic face could have been that of a holy recluse.

     When he addressed me, the voice was soft and gentle. He spoke in cultivated English: “I’m sorry you had such a hard trip,” he murmured. I gave him a wet hand. He ordered the Russians to heat cloths on the steam radiator and put them against my neck. At his direction, they rubbed me down with rough towels until I thought the skin would come off. Finally he said that if I felt well enough he would like me to be his guest at dinner. I accepted, and he departed.

     I asked who he was. The answer was one of the names most dreaded by Russians in America – that of the Lend-Lease spy chief for the Soviet Purchasing Commission, Alexei A. Anisimov.

     At Fairbanks you do everything underground, and don’t come by except to fly. Shops, restaurants, quarters – they all made a marvelous underground city. The underground part of the airport was in the shape of a circular tunnel five miles long and nine feet in diameter, connected by stairways with heated offices and hangars above. At this time the new Alcan highway was not yet through, and was not expected until the spring. Everything had to be brought into Fairbanks by plane or boat. The airport was known as Ladd Field.

     There were seldom fewer than 150 Soviet pilots at Ladd field, and sometimes there were as many as 600. They were older and hardier than our boys, and nearly all were combat veterans. The deadly Siberian lane was considered a great honor by these pilots, and it was held out to them as a reward for courage and for wounds in action.

     While I was there, one of these pilots landed an Airacobra on the apron instead of the runway, and drove it weaving among other craft parked along the plaza. The operations officer, Captain Frederick J. Kane, took him to task. The flier answered rudely: “I got eight Nazi planes. How many you got?”

     As I entered the Officer’s Mess, in response to Mr. Anisimov’s invitation, I noticed that the Americans kept apart on the other side of the dining-hall, where women were not allowed. The Russians, on the other hand, were sitting with their wives, and with girl translators. I looked for my host, but could not spot him. Suddenly the Russians stopped eating, thrust their hands under the tables, and sat at attention. Mr. Anisimov had entered.

     He greeted me cordially. As we sat down at his table, the silence in the room persisted. It was not until he picked up his knife and fork that the Russians shifted from “attention” to “at ease.” He acted as if this procedure were the most natural thing in the world, and undoubtedly it was, for him.

     At that dinner I sealed my subsequent fate in the Army, the final outcome of which was not to occur until fifteen months later. Data that Mr. Anisimov gave me, verified by my personal inspection, formed the basis of the Alaskan report which I made on my return to Great Falls. This report touched off a drastic reorganization in the Northwest area. It also brought upon me the wrath of Colonel Dale V. Gaffney, commander of Ladd Air Field and chief of the Cold Weather Testing Unit at Fairbanks, who was Anisimov’s bête noire.

     In the big shake-up which my report subsequently sparked, the Russian movement was transferred to the AAP’s Alaskan Brigadier General and became my commanding officer. Thus was fulfilled the prophecy of a friend who called me from Wright Field as soon as he read my Alaskan report. “It’s nice to have met you,” he said. “I’ll see you in civilian life sometime. Don’t you know you’ve cut your own throat?”

     My official jugular had 15 months to go as I sat at the dinner table with Mr. Anisimov and he outlined his complaints. Colonel Gaffney, he charged, was taking all the good mechanics for his weather operations when it was obvious that the very best ones should be servicing Russian planes for the 6,000-mile hop across Asia. The Alaska Defense Force was snatching Russian supplies for its own needs in Alaska and the Aleutians. Equipment for both Alaska and Russia, mixed in utter confusion, lay stretched for miles in heaps buried under snow, along the bank of the Tanana River.

     As the last point was difficult to credit, I borrowed a heated truck the next day, and made morning and afternoon trips along the riverside. It was 50 below zero, so cold that I could work only twenty minute at a time before returning to the truck to warm up; the task would have been impossible without Colonel Kotikov’s boots. On the morning tour I was accompanied by my Lend-Lease opposite number at Ladd Field, Captain Robert P. Mortimer.

     Captain Mortimer originated a suggestion that delighted the Russians. It came in a letter addressed to me in Great Falls some days later: “Do you think you could put any cargo, say four or five hundred pounds, in each of the A-20s and B-25s that are coming up here?” Thereafter we loaded 250 pounds of freight on every B-25 and 320 pounds on ever A-20. Since they could make the run to Moscow in two-thirds of the time needed by transport craft, Colonel Kotikov used the bombers for triple-A priority shipments.

