DISASTER SURVIVAL – A Personal Story

Lieutenant Alexey Maresyev

On June 22nd 1941 German Army crossed the Western border of the Soviet Union. The invasion, known as Operation Barbarosa, eventually turned the tide for the Nazi Third Reich and caused the German empire to collapse. Many stories of survival emerged on both sides.

One of these stories is that of Lt Alexey Maresyev, a soviet pilot who was shot down by the German Luftwaffe and crashed behind enemy lines.

MAY DAY

 Maresyev was born in Kamyshin. His father was a skilled laborer who died shortly after he had returned from World War I.  Maresyev joined the Army in 1937 and graduated from Bataysk Military School of Aviation three years later. He began his flights as a fighter pilot in August 1941 and shot down four German aircraft by March 1942. On April 4, 1942 his Polikarpov I-16 was shot down near Staraya Russa. Maresyev tried to keep his aircraft under control, but experienced a hard landing. He was catapulted out of the plane on impact, badly injuring his legs. He was knocked unconscious and when he came to, he couldn’t stand up. His feet were crushed. He was alone in a middle of a frozen wasteland, controlled by the enemy with no food, water and no legs.

 THE LONG WAY HOME

Alexey began an arduous journey, crawling on his belly toward friendly lines. For eighteen days he battled hunger, constant pain from his legs, thirst and freezing temperatures. On several occasions he came so close to enemy patrols that he could hear the Germans whisper. During his journey his only real meal aside from roots and snow was a hedgehog. Alexey couldn’t start a fire because it would have given away his position to the Germans, so he ate the animal raw. After over two weeks later, exhausted, malnourished, his flight suit torn and suffering from frostbite Alexey was ready to give up. However something inside him was nudging him forward…another meter, one more stretch, one more push…

In eighteen days, he made his way out of the German-held territory, crossed the no-man’s land, and made it through the Soviet lines. This trek took a great toll on him. His almost lifeless body was discovered by a couple of boys gathering fire wood in the forest. The boys were afraid it might be the enemy so they ran home and told the elders in the village. Few villagers identified the unconscious Maresyev as friendly, and build a makeshift stretcher to carry Alexey to one of the underground homes. These damp dwelling, known as zemlyankas, were standard way for civilian population located close to the fighting to survive the harsh winters as well as enemy and friendly troop movements. Alexey was housed with one of the villagers who had a reliable stove and large enough zemlyanka to accommodate a couple of people caring for him.

The injuries were not good. Alexey was drifting in and out of consciousness, couldn’t hold down much food not that his rescuers had much to offer, but his weak body was not giving up. Then one day Alexey was able to sit up and actually talk to his rescuers. Eventually contact was made with Soviet Forces and medical evacuation was arranged.

Alexey was transported to a military hospital in Moscow and his life was saved. His legs however were not. They had to be amputated below the knee due to extreme gangrene. What followed was a period of extreme depression for Alexey since he was told that his flying days were over. No man can fly without legs.

THE BATTLE CONTINUES

One day someone threw a newspaper on Alexey’s bed…where his legs should have been. He didn’t want to read it. The depression took its tall and Lt Maresyev was contemplating suicide. He didn’t want to hear from anyone or talk to anyone. There was no appetite for food and sleep was a thing of the past. The only thing on his mind was how to find a way out of this life. A roommate of his took the paper and read an article….about a pilot in the Imperial Russian Air Service who flew with an amputated foot. When Alexey heard his friend read the heading his heart stopped. He sat up and ripped the paper out of his friend’s hands. His eyes were wide and his heart was pumping new life in to his veins. There was hope…

From that moment on Maresyev became totally single minded. He thought of nothing but flying again. He exercised, pushed himself and never stopped holding his vision clearly in his mind. One day the doctor had his staff take measurements of his stumps and prosthetic legs were made. As soon as the doctor had them strapped on, Alexey eagerly stood up only to collapse under excruciating pain. He thought his troubles were over but they were only beginning. Throughout this part of his journey everyone around him was telling him his career as a fighter pilot was over. This did not make things for him any better but throughout all this Maresyev persisted. There was nothing else in his mind…period. In time he learned to walk. Then he learned to run. He begged, threatened, pleaded and lied to senior officers for a chance. Months went by. Fighting the Soviet government bureaucracy became a full time job with no shortage of “no’s”, “impossible’s” and doors slammed in his face.

One day Alexey was given the opportunity to impress some high ranking medical officers by demonstrating his dancing ability with his prosthetic legs. He went above and beyond and ended up jumping around on chairs and tables and generally performing stunts which would have been a great challenge for a man with healthy legs let alone prosthetics. The doctors were fascinated and one of them decided to take a chance and risk his own career. He approved Maresyev for one test flight.

During the flight, everything went perfectly. As if Alexey never left the cockpit. When ordered to land Alexey refused and spent extra few minutes in the sky…as if to celebrate the greatest victory of his life. When he completed a perfect landing, the training officer had nothing to complain about except the fact that Lieutenant Maresyev disobeyed a direct order and did not come in for landing when instructed to do so. The Major was informing the Lieutenant that he should be charged when he noticed that Maresyev’s footwear was not regulation cold weather boots for high altitude flying. The Major began foaming at the mouth as he was demanding explanation as to why was the Lieutenant wearing standard summer boots…. “I don’t have winter boots because I don’t have any feet sir!” responded Alexey.  The Major looked at him puzzled. “What is that supposed to mean?” he asked thinking that Maresyev is trying to make a fool of him. Maresyev pulled up his pantlegs and knocked on his wooden prosthetic legs. The Major’s eyes went wide and his jaw dropped. He just witnessed a man with no legs fly an aircraft…and that’s impossible.

THE FINAL CHAPTER

Lt. Alexey Petrovich Maresyev returned to active duty in 1943, completing total of eighty-six combat missions. He shot down total of eleven German war planes and receives the highest awards from the Soviet Government. In 1956 he obtained a Ph.D. in History. He died of a heart attack in 2001.

Historians may argue that not all the details in this story are accurate. The story of Lt Maresyev however clearly illustrates some very important points. For example, there is not much that is stronger than the will of mankind. And sometimes if we put our problems into perspective we might realize that things are not as bad as they seem. Certainly we don’t have to crawl on our bellies, starving while someone is trying to hunt us down… And maybe, if we all start paying attention to stories like this, whatever the version is, we might realize that we have amazing things to live for. And then that depression, or that debt or whatever disaster we may be facing, might not seem so great and insurmountable. Chances are people have survived worse and we all can get through it….whatever it is.

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