December 11, 2015

1943. Bill Downs Celebrates with Red Army Men Back from Stalingrad

A Trip to the Caspian and Back
April 26, 1945: "U.S. and Russian troops meet on the wrecked bridge over the Elbe River at Torgau, Germany. The Americans, left, and Russian soldiers are shown as they reach out to grasp each others' hands" (AP Photo) (source)
Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

Early January 1943 (Cablegram to New York - reformatted from telegram style)

Ever since I came to wartime Moscow I have been trying to figure out what exactly is so familiar to me about this country—it's not the people, buildings, or cities; but something I'd seen, read about, or lived with in the United States.

I first got this feeling flying over Baku, when I got a brief glimpse of that important Caspian oil city's defenses. I saw then and later on during a drive through the city that it is nothing to sneeze at.

As I passed thousands of oil derricks in Baku's nearby oil fields, I almost expected to spot the wide-brimmed hats of Texas boomers—but there were only the round fur caps of Russian oil workers. And yet they walked with the same free swing of oil men the world over.

But I still could not figure out just what mysterious familiarity I felt in Russia at war.

Seeing Baku's refineries doing twenty-four hour duty increased that feeling. It felt like I'd been there before, although I had never been within two thousand miles of the place.

Baku's factories and refineries are all surrounded by high brick walls or substantial fences. Most Soviet factories I have seen seem to have the same high walls. On a plane, I met a Russian-speaking man from a tourist agency and asked him, "How do you tell prison from factory in this country?"

He replied in broken English, "People inside factories are willing to fight for them. Ask the Germans in Stalingrad."

These curious construction factories are one of the answers to Stalingrad's epic defense. Those walls are military barricades—and although the men who built them in Baku must have received a lot of ridicule when they put them up, it's no longer funny now with the Germans only some three hundred miles away in the Caucasus just southeast of Nalchik.

I spent the night in a swank new European hotel in Baku. It had all the goods of the average hotel in the United States. I got the feeling I recognized the face of Russia but could not remember where I had seen it before.

We flew into winter en route to Kuybyshev. Flying over the Trans-Caspian, we hit the first hint of snow banks along the winding Ural river. From the air it looked like about fifty western Kansases set down in the middle of nowhere.

But that wasn't the cause of that old feeling, although little towns below looked just about like any western town covered in snow.

We landed at Kuybyshev in a blizzard, where I was forced to get along on my own speaking Russian. I walked into the airport waiting room and saw Russian soldiers sitting around while a chess game progressed in one corner. Someone brought me a cup of tea—I had no Russian money and don't know who paid for it. The atmosphere about this place had the same sort of isolated comradeship you find in old-time village grocery stores. All it needed was a cracker-barrel and a potbellied stove.

Finally an army captain approached me without smiling and asked, "Sprechen sie Deutsch?" I didn't know whether to say yes or no, since I am able to speak a sort of pidgin German from my college days. I looked around the room, which had sort of frozen up when it heard German, and I was the only foreigner around. I decided to chance it and replied, "Ja, aber ich bin Amerikanischer korrespondent."

The room roared in laughter and I was immediately offered a flask. I was expecting vodka, which I already knew all about. I prepared to show what healthy drinking men Americans were and took a big mouthful. As a result I about blew the top of my head off; the captain had given me a flask full of raw 190 proof alcohol that tasted as if it had recently come from an automobile radiator. Again the room roared in laughter. Soldiers came up and we shook hands.

With the aid of my Russian dictionary, I discovered that most of the men just came from Stalingrad. They said that American and British tanks fought in that battle. I asked the Russians how they liked the American tanks, a question answered amid exclamations of "khorosho, khorosho" which, according to my dictionary, means damn good. Then the Russian captain took the dictionary from me and began looking up words after repeating a sentence which I couldn't understand. The first word he pointed out translated to "we." Turning pages, the captain pointed out another word: "want." Ruffling the pages some more, he pointed out another Russian word which meant "more." I grinned and told him I understood the rest. The Russians in the room smiled very seriously and said "da, da, da, khorosho."

For sleeping arrangements I volunteered to sleep on the floor like everyone else because the blizzard made it impossible to get into the city. However, the captain insisted I go to the airport hotel, which is kept mostly by Soviet airmen. Offering me the best bed in the house, I found it a bare room with six other beds jammed in.

The captain stuck around, much to my relief, and took me to a dance with young Red Army pilots. The pilots were dancing with girls ranging from young too old to a cracked recording of Tommy Dorsey's "Marie." It is evidently the favorite of this post, because it was played over and over. I picked out the best looking gal in the house and found out she danced better than most English girls in London as well as the average girl in the United States. I paid her a lot of compliments which she didn't understand, but I didn't have the chance to get anywhere because a large, tough boy, wearing the medal of the Hero of the Soviet Union which he got at Kalinin, took her back like the Red Army takes inhabited points.

I was kept awake in my crowded hotel room, partly by snores and partly by the same feeling I had been here before. These people were trotting out their best for me, exceedingly interested in news of the outside world.

I continued on to Gorky in an extremely cold Russian troop carrier—another Douglas—which was jammed with officers going to Moscow and various types of cargo, including huge bales of wool for uniforms. This Douglas had about twenty patches on her. The plane had seen action, but the pilot wouldn't tell me where.

In Gorky I added another word to my vocabulary. I billeted with the Douglas crew, all youngsters. We got into a dictionary conversation about American planes; the first mention of them drew exclamations of "ochen khorosho." It was funny to hear airmen talk in authoritative Russian tones about Lockheed Electras, Airacobras, and Bostons, and discuss the merits and faults of tricycle landing gear. They knew more about them than I did.

I got my first glimpse of what it means when people in Russia say "everything for the Red Army." These airmen had clean, neat rooms and soft beds, and they ate in a separate room where such rarities as butter were served. They looked healthy and tough, about the same as our own airmen. Their equipment was tremendous, with good heavy clothing and fancy gloves. They wore great oversized boots lined both inside and out with fur. One rear gunner was very proud of his because they were made from the hide of a dog he used to own.

It wasn't until I landed in the big Moscow airport that I solved the mystery of my feelings of familiarity. This is blockhouse civilization—it's frontier society. It's the same thing I used to study and read about in grade school, about pioneer fights against Indians and the winning of the west. Those walled factories were like any American pioneer stockade—in fact, Russian cities and villages are all big blockhouses. Life among Russians in their communities all appear integrated and interdependent, as closely knit as pioneer life a hundred years ago. Daniel Boone would feel at home in Russia.