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21: The Smirnoff's moves on to the USA

By the late autumn of 1943 air transport in Australia had increased enormously. The Pacific bases were well established, a steady supply of trained air crews ensured, and the Americans agreed that Ivan and other Dutch pilots could now be released.

Most of the others left by air for America as soon as they could hitch lifts on returning US transport. Those with wives and families found the journey a good deal more difficult.

Now that Ivan had made up his mind to go it was maddening not to be able to walk on to a boat right away. By determined wangling he at least booked two passages on the 'S.S. Mariposa', due to leave Sydney towards the end of the year.

They packed in a hurry and left their Brisbane flat, the place that had been Holland for so long. They planned to spend their last days in Australia in a quiet Sydney hotel, handy for the docks.

When they were about to leave everything seemed to be in order. At the docks Ivan laid his papers before the authorities, a Movement Order from the Royal Netherlands Forces in Australia stating that Capt. I. Smirnoff of the Netherlands Indies Armed Forces was instructed to report on arrival at San Francisco as well as to Curaçao (Netherlands West Indies in the Caribbean). The order added that Captain Smirnoff would be accompanied by his wife.

The documents were stamped, the official turned to Margot with a smile. "Your ration card, Mrs. Smirnoff?" Margot, startled and a bit frightened, faltered: "I haven't got it. I gave it to a friend - things were so short - she was glad to have it."

Looking grave, the official told Margot that what she had done was an offence, that she could not leave the country till the matter was cleared up.

The Smirnoff's had to dash back to town by taxi, Margot had to make long-distance telephone calls, sign a declaration and make her apologies before they got away. They were the last passengers to go aboard the 'Mariposa' and were still breathless as she sailed out of Sydney Harbour, in November 1943.

SS Mariposa. Built 1931. 18,017 Tons

Everything was wonderful. What matter if the Japs were still masters in those waters! They were bound for the new world, and they were together.

It was a war-time trip with all the war-time austerities - no bars open; but the passengers had made their own arrangements and there were enough liquor aboard to float the old tub.

Most of the passengers were doctors going home for a medical check-up and, at the same time going home for Christmas holidays.

The Pacific Ocean showed faithful to its name, the sea was absolutely calm all the way. 'Mariposa' was steaming at full speed which was about 21 miles per hour and it was without being in any convoy. Rules said that only ships with less speed than 22 mph were to be escorted. The problem with convoys was that all ships in the convoy would have to adapt to the slowest ship, which could be 8 mph. This way the voyage could take at least twice the time that a faster ship could make it on its own, thus increasing the risk to meet Japanese submarines.

One night the ship was suddenly shaken tremendously and almost everyone was thrown out of bed. People were scared as the ship was now sailing on a zig-zag course at full speed. But no alarm was heard and quite soon the passengers relaxed and fell asleep again, continuing their dreams from before.

One of the Smirnoff's daily routines was to pay a visit on the bridge, ignoring the 'No Access' sign. And of course their first question to the captain was, what really had happened that scared people so much. The explanation proved to be even more scaring: The ship's modern listening equipment had just before 4 am in the morning identified an enemy submarine, which seconds later caused that 'Mariposa' radically changed her course.

"But," the captain said urgently, "the incident must remain a secret to the passengers until we arrive at San Francisco, because if they were told now, they would still react with panic."

Ivan found this a bit exaggerated. But the captain apparently seemed to be right on this matter, because when the real story was 'confessed' arriving in San Francisco, most passengers were chocked. The women were really angry, with typically female logic, because they were told nothing the night it happened.

The 12.000 kilometres long voyage took sixteen days and Ivan was thankful to see how much good the rest and the sea breezes were doing Margot. She was gay and lively, always surrounded by a laughing group.

"I feel so well," she told him, adding as she pinched his arm: "Is it because I have you with me or is it because there are so many doctors on board?"

In December 1943 the Smirnoff's finally arrived San Fransisco. Ivan was very impressed with his first sight of the United States. He gazed incredulously at the Golden Gate Bridge (completed in 1937) and the San Francisco skyline. For the second time in his life he felt a sense of awe before a man-made work.

Ivan also saw how many of the passengers had tears in their eyes when they passed the Golden Gate Bridge, finally being back home. This experience was unforgettable to him.

Golden Gate Bridge in 1936, a year before completion

As soon as the Smirnoff's were installed in a comfortable hotel, newspapermen, smelling news, descended upon them. They wanted to hear all Ivan's experiences in the Far East evacuation, especially the bit about the Beagle Bay diamonds.

The Author's Club of Hollywood made him their guest of honour at the Roosevelt Hotel. The Adventurers' Club in Los Angeles made him their star speaker at a special dinner.

In the beginning of 1944, Ivan was kindly asked to be 'Best Man' for one of his friends back in Australia.

