Category Archives: Montana During World War II

The history of Montana during World War II

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.

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1942 Prices for Household Goods & Services

Below are some representative prices of household goods and services listed in Montana newspapers during 1942. Due to wartime shortages and rationing, many goods disappeared from store shelves, and the cost of living accelerated throughout the war years. These prices were taken from ads in various Montana newspapers.

• Milk – $.14 per quart
• Flour – $1.73 for 49 pounds
• Coffee – $.35 per pound
• Eggs – $.30 per dozen
• Hamburger – $.23 per pound
• Steak – as high as $.35 per pound.
• Beef roast – $.27 per pound
• Ham – $.37 per pound
• Campbells tomato soup – 3 cans for $.25
• Peanut butter – 25 ounces for $.37
• Spam – $.39 for a 12 ounce can
• Coffee sold for more than $.25 per pound.
• Soda – six-pack for $.25
• 100 Anacin – $.78
• Carter’s Pills – $.19
• Cigarettes – $.10 per pack of 24
• Beer – $.10 per bottle
• Old Hickory whiskey – $2.35 per quart
• Electric train set – $8.79
• Child’s doll – $2.49
• Scout trainer machine gun toy – $2.49
• Paperback book – $.49
• Hardback book – $2 to $5
• Great Falls Tribune – one year subscription – $20
• First-class letter – $.02 (this increased to $.03 in 1944)
• Men’s suit – $30 to $40
• Men’s sport shirts – $3
• Necktie – $1.00.
• Women’s hat – $3.00
• Stetson hat – $7.50 to $25
• Winchester Model 92 pump shotgun – $56.70
• 12 gauge shotgun shells – 24 for $1.20
• Enamel paint – $1.55 per quart, $2.69 per gallon
• Taxi in Billings , 1 passenger & zone 1 – $.25
• Bus fare – $.10 in Billings, $.07 in Missoula
• Automobile tires – $12 to $22
• Range, coal or wood burning – $79.95.
• Used appliances – $5-$20.
• Electric vacuum $9.95
• Montana driver’s license – $.75per year
• Montana marriage license – $.2.25
• Shave-and-a-haircut – $1.00 – $1.25
• Full course meal at a nice restaurant – $1.00

Read more about Montana During World War II

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Fire From The Sky: Japanese Balloon Bombs

This article originally appeared in 2001 as part of the Missoulian Newspaper’s “Greatest Generation” Series
Montana's Home Front During World War II
Montana’s Home Front During World War II

Incendiary Japanese balloon bombs never caused their intended devastation to western state’s forests

One of the secret weapons of World War II first came to light after two men stumbled across a strange object in the woods of western Montana. On Dec. 11, 1944, two loggers were cutting timber at Truman Creek, southwest of Kalispell, when they found the wreckage of a huge, cream-colored paper balloon, painted with a green rising sun and Japanese characters.

An alert newspaperman in Libby heard of their discovery and printed the news. Within days, Time and Newsweek picked up on the story of this latest Japanese invasion threat, and the secret was out.

The FBI arrived to investigate the balloon found near Kalispell, and admitted that similar balloons had recently been found in California, Hawaii, and Wyoming. The balloons, which carried small incendiary bombs, were designed to start devastating forest fires throughout the West. They represented a desperate attempt by Japan to damage the U.S. economy, and divert military personnel from the battle front into firefighting. In order to keep the Japanese from learning the success or failure of their secret campaign, a news blackout was quickly imposed. Most Americans remained unaware of the extent of the Japanese balloon bomb campaign until the end of the war.

Japanese balloon bomb
U.S. authorities reinflated this Japanese balloon to test its capabilities.

The first “Fugo” balloons were launched from the Japanese mainland in November 1944. The balloons were constructed of rice paper coated with paraffin, or tightly laminated mulberry tissue paper, glued together with potato paste. Many of the balloons were made by Japanese schoolgirls. When fully inflated, the balloons were more than 30 feet in diameter, 70 feet high, and had a capacity of 18,000cubic feet of hydrogen. They were capable of carrying 800 pounds of cargo, which normally consisted of 31 small sandbags (for ballast)plus four small incendiary bombs and one larger high-explosive bomb. Ballast and bombs hung from an aluminum wheel below the balloon. In the case of the Kalispell balloon, the bombs had already been dropped when it was found.

The Japanese depended on what was then a little-known meteorological phenomenon known as the jet stream to carry the balloons eastward over the Pacific. The balloons were designed to fly at 30,000 feet, and were equipped with a barometer and a simple mechanical device to drop the ballast and bombs. Every time the balloon dipped a few thousand feet, a sandbag was released, and the balloon again ascended. When all of the sandbags were expended, the balloons began to drop their bombs.

The mechanism of a recovered Japanese balloon.

Although more than 9,000 balloons were launched, less than 400 are known to have reached the West Coast. Carried by the high-altitude jet stream, the balloons were found from Alaska and Western Canada to as far south as Mexico, and as far east as Michigan. Although the balloons were very ineffective in starting forest fires (perhaps because the vast majority were launched in the winter or early spring) they were not harmless. On May 5, 1945, a pregnant woman and five children were killed by a balloon bomb while they were on a church picnic near Bly, Ore. Other than this incident, the balloons caused only a few small fires and a minor power outage at the Hanford facility in Washington State, where ironically, plutonium for the first atomic bomb was being prepared.

At least 35 balloons are known to have landed in Montana without inflicting any damage. Many of the bombs had unreliable triggers, and were duds. In western Montana, balloon bombs were discovered near Flathead Lake, Deer Lodge, Divide, Coram, Nyack, Sula, Glen, Dillon, Philipsburg, Boulder, Monida, and Babb. (A complete list can be found here.) Military aircraft from the Aleutians to Southern California pursued the balloons, and one enterprising Montana sheriff downed one with a shot from his hunting rifle.

After the war the New York Times declared that “First prize for worthless war weapons goes to Japan, for her ‘unique origination’ of bomb-carrying balloons to spread fire and terror across North America.” Nevertheless, the balloons caused the only American casualties by enemy attack in the continental United States during the war, and may still be a threat today: A Japanese meteorologist has estimated that as many as 300 balloon bombs may still be scattered throughout remote areas of the West.

A more complete account of this story can be found in Montana’s Home Front During World War II.

Montana's Home Front During World War II
Montana’s Home Front During WW II
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