Today’s post comes from National Archives Office of Strategy and Communications staff writer Rob Crotty.
In the summer of 1942, the Allies’ war against Japan was in dire straits. China was constantly battling the occupying Japanese forces in its homeland, supplied by India via the Burma Road. Then Japan severed that supply artery. Planes were flown over the Himalayan mountains, but their payloads were too little, and too many pilots crashed in the desolate landscape to continue the flights.
The Allies were desperate to find a land route that would reconnect China and India. The task fell to two OSS men—Ilia Tolstoy, the grandson of Leo Tolstoy, and explorer Capt. Brooke Dolan. To complete the land route would require traversing Tibet, and to traverse the hidden country required the permission of a seven-year-old boy, the Dalai Lama.
When the two men arrived in Lhasa, the remote capital of Tibet, these spies were received as ambassadors. A military brass band played, and they were treated as guests of honor in a city that only a few decades earlier had forbidden Westerners to enter.
They came carrying a message from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. On December 20, at 9:20 in the morning, they were granted an audience with His Holiness. As a further sign of his respect for these two emissaries, the men were allowed to ride horses up the Potala to the quarters of the Dalai Lama. After a brief wait, they entered the highest room in Lhasa. Lt. Col. Ilia Tolstoy wrote of his first glimpse of Tibet’s leader in a 1946 National Geographic:
His Holiness was seated cross-legged, a high-peaked yellow hat on his head. We were immediately impressed by his young but stern face and not at all frail constitution. His cheeks were a healthy pink.
Tolstoy proceeded through the tradition of offering gifts to the Dalai Lama—bread and butter followed by an image of Buddha, a religious book, and a chorten (a Buddhist reliquary). Then, for the first time in history, he made direct contact between the Dalai Lama and the President of the United States by passing a letter written by FDR to the young leader.
After half an hour of discussion, the men left. A week later, they received the permission they were seeking to cross Tibet. It was the first such permission granted in 22 years, according to Tolstoy.
Five months later, they crossed the Tibetan plateau, and the two men arrived in northern China, completing their journey. They had traveled over a thousand miles and spent over a hundred days in the saddle to pioneer a route to connect allied supplies with allied fighters across some of the world’s harshest terrain. Their mission was complete.
While the route was never employed during the war—a diplomatic crisis prevented its use, and planes continued to fly “the hump” across the Himalayan mountains—Tolstoy and Brooke made history, bridging two cultures that before had never formally met. Brooke Dolan filmed the entire journey, and the reels are now housed in the motion picture holdings of the National Archives. The video is below.
For more on spies and the National Archives, join us at 7 p.m. tonight at the International Spy Museum for “Spies and Conspiracies: Espionage in the Civil War.” For more footage from the OSS, CIA, and FBI, you can pick up our latest offering from the National Archives eStore: FBI/CIA Films Declassified.