Looking skyward on a June day in 1945, Muscovites saw a huge four-engine aircraft enter a shallow bank for a landing at Izmailovo, a restricted sector in the northeast quadrant of Moscow where the Soviet navy’s flight test facility was located. Startled onlookers watched the behemoth aircraft lower its landing gear for final approach. Red stars on the wings and fuselage signified that the intruder was friendly, though eagle-eyed observers might have noticed the English words “Ramp Tramp” on the nose section.
At the controls was one of the Soviet navy’s top test pilots, Semyon Reidel, along with a skeleton crew of only two airmen: a copilot and an engineer. Once Reidel crossed the tree-lined outer perimeter of Izmailovo, he guided the aircraft to a smooth landing, completing an aerial trek that began in Vladivostok and crossed 11 time zones.
If Ramp Tramp appeared to Muscovites as a mysterious craft that summer day, the aircraft would not have been a stranger to Captain Howard R. Jarrell and his bomber crew. This was the same B-29 Superfortress they had flown to Vladivostok for an emergency landing on July 29, 1944, where it became the first of three B-29s to be interned by the Soviets that year. Workers at Boeing’s Wichita, Kansas plant could have identified it as B-29-5-BW (U.S. Army Air Forces serial no. 42-6256), part of an early production run of Superfortresses assigned to the 20th Air Force in Chengtu, China, for operations against Japan. But this B-29 would never return to U.S. soil.
Ramp Tramp was flown to Izmailovo because Soviet leader Joseph Stalin wanted a B-29 to serve as a template for a new heavy bomber to be produced in massive numbers in just two years: the Tu-4. Such a high-stakes scheme in technology transfer, if successful, would recast the Soviet air force into a strategic air arm and pave the way for military parity with the West in the uneasy peace that followed World War II. By copying the B-29, the Soviets would have an intercontinental bomber capable of striking New York City and the industrial heartland of the United States—and in a fraction of the time it would take them to develop their own design.
Ramp Tramp first entered Soviet territory while returning from a raid in Manchuria. Jarrell’s crew experienced electrical system problems and were saddled with a radio that would receive but not transmit, so Jarrell headed toward Vladivostok, where he naively assumed that he and his crew would be allowed to fly home as soon as the bomber could be repaired and refueled. Like many U.S. airmen, he thought the Soviets, then allies in the war against Germany, would welcome him and his crew.
But Vladivostok proved to be hostile territory. Ever since Edward York landed his B-25 at Vladivostok after the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in April 1942, all U.S. aircraft penetrating Soviet airspace in the Far East had been confiscated. After landing in Vladivostok, Jarrell never saw the airplane again. He and his crew members joined other interned airmen in a camp in central Asia, where they remained for months, prior to being repatriated through Iran.
The Soviet decision to retain the American B-29s reflected one of Stalin’s wartime priorities: the maintenance of a tenuous peace with Japan. Moscow could ill afford a war on two fronts with Axis powers. When Jarrell’s crew landed at Vladivostok in the summer of 1944, the Red Army was still engaged in a titanic struggle with Nazi Germany. Stalin feared that any overt cooperation with the United States in the Pacific War would be viewed by Tokyo as a military provocation, and the poorly defended Soviet garrison at Vladivostok was in easy reach of Japanese armies in Korea and Manchuria. Stalin would not enter the war against Japan until he could do it on his own terms, and not until August 1945, after the defeat of Germany.
During 1944 and 1945 deep differences and conflicting interests began to surface among the Allies, and these would shape the character of the war. Washington quietly acquiesced to the confiscation of the B-29s and kept the matter under wraps. There was no concerted diplomatic effort to gain their return, as maintaining cordial relations with Moscow was a high priority for the United States throughout World War II. The War Department even asked returning interned airmen to keep silent about their sojourn in the Soviet Union. Ramp Tramp landed in Vladivostok at the very time in the war when friction between the Soviets and the Allies first emerged.
If relations with Moscow were difficult in 1944, they deteriorated further as the Allies advanced into Nazi Germany in 1945. Ramp Tramp’s appearance at Vladivostok coincided with Operation Frantic, during which U.S. bombers landed in the Soviet Ukraine after raids deep in Nazi territory. This joint operation aroused Soviet suspicions about U.S. motives, and the Allied conferences at Yalta and Potsdam in 1945 only sharpened a growing estrangement between the United States and the Soviet Union. Consequently, the “transfer” of three B-29s to the Soviets at Vladivostok became a fait accompli. No one in Washington could have anticipated that these same aircraft would play a critical role in the transformation of Soviet air power within two years.
The first time the Soviets got any public word of the B-29 was on the occasion of a visit by famed American ace Eddie Rickenbacker in 1942. Rickenbacker, who spoke openly about the new bomber, only confirmed what Soviet intelligence already knew from its own collection of manuals, photographs, and purloined technical materials.