The winters at Ladd Field were always severe, and sometimes exceptionally so. Every month of the year except July could bring freezing temperatures, but in winter they could descend to -50°C. The winter of 1946 was particularly bad and played havoc with the maintenance of aircraft and ground equipment.
As early as 1935, Gen `Billy’ Mitchell had spoken out about the significance of Alaska. “I believe that in the future, whoever holds Alaska will hold the world”, said the great pioneer of United States air power. “I think it is the most important strategic place in the world.”
That much became obvious during the Second World War, when the Japanese considered the feasibility of attacking North America from bases in the Aleutian Islands and Alaska. In June 1942 they occupied Kiska and Attu. Their ambitions were ended at the Battle of Attu a year later, one of the war’s bloodiest episodes, after which the Japanese army left the Aleutians. Nor was the area’s strategic value lost on the US, which saw the island `bridge’ as providing bases for long-range bombers to strike at Japan and its empire in Asia.
Since its birth as a nation, the US had been untouchable. It had been involved in large-scale conflict in Europe and Asia, but was so far removed from them geographically that it suffered no attacks against itself or its citizens at home. But with the development of longer-range bombers, the US mainland was no longer invulnerable from direct strikes. The new enemy, the Soviet Union, was but the proverbial stone’s throw away across the Arctic Circle. Not only Alaska but the whole Arctic region acquired much strategic significance to both the US and Canada, and their increasingly hostile erstwhile Soviet ally.
When in August 1947 four Tupolev Tu-4 bombers flew at a parade at Tushino airfield in Moscow, further shockwaves rippled through the US military. The Tu-4, quite capable of reaching the US from bases in the Soviet Arctic, was of course a reverse-engineered copy of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress. Feelings of insecurity in North America were exacerbated during August 1949 when the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb.
There was a need to perform reconnaissance flights over Alaska, and the Army Air Force’s 46th Reconnaissance Squadron was the first US military unit to take on the task. It did so as part of a joint force effort named Project `Nanook’, itself an element of the secret Project 5, codenamed Operation `Floodlight’.
Based at Ladd Field in central Alaska and under the command of Maj Maynard T. White, the 46th RS was tasked with a range of missions. The primary one was to assess the threat posed by Soviet activities in the Arctic. In addition it was earmarked to survey and map the Arctic regions, in particular the US and Canadian Alaskan territories, using aerial photography; develop accurate means of polar navigation and, having accomplished this, train bomber crews in those systems; and conduct Arctic weather studies.
The squadron was equipped with the Boeing F-13A, a photoreconnaissance variant of the B-29. Carrying three cameras in a trimetrogon arrangement (one downward-facing camera and two oblique), the aircraft were specially modified for their Arctic role, which was classified top-secret.
The men of the 46th were true pioneers. Up to this time, no-one had flown regularly over the polar regions. The problems of polar navigation were considerable and what theories there were had gone largely untried.
On arrival at Ladd Field, the aircrews began by flying familiarisation trips. The first operational sortie over the polar cap took place on 2 August 1946, testing the theory of grid navigation over an unknown area. It encountered no significant problems. Over time the grid method was practised and proven such that polar flights became routine.
Now the 46th RS began to address the other aspects of its purpose, one of which was to search for new landmasses. The reason was twofold: to ascertain whether they were being used by the Soviets, and if they could be employed by the US or Canadian militaries. Reconnaissance activities in the Arctic were initially a bone of contention between the US and Canadian governments, the latter being incensed by the apparent ignorance of its rights over its sovereign territory. In October 1946, under Project `Polaris’, six Canadian officers were attached to the 46th RS to become involved in planning and flying missions. The objective of `Polaris’ was to develop an air lane between Alaska and Iceland.
The image interpreters of the 46th RS photo section noted what they believed to be a previously undiscovered landmass on 14 August 1946 and identified it as `Target X’. This was subsequently proven to be an ice island, but still classified top-secret in recognition of its potential as a base for military or scientific purposes. It was renamed T-1, two other floating islands in the vicinity being dubbed T-2 and T-3.
T-3 was later occupied by an expedition led by Lt Col Joseph Fletcher, who wrote in the April 1953 issue of National Geographic: “The radar observer had not found new land as he first believed, but he had provided a key, which was to unlock one of the Far North’s old mysteries and give his country a valuable base, closer to the North Pole than men had ever lived in comfort and safety.”
As if to underline the strategic importance of the work of Project `Nanook’, the squadron received a visit on 15 October from Maj Gen Curtis E. LeMay. At that time he was deputy chief of air staff for research and development at the Pentagon.
