Note: Sam Savignac's diary entries are published here with the kind permission of David Savignac, his cousin. Norman "Sam" Savignac, flew B-25's with the 77th Bomb Squadron. The views expressed in the story are those of the Author. [The Webmaster]
Lt. Sam Savignac, Pilot
77th Bomb Squadron
Interned in the USSR
After a Raid Over Japan
Lt. Sam Savignac and his crewfly their B-25's from the Aleutians to bomb Japanese positions in the Kurile Islands. They later are forced to land in Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka Peninsula. Interned in the Soviet Union they are transported across Siberia to a camp in Central Asia. Eventually they are repatriated through Iran.
Let the adventure begin...
The Historical Background:
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941was followed by rapid conquests by the Japanese ground forces. In the following year two islands were occupied in the U.S.-owned Aleutian Islands: Attu and Kiska. Attu was recaptured in May 1943 and Kiska was found abandoned by Japanese forces when American troops arrived in August of that year.
For a brief period consideration was given to a strategy which would involve attacking Japan by island-hopping down the Japanese-owned Kurile Islands from the north, but this was abandoned to the strategy of island-hopping across the Pacific.1
Meanwhile, however, air bases were built in the western Aleutians, specifically on liberated Attu and on nearby Shemya.Air strikes were made against the northern Kurile island of Paramushiro, the first two taking place on July 10 and July 18, 1943. Surprised by the first two air raids, the Japanese were ready on 11 August2 when a flight of nine B-24 bombers from the 404th Squadron of the 11th Air Force arrived on target -- a swarm of fighter aircraft engaged the bomber formation. At least one bomber was lost without survivors, and a crippled B-24 crash-landed on the Kamchatka peninsula in Soviet territory. The Soviets were neutral with regard to the Japanese regime, but at the same time they were receiving significant amounts of Lend-Lease aid from the U.S. Not wanting to seem uncooperative to their American ally, nor wishing to antagonize the Japanese into attacking them from the east, the Soviet response was to intern the downed fliers and, eventually, to allow them to "escape" into Iran.
In early September 1943 elements of the Eleventh Air Force were in advanced planning for a fourth bombing raid on the military installations on Paramushiro. Scheduled to take part were seven four-engine B-24 heavy bombers from 404th Squadron and twelve two-engine B-25 light bombers from the 77th Squadron. Twenty-five-year-old Lt. Norman "Sam" Savignac was the pilot of one of the B-25's, each of which had a crew of five.
The pre-flight briefing was conducted at the Attu base chapel on September 10, the day before the raid. There Lt. Savignac learned the details of the tactics which had been developed for the attack: first the B-24's were to fly in at high altitude and drop their bombs. Then, with Japanese attention directed upward, the B-25's were to roar in at deck level and attack shipping and naval targets: cargo vessels, seaplane tenders, destroyers, and cruisers were the top priorities. During this briefing the crews were told that in case of serious battle damage they were to attempt to make it to Russian territory, and a briefer hinted that diplomatic arrangements had been made for any airman landing in Soviet territory to be promptly repatriated to Alaska. Actually, no arrangements of the sort had been made, and the hint of repatriation may have been a psychological ploy to relieve pre-mission apprehensions. If so, it did not work. As Lt. Vladimir Sabich, one of Lt. Savignac's buddies in the 77th Squadron, wrote that evening: "Have a hunch that all is not going to be well on this deal. In fact, most of us feel that at least half of our flight will be lost".3
The men of the 77th and 404th Squadrons slept restlessly that night, arising at 5:30 A.M. on the morning of September 11 to prepare for the mission. The B-24's were delayed in take-off and this in turn delayed the B-25's. This looked like a sign of bad luck to some of the crews. The bombers eventually departed and soon crossed the International Date Line.
Paramushiro is one of the most northern of the Kurile islands. It is so close to the Soviet mainland that the crews of the high-flying B-24's could see both their target and the southern tip of Kamchatka as they closed formation to begin their bombing run. The Japanese were waiting, with antiaircraft guns and fighters. One B-24 fell from the sky in flames, but the high-altitude bombers released their bombs and most turned to begin the trip back to Attu. Two of the bombers, however, were so severely damaged that their pilots directed them northward to an emergency landing at the port city of Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka.
