Soviet Espionage Under the Big Sky

By Gary Glynn

Great Falls was the southern hub of an air route to the Soviet Union through Canada and Alaska

This article originally appeared in 2001 as part of the Missoulian Newspaper’s “Greatest Generation” Series

Greatest Generation logoA bitter wind whipped across the runway at the Great Falls Municipal Airport as Major George R. Jordan approached a C-47 cargo plane sitting on the frozen runway. The plane had the large red star of the Soviet Union freshly painted on the side, and its cargo door was open to reveal dozens of identical suitcases lined up inside. Jordan nodded to a subordinate, who stepped to the open door of the plane and aimed his rifle at the two Soviet guards inside. The two Russians loudly protested, but Major Jordan ignored them and turned his attention to the suitcases.

For months, he had been curious about the shipments of 50 identical suitcases sent to the Soviet Purchasing Commission in Great Falls. He knew that the Soviet officers in charge were drinking in a Great Falls hotel, and this might be his only opportunity to examine the suitcases, which he believed contained stolen morphine and other contraband.

Jordan cut the cords around the cases, broke the red wax seals, and quickly rifled through the contents. Instead of morphine, he found hundreds of maps, patent documents, blueprints of industrial plants, railroad tables, and top-secret U.S. government documents. Jordan realized he had uncovered a massive Soviet espionage program, but he knew the suitcases were protected by diplomatic immunity. In a few hours the C-47 carrying the 50 suitcases would lift off and turn north towards the Canadian border, on the first leg of along trip through Alaska and Siberia to Moscow. The C-47 waiting on the runway at Great Falls was only one of the nearly 8,000 Lend-Lease planes sent to the Soviet Union via the Alaska-Siberia (ALSIB) air route during World War II, and the 50 cheap suitcases stuffed with documents represented but a tiny fraction of the information and strategic goods that flowed over the Lend-Lease “pipeline” during World War II.

Soviet espionage
An American and Russian pilot shake hands in front of one of the warplanes to be transferred to the Soviet Union

Under the terms of the 1941 Lend-Lease Act, billions of dollars of American aid flowed to Great Britain and the Soviet Union. The Soviets in particular needed warplanes, and lots of them, in order to fight the Nazis.

The city of Great Falls was chosen as the southern hub of an air route to the Soviet Union through Canada and Alaska. In mid-1942,the U.S. Air Transport Command set up shop at Gore Field, the Great Falls municipal airfield, while construction started at East Base, six miles from town. Supplies and brand-new airplanes soon began flooding into Great Falls from factories all over the nation.

At Great Falls the new planes were weatherized, were painted with the red star insignia of the Soviet Union, and were loaded with cargo before flying north. The first five planes (Douglas A-20 Havocs) destined for the Soviet Union left Gore Field on Sept. 1, 1942, and arrived in Moscow just in time to be thrown into the Soviet offensive at Stalingrad.

An American soldier paints the red star of the Soviet Union on a warplane at Great Falls.

Within a few months, the two air bases at Great Falls were sending 400 fighters, 80 medium bombers, and 15 cargo planes to the Soviets each month. Although the planes were officially transferred to Soviet control at Great Falls, they were flown by American pilots as far as Fairbanks or Nome, Alaska. This treacherous, 2,000-mile trip usually took six days and involved intermediate stops in several Canadian cities. Soviet pilots took control of their planes in Alaska and flew on to northern Siberia.

By the fall of 1942, Great Falls was also home to Col. Anatoli N. Kotikov and the staff of the Soviet Purchasing Commission. Their job was to purchase vital materials not available in the Soviet Union. Since the Soviet Union was critically short of everything necessary to fight a modern war, even the small fighter planes were packed with as much cargo as they could safely carry. This freight included, airplane parts and accessories, books, magazines, drills, nails and bolts, newspapers, drawings and blueprints, drugs, and diplomatic mail.

The Soviet Purchasing Commission also made sure the planes bound for Russia carried luxuries unavailable in the U.S.S.R., including cigarette cases, American phonograph records, women’s compacts, and 13,000 sets of false teeth.

Major Jordan was more concerned by the massive amount of documents passing through Great Falls, including those regular shipments of identical black patent leather suitcases.

Despite his suspicions and those of other American officials in Montana and Alaska, the Lend-Lease program was considered so important to America’s defense that the Soviets were given virtually free rein to do what they wanted. Every time Jordan objected to the activities of the Soviet Purchasing Commission, Col. Kotikov would personally call Washington and complain about the treatment he was receiving in Montana. Jordan soon found that Kotikov wielded immense power, and there was little he could do to stop the abuses he witnessed every day at Great Falls. He did, however, begin a diary listing the materials which were being loaded on the Lend-Lease planes.

Besides documents and luxury goods, the Soviet Purchasing Commission obtained large amounts of uranium, a rare substance that few Americans had ever heard of. According to Jordan, a Denver mining company shipped a ton of uranium nitrate and uranium oxide to Great Falls in March and April of 1943. The Soviets also received more than two pounds of enriched uranium, enough to build a nuclear bomb.

Warplanes bound for the Soviet Union wait on the runway at Great Falls

There were other strange activities going on at Great Falls as well. Hundreds of Soviet diplomats and journalists flew into Gore Field and East Base without any restrictions. Major Gen. Follett Bradley reported, “that scores of Russians were permitted to enter American territory in 1942 without visa.” Major Jordan witnessed some of the incoming Russians hop off planes at the end of the runway, jump over the airfield fence and run for waiting taxicabs. Jordan suspected these were Soviet intelligence agents slipping into the country, and in January 1944 he traveled to Washington to discuss the Soviet activities along the Alaska-Siberia route. The FBI and Customs Service investigated, but the Soviet Purchasing Commission continued its activities without restriction.

