Author’s note: In 1939, Rusty Tallman, an Illinois woman who had done some modeling and loved parties, married Larry Lancashire, an Ohio man who enjoyed the outdoors and eschewed the high society into which he had been born. Four years later, he was part of a bomber crew in World War II.
In 1948, Larry Lancashire’s status as a military veteran would aid him in his homesteading efforts on the Kenai Peninsula. But five years earlier, on Aug. 1, 1943, his dreams of a future home in Alaska had not even entered the germination stage.
On that day, all his energies were being directed toward the United States’ mission in Romania and his part in what the military brass had dubbed Operation Tidal Wave.
Second Lieutenant Lawrence Lancashire was the copilot aboard a B-24 Liberator, flying in formation from a U.S. base in Libya with a huge squadron of other bombers, each packed with explosive gifts for one of Adolf Hitler’s most important fuel-supply sites.
History would later record the destruction that the U.S. Army Air Forces wreaked on that day — the estimated obliteration of 40 percent of the oil field’s production capacity — but it would also record the tremendous cost of that effort: One hundred seventy-seven B-24s had safely departed the Libyan airbase. All but 15 had managed to fly over the intended target. Of the remainder, 53 bombers had been destroyed. Another 55 had been damaged. Three hundred ten airmen had been killed or were unaccounted for; another 190 had been captured or interned by Axis forces.
Decades later, a research report conducted by the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, would term this bombing campaign “one of the bloodiest and most heroic missions of all time.”
Day of the Attack
Sometime after Lt. Edward Weir had returned safely to base after the bombing raid on the Nazi refineries at the Ploiesti oil field in Romania — and after the next of kin of airmen killed, missing or captured had been notified — he contacted Rusty Lancashire and told her that when he had last seen her husband, Larry Lancashire had been very much alive.
The B-24 on which Lt. Weir had been a crew member had been following Lancashire’s B-24 during the raid. As Weir’s plane soared over the roiling oil field, he had spotted Larry’s aircraft on the ground, lying in a nearby wheat field. Its engines had been shot out. He could see six of its nine crew members, including Lancashire, standing around the ship. They waved as Weir’s plane flew overhead.
The grounded airmen fled into the Romanian countryside, but in about a week they were out of food, safe shelter and options. They surrendered.
Nearly two weeks later, on Aug. 12, 1943, Rusty was informed that her husband was officially missing in action. The next day, a photo of Rusty, holding her three-week-old daughter Martha, appeared in the Cleveland Press. The portrait had been taken with the intention of sending it to Larry, who did not know for sure that he was a new father.
On Sept. 12, Rusty was told that Larry had been injured and was a prisoner of the Romanian government. Four days later, she received what was likely cold comfort: an official letter of praise for Larry from Gen. Uzal G. Ent, leader of the Ninth U.S. bomber command.
“Second Lt. Lancashire is one of the great heroes of this war,” Ent wrote, “and his name has been indelibly written in our country’s history…. I have made a recommendation for an award for 2nd Lt. Lancashire’s deeds which has been approved by Gen. Brereton. You will hear more of this at a future date.”
On Nov. 13, Rusty learned that Larry had been moved to prisoner-of-war Camp 2 in Brasov, Romania. She was given an address she could use to correspond with him.
A full month later, she received her first written word directly from her husband: three cards, dated Aug. 14 and 28 and Sept. 15.
Contrary to what she might have heard, Larry wrote, he “didn’t have a scratch” from being shot down. He said he was feeling well and getting plenty of exercise and good food, but he was craving some Hershey’s candy bars and cigarettes, some loose-leaf tobacco and a pipe, plus information about whether he was the father of a son or a daughter.
Larry Lancashire, who earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal for his military efforts, was freed from captivity eight months later. On Aug. 30, 1944, the Romanian government released him to American military authorities, but his reunion with Rusty was still four months away. Larry spent that time in England before being sent stateside.