Meanwhile, down on the deck, all hell was breaking loose as Lt. Savignac and the other brave men of the 77th Squadron steeled themselves for the beginning of their low-level attack. Alerted by the bombing raid from the B-24's, Japanese antiaircraft crews turned their sights to the approaching B-25's and opened fire with everything they had as soon as the American aircraft were within range. An eyewitness in a nearby B-25 recorded what Lt. Savignac could see from the cockpit of his plane: "Every time I looked at the water, I swallowed to keep my heart down. The water was just whipped to a froth by machine gun bullets, shell fragments, 20-mm slugs, and big stuff that was throwing up geysers. . . . The tracers were so thick that they looked like Roman candles, and I can't figure out how anybody could have gotten through the barrage."4
The attack was quickly over. Two B-25's had been shot down and five others were so badly damaged that the turned towards Kamchatka, hoping to land at Petropavlovsk. Japanese fighters followed them like angry wasps and pressed their attack until, fuel depleted, they returned to their bases, allowing the Americans to survive. One by one the crippled bombers descended towards Petropavlovsk. Lt. Sam Savignac's was the first of the B-25's to land, touching down in mid-afternoon only minutes after one of the heavy B-24's. Four other B-25's followed. Of the nineteen bombers in the raid, three were shot down, seven landed in Petropavlovsk, and nine returned to the Aleutians. Lt. Sabich's prediction had been on the money.
2nd Lt. Norman Raymond "Sam" Savignac was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery that day.
Sam Savignac was interned in the Soviet Union from September 12, 1943 to February 16, 1944. Upon repatriation he was required, as was then the policy, to sign an oath of secrecy, swearing that he would not reveal where he had been interned -- this being to prevent the Japanese from learning that the Soviets were violating neutrality by releasing the airmen to the U.S. Sam had kept a diary covering the first three months of his internment and kept it in his possession after he was repatriated. At some point in his mature years he gave his diary to his secretary to transcribe, and this is what is presented below -- with some limited liberties taken in editing to correct spelling, sequence of events, etc.
Saturday, September 11 to October 2, 1943:
(Sunday, Sept. 12th, Russian time) at about 3:30 in the afternoon. Landed at a field at Petropavlovsk. Taken late that night to the Red Army House just outside of town, which was to be our home for some weeks to come. Our interpreter and constant companion during our stay was Lt. Pavel Stepanovich Trukhachev.
Our meals were at 9:00, 3:00 and 9:00. The food is very different from ours. Breakfast would be fried cakes or potato or spam or potato filled cakes; lunch was soup, dried beef and mashed potatoes; tea was the standard drink. Also, much wine was used. After about a week, we were taken to bath and provided with clean long cotton underwear and socks.
Movies were shown almost nightly. We played bridge, pool, checkers, chess, and for exercise -- volleyball.
The latrine was outdoors, as was our morning washing. A barber came daily to give us very excellent shaves. We were also provided with tooth brushes (I brought mine), powder, handkerchiefs, and Russian tobacco and cigarettes.
The military dress here is very picturesque. Tunics with Sam Brown belts and riding breeches with beautiful black leather boots are worn. Both men and women wear these boots.
When we landed, women guards with rifles and bayonets were posted over our airplane. Another quaint custom was the serving of straight grain alcohol with the noon (at 3:00) meal. After a while you can get it down.
The movies are good but I wish that I could understand them. Have learned very little Russian so far. Most conversation is by sign language. They pick up English very readily.
September 30, 1943: A four engine Martin flying boat came to take us to Khabarovsk.
October 2, 1943: We are now sweating weather.
October 3, 1943: Finally left Petropavlovsk -- being taken down to the docks in six buses at almost 10:00 in the morning. A Martin China Clipper was waiting for us and all 51 got aboard. This is a very luxurious plane, and we took off at approximately 11:30. We were comfortable seated and most of the men experienced their first water takeoff.
