The morning of June 20, 1937, the roar of an airplane engine woke 12-year-old Don Carpenter, who could recall the sound of every airplane he’d ever heard. This one, he hadn’t. Popping from between his sheets, he saw a red-winged plane banking, so he pulled on his clothes, grabbed his bicycle, and peddled for Pearson Field. Meanwhile, the flight jerked the Vancouver Barracks commander, Brig. Gen. George Marshall, away from his Sunday breakfast.
The red and gray ANT-25 bomber had traveled just over 5,200 miles to the landing field in slightly over 63 hours and via a route thought impossible — across the North Pole. It was headed to Oakland, Calif., not Vancouver.
From the cockpit, men emerged wrapped in fur-laden cold-weather attire. The Soviet three-man crew — Valery Chkalov, the 33-year-old pilot; Georgi Baidukov, 30, co-pilot; and Alexander Belyakov, 40, the navigator — were just getting their feet on the ground when Marshall’s Packard came ripping down the airship to greet them. Soviet and U.S. relations were just four years old, and Marshall’s care of the Russian airmen was likely his first step into international diplomacy, for which he’d win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953.
The Soviet aircraft flew smoothly until the pole crossing. Then came a cloud bank 2,000 feet above the plane’s flight ceiling. Magnetic storms disoriented the compass. The crew fought Arctic cyclones and freezing weather. Ice thickened to 5 inches on the front edges of the plane’s wings. The plane flew so high that the crew members’ noses bled. They fought fuel-consuming headwinds, and nearly used up their oxygen supply. All onboard knew a crash in the desolate Arctic meant no rescue.
Their navigator’s fuel analysis showed too little to reach Oakland. Then, over Eugene, Ore., the engine pressure gauge fell. The pilot passed a note saying the engine was failing and turned toward Portland’s Swan Island Airport. On approach, Chkalov saw mobs of people and told his navigator they’d land at the military base in Vancouver instead. For the second time, Portlanders missed out on a Soviet landing. (In 1929, a Tupolev ANT-4 also diverted from Swan Island to Pearson.) Later, Chkalov explained that he wanted to avoid what happened to Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, torn up by Paris crowds.
Nobody expected the landing. Maj. Paul Barrows, Pearson Field commander, sent his assistant commander, Lt. H.A. Reynolds, scurrying to protect the airfield and the huge odd-looking gliderlike plane by posting guards, wrangling mechanics and updating the general.
Marshall hosted the Soviets and relinquished his family’s breakfast of orange juice, eggs, bacon and coffee to them. As the Soviets bathed, hundred-dollar bills blew over the front yard of the Marshall house. The crew had been given rolls of them but set them on their dressers with nearby windows open. The June breeze scattered the hundreds around their rooms and speckled the lawn.
The Soviet ambassador rushed from San Francisco to protect Soviet interests. The world focused on Vancouver, a town of fewer than 18,000 residents. International calls flooded the switchboards. A hundred media people showed up. Couriers delivered congratulatory telegrams en masse to the Marshall home. Not surprisingly, the War Department wanted information about the ANT-25 and its black box.
Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.