VA NY Harbor Health Care System
In his own words
By Bill Conrad
Friday, September 30, 2011About the author: WW II Army Air Force Veteran Bill Conrad, remembers a 1945 â€śTrip to Siberia.â€ť He retired in 1993 after a career as a biophysicist. He is an outpatient at VAâ€™s Manhattan Campus.
In 1945, I was 21 and a navigator on a B-24 bomber stationed with the 11th Army Air Force.
As we were coming into Petropovolosk, a Russian fighter came up and escorted us to the field. We were very glad to see his â€śVâ€ť sign as he approached. We landed safely. As the Russians came up, I saw that they were Mongolians and my heart skipped a beat, but then I noticed the red stars on their hats and all was well. After a brief interrogation, they took us to the barracks of the border patrol. This was a long dormitory with two porcelain stoves extending from floor to ceiling which heated the place very well.
We ate what they ate. Cabbage soup was a staple of the diet. I couldnâ€™t look a cabbage in the face for 10 years after I got home and still donâ€™t like it. The facilities were primitive. There was a latrine down a hill and there was a bath once a week from melted snow in a regular Russian bathhouse with steam rooms. After a steam bath, the Russians would go out and roll in the snow! For recreation, we went skiing on a nearby hill and I learned to play chess with the interpreter. After a violent snow storm, our hill essentially was gone and so we made tunnel houses for the neighboring children. We played cards and waited.
After six weeks in Petropovolosk, we were flown to Magadan on the sea of Ohkotsk. We landed on the ice in the bay and taxied around ships stuck in the ice. Magadan was a prison town, a part of the infamous gulag. We saw prisoners marching around with their hands on their heads. It was very depressing to see them. We stayed three days and were well treated.
On the third day, we flew to Khabarosk, capital of Siberia. We stayed in a convalescent home for wounded soldiers, Then, after a couple of days, we left Khabarosk and took the Trans Siberian Railroad, the TSRR, for Tashkent. At every stop, vendors besieged the cars selling food. It was a mob scene. There was a samovar in our car where you could get tea at any time. We traveled along a flat, treeless plain on the border with China. Every so often, we saw a gun emplacement camouflaged as a haystack. We went around Lake Baikal, which is the largest fresh water lake in the world. At Novosibirsk, we got off the train and had a bath. Whenever anyone complains about late trains or planes, I am reminded of my trip on the TSRR where you can be really late! The trip was about 3300 miles which averages about 13 miles an hour.
Tashkent is in the South of Russia so it is relatively warm, a welcome change from the rigors of a Siberian winter where the temperature could get to 40 below zero. We wore our flight clothes so it was tolerable. The barracks we stayed in were in some sort of military establishment. However, it was tolerable with about four to eight men per room, with a mess hall, bathing area and facilities for recreation. There was a basketball court and maybe one for volleyball. Someone had provided books for us to read.
We were about 50 people in the camp having caught up to the crews who had been shot down before us. We spent our time reading, talking, playing cards, exercising and just hanging out. I tried to learn Russian, but don't remember much except thank you, please and the usual soldier's swear words. There were several small lakes nearby and some of the Southerners offered to catch frogs and we had a dinner of frog's legs - something the Russians had never heard of. When President Roosevelt died, the Russians arranged for us to have a military parade with the firing of guns, and taps. After V-E day, when the war in Europe was over, we had a big party with vodka - we all got drunk as skunks. But the war with Japan was still going on and so we remained interned. (Though the USSR was an ally regarding the Germans in WWII, it was neutral until late in the war with Japan; it could not officially return soldiers formerly engaged in combat to their combat roles. So these American airmen were taken out of the fight for the duration.)
Sometime about the middle of June, the military attachĂ© from Moscow came and arranged our so-called escape to Iran. We took the railroad to the border town of Ashkabad, where three or four GI trucks came along and drove us to Tehran. We traveled through the desert of northern Iran and it was hot - up to maybe 105 degrees. That means we had experienced a temperature range of 145 degrees on our trip! When we arrived in Tehran, our ordeal was over. We stayed in a military hospital and were well treated.
After a few days, some transport planes came and the rumor was that we were Russian diplomats on our way to Washington. As consequence, we got a royal welcome everywhere, but it was all a mistake. They drove us to the mess hall in limousines, but we came back in GI trucks. We then proceeded to Casablanca for an overnight stay. The hotel where Churchill and Roosevelt had stayed was vacated by the military brass for our benefit. A first class dinner had been arranged, which we enjoyed to the full. Everyone had his own room. Truly a memorable occasion. The next day, we took off for Washington with a stop in the Azores. In Washington, we were debriefed and wonder of wonders, sent on home leave for two weeks - a serious mistake since our families were not equipped to understand what we had been through. So ended our trip to Siberia.