In the afternoon I drew KP and made Spam and cheese sandwiches for the boys. We landed around 7:00 at the island of Sakhalin. We were taken immediately to a delicious supper -- a bottle of wine each, cucumber and tomato salad, soup, French fries and meat, berry juice with raisins and tea.
The name of the town was Okha and we were to sleep that night in a school dormitory. However, the night was spent sitting up and killing bedbugs. Next morning the Clipper took us to Khabarovsk. We arrived about 5:00 P.M. (1:30 takeoff). The beds are good, as was the quarters. This place is a rest home for officers going and coming from the front.
October 5, 1943: We rested and bathed and ate some more delicious meals. That afternoon we played the Russian pilots volleyball. They were very good. They also brought the band down to the court to play while the game was going on (we tied, two games apiece).
October 6, 1943: We got up at four o'clock. Major Salter's5 crew, Hurst's6 crew, and my crew took off at 7:00 sharp in a Douglas transport (DC-3) for the interior and southern part of Russia where we are to be interned.
October 6-7, 1943: Landed that night at Irkutsk where everybody proceeded to get skunk drunk on vodka. There were innumerable toasts and the Major and our [Russian] pilot drank each other under the table. Major Salter won, but only after being given the big Russian kiss by the transport pilot. A sorry looking bunch took off the next day.
In the afternoon we landed for gas at a big military field filled with P-39's, A-20's, C-47's, and B-25's. Late that night (Oct. 7) we landed at Novosibirsk and after a comfortable night are now on our way to Omsk (about 300 miles).
October 8-9, 1943: We took off for Omsk about 11:30 and landed about 3:30. Had dinner and another all-night drinking contest. I had the G.I.'s.7
This morning (Oct. 9) at 9:30 we took off for the south. Landed at about 5:00 at a town
just north of the mountain range Alma Ata. This town is named after the Father of Apples.8 Its people are slightly different looking and are of a Turkish descent. We had supper, saw part of an outdoor play and met an English-speaking girl.
October 10, 1943: This morning we took off at 9:15 for Tashkent.9
October 30, 1943: This next writing is taking place on the 30th of October 1943, for I have not had the heart to write any more since that last of Oct. 10th. But today is my first wedding anniversary and being extremely miserable, I thought it best to express myself in writing.
We arrived here shortly after noon of the 10th and were driven out through the town over a rough road to our new "home". The situation here since then has been very unsatisfactory. The food especially is bad. Many of our men are extremely ill from it. Dysentery and the G.I.'s, especially the latter, which we have all had.
We have had ground meat and potatoes three times a day with no vegetables. This or barley, plain or boiled, or "pancakes" make up our entire diet. Tea with sugar once a day (two spoons of sugar per man).
The place is an old school or Polish refugee camp.10 The sun has been warm but the building seems cold. The proverbial bedbugs are all over the place. There is nothing to do excepting the usual bridge, chess and, before the rain started, a little volleyball or soccer.
Twice I have walked into the market of the little town close to here. The poverty is extreme. I have seen full grown men groveling on the ground for a piece of watermelon rind. The ruble is worth approximately one cent on the market place; ten rubles for a small glass full of roaster sunflower seeds.
My radio operator was seriously ill with dysentery and an infected ear. Somewhat better now. Two of the men tried a break but were caught and brought back the following night.
Thus far we have not been allowed to write even a letter to our wives. I shall close this with hopes and prayers that she has some idea of my safety and that we may, in future years, have many happy anniversaries so that I can make up this one to her.
November 19, 1943 (Friday); Location -- Tashkent; Situation -- SNAFU.11
Since my last writing approximately twenty days ago, little of importance has happened. I took ill about two weeks ago. Violent headaches, chills and a fever of 101-102 accompanied by dysentery -- ate nothing for a couple of days and then went on a diet and am now hale and hardy again.
The last three days the food situation has greatly improved. An additional course has been provided and no one leaves the table any longer. Today breakfast with two eggs, beets, potato
and onion salad with tea. Dinner of borsch,goat burgers, potatoes, beets and one cup of cocoa and two apples.
