Yukon Nuggets

  • Airports along Alaska Highway. Fort St. John. Yukon Archives. Richard Harrington fonds, #91.

  • Airports along Alaska Highway. Watson Lake Area. Yukon Archives. Richard Harrington fonds, #94.

1941 Yukon Nuggets

Lend-Lease Program


In the summer of 1941, the German military machine controlled much of Europe, and was rapidly advancing against the crumbling Soviet Red Army. The United States, while not at war, was alarmed at the deteriorating Allied war effort in Europe, and was equally disturbed by the Japanese military juggernaut as it conquered countries in the far east. The lend-lease program would turn the Pacific Northwest, including the Yukon, into a vast system of military airfields.

The Lend-Lease Act, in which the United States would supply military equipment including arms, boats and planes, to Allied countries, had been passed in March, 1941. However, it did not include the Soviet Union, which then had a non-aggression pact with Germany.

But when Germany launched a sudden, massive invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941, the urgent need to help the Russians became very apparent.

In 1942, the U.S. built the Alaska Highway, and established a string of airfields along its route to supply Alaska with badly needed defense materials. This was the North American portion of the route which would be used to ferry fighter and bomber aircraft to the Soviet Union. The route began at Great Falls, Montana and ended at Nome, Alaska. In between, airfields were built at Fort St. John, Fort Nelson, Watson Lake, Snag and many other places in B.C. and Alaska. The existing airport at Whitehorse was abuzz with all kinds of military aircraft.

It was a costly venture and an air route rife with danger for planes and pilots - but not nearly as difficult as the continuation of the route across the Bering Strait, and then traversing 3500 miles of frozen wilderness to central Russia, and on to airfields near Moscow.

Support for these many small airstrips was difficult to maintain. Fuel and other supplies were desperately in short supply. Soviet pilots had to be trained in the operation of unfamiliar bombers and fighters.

At the peak of the lend-lease program, over eight thousand American military aircraft were flown by American pilots from Montana to Alaska, then picked up by Soviet pilots and flown to the Soviet Union to join the battle against Germany. About 133 aircraft were lost, and roughly 140 pilots killed.

To be sure there are some stories of heroism, deceit and political chicanery. One such story is that of a Soviet Navigator, Lt. Constantine Demyanenko, who was a member of a six-man crew in a bomber which enountered severe weather in northern Alaska. When the aircraft was finally able to land at the airfield in Nome, Demyanenko was not on board. The pilot remembered hearing a large bump as the bomber was thrown about in the clouds over the tundra. The tail wing was dented.



The crew assumed that Demyanenko was thrown out of the aircraft as he lifted his navigator's hatch to try and spot the ground. He was given up for dead. But a few days later, an American pilot spotted a large cloth lying on the tundra. He landed his float-plane and found Demyanenko alive and well, except for severe mosquito bites. The navigator was, indeed, thrown from the plane - his boots hit the tail wing - but he managed to open his parachute and land safely.



The Lend-Lease Program during WW II dramatically changed the Yukon, making, as it did, the air route between southern Canada and the United States to Alaska, and eventually to the Asian Pacific.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.

Les McLaughlin

Les McLaughlin

As storyteller, radio man, and music producer, Les proved a passionate preserver of Yukon heritage throughout his life — nowhere more evident than as the author and voice of CKRW’s “Yukon Nuggets,” from its inception until his passing in 2011.