When Rusty learned that Larry would be delivered to New York City, she left Martha with relatives and traveled east to await Larry’s arrival. According to daughter Lori, her mother did some modeling while she waited.
Larry spent the remainder of the war stationed in Great Falls, Montana, serving as a pilot flying supplies and ferrying fighter planes over Canada to Fairbanks, where they were held for pilots of then-ally Russia. These long flights, said a newspaper article a few years later, gave the young lieutenant “an opportunity to see quite a bit of Alaska. The more he saw of it, the more he liked it.”
But those desires didn’t lead him directly to the Last Frontier.
After his honorable discharge from the military in December 1945, Larry and Rusty moved briefly to Florida, where, as one publication put it, he took “a brief look at crop-dusting.” That look, said the magazine, “convinced him that he wanted a longer life.” After a second Lancashire daughter, Lori, was born in March 1946 in Tampa, the family returned to its roots in the Midwest.
In his home state of Ohio, Larry started up a successful paint-contracting business, and he and Rusty added a third daughter, Abby, in October 1947. It appeared initially that the Buckeye State might become the family’s permanent home.
“But the only satisfaction I got out of what I was doing,” Larry told a magazine writer in 1954, “was that of making more money than some of my acquaintances in the good months. That wasn’t enough to live for.”
He rekindled his interest in Alaska and began studying farming and homesteading opportunities there. He believed that he and Rusty could make a go of it on what appeared to be good, arable land in a place called the Kenai Peninsula. The more he thought about where he could be, the more dissatisfied he became with where he was.
When Rusty off-handedly suggested that they just sell out and go north, he apparently interpreted that as acquiescence. According to the magazine article, he put up his paint-contracting equipment for sale the next day. He was ready to put his pioneering aspirations into action.
North to the Future
Near the end of January 1948, Larry Lancashire hit the road for Alaska, which lay many weeks and thousands of miles away. He was three months shy of his 30th birthday, and he was traveling solo — except for the family’s springer spaniel named Tuto.
Lancashire drove a jeep and towed a trailer crammed with 4,000 pounds of equipment, including a portable sawmill. The Daily Advocate (Greenville, Ohio) reported that his goal was nothing less than “to establish what he (called) a new and better life in Alaska.”
Once he located the land he sought, he planned to erect a wall tent, set up his sawmill and begin building a cabin for himself and his family, who would be arriving in early summer. He also hoped to use his mill to produce lumber for sale.
In a March 5 letter to his parents, with whom Rusty and their children were staying while he traveled north, Larry reported that he had reached the Alaskan border. The trip so far, he said, had been “a heck of a lot fun, but (also) a lot of hard work.”
He called the route between Edmonton, Alberta, and Dawson Creek, British Columbia (Mile Zero of the Alcan Highway) “480 miles of the worst road in the world—so bad I never went over 15 mi per hr and still battered the trailer mercilessly, even to the extent of breaking the front axle clean in two.”
He then delighted in the Alcan, which he at first termed “a welcome sight that was so wide and smooth.” But his struggles resumed when he began ascending a series of icy, challenging hills.
“Even with chains on all four wheels,” he wrote, “the hills are so steep that the wheels would start spinning about two-thirds of the way up. All told, we got stuck on 9 hills, and the last one we were there from morning till after dark at 7 p.m.”
He was rescued by a big truck whose driver offered to take part of Larry’s load in his own empty rig.
By March 8, he had arrived in Tok Junction and was preparing to descend “the unpleasant road” to Anchorage. There, on March 11 — after talking with a representative of the Forest Service about “timber prospecting,” he loaded his jeep and trailer on a railroad flatcar and rode to Moose Pass, where he began motoring south on the rough new road that would eventually be named the Sterling Highway.
Soon, he had established a potential homesite atop Pickle Hill, south of Kenai, and was sleeping in the shelter of his tent in sub-zero temperatures, with springtime nowhere in sight.