Went in town with Hurst, Marrier, Pottenger, and Hammer12 the other night and had a jug of vodka and lots of jugs of lousy wine. Came wheeling home through the fields with Uzbek and Mongol farmers and their dogs after us. Very successful. One liter of apple wine costs 136 rubles.
Baths are still every ten days. We are allowed to walk about the countryside, and yesterday Russ13 and I got in a little horseback riding.
Nine of our boys were in the hospital in Tashkent for a couple of weeks with dysentery but are back now.
December 5, 1943 (Sunday): We had wine for supper. Dixon14 was playing the piano later and the boys were dancing with the interpreters and housekeeper when a long awaited telegram arrived from Moscow saying a Major Waldron15 would be here with us soon and signed by Gen. Sidney Spalding.16 The Russian Major17 then ran out a huge jug of wine and everyone, especially me, got very drunk.
December 8, 1943: Rain and bad weather, so are again engaged in a bridge game. I have been the mess officer of this joint since we got here -- for the simple reason that I once baked something.
We had a very jolly Thanksgiving party a couple weeks ago. Six of us bought two geese for 1800 (yes, eighteen hundred) rubles and killed and dressed them ourselves. That afternoon and evening I spent in the kitchen making a dressing for the geese, eleven chickens and three ducks out of dried bread, eggs, raisins, apples and dirt. At midnight that night we had our dinner along with quantities of bootleg vodka (at 400 rubles per liter) and quantities of bootleg wine (136 rubles per liter). Everyone at the table had to get up and make an impromptu speech. (I apologized.)
We are now equipped with Russian G.I. uniforms which are not so sharp. Some of the boys made baseballs out of old boot tongues, socks, and foot wraps and we carved a couple of bats, made a catcher's mitt and mask, bases and a backstop and have been having some good games.
December 18, 1943, (Saturday): I had a brainstorm and went and asked Major Salter if I might use the small room that he had set aside for a brig. He said yes, so I got Russ and Weenie18 and the three of us moved in. We have it fixed up quite cozily with a fire-curtain and all of O'Dair's19 pictures; however, they are squawking about the wood we're burning already.
December 20, 1943 (Monday): We are still awaiting the arrival of the American Consul. They have put us off from day to day all this month. Absolutely nothing is happening.
We made some baseballs out of old wool socks and carved some bats and have had some good games. However, winter has set in and it rains every day or night. Average temperature is now 35-50 degrees F.
The night of the wine episode, the Russki Major caught Hahn20 seducing the big blond housekeeper. He got P.O.'d -- very embarrassing.
Saturday is Christmas. It shall be the saddest of my life, but still have much to be
December 21, 1943: We have Catholic services every Sunday morning now. Lt. Rodger21 leads them and we take turns leading in the rosary.
I also smell 200 eggs per day now (storage and ancient) in line with the mess officer job. (chow call).
//End of Diary//
Major Waldron arrived in the camp on December 23, 1943 and ascertained that the men were being adequately cared for. The men were pleased to learn that their Paramushiro raid had been widely reported in the U.S., but their main interest was in learning the prospects for their repatriation. Waldron had wanted to speak to the men in private, but the Soviets stuck to him like ugly on an ape; internees frustrated their hosts by slipping written notes into Waldron's pockets and, upon occasion, by speaking pig-Latin. In spite of the Soviets' efforts, Major Salter was able to learn that the internees from one of General Doolittle's crashed bombers were no longer in the Soviet Union -- they "went over the hill, but they did so with Soviet help."22 Waldron discouraged the men from attempting to escape on their own, lest they jeopardize efforts being made for them elsewhere.
As Lt. Savignac had predicted, Christmas was as gloomy as might be expected. New Year's was not much better.
By the beginning of February 1944 the Soviets were convinced that their security efforts to hide their complicity in the Doolittle crew's "escape" had not been broached, and they proceeded to make plans to allow the 60 internees at the Vrevskaya camp to "escape" as well. The plan, which was devised by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, was this: under the guise of being sent to the Caucasus to help ferry Lend-Lease aircraft to the Soviet Union, the men were to be taken by train to Ashkhabad, near the border with Iran, where a "mechanical problem" in the railcars would be faked. In Ashkhabad they would be loaded into a convoy of truck and, after 48 hours of travel across rugged mountain passes and desolate terrain, they would arrive in Tehran.
