It’s 1945 and the U.S. commander at the Cold Bay military base in Alaska awaits a detachment of new personnel. The men duly arrive on March 23 – but they are not Americans. They are, in fact, Soviets. And their arrival signals the start of one of the most extraordinary episodes of American-Soviet co-operation of WWII.
After entering the Second World War in 1941 the Soviet Union and America fought as allies against the Germans. WWII itself had actually started in 1939. However, both countries had remained neutral for the first couple of years of the war.
But the neutrality that the two countries shared in common was eventually to be shattered. The Soviet Union didn’t join the war at first because of a secret treaty it had signed with the Germans. This was known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. The two nations signed the agreement in late August 1939 – not long before WWII hostilities broke out.
Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German foreign minister, and his Russian counterpart, Vyacheslav Molotov, had negotiated the agreement and given their names to it. Its essence was that the Nazis and Soviets would not attack each other. The agreement also provided for the invasion and division of Poland between the two countries.
But Hitler put an end to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in June 1941 by launching Operation Barbarossa – the attack of the Soviet Union. The Russians were now in a fight for survival. And so they duly joined the alliance that had come together to fight the Germans.
The U.S. was a little slower in joining the Allies in the fight to crush Hitler and the Germans. But America had actually ended its policy of neutrality before the Soviets did. After attacks from German submarines on American shipping took place, neutrality was ditched in March 1941.
The Americans now began to export arms to the Allied powers. Furthermore, it proclaimed its right to defend its shipping with force. But it wasn’t until December 1941 that the U.S. joined the conflict as a fully involved combatant. That was inevitable after the Japanese made their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7.
First off, America president Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war with the Japanese on December 8, 1941. Declarations against Germany and Italy followed three days later. So by that year’s end, both the Soviets and the Americans had renounced neutrality and were at war with Germany.
However there was a crucial difference between the two new collaborators. While the Americans were committed to full-scale hostilities with the Japanese as well as the Germans, the Soviets were not. In fact, the Soviets had signed a treaty of nonaggression with the Japanese.
The Japanese-Soviet Non-aggression Pact was signed in April 1941 – before Germany had invaded the Soviet Union. From the Japanese point of view, the agreement allowed them to concentrate on any future conflict with the U.S. For the Soviets, who hadn’t yet entered the war in Europe, it provided them with space to prepare for the conflict that Stalin predicted was inevitable.
Given past hostilities, this non-aggression pact was purely pragmatic for both Japan and the Soviet Union. Indeed, the Russian Empire – before it was replaced by the Soviet Union – had fought Japan in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 to 1905. That conflict ended with a peace treaty brokered by the U.S. president Teddy Roosevelt.
Furthermore, the Japanese had intervened in Siberia from 1918 to 1920 during the Russian Civil War. And there had also been border clashes between the two during the 1930s. But by the ’40s both the Soviets and Japanese could see the advantages of agreeing not to attack one another.
So even though the two countries were fighting a bitter world war on opposing sides, neither would assault the other. And Stalin maintained this neutrality as WWII unfolded. When the U.S. asked if it could station aircraft on Soviet soil to use on the Japanese, Stalin’s answer was a firm nyet.
For their part, the Japanese refrained from attacking U.S. shipping which transported supplies for the Soviet war effort against Germany. This was in spite of the fact that Japan had been a signatory of the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy since 1940. This agreement formed the basis of the Axis group of powers that fought the Allies.
During the war, Stalin was clear that his country would not attack the Japanese until the Nazis had been defeated. His position, however, eventually softened toward the war’s end. Indeed, he finally altered his stance after a meeting with an American ambassador called Averell Harriman.
At the meeting in October 1944 – when Germany was on the road to defeat – Stalin told Harriman that the Soviets would begin hostilities against Japan. However, this would only occur three months after Hitler had been completely defeated. At this point in time, no one knew precisely when that would be. Nevertheless, it was a firm commitment.
Stalin, however, had attached a condition to his willingness to go to war with Japan. The Americans would have to provide the Soviets with additional military materiel to what they were already providing. Only then would the Soviets attack the Japanese.
The Soviets presented the U.S. with an inventory of equipment they would need to attack the Japanese. The U.S. gave this inventory the code name of “MILEPOST.” A substantial part of this list was made up of shipping requirements.
By the usual standards of military bureaucracy, events moved quite quickly from here. In December 1944 – just two month after Stalin had committed to attacking Japan – U.S. and Soviet representatives agreed on the numbers and types of navy ships that would be provided. And the list was extensive.
The list was agreed between U.S. Rear Admiral Clarence E. Olsen and Admiral V. A. Alafusov, Chief of the Soviet Main Naval Staff on December 20. Olsen committed to providing various classes of vessels including minesweepers, landing craft and escort boats. The agreement also included some aircraft.
Furthermore, the Americans would provide a full program of naval training for the Soviets. The bones of the agreement were now in place, but there remained a dense forest of detail to deal with. And so the two sides set about working their way through this formidable exercise in logistics.