     Captain Mortimer told me that a building previously used for storing Russian goods had been taken from him by the Alaska Defense Force, and that all materials reaching Fairbanks had been combined in one giant pool. There was no inventory, and he was having trouble locating supplies scheduled for Russia. A quotation from my Alaskan report speaks for itself:

    We drove about five miles through woods along a tortuous road. I found the supply pool not in buildings and segregated to bins, but strung along the river bank in man different piles. Some were under tarpaulins and all ere under much snow. We got out several times, probed the snow away with sticks and looked at the boxes.

       We saw many generators, complete Mobile Depot units, complete instrument shops in crates, unwrapped tires of different sizes and thousands of boxes of aircraft parts buried so deep in snow that it was difficult to know whether we were scraping the true bottom…

     By actual count, I saw nearly a hundred boxed Pratt-Whitney and other type motors covered with snow along this river front… In one case we found a mimeograph machine, for which Captain Mortimer said he had been trying several months to get an order through… There seemed to be hundreds and hundreds of boxes of Air Corps spare parts, tools, dies, belly tanks, tires, pioneer equipment and wheel assemblies…

     A sergeant (my driver) told me that in the spring this river always overflows its banks for a quarter of a mile on either side. It is a most dangerous situation because many suppliers will surely sink out of sight in the moist tundra, if they are not actually inundated by the freshet when the ice breaks.

     Including my list of recommendations, the report was eight pages long. As a tribute to Colonel Mensinger, I urged that naval weather codes be made available to Air Forces radio operators. I included three Russian requests, in behalf of speed, which were granted: de-icer boots were removed from all planes; camera installations were stripped from Airacobras; and tow-target equipment was omitted from B-25 bombers. The Russians explained that they had plenty of real Nazi targets to practice on.

     Among other things, it was recommended that each air station should have a first echelon repair shop, and spare supplies of tires, tubes, generators and radio sets; that Russian materials be isolated in a building of their own at Fairbanks; and that facilities and personnel at Gore Field be enlarged to cope with the mounting operations.

     On Wednesday, February 10th, our return-trip plane arrived from the Russian front. It was a C-47, thoroughly pounded and badly in need of repairs. It had no heater. Captain Rush looked it over and said, “I hope it hangs together long enough to get us home.” We started the engines and finally took off. I had exchanged farewells with Mr. Anisimov that morning.

     We flew to 14,000 feet and soon everything on the plane was frozen. An orange in my pocket became as hard as a rock. We had on board ten pilots and crewmen who had delivered Soviet planes at Ladd Field and were returning to Great Falls for another consignment.

     It was colder and colder. Some time later, looking out from the sleeping bag into which I had crawled with all clothes on, I was amazed to see the crew chief, Sergeant O’Hare, holding the blaze of a blow-torch against his foot. He said he could feel nothing. I told him he would burn off his toes and be crippled for life. He said he knew it, but anything was better than freezing to death. I put out the torch and rubbed his feet with a crash towel. When circulation was restored, he did the same for me.

     We managed to get to Fort Nelson, where a safe landing was made and where we had a good dinner of caribou steak. We were all ready to take off again when a snowstorm arose, so we decided to stay over in the comfortable log cabins. In the morning it was 33 below zero and it was with the greatest difficulty that we coaxed the motors to start, warming them up from 6 A.M. to 9 A.M.

     When we were 150 miles from Edmonton, the fuel pressure of the right engine began an ominous drop! We got ready to heave everything overboard except U.S. mail and Russian dispatches and diplomatic pouches from Moscow. I tore out the radio operator’s table, wrenched off the toilet seat, disposed of every loose object in sight. Poor Captain Heide, who had been two years in Nome and was on his first return trip to the U.S., watched as I dragged his steamer trunk to the door.

     The gauge dropped from 20 to 6. I adjusted my parachute and opened the door. At 3 we would fling everything overboard and bail out, leaving Captain Rush to try a belly landing with one engine. Then the pressure began rising. When it got to 10 we breathed a big sigh, shook hands and sat down again. By this time Edmonton was in sight. Were we glad to get down!

     After lunch we set out on the last lap to Great Falls. Just as we took off, I saw gasoline pouring over my window. The tank cap on the left wing had been put back loose, and was swept off by the slipstream. The whole side of the plane was being drenched. I ran and told the pilot, who said: “Boys, all we can do is pray that we don’t have any sparks from that left engine.”

     We tightened parachutes and flattened noses against the windows looking for sparks, as Captain Rush wheeled around to land. Seconds seemed like hours. I looked down on Edmonton and wondered in what part of the town I would land if I had to jump.

