In the Arms of Permafrost: Chukotka Stage of Alsib Expedition Begins

Ценные находки. Фото: Александр Бормотин

Specialists from the RGS and the Russian Ministry of Defense went to examine historical military airfields in Chukotka to find aircraft crash sites along the Alaska—Siberia air route and to install commemorative plaques at the places of death of the crashed pilots. The new stage began on June 28 and will last about a month.

The main goal for this season is to take out objects of the military equipment history of the WWII period found last season to prepare them for demonstration at exhibitions; to conduct aerial and ground search operations at the crash sites of ferried aircraft. Among the main locations of this stage are five historical airfields of the air route: Tanyurer, Chaplino, Uelkal, Markovo, and Omolon.

The basis for the search is the data found during long-term work in the Central Archive of the Ministry of Defense of Russia and in other Russian archives. Thus, according to the documents available to the RGS specialists, the accident site of the C-47 from the 8th Air Transport Regiment under the command of Lieutenant Gerasimov, who crashed on August 28, 1943, is located 50 km west of Uelkal Airfield in the northern part of the Ushkan Ridge. The second C-47 from the 1st Air Transport Regiment, whose crew was commanded by Senior Lieutenant Spiridonov, crashed on May 28, 1943 in the area of altitude 660 near the village of Neran. However, the expedition participants also hope that local search specialists have helpful information.

As everywhere in Russia, in the villages near which the airfields of the air route were located, there are many people who have devoted themselves to studying the history of their native land, including military history,” says the head of the Expeditionary Department of the RGS Sergey Chechulin. “Over many years of painstaking work, they have collected unique information about the work of the air route, about the catastrophes of the ferried aircraft, the fate of their crews, discovered and studied a lot. We count on cooperation with local historians, because combining the available data will significantly increase the efficiency of search operations, provide new information, and replenish through joint efforts the exhibitions of local and federal museums with new exhibits illustrating the contribution of the Far East and Siberia to our Victory over the Nazis.

The traditions of whaling are still preserved in the Eskimo village of Uelkal on the shore of the Bering Sea. The name of the settlement speaks for itself: translated from the Eskimo, "uelkal" means "the lower jaw of a whale". Skeletons of giant marine mammals, catching the eye here and there, are interspersed with artifacts of a military unit that existed here until the 2000s. During the war, the local airfield, located on the shore of the bay, was the first landing place for American planes departing from Alaska. At one time, the Soviet section of the ferrying route was called the Krasnoyarsk – Baikal air route.

Last year, the members of the expedition explored a unique runway, once made of planks. Moreover, for strength, the boards were placed on their sides one to the other. In this area and to the north, closer to the village of Egvikinot, the specialists will look for the crash sites of five historical aircraft.

Chaplino Airfield was located on a narrow sand spit jutting out into the Bering Strait. It was used as a landing place for aircraft if Uelkal Airfield was closed due to weather conditions. Now only the Soviet grader, which was once used to level the strip, and the frame remains of the wartime Soviet biplane remind of the military past.

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Уэлькаль, обнаруженный фрагмент самолёта. Фото: Александр Бормотин

An important intermediate airfield of the Krasnoyarsk air route, as the Alaska – Siberia route was also once called, was Tanyurer Airfield, built in 1944 in a remote place far from populated areas in a truly record time – in 75 days. The territory of the airfield, closed in the 1960s, is heavily waterlogged and overgrown, but it was here that the expedition participants managed to find many parts of Soviet and American-made airfield equipment last year: an airfield tractor, a searchlight, a tractor, support vehicles, an electric generator.

In the new season, the search specialists plan to continue the exploration of the airfield and to take out historical equipment for preservation and museumification.

The next location of the air route is Markovo, an old Russian outpost in Chukotka. Representative offices of Russian and American trading companies were located here in the 1920s, and in 1942 an airfield was built for landing aircraft departing from Uelkal and Anadyr. The airport building has been preserved to this day, although not in the best condition.

Last year, the members of the expedition discovered the location of the runway, heavily overgrown with willows; and also identified possible crash sites of the A-20 "Boston" and P-39 "Airacobra" aircraft. The plans for this year are to continue the search for these aircraft.

Omolon Airfield on the border with Yakutia is the final destination of the Chukotka stage. The settlement here appeared in 1943 as a strongpoint to support the Krasnoyarsk – Baikal air route. Several buildings and runways of that time are still in operation. A Lend-lease American lathe and a “Caterpillar” grader have been preserved in working condition. A search for the crash site of one of ALSIB's planes will take place in the vicinity of the village.

Commemorative plaques with information about the crashed planes will be solemnly installed at all discovered crash sites, memorial events will be held in memory of the fallen pilots.

ALSIB – the air corridor connecting the USSR and the USA – appeared during the Great Patriotic War. Under the Lend-Lease agreement, the Western Allies supplied us with fighters and bombers, and we needed a year-round and round-the-clock air route along which Soviet pilots could ferry aircraft to the front. Despite the inaccessibility of the areas where the airfields were built, they were constructed in the shortest possible time – in just five to eight months. Since 1942, more than 8,000 aircraft had been delivered to the front along the ALSIB route.

Julia Gopius