Viewport: Detective Work
- By J.R. Dailey
- Air & Space magazine, March 2001
When Edward York had to land his B-25 following the Doolittle raid on Tokyo, the field at Vladivostok in the U.S.S.R. looked like a safe bet. Heeding the siren call of Vladivostok and thinking of the Soviets as allies, three B-29 pilots landed there in 1944. Although the crews were released eventually, the Soviets refused to return any U.S. aircraft, and their fate was lost in the cloud of the cold war.
We later learned that Stalin ordered Andrei Tupolev to copy the design of the B-29 in a crash program of reverse engineering. The resulting clone, the Tu-4, gave the Soviet Union a credible strategic bomber at the dawn of the cold war.
The mystery of the interned B-29s caught the attention of Von Hardesty, a Museum curator and specialist in Soviet air power. On a trip to Moscow in 1991, Hardesty met with Leonid Kerber, a close associate of Tupolev on the Tu-4 project. The meeting spurred Hardesty to translate Kerber’s memoir: Stalin’s Aviation Gulag (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996), which brought to U.S. readers the first insider’s account of the top-secret Tu-4 project.
But many questions were left unanswered, so Hardesty recruited Russian historians and museum specialists to help uncover the full story of the B-29 and Tu-4 bombers. One key figure, Dmitry Sobolev, had spent a year with us as a research fellow. Vladimir Rigmant, director of the Tupolev Museum, opened the archives of the Tupolev Design Bureau. Interviews added to the records, and the elusive facts about the B-29s slowly emerged.
More revelations brought the story into sharper focus. For example, it was learned that Ramp Tramp, one of the interned B-29s, had flown in Russia for nearly a decade until it was scrapped in 1954. The research also turned up some exceptional photographs that had never been seen in the West, and these appear for the first time in Hardesty’s feature article, “Made in the U.S.S.R.” (page 68).
Further detective work revealed that a plaque placed in the cockpit of the General H.H. Arnold Special by Boeing workers at Wichita in 1942 had not only survived but was in safekeeping in Moscow. Kerber had given the plaque to Maximilian Saukke, a friend and aviation writer, and Saukke still has it.
The intrepid Russian investigators even discovered new information on the probable fate of Edward York’s B-25: It had survived the war only to end up in a field of abandoned military aircraft on a grass strip at Vladivostok. It was last seen in the late 1940s, when it apparently was destroyed in a fire, perhaps set accidentally by children who had made a playground out of the surplus aircraft. We’re still waiting for confirmation of this story.
This is just one program in which the Museum is collaborating with Russian scholars. With the cold war over, we must share data on our history so we can continue to solve some of the mysteries of that era. When the Museum committed itself to enable research fellows from Russia to visit us in the late 1980s, we were like Edward York when he landed his bomber: We couldn’t foresee the outcome. It turns out to have been money well spent.