Few U.S. military operations were as fundamental to the outcome of World War II – and at the same time as little-known – as those conducted by the Persian Gulf Command, which supplied arms and materiel to the Soviet Union through Iran from 1942 to 1945.
“We were supposed to have a secret operation,” said John Wills, of Spokane, who arrived in Iran in December 1942, “but the Germans knew all about us. In fact, the night I landed in Abadan, the German radio greeted us by unit number.”
Wills, who will turn 93 this month, was second in command of the 454 Engineers Supply Depot.
” ‘Hello, Engineers 454. We are happy to see you have landed safely. We will be there soon to visit,’ ” Wills recalls the German broadcaster saying. “But they never got there. The Russians stopped them.”
For three years, nearly 100,000 U.S. engineers, quartermasters, truck drivers and railroaders kept the Soviets supplied at a time when German U-boats and aircraft were sinking 85 percent of cargo vessels bound for Russia’s North Sea ports. Nearly 5 million tons of U.S. aid authorized by the Lend-Lease Act of 1941 was shipped to Persian ports and then trucked or railed to the Soviet Union – enough supplies to maintain 60 combat divisions.
“It was a U.S. Army operation,” Wills said. “We had to build the highway and rebuild the railroad, 1,000 miles each, in order to move all this stuff quickly.”
In addition, thousands of vehicles and aircraft were unloaded from crates and assembled at plants in southern Iran to be driven or flown north by the Soviets.
The uninvited occupation of Iran by U.S., British and Soviet forces fostered nationalist sentiments and set the stage for tense relations between Tehran and the West that endure today.
But the effort tipped the scales in the battle of Stalingrad, which saved the Middle East from German invasion from the north, according to “The Persian Corridor and Aid to Russia,” by T. H. Vail Motter.
“I personally believe the mission to Iran probably shortened the war about two years,” Wills said.
That sentiment was shared by Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, who said that if the Soviets had not held the Eastern Front, he’d have had to delay the 1944 invasion of Europe until 1945 or later.
To supply the Soviets, Iranian roads – in some cases little more than camel trails – were upgraded to bear the weight of military trucks loaded with supplies and ammunition. The Iranian railway also was upgraded and requisitioned to supply the Soviets.
The Persian Corridor also provided an avenue for Jewish and Polish refugees fleeing south across the Caspian Sea in ships on the return voyage from delivering supplies to Soviet ports.
Capt. John Wills, who was born in San Diego and raised in Spokane, graduated with an electrical engineering degree from Purdue University. He was assigned to the engineering depot that made the road construction possible.
As second in command, he effectively ran the depot near Abadan that supplied and maintained the machinery, dump trucks, graders and rock crushers necessary for road construction. The major who was in command spent most of his time in India or Egypt buying supplies or dealing with the political situation in Iran, Wills said.
It was left to Wills to oversee the day-to-day operations of the depot and the 1,200 troops and 2,000 Iranian workers.
Though Wills never saw the enemy he and his men were working to defeat, his mission in Iran was not without adversity.
“We were occupying an unfriendly nation that had been trained by the Germans,” Wills said. “The general population certainly didn’t like us. They didn’t like the British, who were there to protect us.”
Though Iran had declared its neutrality at the outset of the war, its ruler, Reza Shah Pahlavi, refused Allied demands to oust German nationals from the country.
In August 1941, British and Soviet forces invaded Iran to secure oil fields and protect supply routes. Within days, Iranian resistance collapsed and Reza Shah was exiled to South Africa, where he died three years later. His son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, ruled until the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
The effects of the Allied occupation created severe hardships for the Iranian people. A few grew wealthy by dealing in scarce commodities at the expense of the poor and middle class, feeding political unrest.
“There was great difference between those who had money and those who had none, and hardly any middle class,” Wills said. “There were those people who had power, the tribal chiefs, then the uneducated people who used their backs to live.”
Unremitting poverty among the local Iranian population meant Wills had to contend with continual theft from the depot.
The price of “two military shoes would feed a family for two weeks,” Wills said.
Soldiers under his command were warned not to walk alone at night. But Wills’ closest call came not from the locals, but from a Russian officer.
“He drew his revolver, cocked it and said he was going to shoot me if I didn’t do what he wanted me to do, which was to start at 3 a.m. one night to repair a truck that one of my drunken men had disabled,” Wills recalled. “I said, ‘Go ahead, and then you won’t get it done.’
“That’s the only time I was personally at risk.”
Wills said he worked 16-hour days, seven days a week, and took only one 10-day leave in Jerusalem.
“I didn’t have time to be lonely,” said Wills, an Army Reserve officer who was married in 1940 shortly before he was called to active duty.
After the war, it took political pressure from the United States, Britain and the United Nations and oil concessions from Tehran to dislodge the Soviet Union from northern Iran, where it had helped foment a separatist movement in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan.
Wills arrived in Iran a captain and left a major. In 1948, he returned to Spokane, where he went to work for General Machinery Co. before beginning his own business, Abadan Inc., named for the city in Iran near where Wills was stationed.
Wills, now an investor, lives in Spokane with his wife, Betty.