As told by Nicholas Dijkstra: "..In the meantime I had met in Melbourne my future wife and we were married in March 1944, in Melbourne. Ivan Smirnoff was supposed to be my best man, but he could not obtain leave of absence at the time and he in turn requested Captain Piet André de la Porte to do the honours. I knew André de la Porte very well from our KLM days earlier. Five months after my wedding (24.08.1944) Piet and his crew were shot down by ack-ack near Larat on the island of Jamdena, located in the group of Tanimbar Islands. They all got out of the
B-25, but were captured and beheaded by the Japanese."

This story can't be totally verified, and the beheading is most certainly based on just rumours.

Ivan presenting the bullets.

...Soon after arrival in San Francisco Ivan began to complain that the place was killing him, that he suffered cruelly from rheumatic pains. One of his old chums, Lieutenant Max Wittema, Dutch naval liaison officer in San Francisco, said:

"I don't believe it, let's see where those pains are."
"Here, and here," groaned Ivan, "just where those bloody Jap slugs are."
"Good God!" Max leapt to his feet aghast.
"You don't mean it's true you've been carrying those things around in you for almost two years?"
"Huh! In Australia I don't feel them, so why bother?"

The next day Ivan Smirnoff entered the Letterman General Hospital in San Francisco, and here (see picture) is what the doctors found in his body. The bullets are now kept in archives in The Netherlands.

Though he never mastered the art of putting his thoughts on paper, his fame as a forceful and unconventional orator flew around and he was invited by the United States War Relief Council in Los Angeles to appear on a programme appealing for funds. He was such a success that the Treasury Department had him loaned to them for a War Bond Sales Drive. He had an unorthodox "touch" - but it worked!

Famous Flier's Wall at Mission Inn,
Riverside CA, 12th April 1944.
Smirnoff's wing is nailed upon the wall.
Left of Smirnoff is The Netherlands
Consul in Los Angeles, De Hartog.

Zoom in
Flier's Wall at Mission Inn Museum, Riverside, California.
Click Image to zoom Smirnoff's Wing.
Courtesy Tom Poederbach, 2008.

The US War Department was asked for permission to send Captain Smirnoff on a tour of inspection on aircraft construction plants. But because the work on the factories was top secret, for an alien to visit them needed very high-level clearance indeed. After a month The Netherlands Embassy in Washington was informed in the stilted language of diplomacy that:

"The Military Intelligence Service of the War Department would interpose no objection to a one- or two-day visit by Captain Ivan Smirnoff of The Royal Netherlands Indies Army Air Force to the Douglas Aircraft Co. Inc. Santa Monica, California, and to the Lockheed Aircraft Co. Burbank, California, to inspect the DC4 and the Lockheed Constellation planes."

Douglas DC4 Lockheed Constellation
Douglas DC-4 and Lockheed Constellation

....Ivan never bothered overmuch about bills; if he needed money he wired the nearest KLM office for an advance and he got it by return. His current account had followed him smoothly East to Bandoeng, then south to Australia, and he supposed it would ultimately catch up with him in the USA.

Cecil B. DeMille
The famous film maker Cecil B. DeMille was so impressed by Ivan that he said he would make a film of his life. But the whole lovely plan fell through when DeMille invited Ivan to lunch and introduced the actor, being only 26 years young, which he had picked for the film "Smirnoff".

"No," Ivan said, obstinately,
"I am a pilot, I am an experienced man, everybody knows."
"If people see me in a film as a damn' silly youngster, they don't fly with me anymore."
"I call the whole thing off."

Through the good offices of The Netherlands Ambassador he was allowed to join the DC4 Pilot's School operated by the Douglas Company and for a fortnight flew prototypes still on the secret list. He wrote a report for KLM on the Lockheed 49 Constellation (US-ARMY C.59) that nearly sent the censorship up in smoke. "They cut out all the best bits," he complained indignantly.

As co-pilot for the Lockheed ace Joe Towle, Ivan took over and checked all Towle's findings on the first trial of this plane and was thrilled when his suggestions were wire-recorded and - incorporated in improvements made for the second test.

Test flying the Lockheed Constellation

Ivan Smirnoff and Joe Towle discussing details on the Lockheed Constellation after a test flight.

Again he flew as co-pilot, and after satisfying himself as to the landing and take-off ability of the plane, flew back to the factory and landed with the booster system completely cut off - the first time this had ever been done with a Constellation.

....Later, when they moved to New York, Margot who had been so well in California, was ill again. When she could not leave her bed Ivan sat beside her.

To give her more peace they moved from the hotel to a small apartment on Fifth Avenue.

In September 1944 the tide began to turn. It was cooler, Margot seemed brighter, and the bank wrote that $4330 from his account in Australia had come through to the American Express Office in Broadway.

A young looking Ivan in his US uniform.

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