     The pilot skillfully banked the motor to keep sparks away from the gasoline spray, and throttled the left engine the moment our wheels touched the ground We radioed the control tower, and a jeep dashed up with a new cap. We not only screwed it on, we wired it down. By then we were looking at another sunset, and flew homeward by the light of the stars.

     It was around midnight of Friday, February 12th, when we got back to Great Falls. All my life I had heard of the “Frozen North.” Now I knew what a terror it is.

     On the morning of February 17 I laid my Alaskan report before Colonel Meredith, a rugged veteran who had been trained at West Point. He read it through with minute care, word by word. Then he demanded incredulously: “You want me to endorse this?” I answered yes; the report was what I sent to Fairbanks to get.

     “I thought you wanted to be a Major,” he said. “Evidently you’ve given up all hope of promotion.” But instead of handing the papers back, he called a stenographer to take a memo for Lieutenant Colonel P. I. Doty, chief of the United Nations Branch, Patterson Field, Fairfield, Ohio.

     At that moment I admired more than ever the type of officer developed by the U.S. Military Academy. Colonel Meredith was a close friend of Gaffney, but this is what he dictated: “The attached report of Captain Jordan has been read and carefully noted. It is strongly recommended that constructive action based on findings in the attached report… be inaugurated immediately.”

     At the next rating of officers, which took place every three months, Colonel Meredith jumped me from “excellent” to “superior.” When I came up for promotion, he sent a letter which I treasure. He wrote that he believed the “thoroughness and forcefulness” I had displayed were “strong” factors in expediting the movement of United Nations airplanes through Great Falls”; and that my “tact and understanding had contributed materially to excellent relations with the Russian representatives.”

       As for my Alaskan report, Colonel Gardner told me that Lieutenant Colonel Ambrose A. Winters, executive officer of the United Nations Branch at Wright Field, had ordered a couple of hundred mimeographs of my report put in circulation. But Colonel Gardner warned me that from now on I would be a “marked man.” He observed that Pratt-Whitney motors cost the taxpayers $25,000 each and he added: “You would be the one to go out in the snow and dig them up!”

      Inspectors began to rush to Fairbanks by the plane load. They started with first lieutenants and captains. As their reports went back, confirming mine, the rank ascended to majors and lieutenant colonels. Arriving at last was a full colonel named Hugh J. Knerr, who afterwards became a major general. He was chief of the Headquarters Air Service Command at Fairfield, and had been empowered to settle the matter once and for all.

     Colonel d’Arce announced that my report was “raising the roof,” and that Colonel Gaffney had been summoned to Washington by the Chief of Staff of the Army Air Forces, Major General E. Stratemeyer. Gaffney wanted to see me when he passed through Great Falls. Colonel d’Arce continued, I was eligible for some leave, and if I liked he would get orders cut for me to go to Seattle or San Francisco. My reply was that I wouldn’t run away.

     He left us alone when Colonel Gaffney arrived. I had never seen him before. He was a giant of a man, with a square, massive head and the super-structure of a Babe Ruth. He slammed his fist on the desk and roared: “You’ve certainly raised hell! What right had you to come into my post and make a report without consulting me?”

     I explained that while I was in Fairbanks he was absent on a flight to photograph mountains; I had discharged my military duty by reporting to Lieutenant Colonel Raymond F.F. Kitchingman, commander of the 384th Supply Squadron which handled shipments to Russia. I quoted Mr. Anisimov as declaring that he had protested repeatedly to Colonel Gaffney without result.

     “I’m going to Washington,” shouted the Colonel, “to try and undo the damage you’ve done. I’m giving you a last chance to retract!”

     I said the report was true and I wouldn’t take back a line. I remembered the six words which Sergeant Cook had once assured me would stop any brass-hat in his tracks. What I had done, I told Colonel Gaffney, was “for the good of the service.” He was too furious to speak, and dismissed me with a fling of the arm.

     At least I could point to these results of my Alaskan report:

       The navy’s code was thrown open to wireless operators on the Pipeline’s American leg.

     There were personnel changes made at Ladd Field, one of which was a new supply officer for the 384th Squadron.

       Consignments for Russia were separated from those of the Alaskan Defense Force.

     Adequate storage housing was ordered.

     The Russian operation was now recognized as paramount at Great Falls. It was shifted to the town’s largest air installation (from which a bomber training center had removed overseas), known as “East Base.”

Continue with Chapter 5

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