Lieutenant Ivan Baranovsky’s P-39
An airacobra's journey to the eastern front...and back.
- By Tim Wright
- Air & Space magazine, September 2011
Courtesy Boris Osetinskiy Via Mark Sheppard And Ilya Grinberg
(Page 4 of 4)
GRINBERG STARTED his Web site on the Lend-Lease program, he says, as a way to remember and honor the past. “The people who fought, these people who flew and serviced these airplanes, there are very few of them still alive,” he says. “With every month, literally, there are less and less of them. I think the world should know who they were and the weapons that they fought with and what they felt. How do they feel, really, without any limitations of what they could say or could not?”
The Soviet recovery from the initial German onslaught in World War II is miraculous. Operation Barbarossa, the surprise Nazi attack in June 1941, decimated the Soviet air force. Within the first week, the Luftwaffe destroyed approximately 2,000 Russian airplanes, most of them as they sat on the ground, while losing fewer than 40 of their own. From this devastation, the Soviets rebuilt while they fought. They moved their factories east, away from attacking German aircraft, and eventually produced more than 140,000 aircraft, among them almost 60,000 fighters.
Post-war Soviet propaganda claims Lend-Lease aircraft did not play a significant role in the Soviet defeat of Germany because they represented only 13 percent of the aircraft the Soviets fielded. “And this figure continues to sit in the public consciousness,” says Grinberg. But to have supplied the 9,775 fighters sent by the United States (which included Curtiss P-40 Hawks and Bell P-63 Kingcobras), the Soviet government would have had to build four more factories, according to Grinberg, a project that would have drained resources and taken much longer to accomplish than merely taking deliveries from the United States. The resources that would have been required to build factories were instead sent to the front to repel German attacks. The Lend-Lease aircraft did not change the outcome of the war, he says, but without them, defeating Germany “would have cost many more millions of lives in several more years of fighting.”
Grinberg and his Web site also played a role in the Niagara museum’s acquisition of White 23. After the aircraft was recovered, it was moved to England by Jim Pearce of Warbird Finders, an aircraft recovery firm specializing in World War II aircraft. Grinberg posted an article about the recovery on his Web site that quickly drew attention across the world. He also called Hugh Neeson. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could get the airplane?” Grinberg said. With introductions from Grinberg, Neeson visited White 23 at its British home. “As soon as we saw [it],” says Neeson, “we said ‘That’s gotta come back to Buffalo.’ That was 2008.” Neeson used the museum’s assets and found additional sponsors to buy the aircraft for $400,000.
On August 27, 2006, the Alaska-Siberia Research Center dedicated a monument in Fairbanks to the U.S.-Soviet partnership formed during the Lend-Lease program. At the dedication, before an audience including war veterans from both sides, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, Russian Ambassador Yuri Ushakov, and Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Ivanov, the research center awarded Ilya Grinberg a medal for educating people about Lend-Lease. Grinberg says it was “the most symbolic moment of my life.” He told the audience, “I grew up in Ukraine and I knew many friends whose parents were flying P-39s. And now I live in Buffalo, where I know many people whose parents worked at Bell and built P-39s. And here in Fairbanks, these planes changed hands.”
White 23, renamed by the museum Miss Lend Lease, will make its first public appearance at the Thunder Over Niagara Air Show, on the weekend of September 10 and 11 at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station. It is not being restored, but rather conserved in its present condition for display at the museum’s exhibit space in the former terminal of the Niagara Falls Airport. Exhibit designers will make simulated snow and ice as the airplane’s support. “Our intent is to show how it landed on the ice at the end of its flying trail,” says Neeson. The exhibit will include the maintenance log and another discovery that salvagers made when they pulled the airplane from the lake: 11 small cans of food that had been stashed in ammunition bays. They were labeled “made in USA.”
Frequent contributor Tim Wright, a photographer in Virginia, has found that he can sometimes create a better picture with words than with a camera.