Emerson International Airport
January 15, 1940
It was miserably cold that morning when Joe Wilson hitched his team of horses to a wagon. He looked up in the sky to see two aircraft circling overhead. Joining a procession of cars and a truck laden down with fuel barrels, he lumbered his way to the front, coaxing his workhorses, Prince and Fred, forward along the wind-swept field. The assembled crowd began to gesture at the swooping twin-engined planes now clearly in view. Piling out of one of the lead cars was a film crew that hastily set up a tripod and movie camera.
Jimmy Mattern, the famous test pilot, peered out the side cockpit, astonished at the sight below. It was a wind sock planted in the middle of the prairies. After the long cross-country excursion from Burbank with numerous stops along the way, he was nearly at the end of his ferry flight. Lining up for an approach, he maneuvered the Lockheed Hudson bomber downwind for a landing short of the international border that straddled his landing site. Following closely behind was an identical Hudson bomber, also painted in a dark drab, with only civilian markings on the underside of the wings to identify it. The subsequent touchdown was hard, the second bomber swerving off the improvised runway and nearly tipping on its nose, before righting itself.
Ron Lendrum, the customs officer on the Canadian side of the border had just arrived for his shift, bemused at the gathering outside his small white frame building. He did a double take as he looked over to the U.S.- Canada border. The low rumbling came from two bombers taxiing up to the international boundary line. The pilots idled their engines as they swung the planes to a few feet from the border.
While movie cameras rolled and flash bulbs went off to record the scene, Joe Wilson drove his horses up to the border and then slipped a hook and rope from the harness. Striding quickly over to the first bomber’s main landing gear, Wilson cinched up a tow rope and hook, pulling back on the harness and driving his team forward. In seconds, the bomber had rolled across the border and Wilson was on to the next plane. Wilson hauled the bomber, which had shut down its engines, across the border to greet the fuel truck that pulled up. The truck driver and his helper were dressed in military overalls, quickly busying themselves with 45-gallon fuel drums, they began to refuel the Hudson bombers.
Wilson’s wife dutifully noted the aircraft number; her job was to keep a meticulous record of the Wilson “towing company” since her husband would be paid $3.00 per plane. Mattern and his crew hustled into one of the idling cars to get warm while his plane was being fueled. Within half an hour, the crews emerged from their cars, waving to the small crowd of locals and reporters before jumping into their bombers and starting up their engines. Rushing down the long prepared strip, they took off in succession, circling the Customs House where the dumbfounded agent was still trying to piece together what he was seeing. What he had witnessed was an incredible smuggling operation that was taking place at the Emerson International Airport as one local wag, Jim Johnson, had christened the impromptu landing field.
1940- much of the world was at war but the Neutrality Act passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Aug., 1935 was designed to keep the United States out of a possible European war. The law specifically banned shipment of war materiel to belligerents. Amended in Feb., 1936, to prohibit the granting of loans to belligerents, and later (Jan. and May, 1937) The Neutrality Act was extended to cover civil wars, a step inspired by the Spanish civil war. In Nov., 1939, the act was further revised in favor of supplying warring nations on the “cash-and-carry” principle.
Roosevelt was carefully treading between the “America First” isolationist movement and others who wanted to see the United States line up on the side of the Allied nations fighting the Axis Powers. He may have privately been supportive of the British efforts although any public pronouncements in this vein were denounced roundly by one of the leading isolationists, Senator Gerald Nye from North Dakota. With the looming Battle of France, efforts had been made to procure U.S. military weapons, especially modern fighting planes. The Neutrality Act allowed purchase of war material but disallowed their movement out of the United States. Foreign pilots could not come to the United States to “fly away” aircraft while American pilots could not fly the planes to international territory unless…
The next part of the story– a massive “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” enterprise involved two countries and a “hands-across-the-border” operation. Before the shooting war had begun, the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the L’Armeé de L/Air had placed millions of dollars of orders with various aircraft manufacturers, chiefly Lockheed Aircraft Company and Douglas Aircraft Company in California. The aircraft were fitted out to the customers’ specifications and painted in foreign liveries before company officials realized the dilemma of ensuring delivery to their foreign customers.
