The Pacific Route: Saving Russia, One Ship At A Time!

[Convoys of armaments for Russia braved German U-boats in the North Atlantic. But half of all Allied war aid was ferried in solitary ships sailing the Pacific Ocean untouched by Japanese subs. Contributor Dan McEwen tells their less-celebrated story.] 


WW2 was the triumph of industrial might over military prowess; the application of overwhelming force of numbers against a better-trained, better-led, better-equipped enemy. What secured this victory was the seemingly unlimited capacity of American industry. “U.S. WW2 production was the: “single greatest program of armaments production in human history,” claims British author/historian Guy Walters. In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘Lend-Lease Plan’ threw a lifeline to embattled Britain when it was facing a Nazi invasion and a few months later to Russia after it really was invaded by three million German soldiers. Over the six long years of war, $11.3 billion in food and military aid would be delivered to Russia, over three ‘corridors’.

The longest of the three, the 6,000 mile Arctic Corridor stretching from east coast ports in America and Canada to Murmansk and Archangel in Russia, became the battlefield of perhaps the most crucial naval contest of the war, the Battle of the Atlantic, [1941-1943]. Winning this battle was a prerequisite to any Allied invasion of Europe. But Archangel iced up half the year. For the other half, the endless daylight made convoys to Murmansk sitting ducks on the skyline. 2,840 ships, carrying 14 million tons of war materials were sunk by German U-boats, taking 36,000 merchant seamen with them. 

Convoys of trucks traveling the Persian Corridor carried some four million tonnes of munitions from Middle-Eastern ports nearly a thousand miles north through Iran where some of the machinery was re-assembled, and on into Soviet Azerbaijan. 

The Pacific Corridor, spanned 4,700 miles from America’s west coast ports, [and Vancouver, Canada] up to Alaska and across the northern Pacific to Russian east coast ports, the largest being Vladivostok. In this one port alone, stevedores offloaded a total of over 10 million tons of cargo amounting to 400,000 railroad cars of materials onto trains of the Trans-Siberian Railway bound for the Russian battle lines a further 5,000 miles to the west.

About half of all U.S. war aid to Russia, a staggering 17.5 million tons, was delivered via the Pacific Ocean Route. This included: 3,770 bombers, 11,594 fighter planes, 5,980 anti-aircraft guns, 1,900 steam and 66 Diesel locomotives, 11,075 flat cars, 8,000 tractors, 51,000 jeeps, 361,000 trucks, 56,445 field telephones, 600,000 kilometers of telephone wire, 22 million artillery shells, almost one billion rifle cartridges, 15 million pairs of army boots, 107,000 tons of cotton, 2.7 million tons of petroleum products, 4.5 million tons of food as well as boatloads of industrial materials such as machine tools, cloth, and leather to make uniforms and shoes plus surgical and medical supplies for hospitals.  

Three factors explain why the Pacific Supply Route was so much safer than the Atlantic Route.

1] No convoys – Unlike the Atlantic convoys, ships on the Pacific Route sailed alone. So did Japanese U-boats, preventing them from realizing the ‘economies of scale” the wolfpacks of German U-boats enjoyed in striking whole convoys. Searching for lone ships in the vastness of the Pacific was a waste of time and equipment because as British soldier/historian Major Gordon Corrigan points out; “There was a huge variety of possible routes, whereas, of the entire 5,692 mile Arctic convoy routes, there was only an 80 mile-wide gap between the ice and the shore of the North Cape [Norwegian coast] making it relatively easy for German ships, aircraft, and mines to attack the convoys.” 

2] Russian Ships – Japan and Russia did not declare war on each other until 1945. The Japanese military, its hands full battling the Americans and British, had no wish to rattle the Russian bear’s cage so sinking Russian cargo ships was forbidden. The Russians for their part also didn’t need another enemy and avoided pushing their luck. At the outset of the war, only Soviet-made ships, flying a Soviet flag and crewed by Soviet sailors were allowed to travel the Pacific Route. There were too few of these however to keep up with the demand and eventually over 100 U.S.-built Liberty ships and their crews joined the fleet, all flying a red Soviet hammer and sickle flag. For a while, Jap sub crews went through the motions of stopping and inspecting [fewer than 200 hundred] Soviet-flagged ships for weapons cargoes, detained a few but otherwise, couldn’t be bothered. They had bigger fish to fry!

3] Military Targets First! – Japanese naval shipyards launched the biggest, fastest, best-armed subs of the war, albeit not enough of them. The most advanced models were capable of operating at sea for weeks. However, unlike their German allies, the Imperial Japanese Navy[IJN] never saw the submarine as a war-winning weapon. Having learned the wrong lessons from their spectacular sinking of virtually the entire Russian navy in 1905, the admirals’ naval strategy fancifully envisioned that it would be their mighty battleships that would destroy the American navy with a single decisive stroke – and they would spend the war trying to make that happen! For the top brass in Tokyo then, the first mission of their U-boat fleet was to find the enemy for these battleships to finish off. The IJN’s Long Lance torpedoes were the best in the war but their patrols hunted military targets and wouldn’t waste one on a lowly cargo ship. In four years of war, Japanese U-boat commanders sank only 184 merchant ships in the entire Pacific Theater. More Pacific Route ships were sunk by American submarines in a handful of friendly fire accidents than by Japanese subs!

During the Cold War that followed WW2, Soviet propagandists repeatedly tried to minimize the importance of American war aid. But the truth had already been told. At the post-war Tehran Conference in 1945, Stalin had not minced words when he told the American delegation that US-built “machines” had saved his country. Years later, Nikita Khrushchev offered the same opinion.”If the United States had not helped us, we would not have won the war.” 


The Trans-Pacific Lend-Lease Shuttle to the Russian Far East 1941-46, Jan Drent, online essay

Submarines of World War Two – Ermino Bagnasco, Naval Institute Press

The Unknown WW2 in the North Pacific – Alla Paperno, public address

United States Lend-Lease to the Soviet Union – Robert H. Jones, University of Oklahoma Press. 

American Aid Has Helped Russians Three Times – James Brooke, online news report 

The Persian Corridor and Aid To Russia, T. H. Vail Motter, US Army Center of Military History

A “Weapon of Starvation”: The Politics, Propaganda, and Morality of Britain’s Hunger Blockade of Germany, 1914-1919 –  Alyssa Cundy, 2015

Encyclopedia Britannica, Wikipedia & other online sources   

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