■ By Matt Mcpherson / Columnist
Believe it or not, in 1937, a Russian transpolar flight landed in San Jacinto. The record-setting flight across the continents advanced the aircraft industry among the 1930s world powers and set the stage for the large bombers the Soviet Union used during World War II.
July 14 will mark 80 years since Russian pilot Michael Gromov made the record-breaking flight from Russia over the North Pole and then landed in San Jacinto. In 1987 at the 50th anniversary of the Russian plane landing, a delegation of 20 Russians attended the San Jacinto memorial, including Gromov’s widow, and five years ago, Jack and Nancy Warneke traveled to Moscow, where they met with her. Today, at 95 years old, she regularly corresponds with the Warnekes.
Recently, Jack recounted history at the Valle Vista Library, where he gave a presentation on the flight that made San Jacinto a household word – in Russia!
Competition for dominant air power
In 1937 the world’s dominant powers – England, France, Russia and the United States – were competing over who would have the best airplanes and airpower on the globe. Russian plane manufacturer Tupolev flew his ANT-25 (a Soviet long-range experimental aircraft) across Russia, a record flight in both time and distance traveled. This feat was unknown to the rest of the world because no outside witnesses were there to verify the record; it was Russia’s word against the rest of the world.
Joseph Stalin was the premier at the time and wanted to prove Russia’s might in the aircraft industry by flying over the North Pole to the U.S. The goal was to make it to San Francisco, which would set the world record at 5,600 miles. Nobody had ever flown over the North Pole prior to this so it was a risky experiment to see if it could even be done. No radio or navigation equipment existed at the North Pole, making it a very hazardous endeavor.
Planning the flight
Three flights were planned over the summer of 1937 to feature Russia’s impressive advances in aircraft technology. In June of 1937, two airplanes planned the transpolar flight, and prior to the first plane taking off, a crew ventured to the arctic to set up navigational aide and a radio station to coordinate the flights. The first plane landed in Vancouver at Pearson Field just across from Portland on the Washington State side, which had an Army post overseen by Maj. George Marshal. This first attempt set a record by traversing the North Pole, but fell short of the distance record. The pilot of the first flight to Vancouver tragically died in an aircraft accident a year later.
The second plane took off in July at a maximum speed of 100 miles per hour. The three man crew (two pilots and a navigator), Michael Gromov, Andrew Yumashev and Sergey Danilin, flew non-stop for 63 hours to set the record distance of 6,300 miles. In comparison, Charles Lindbergh spent 24 hours during his flight over the Atlantic. It’s about 1,200 miles from Seattle to San Jacinto, so it took a half day just to fly from Washington State to Southern California.
The third flight, which planned on flying from Russia to New York, disappeared somewhere over the arctic and to this day has never been found. These three planes were precursors to the large bombers the Soviet Union used during World War II, which could carry large amounts of cargo and travel long distances.
While Gromov’s plane had enough fuel to make it to Mexico, it didn’t have clearance to fly there. All the airports from Los Angeles to San Diego were fogged over, which didn’t allow them to land. After giving up on March Air Field, they made their way east, where they saw a clearing on a San Jacinto cow pasture on Cottonwood Street between Sanderson Avenue and Warren Road.
San Jacinto farmer charges adults 25 cents to see history
After landing in the San Jacinto field, the crew was interviewed, took pictures and signed autographs with the public. Word quickly spread across the region about the famous Russian landing in a San Jacinto field. Property owner Earl Smith, overwhelmed by the crowds of people, began charging 25 cents per person; children were free. So many people came that he generated more than $1,000 which meant more than 4,000 people came to witness history. With a population of only 1,500 in the San Jacinto Valley this meant 2,500 people drove to the site from outside the area – some as far as Santa Barbara. Smith sent the Russian embassy a bill for landing in his field, which was eventually paid.
Over the next couple of days, the pilots and navigator were paraded all over the state and met up with such celebrities as Shirley Temple, with whom they became lifelong friends and stayed in contact until Temple’s passing. Warneke chuckled at the request from the pilot’s widow over the years to say “hi to Shirley Temple.”
After all the hoopla died down, a mechanic disassembled the plane and had it shipped back to Russia. Unfortunately, during World War II, the museum that housed the historic plane was bombed and the plane burned up. The plane that landed in Vancouver is still in a Russian museum.
Every Russian child knows where San Jacinto is
Every grade school child in Russia learns of the famous transpolar flight from Russia to San Jacinto, keeping San Jacinto famous – at least in Russia. For his role in this flight, Gromov received the highest award bestowed by the Soviet Union. The only other man to receive this award was cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space.
During the presentation, Jack Warneke played a video that was made in 1987 by the Soviet Union that featured documentary film going all the way back to 1937. The film, Warneke explained, served as a sort of propaganda piece that featured the Soviet Union’s might in pioneering airplane technology. Warneke concluded the reason the historic flight didn’t receive much press or recognition is that Amelia Earhart disappeared on her flight the same week and took the front page story across the nation.
Mr. and Mrs. Warneke head the San Jacinto Museum and give regular presentations on the valley’s history.