The 46th RS made history the next day when an F-13A completed a mission over the geographic North Pole. This was unique for a number of reasons. It was the first extended long-range flight of this nature, the first time an aircrew had known the precise moment they were over the pole, and the first such sortie to have taken place during the Arctic night. Departing from Ladd Field at 08.10hrs Alaska time, the initial flyover took place at 18.40. The F-13A landed back at Ladd Field at 04.55 on 17 October. In addition to the flight crew the aircraft carried scientists and observers, notably Dr Paul A. Siple, a renowned polar explorer who had spent most of his working life in the Antarctic and Arctic. Each aircrew member went on to be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
It was inevitable that flying in such an inhospitable region would involve some accidents. Temperatures could sometimes drop as low as -50°C. The winter of 1946-47 was one of the coldest recorded, but for the 46th RS it was business as usual. Two missions were scheduled on 11 December, when the temperature was -48°C. F-13A 45-21853 took off at 15.50hrs to undertake a classified Arctic mission. Straight afterwards it crashed into a wooded area. Fortunately for the crew the cold was so intense that the spilled fuel did not ignite at once. All on board managed to escape from the wreck without serious injury. By the following morning the F-13A was burning out of control.
The accident report recorded: “The aircraft weighed 135,000lb on take-off and SOP [standard operating procedures] were used. Immediately after becoming airborne power was lost on engines #1 and #3. Losing airspeed the aircraft mushed into the ground. No fatalities. It was determined that the extreme cold brought about a decrease in the volatility of the fuel, which in turn, caused a loss of power”. The crash of 45-21853 was the first of four the 46th RS was to suffer.
Changes occurred during 1947. The establishment of the US Air Force on 18 September was soon followed on 13 October by the redesignation of the 46th RS as the 72nd Reconnaissance Squadron. All aircraft and personnel were transferred to the new unit and, for the moment, activities continued just as before.
As new F-13As arrived at Ladd, so their reconnaissance suites were upgraded. In addition to the trimetrogon arrangement the aircraft could carry K-17B, K-20, K-22 and K-18 cameras in a variety of vertical and oblique configurations using different focal lengths.
Prior to the change of squadron `numberplate’ the unit had acquired two additional top-secret taskings. Project 20 consisted of twice monthly reconnaissance missions from Point Barrow to the tip of the Aleutian chain by way of the Bering Strait. These were primarily for electronic intelligence (ELINT) and surveillance purposes, but photography was to be undertaken if deemed necessary. Project 23 required two aircraft for each sortie, which covered the north and south coasts of Siberia adjacent to Alaska. One aircraft would fly over the coastline at very high altitude, the other following a parallel course lower down. Both would take photographs with their K-20 and K-17 cameras. Aircraft specially configured to undertake ELINT duties were called `ferrets’.
Superfortress 45-21812 was converted in May 1947 for a very special mission. All its gun turrets were removed and extra fuel tanks installed in the bomb bay. Provision was made in the fuselage for six `Raven’ stations, this the name given to electronic countermeasures (ECM) officers. The countermeasures suite comprised of AN/APR-4, AN/ APR-5, AN/ARR-5 and AN/ARR-7 systems, in addition to AN/APA-17 250-1,000MHz broadband direction-finding radars, and AN/APA-11 signal analysers. Once exhaustive tests had been carried out the aircraft took off from Wright Field, Ohio, for Ladd Field, arriving there on 17 May. The pilot was Capt Landon P. Tanner.
Lt Joe Wack was one of the `Ravens’ on the aircraft, which the crew named The Sitting Duck. In an interview with Dr Alfred Price for his book The History of Electronic Warfare, Wack recalled a briefing they received from Maj Guiton, the project officer: “He told us there was growing concern over what the Soviets were doing, and the Army Air Forces needed to know what they were using in the way of electronic systems in case these might later have to be countered. Our mission would be to fly long-range ferret missions off the north of Siberia to gather information on Soviet radars operating in that area. I don’t recall what radars he expected us to find, I expect he didn’t know. The secrecy of the project was impressed on all of us.”
Flights involving intelligence gathering by flying along the borders of an opposing nation and collecting data by electronic or photographic means were part of the Peacetime Airborne Reconnaissance Program(PARPRO). It was not the intention to violate the territorial integrity of the `enemy’ by overflying its territory.
The Sitting Duck flew its first operational sortie on 11 June 1947. Nothing of interest was found. It undertook eight such missions along the coasts of Siberia before returning to Andrews AFB, Maryland on 25 August. They had achieved a measure of success, having discovered the positions of Soviet radars in the area and the extent of their coverage. Importantly they also found where there was no radar cover along the Siberian coastline. After a few days at Andrews, The Sitting Duck was sent to Europe to fly ELINT missions in Germany along the Berlin corridors, going back to the US in September 1947. Sadly Capt Tanner was killed in the UK on 3 November 1948 when the RB-29 he was flying, 44-61999 Over Exposed, crashed at Higher Shelf Stones in the Peak District.