Rather than breaking the aircraft apart, a scheme was concocted to spirit the aircraft out to Canada as a way-point to their final destinations. Looking at the map there were many sites that were ideal for a smuggling operation. Agents from Lockheed and Douglas and other aircraft manufacturers began to secretly buy up land on both sides of the border at various locations, including Alberta and Montana border towns. A few test flights in late 1939 proved the concept when 15 Harvard trainers were shepherded across at the Sweetwater, Montana– Coutts, Alberta landing strip.
The secret nature of the work was somewhat negated by the arrival of newspaper and film crews in Coutts. A cowboy actually lassoed a propeller and a tow truck pulled the planes over the border. F/L Bervens, one of the four Canadian Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) pilots assigned to fly the trainers recalled that the scene was more farcical than clandestine. The pilots were all wearing civilian clothes and were confronted by a rancher who demanded a $150.00 “landing fee” for each plane they accepted. The rough terrain and changeable weather conditions made the delivery treacherous although, between December 1939 and June 1941, over 500 aircraft slipped across the border at Coutts.
Negotiations had progressed late in 1939 between the American aircraft companies and the Canadian military to choose a more favorable landing site, especially for larger bombers that were also awaiting delivery. After checking possible landing strips, the decision was made to switch to a new secret landing strip at Pembina, North Dakota. Alex Milne Jr. owned the farmland near Emerson and he agreed to clear a landing strip adjoining the international crossing with his caterpillar tractor. On the other side of the border, George Kochendorfer’s land became the other half of the international landing strip. In January 1940, the ground was still frozen and was uneven in spots, making each landing an adventure in itself, however, the Lockheed and Douglas delivery pilots were all pros and learned to bring in the aircraft without suffering any damage.
Mrs. Wilson recorded 33 aircraft in the next year-and-a-half that Emerson International was in service. Many other aircraft arrived, many of them unceremoniously pushed across, to the consternation of Custom Agent Lendrum. He told onlookers that none of the airplanes had ever paid a duty and when one hapless pilot had accidentally landed on the Canadian side of the border, he had demanded a customs duty from the startled pilot.
Residents on both sides of the border showed up for the regular visits made by Lockheed Hudson and Douglas Digby bombers joined by Harvard trainers, Boeing-Stearman PT-17 Trainers and Cessna T-50 Cranes. The local Emerson movie theatre, the Deluxe, showed a newsreel on Friday and Saturday, March 29- 30, 1940 of the bombers at Emerson. Even the New York Times and Newsweek covered the story. Newsweek called the Emerson-Pembina crossing, the “Neutrality Dodge, ” which was especially galling to Senator Nye who recognized that the subterfuge was taking place in his home state.
The U.S. government had understandably been concerned that aircraft manufacturers had been flaunting the provisions of the Neutrality Act yet the Nazi advances in Europe had pushed Britain’s back against the wall and Roosevelt realized that aircraft destined for the RAF were desperately needed. Representative E.H. Foley proposed a revision to the law in June 1940 to permit both an American and British flight crew onboard to transport a plane. The amendment provided a loophole for a transfer of ownership and crews as the aircraft crossed the Canadian border. Bombers now merely circled the Pembina-Emerson crossing as they made the cross-over. If enough fuel was available, the flight would proceed directly to Stevenson Field in Winnipeg before the American aircrew was sent back.
For nine months until the Lend-Lease act of March 1941 was enacted, aircraft still were over-flying the Pembina-Emerson border. Effectively, the Emerson International Airport was out of business, ending a curious but vitally important wartime program. Soon enough, the warplanes would be needed by all the Allied powers.