The first item on the agenda was where to make this transfer of ships. Alaska, the closest part of America to the Soviet Union, obviously made sense – but where exactly? In January 1945 U.S. Navy Commander-in-Chief, Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King, instructed Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher to locate a spot suitable for the transfer of around 250 ships. The location would also need to be capable of supporting up to 2,500 men.
Fletcher decided on Cold Bay, located on the Alaska Peninsula. He chose this location because the harbor was well-shielded from storms and there was already a military base there. Another advantage was the lack of a civilian presence in the area. This would help to maintain the secrecy of this major operation.
Fleet Admiral King met the Soviet Navy’s commander-in-chief, Admiral Nikolai Gerasimovich Kuznetsov in February 1944 to propose the use of Cold Bay. After looking it up on a map, Kuznetsov was happy to agree with this suggestion. Now the operation could get under way, and it was given a name – Project Hula.
Now that a location had been agreed, there was the question of how to get the Soviet sailors to Cold Bay. The Soviets were keen on the idea that the Americans should provide transport. But the U.S. Navy had no vessels to spare.
In the end, the Soviets used their own merchant fleet to transport the sailors. These vessels were carrying arms and supplies from the U.S. to the Soviet Union, and so could drop off men as they traveled to America. Each merchant ship would carry a cargo of 600 Soviet sailors.
The final shape of Project Hula had now emerged. The Americans would hand over 180 vessels to the Soviets. Among others, these would include 30 infantry landing craft, 30 patrol frigates, four floating workshops and 56 submarine chasers. The U.S. Navy would deliver the ships to the Soviets by November 1945.
But these ships wouldn’t crew themselves once in Soviet ownership. Around 15,000 Soviet sailors would have to be trained in handling the vessels. And so the U.S. Navy created a special unit to deal with both the handover of the ships and the training of the Soviet sailors. It was known as Naval Detachment No. 3294 and was headed by Commander William S. Maxwell.
Maxwell arrived at Cold Bay in March 1945. He was to be in command of some 1,500 Americans, including sailors, soldiers and marines. And he had his work cut out to get the base ready for the arrival of the Soviet sailors.
Maxwell was in charge of preparing housing for the men. He also organized classrooms, a radio station, a movie theater and even a softball field. He had to identify trainers and to set up courses in everything from radar operation to gunnery and minesweeping.
A small advance party of Soviets arrived in March. This was followed by a contingent of 2,358 Soviet sailors, who reached Cold Bay in the middle of April. Maxwell’s opposite number also arrived, Rear Admiral Boris Dimitrievich Popov, the commander of the Soviet personnel.
The American trainers faced a demanding task. First of all, there was the language barrier. The Soviets themselves helped out with this, translating the English instruction manuals into Russian. Then there was the fact that for the Soviets, radar and sonar equipment were something entirely new.
Other difficulties faced by Maxwell included the fact that many of the American ships arrived without their full complement of equipment. Fortunately, there was an airbase at Cold Harbor. Daily flights to this location brought in essential gear that had been missing.
Everyone worked hard to overcome the difficulties. And the Russian sailors proved to be keen students. In fact, the program progressed in an atmosphere of friendly co-operation. The first of the ships, a flotilla of five auxiliary motor minesweepers and three minesweepers, left Cold Bay for the Soviet Union on May 28, 1945.
Further convoys of American ships, now flagged as Soviet naval vessels, set sail from Cold Bay for the Soviet Union in the ensuing weeks. By the end of July 1945 over half of the ships had been handed over, departing for Soviet ports.
And now Stalin made good on his earlier promise to declare war on the Japanese. This came on August 8, 1945, precisely three months after the defeat of Nazi Germany – just as Stalin agreed. Soviet forces attacked the very next day, sweeping into the Japanese-controlled state known as Manchukuo.
In fact, it was just a week after Stalin’s declaration that the Japanese surrendered to the Americans, on August 15. This had been precipitated, of course, by the dropping of two nuclear bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet despite the fact that the U.S. was no longer at war with Japan, the secret Project Hula operation continued.
The Soviets now occupied various Japanese islands, as well as the northern section of the Korean peninsula. By September 5, 1945, the fighting was over. However, it wasn’t until 1956 that hostilities were formally ended between Japan and the Soviet Union.
On September 4, 1945, the last of the American ships were transferred to the Soviet Navy. The next day, Maxwell received orders to halt Project Hula. Those ships that the Soviets had already taken charge of left in a convoy of four vessels on September 17. They were the last to do so.
Project Hula had been the largest operation of its kind during WWII. By its end, Detachment No. 3294 had trained some 12,000 Soviet sailors and handed over 149 U.S. naval vessels. It had been an outstanding example of U.S.-Soviet co-operation. Sadly, that alliance was not to last. Soon, of course, the decades of mutual suspicion and outright hostility of the Cold War would begin.