UP Dispatch, 1944 Headquarters, Alaskan Division, Air Transport Command, U. S. Army Air Forces, 1944--written by United Press correspondent Russell Annabel.
"How Lt. Bassell Blakesmith, who used to run a grocery store in Charlton, Iowa, nearly sank to his death in an Alaskan quagmire while rescuing a Russian flier hurled out of the gunner’s cockpit of an A-20 Havoc being ferried to the Russo-German battlefront was revealed today.
"Late in 1943, Lt. Blakesmith was awarded the Air Medal but military secrecy forbade telling the story until now. As far as is known, it was the first time an American saved the life of a Russian fellow flier in the Western Hemisphere since the United States entered the war.
"Six days before Lt. Blakesmith rescued Lt. Constanta P. Demianenko, four of Demianenko’s comrades in the Red Air Force were killed in the crash of two A-20’s on the same Fairbanks-to-Nome ferry route. An air of tenseness was still noticeable among the Russian ferry pilots when word came of the new mishap. The rescue of Lt. Demianenko took place July 2, 1943, on the barren wasteland about 70 miles northeast of Galena, Alaska, a stop on the Fairbanks-to-Nome ferry route.
"The Soviet airman, whose parachute had opened when he was flung out of the Havoc, spent two days wandering with a badly injured leg through the wilderness. Swarms of huge Alaska mosquitoes attacked him constantly. He subsisted on one small square of chocolate which he had in his pocket and a grouse which he shot and gnawed raw.
"The pilot of Lt. Demianenko’s plane was flying through heavy overcast near the headwaters of the Kwiniuk River, between Moses Point and Nome, when Demianenko was pitched out. It was some time before he was missed. When the pilot set his ship down on the Nome runway, he saw a deep dent in one of the rear stabilizers. The Russians concluded that Lt. Demianenko undoubtedly was flung against the stabilizer and killed.
"When word of his vanishing was flashed to Ladd Field, Fairbanks, and the general location given, Lt. Blakesmith took off at once in a Beechcraft AT-7 to search for the Russian. The American’s low flying hunt was rewarded sooner than he hoped. He sighted a yellow parachute with the shroud lines stretched out to full length, indicating the flier who had descended in it probably lay dead in the harness.
"A landing was out of the question with his wheeled plane but, swooping as low as he dared, Lt. Blakesmith made fairly certain no body was in the parachute harness. As long as his fuel supply held, he searched the area fruitlessly for a sign of the Russian.
"Next morning, accompanied by Major R.C. Ragle, officer in charge of the ATC search and rescue squadron at Fairbanks, he returned to the scene in a floatplane to resume the hunt. Again, the search was rewarded sooner than anticipated. They spied the Russian, vigorously waving to them, and signaled their intention to come down on the nearest lake whither he should make his way.
"Major Ragle stayed at the plane after they taxied to shore and Lt. Blakesmith set off through the bog land in the direction of the Russian. A mile or so enroute, he sank to his armpits in a place resembling quicksand and extricated himself only after a desperate struggle.
“I thought I was a goner and, believe me, I was really scared,” he said later.
“I just kept going down and the more I fought the more I went down.”
"By the time he got back to the plane, the Russian was already there, his face and hands severely swollen from insect bites and his injured leg in urgent need of medical attention. They took off at once.
"After several days in the station hospital at Fairbanks - where American and Russian fliers have been treated side by side since ferrying of U.S. planes to Russia began - Lt. Demianenko was back on the Fairbanks-to Nome route.
"Three months after the Air Medal was pinned on his blouse in a ceremony at Ladd Field, Lt. Blakesmith still had not told his wife about the decoration.
“She knows I helped rescue somebody but why tell her about the medal?” he remarked.
"The two Russia-bound Havocs lost shortly before Lt. Demianenko’s adventure are believed to have collided in fog. They belonged to a flight of four ships and the pilots of the two planes which got through to Nome last saw them entering a thick cloud bank at about 5000-foot altitude.
"The search for them was undertaken by Major Ragle, in an American plane, and a party of Red airmen in two Russian transports. The wreckage of both Havocs was sighted within about six hours.
"That same night, Major Ragle and Major Kohin, ranking Russian officer at Nome, attempted to reach the scene by tractor and go-devil but dense fog halted operations.
"The bodies of the Red fliers, Captain I.N. Moiseyev, pilot, and St. C.I. Schekachikhin, radio operator, comprising the crew of one plane, and Junior Lieut. A.D. Skoreknev, pilot, and Lieut. K.A. Zaremba, navigator, the crew of the second ship, were brought out next day. One plane had exploded and burned when it dived to earth but the other did not catch fire.
"Father Dennis J. Doran, Catholic chaplain, conducted the funeral of the four Soviet fliers July 1 at Fort Yukon Military Reservation and Major Tichomerov of the Red Air Force spoke a brief eulogy.
"Three volleys from the firing squad echoed against the Alaskan mountains, followed by the bugler’s silvery notes as he sounded taps.
"At the same hour, Lt. Blakesmith, the former Iowa grocer, was wheeling low over the bleak muskeg along the Kwiniuk, pressing his successful search for the dead fliers’ missing comrade.
"For his part in rescuing the Russian navigator, Major Ragle was awarded the Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster for the Air Medal which he already wore. Major Ragle lives in Fairbanks and operated his own flying service there before the war. He is an alumnus of the University of Colorado and was once a geology teacher."