The ELINT `ferret’ mission that The Sitting Duck had inaugurated passed to the 72nd RS at Ladd Field. Its ELINT F-13As carried two `Ravens’ in the rear pressure cabin. They had all guns removed and fuel tanks in the bomb bay. Principal areas of interest were the Chukotskiy Peninsula across the Bering Strait from Alaska, the Kola Peninsula on the Barents Sea and the Kamchatka Peninsula.
The Soviet Union claimed sovereignty over the sea and the air above it for 12 miles off its coastline. Although the US recognised only a three-mile limit, its aircraft were instructed to respect the 12 miles. On 23 December 1947, a 72nd RS F-13A flew a Project 23 reconnaissance mission around the Chukotskiy Peninsula, during which it is quite feasible that the aircraft did in fact fly very close to the Soviet mainland in its search for intelligence. Despite officially reiterating the importance of adhering to the 12-mile limit, it is very likely that aircraft often went much nearer, particularly if they had picked up any suspicious electronic emissions which the crew felt should be more closely investigated. Some pilots said they were approached by Soviet fighters, but these claims have never been officially verified.
Following the 23 December flight, a note was delivered to the US State Department by the Soviet ambassador claiming that the aircraft had strayed to within two miles of the coast. The diplomatic row that followed prompted the USAF to instruct its pilots to rigidly observe the 12-mile boundary. This was increased to 40 miles in May 1948 following a particularly belligerent statement from Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov saying that the Soviet Union would retaliate if any aircraft violated its airspace.
There is circumstantial evidence that the 46th/72nd RS undertook some overflights from as early as the latter part of 1947. One crew that returned from a mission over Siberia claimed to have inadvertently overflown a Soviet airfield. They were surrounded by aircraft but no one took a shot at them. Then they noticed that several of those aircraft appeared identical to theirs, but carried red stars on the tail. They had stumbled upon a Tu-4 bomber base. The F-13A’s `star and bar’ markings apparently went unnoticed and they managed to make a dignified retreat.
The advent of the Tu-4 galvanised the USAF into further action in the north. The need for more intelligence was acute. PARPRO flights by both photo-reconnaissance aircraft and ELINT platforms increased, and risks were undoubtedly taken in gathering the information necessary to counter any Soviet bomber assault. At the same time, USAF Strategic Air Command bombers would need to navigate the polar route if they were to attack the Soviet Union. The training of SAC pilots in polar navigation techniques intensified, being undertaken by the 72nd RS at Ladd Field, whose F-13As were redesignated as RB-29s during 1948.
The sense of urgency encouraged greater technological development to provide the reconnaissance units with better cameras and countermeasures. One of the 72nd’s RB-29s, 45-21871, was fitted with a large oblique-shooting 100in-focal length camera capable of taking 9 x 14in photos up to 10 miles into Soviet territory. Even from outside the 12-mile limit the USAF had the capability to accurately photograph Soviet military installations.
In his book The Secret Explorers about the history of the 46th/72nd RS, Fred Wack, who flew missions in ‘871, recalled: “The aircraft were stripped down in order to reach a higher altitude. To reach a longer range and fly in from Fairbanks [Ladd Field] over to the island of Novaya Zemlya, you’re talking about 5,000-mile missions, 24 to 30 hours’ flying time, and to fly in over areas like [the] Kamchatka Peninsula and the coastal areas and the northern Siberia areas in order to avoid possible interceptions by hostile aircraft, we wanted to get up to 35,000[ft]. They were building airfields in the northern areas of Russia, and along the coastal areas. They were building submarine bases and airfields that we suspected were for offensive purposes”. The 100in oblique camera proved such a success that the USAF declared a requirement for five further examples in February 1948.
The 72nd RS continued to operate over the Arctic until June 1949, when it moved to Mountain Home AFB, Idaho. During its time in the Arctic, the unit had chalked up an impressive list of achievements. It perfected the grid system of polar navigation, blazing a trail across the polar regions that commercial airlines were later to follow. It discovered three magnetic north poles where previously it was thought there was only one. It accumulated information about the polar weather, providing a valuable resource to military and commercial interests alike. It devised and operated training programmes that greatly enhanced the knowledge of USAF aircrews destined to follow in its footsteps. Perhaps most importantly of all, it had – with courage and determination against significant odds – succeeded in providing the intelligence necessary to develop strategies to counter the threat of invasion by a hostile neighbour.