Most of the warbirds on view around the country today never made it into combat. This one did. I’m looking up at the ruined fuselage of a Bell P-39Q Airacobra, suspended from the ceiling of a work room at the Niagara Aerospace Museum in Buffalo, New York. Scattered about the space in the old Bell Aircraft factory where this very airplane was built are its wings, engine, and various tools for taking it apart. The underside fuselage panels are so badly damaged that they will be removed and replaced with new ones. The panels weren’t damaged from bullets, although the P-39 had been shot at plenty of times. They were battered during the fighter’s last landing, when 22-year-old Lieutenant Ivan Baranovsky, a combat veteran with seven victories, put it down on a frozen lake during a flight over the Soviet Union on November 19, 1944. Sixty years later on an Arctic summer day, a Russian fisherman caused a sensation in the global warbird-hunting community when he reported peering into the clear shallows of that small lake near Murmansk and seeing the outline of a silt-covered Bell P-39.
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The museum curators know that Baranovsky was flying the airplane because when salvagers pulled the P-39 from the lake, they found his remains inside. They also found the airplane’s maintenance log, tracing the journey of P-39Q no. 44-2911 from Buffalo along a string of northern U.S. air bases to Alaska, where it was handed over to a Soviet pilot. It was one of 2,565 P-39 Airacobras that followed that route to World War II’s Eastern Front—and the only one that made it back.
Bell P-39s were but a small part of the war materiel sent abroad during World War II. Even before the United States became a combatant, the January 1941 Lend-Lease Act authorized a multi-billion-dollar effort to arm and feed countries already fighting. By war’s end, the Lend-Lease program had exported goods ranging from bombers and locomotives to Spam and paper clips. Under the terms of the act, weapons and industrial equipment were expected to be returned or paid for, once hostilities ceased, unless they were destroyed in combat. In that case, they were written off. The Act led the United States out of isolation and prepared it for war; it also made possible a singular, cautious instance of cooperation with the Soviet Union, an unknowable ally trustworthy enough for fighters but not for strategic bombers.
The P-39 pulled from northern Russia’s Lake Mart-Yavr in 2004 is a symbol of what this cooperation meant to both sides. A U.S. fighter aircraft, originally unloved, found its best use in the Soviet Union, the nation that sacrificed more than any other to defeat the common enemy. And the Soviet demand for arms helped build U.S. manufacturing might.
“The aircraft industries of western New York built 30,000 aircraft during World War II,” says Hugh Neeson. “That’s 10 percent of the country’s wartime production.” Neeson, 77, a retired vice president and general manager of Bell Helicopter Textron, is the development director of the Niagara museum. In early 1940, almost two years before America entered the war, Bell Aircraft was “a struggling young company,” says Neeson. That year an order from France for 200 P-39s, accompanied by a check for $2 million, pulled the company from the brink of bankruptcy. (France surrendered before the country could take delivery.) The 20 P-39s delivered to the U.S. Army beginning in January 1941 were the first of an eventual 9,584 produced—half of them for the Soviet Union through Lend-Lease.
As orders for fighters increased, so did the Bell workforce, expanding from approximately 2,000 in 1939 to more than 32,000 in 1943 at a brand-new factory in the Wheatfield suburb of Buffalo. When Sandra Hierl grew up in post-war Buffalo, the aircraft factory was still a landmark in the town. Her mother, Eleanor Barbaritano, and her grandmother, Teresa Barbaritano, had worked there, part of a now-famous wartime demographic, exemplified by Rosie the Riveter: women who filled the jobs vacated by men who went to war. “My mother was very handy with things like a soldering iron,” says Hierl. “And I’d ask, ‘How do you know how to do that?’ and she’d say, ‘It’s what I did during the war.’ They were very proud of what they did. My mother was 19 when she worked at the factory, long before she had me. She told me about taking the bus to work—she and my grandmother. I think it was a lot of fun for her.” Hierl’s mother died in 1979, at 55.
Shortly after the P-39 arrived at the Niagara museum, Hugh Neeson got a call from the son-in-law of a former plant worker who told him to look closely at panels inside the fuselage when they were taking that aircraft apart. “The girls used to write their names and addresses on them,” he said. Sure enough, the museum conservators found two names: Helen Rose and Eleanor Barbaritano.
“My mom had told me about that,” says Hierl, laughing. “It was probably something a bunch of teenage girls thought was hilarious. Now and then a pilot would write to one of the women and thank them for the good work they’d done.”
Hierl, who lives in Connecticut, returned to Buffalo last April to see the airplane her mom had helped build. “She had signed her name and address in pencil on this metal plate, maybe five by eight inches, that goes into this little opening. When I looked in to see it, I put my hands on both sides of that opening and thought, My mom would have done this.”
ON CHRISTMAS DAY 1943, the maintenance log shows, no. 44-2911 left the factory on the first leg of its journey to the Soviet Union. The Lend-Lease flight path skirted the southern shore of the Great Lakes before turning northwest to head for the high plains along the Canadian border. Members of the WASP—Women Airforce Service Pilots—ferried the aircraft on the first legs of the journey west (see “The Mobile in Mobilization,”). “I flew them quite often from Buffalo to Great Falls, Montana,” said Violet Thurn Cowden last year. “In the wintertime, that route was pretty tricky because by the time you got to Chicago and over to North Dakota, we always had weather.” (Cowden, who learned to fly in the 1930s in Spearfish, South Dakota, died last April.)