Ladd Airfield history sparks mystery, intrigue
July 15, 2010
- Ladd Field
- Lend-Lease Program
FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska - The history of Ladd Army Airfield is rich and full of tales of bravery, innovation and a legendary pioneering spirit. The 70th Anniversary of Ladd Army Airfield and Fort Wainwright Open House offers a glimpse of the past and present through military equipment, aircraft, uniforms, displays and Soldiers and airmen.
Seeing the before and after pictures of Ladd and learning about the harrowing tales of those first test flights, the partnership with the former Soviet Union during the Lend-Lease program, humanitarian operations and rich military heritage is thrilling and leaves many history buffs wanting more - more about the pioneers who braved the Interior winters without the direct benefit of Native ingenuity or modern Uggs or Columbia jackets; more about what it was like to serve here even before Alaska was the 49th state in the Union; more about the historic properties on post and what it was like to use the utilidors, Fort Wainwright's underground tunnel system, for everything from basic transportation to jogging trails; and especially more about what really happened during the time the Army shared this installation with Russian soldiers and airmen.
Mary Shanks, architectural historian, Directorate of Public Works, Environmental, understands the thirst for more information about everything from buildings to people in Ladd's history and has spent much time investigating these topics and sharing her findings with the community.
"We have a lot of history on this base," she said. "Some really fantastic history."
One of her favorite topics is also one that many here are anxious to discuss - the World War II period when the United States shared Ladd Airfield with 300 Russian officers and pilots stationed here during the Lend-Lease program.
"That's really fantastic history," she said. "There was actually, during World War II, a full complement of Russian soldiers on the base. We gave them full control of buildings. They were allowed to patrol their areas with their own guards. There was a Russian speaker in the control tower. It's amazing history."
Citing the unprecedented degree of international cooperation, Shanks said the relationship between the United States and Russia joined two sides "who were not best buddies" to fight the Germans.
But particularly in light of the current Russian espionage drama and spy swap playing out in the today's headlines, the rumors of espionage and treachery prove even more interesting and salacious.
"There's a lot of talk about exactly how many secrets got flown up the air route. The planes and everything that was on board all had diplomatic immunity. We couldn't search them. Diplomatic pouches came up from the Lower 48 and were loaded on these planes and you never quite knew what was in them," she said.
Another wrinkle in the conspiracy theories is the legend surrounding the death of Pvt. John White, a U.S. Soldier assigned as a driver for Russian officers.
White took the officers on a tour of Fairbanks and stopped at the KFAR radio station which had a back room used to send secret communiquAfAs on weather and other issues vital to planning assaults on the Aleutian Chain. According to Shanks, the secret messages were sent by fax machine, brand new technology at the time, and could not be hacked or tapped unless you had the devices which were only located at KFAR in Fairbanks and a station in San Francisco.
The tour ended at Ballaine Lake where the Russians said they got separated from White and returned to the base without him. "They later found (White's) clothes folded up next to the lake and they had to drain the lake to find his body. It was decided that he drowned," Shanks said.
White's friends all said he was afraid of the water and would never have taken off his clothes and gone in. But the issue was dropped and never investigated to avoid an international incident.
"The story is that he caught them either trying to tap into the line or engaging in some other kind of espionage and they killed him to keep it a secret," Shanks said.
Other lore from those days includes everything from possible reasons why a Russian hangar burned to stolen nuclear technology. But despite the rumors and stories of treachery, Shanks said the time the Russians shared Ladd Airfield with the United States is remarkable.
"The fact that there was so much international cooperation here is extraordinary," she said.
The Lend-Lease program was originally designed to provide war aid to Britain but after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, that was extended to Russia, she said. The 8,000 planes given to the Russians to use on the front lines against Germany made a huge difference in the war effort.
"Most historians think they were absolutely pivotal to winning the war because without them the Russians would have not been able to hold the front and Russia could have been taken over by Germany or at least the war would have stretched out for much longer," Shanks said.
These stories just scratch the surface of the history of Ladd. The 70th Anniversary of Ladd Airfield and Fort Wainwright Open House displays, booths and demonstrations will provide even more information on the world-changing mission and history of the historic base and airfield.