The plan worked perfectly, and it appears that none of the men were certain what was happening until they were in the trucks. The convoy crossed the Iranian border at 5:30 A.M. on February 16, 1944.
Four days later the sixty men -- now called "War Department Special Detachment 1" -- departed Tehran by air with a minimum of fanfare. After a stop in Cairo and a period of rest and recreation in the vicinity of Tunis, they boarded a troop transport ship in Casablanca. The men arrived at Newport News on April 17, 1944, and again signed pledges of secrecy.
In the following month Lt. Savignac and each of the other men received a letter from the War Department's Military Intelligence Division. The letter contained the following admonitions:
You are further advised that regardless of any mention you may
observe in the press or hear on the radio concerning American
airmen and their activities in the country from which you were
recently repatriated, you are cautioned that at no time will you
give any information whatsoever to anyone -- family, friends, or
military personnel of whatever rank -- concerning repatriation
from or presence in the country of repatriation.
Details concerning your presence in that country, journey to that
country and subsequent repatriationthere from are matters of vital
military security. The mere mention of your name or circum-
stances of your service in the press or on the radio will jeopardize
the security and repatriation of your fellow airmen.23
Most of the men's military records contained the entry "Missing in Action" to cover their months of service in the "neutral" country. For public record, the men had never been in the Soviet Union. Therefore, the could not have escaped from the Soviet Union.
Sam Savignac returned to his home state of Wisconsin and spent his adult life working for Chavez-Flamme Inc., a material handling firm, of which he was the vice-president. He passed away on September 28, 1991 at the age of seventy-three, and was survived by his wife, the former Janet Gruesser, and five daughters.
1. Details of the role of Aleutians in the Pacific War and, most important, of the adventures of the sixty internees of whom Lt. Norman "Sam" Savignac was one, are found in Hays, OtisJr., Home from Siberia. The Secret Odysseys of Interned American Airmen in World War II. Texas A & M University Press, College Station, 1990,
2. Flights from Attu to the Kuriles crossed the International Date Line. The flight took off on August 11, bombed on August 12, and conceivably might have returned on August 11.
3. Hays, op. cit., p.64
4. Sabich, quoted in Hays, op. cit., p.65
5. Major Richard D. Salter was the commander of the 77th Squadron and the senior officer during the internment
6. Lt. Russell K. Hurst, B-25 pilot.
8. "Alma Ata" itself means "father of apples". Recent scientific studies indicate that most if not all species of apples originated in that region of Kazakhstan.
9. Tashkent is the capital of Uzbekistan. The internment camp was in the town of Vrevskaya, about 35 miles to the southwest of the city.
10. "Polish refugee camp" -- perhaps the remains of a POW camp for Poles captured when the Soviet Union joined Germany in attacking Poland at the beginning of World War II.
11. SNAFU -- "Situation Normal: All F----d Up".
12. Lt. Wayne A. Marrier, B-25 Pilot; Lt. James R. Pottenger, B-24 pilot; "Hammer" is probably Lt. Charles K. Hanner, jr., navigator on Lt. Pottenger's B-24.
13. Lt. Russell Hurst.
14. Tech. Sgt. James P. Dixon, one of Lt. Pottenger's crew.
15. Maj. John F. Waldron, an Army Medical Corps officer attached to the U.S. Military Mission in Moscow.
16. Maj. Gen. Sidney P. Spalding was the chief of the U.S. Military Mission's Lend-lease Division.
17. Major Urov, Soviet commander of the camp, a combat veteran from the German front.
18. Probably Lt. Wayne Marrier.
19. James O'Dair was the navigator on Lt. Hurst's B-25.
20. Lt. Albert W. Hahn, in Lt. Marrier's crew.
21. Lt. John T. Rodger, pilot of the B-25 which landed in Petropavlovsk immediately after Lt. Savignac's.
22. Hays, op. cit., p. 83.
Always looking for Material and Scans of the 11th Air Force and Associated Units to add to this site.