Major Jordan’s Diaries
From Major Jordan’s Diaries
Late one day in May, 1942, several Russians burst into my office at Newark Airport, [New Jersey] furious over an outrage that had just been committed against Soviet honor. They pushed me toward the window where I could see evidence of the crime with my own eyes.
They were led by Colonel Anatoli N. Kotikov, the head of the Soviet mission at the airfield. He had become a Soviet hero in 1935 when he made the first seaplane flight from Moscow to Seattle alone the Polar cap; Soviet newspapers of that time called him the “Russian Lindbergh.” He had also been an instructor of the first Soviet parachute troops, and he had 38 jumps to his credit.
I had met Colonel Kotikov only a few days before, when I reported for duty on May 10, 1942. My orders gave the full title of the Newark base as “UNITED NATIONS DEPOT NO. 8, LEND-LEASE DIVISION, NEWARK AIRPORT, NEWARK, NEW JERSEY, INTERNATIONAL SECTION, AIR SERVICE COMMAND, AIR CORPS, U.S. ARMY.”
I was destined to know Colonel Kotikov very well, and not only at Newark. At that time he knew very little English, but he had the hardihood to rise at 5:30 every morning for a two-hour lesson. Now he was pointing out the window, shaking his finger vehemently.
There on the apron before the administration building was a medium bomber, an A-20 Douglas Havoc. It had been made in an American factory. It had been donated by American Lend-Lease, is was to be paid for by American taxes, and it stood on American soil.
Now it was ready to bear the Red Star of the Soviet Air Force. As far as the Russians and Lend-Lease were concerned, it was a Russian plane. It had to leave the field shortly to be hoisted aboard one of the ships in a convoy that was forming to leave for Murmansk (USSR) and Kandalaksha. On that day the Commanding Officer was absent and, as the acting Executive Director, I was in charge.
I asked the interpreter what “outrage” had occurred.
It seemed that a DC-3, a passenger plane, owned by American Airlines, had taxied from the runway and, in wheeling about on the concrete plaza to unload passengers, had brushed the Havoc’s engine housing.
I could easily see that the damage was not too serious and could be repaired. But that seemed to be beside the point. What infuriated the Russians was that it be tolerated for one minute that an American commercial liner should damage, even slightly, a (now) Soviet warplane!
The younger Russians huddled around Colonel Kotikov over their Russian-English dictionary, and showed me a word: “punish.” In excited voices they demanded: “Pooneesh — peelote!” I asked what they wanted done to the offending pilot. One of them aimed an imaginary revolver at his temple and pulled the trigger.
“You’re in America,” I told him. “We don’t do things that way. The plane will be repaired and ready for the convoy.”
They came up with another word: “Baneesh!” They repeated this excitedly over and over again. Finally I understood that they wanted not only the pilot, but American Airlines, Inc., expelled from the Newark field.
I asked the interpreter to explain that the U.S. Army has no jurisdiction over commercial companies. After all, the airlines had been using Newark airport long before the war and even before La Guardia Airport existed.
I tried to calm down the Russians by explaining that our aircraft maintenance officer, Captain Roy B. Gardner, would have the bomber ready for its convey even if it meant a special crew working all night to finish the job.
I remembered what General Koenig had said about the Russians when I went to Washington shortly after Pearl Harbor. He knew that in 1917 I had served in the Flying Machine Section, U.S. Signal Corps, and that I had been in combat overseas. When he told me there was an assignment open for a Lend-Lease liaison officer with the Red Army Air Force, I was eager to hear more about it.
“It’s a job, Jordan, that calls for an infinite amount of tact to get along with the Russians,” the General said. “They’re tough people to work with, but I think you can do it.”
Thus I had been assigned to Newark for the express purpose of expediting the Lend-Lease program. I was determined to perform my duty to the best of my ability. I was a “re-tread” as they called us veterans of World War I and a mere Captain by the age of 44 — but I had a job to do and I knew I could do it. The first days had gone reasonably well and I rather liked Kotikov. But there was no denying it, the Russians were tough people to work with.
As my remarks about repairing the bomber on time were being translated, I noticed that Colonel Kotikov was fidgeting scornfully. When I finished, he made an abrupt gesture with his hand. “I call Mr. Hopkins,” he announced.
It was the first time I had heard him use this name. It seemed such an idle threat, and a silly one. What did Harry Hopkins have to do with Newark Airport? Assuming that Kotikov carried out his threat, what good would it do? Commercial planes, after all, were under the jurisdiction of the Civil Aeronautics Board.
“Mr. Hopkins fix,” Colonel Kotikov asserted. He looked at me and I could see now that he was amused, in a grim kind of way. “Mr. Brown will see Mr. Hopkins — no?” he said smiling.
The mention of “Mr. Brown” puzzled me, but before I had time to explore this any further, Kotikov was barking at the interpreter that he wanted to call the Soviet Embassy in Washington.
I was wrong. On June 12th the order came from Washington not only ordering American Airlines off the field, but directing every aviation company to cease activities at Newark forthwith. The order was not for a day or a week. It held for the duration of the war, though they called it a “Temporary Suspension.”
I was flabbergasted. It was the sort of thing one cannot quite believe, and certainly cannot forget. Would we have to jump whenever Colonel Kotikov cracked the whip? For me, it was going to be a hard lesson to learn.
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