As the war wound down, traffic over the Alaska-Siberia route slowed considerably, and Lend-Lease shipments to the Soviet Union halted after the Japanese surrender in 1945. Major Jordan went public with his allegations of Soviet espionage shortly after the Rusians exploded an atomic bomb in 1949. His accusations prompted a major investigation by the FBI and the House Committee for Un-American Affairs. Many witnesses testified that huge numbers of documents, as well as more than enough uranium to build an atomic bomb, were shipped from Great Falls to the Soviet Union during the war, but the investigations concluded that much of the questionable Soviet activity had been allowed under the Lend-Lease rules. Not only had the Soviet Purchasing Commission at Great Falls pulled off one of the major intelligence coups of all time, but it had done it legally. In 1956, East Base was renamed Malmstrom Air Force base in honor of a flier killed in a training accident. Today the base is home to the 341st Space Wing and its 200 Minuteman III nuclear missiles.


Timeline of the Korean War


After World War II, US occupation troops in Korea were stationed south of the 38th parallel, while Soviets occupied Korea north of that line.


Elections were held in South Korea despite Soviet refusal to allow elections in the North. The Republic of Korea (ROK) was proclaimed south of the 38th parallel, while north of the line became the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea. Both sides claimed they were the only legitimate government of Korea.



On June 25, North Koreans equipped with Soviet tanks and fighter planes attacked ROK forces across the 38th parallel. The United Nations Security Council demanded that the Communists withdraw across the 38th Parallel, but the North Koreans continued to advance towards Seoul. Pres. Harry Truman ordered US forces to help defend South Korea as part of the United Nations coalition.


A battalion of the US 24th Division was flown from Japan, and for sixteen days they stubbornly retreated under pressure from the North Korean onslaught. Lt. Gen. Walton H. Walker was named commander of the Eighth Army in Korea, while General Douglas MacArthur was named Supreme Commander of UN forces in the Far East.


Eighth Army and South Korean forces retreated into the Pusan perimeter, (an area 75 miles long by 50 miles wide) at the extreme southeast corner of Korea. Gen. Walker shuttled his men from one trouble spot to another throughout the perimeter in a desperate bid to halt the North Korean attacks.


The North Koreans mounted a major offensive against the Pusan perimeter and captured Pohang, but the offensive soon stalled. On September 15 the US Xth Corps, including the 1st Marines, made a surprise landing at Inchon and quickly recaptured Seoul. The Eighth Army broke out of the Pusan perimeter and moved north, linking up with the US forces moving south from Seoul.


UN forces crossed the 38th parallel as the North Koreans retreated beyond Pyongyang. China, which had warned the United Nations troops not to advance beyond the 38th Parallel, began slipping large numbers of Chinese soldiers into Korea.


Gen. MacArthur stated his intention of ending the war by Christmas. United Nation’s forces had just reached the Yalu River when four Chinese armies attacked in overwhelming force and split the Eighth Army from X Corps.


In freezing weather, 20,000 Marines and soldiers of X Corps, along with British Royal Marines and South Korean troops, began a fighting withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir towards the port city of Hungnam, where U.S. Navy ships evacuated more than 205,000 soldiers and Korean civilians. The Eighth Army also fell back under the relentless attacks. Pyongyang was soon abandoned, and the United Nation’s forces retreated to the defenses around Seoul. Matthew Ridgway took over as commander of the Eighth Army after Gen. Walker was killed in a jeep accident.


JANUARY. United Nations forces abandoned Seoul and retreated 25 miles south in the face of an offensive by 500,000 North Koreans and Chinese. The Chinese however, had stretched their supply line to the limit, and their offensive soon ran out of steam.

FEBRUARY. Gen. Ridgway ordered I Corps to begin an attack which drove the Chinese across the Han River. The Chinese mounted several unsuccessful human-wave attacks against X Corps.

MARCH. United Nations forces recaptured Seoul, and the North Koreans were pushed north of the 38th parallel.

APRIL. President Harry Truman dismissed General MacArthur because of MacArthur’s public and repeated criticism of Truman’s war policy. Matthew Ridgway was named Supreme Commander, and General James Van Fleet took over as Eighth Army commander. The Chinese mounted yet another major offensive, but the attack was halted north of Seoul.

MAY. A Chinese corps attacked the Eighth Army and was decimated.

JUNE. The Soviets proposed a cease-fire, and Gen. Ridgway called for a meeting between military leaders to establish a truce.

JULY. Negotiations began at Kaesong, but fighting continued as both sides sought to straighten out their lines and consolidate their positions.

SEPTEMBER. Helicopters were first used in a combat zone to evacuate casualties and ferry assault troops and supplies.

NOVEMBER. Formal peace talks were established at Panmunjom.


JANUARY. Communist negotiators rejected a United Nations proposal that prisoners of war be allowed to decide if they wanted to be exchanged.

MAY. Communist prisoners of war rioted on Koje Island, capturing the American general in charge of the prison camp.

OCTOBER. Talks broke off over the issue of repatriation of prisoners.


MARCH. The Communists accepted a modified UN proposal regarding the exchange of prisoners of war.

APRIL. Talks at Panmunjom resumed, and sick and wounded prisoners were exchanged.

JULY. A finalized armistice agreement called for a 2.5 mile demilitarized zone along the front. All fighting officially ended at 10 PM on July 27, 1953.

If you found this timeline of the Koran War useful, you may also enjoy these interviews with veterans of that conflict.

Fred Raunig

Dennis Tate

Ken Brown

Charlie Israel