Monday, June 11, 2012
Soviet Ilyushin 10 Heavy Attack Aircraft Pilot Chapter 4
The U-2 is something of an anomaly. It flies so slow that high speed fighters have a hard time hitting it as it bobs and weaves while transporting wounded men, dispatches, flying reconnaissance and dropping bombs at night. The U-2 earned its nickname, affectionately given, of the Duck. But it was frustrating to be shot at without being able to answer back. I was shot down over 6 times in 125 combat missions just because the Krauts could take their time and one by one take passes at me. I longed to have a real plane to fly. One that could give as good as it could take.
That was not to be my fate for another year. I was stuck with my Duck and what a time we had. The U-2 pilots had special status. We were invaluable to the war effort and when we carried dispatches we were expected to fly in all kinds of weather and land on postage stamp clearings in our attempts to reach the intended recipient. In return we were afforded "all assistance necessary" in completing our duties. Everyone from Marshal to Private was supposed to aid us in our duty no matter what they were doing they were to come to our assistance. A dispatch sent by Duck was of utmost importance and under severe penalty everyone was to complete our mission. We has special orders signed by Stalin himself that under penalty of death we were to be assisted in our deliveries.
I have many a story to tell but I will tell just one. It was minus 10 degrees and in a blinding snow storm I was assigned to find an detachment of Katyushas who were to make a retrograde movement out of danger. No one could reach them by radio and the Nazis were closing in around them without their knowledge because of the storm. All I had was a compass bearing and I took off with the orders tucked in my breast pocket. After 2 hours of flying blind the weather cleared and as I was searching at low level for the rocket unit when two Me 109s decided to have some fun. I zigged and zagged dipped and rolled and totally frustrated both of them. The U-2 is very nimble if you know what you are doing and I did know what I was doing. Finally they worked as a team and one machine gun bullet caught my left wing and that was enough. I was going down fast.
I managed to land somehow pulling up just at the right moment and cushioned by the mounds of newly fallen snow I pancake in making quite a rut in the new snow. The Krauts we so mad that I did not crash in flames that they strafed me as I ran with cannon and machine gun fire from all their weapons on full. I dodge and fell down a couple of times and played dead but the moment when I thought they were gone and started to move and they came again. Can you imagine wasting all that ammo and time on one pilot. I guess I really frustrated them. Too bad there were no Soviet planes around to catch them low and slow and without munitions.
Finally they ran out of bullets and reluctantly flew off. I did get hit in my left solder and it hurt like crazy. Dazed, exhausted and hurting I found a nearby road. A command car came racing down the road and it was not going to stop. I pulled my pistol and fired a shot in the air. The car still careened by me and almost hit me as I dove into a snow bank. I was bleeding into the snow bank and as I tried to right myself I left a bright red snow angel like we used to make when I was a child. The car came to a sliding halt and a full Maior flew out of the back door in a rage and dragged me from the snow bank and of course he dragged me to my feet by my injured arm. I writhed in pain as he screamed at me for using my pistol. Before I passed out I practically stuffed the order from Stalin into his mouth.
And this is where the power of one piece of paper signed by the right person can stop anyone in their tracks. That piece of paper saved me from a firing squad. That piece of paper made a General waiting in the car obey a lieutenants orders. Immediately I was taken to an aide station to bind my wounds. That piece of paper then had a very angry Maior deliver me to the unit with the dispatch. That paper made a Maior delivery me back to my unit before he could do anything else. That piece of paper made a Maior into a Penal Unit commander. That piece of paper got my trusty U-2 back.
As I said I have many more stories each as harrowing at that one. I flew 125 missions in my Duck and as I said survived 6 crashes. After one encounter where I was transporting a general we were once again bounced by a pair of marauding Me 109s. At this point in the war they seemed to be everywhere. After that flight my mechanic counted 87 holes in my Duck. Not one in me or my passenger. One very big advantage of flying slow...you can survive falling from the sky. You tend to bounce instead making a very large and messy splat.
I am a very good mechanic and many times have fixed my own plane. I have often been asked why I didn't become a mechanic instead of risking my life as a combat pilot. I witnessed the grief on many a mechanics face and the heart wrenching fear when his pilot did not come home or was late. The bond between his mechanic and a pilot is sometimes greater than between man and wife. The mechanic will wait well past the time that his pilot can possibly appear. Listening and peering into the night sky just hoping to catch a snippet of sound from a very familiar engine. Just a faint whisper. Anything to keep hope alive. No...I could not be a mechanic and wait. I would rather know my fate when it happens than to wait on the outcome of another's.
Lots of talk about the new planes entering the war from our side. The American Lend Lease planes were showing up but we all longed to fly a new Yak, Petlyakov or Lavochikin. I wanted the plane that seemed like a flying torpedo with slightly swept back wings. A small mono plane of classic shape. One that swiftly flew just above the ground dealing death to our enemies. A plane that climbed like a hawk was maneuverable, with a good field of vision and was armored and flew straight when hands free. One that almost lands itself. In short I wanted a Sturmovik.
The rest of 1941 was retreat and near miss after near miss. I seemed to live a charmed life if you can say being wounded 12 times charming. I guess anyone of them could have been crippling or deadly but they were not. They just hurt as much. Even that shot in the shoulder missed all my bones and only took it's literal pound of flesh.
During the retreats we slept everywhere and changed airfields sometimes on a daily basis. We slept on our planes, under our planes and in our planes only to be awoken by "board your planes" and we flew off on another mission knowing that another airfield waited...we hoped. We lost pilot after pilot and more and more replacements came from somewhere to take over. I will say that the new pilots were very well trained and not much coaching was needed which is well because there was no time.
Somewhere during this time we were called to attention and "Order 277" was read. It was a stern order that boiled down to "not a step back!" The time of retreat was over and the Battle for Stalingrad has just begun. We were to defend every meter of our soil, every position with the last ounce of our blood. To comply with this order meant the saving of the Motherland and to the defeat of the enemy. Any war veteran you ask will be able to tell you exactly where and when he was when "Order 277" was read. It had a profound effect on our war effort. Stalin seemed to have a magical way about him and timed the order just perfectly. The time had come to attack and I wanted to be involved in that attack.
My request for transfer was finally accepted and I found my way in front of the Regimental Commander trying to be brave in the face of his questioning. "But do you know what a hellish job it is to attack ground targets? A Sturmovik has two cannons, two machine guns, two batteries of rockets, various bombs. Not every pilot can handle such a machine. Not everyone is capable of steering a flying tank, of orienteering himself in combat while hedge-hopping, bombing, shooting the cannons and machine guns, launching rockets at rapidly flashing targets, conducting group dog fights, sending and receiving orders by radio - all at the same time."
"I've though it over already and I understand everything, sir."
Never was there a statement filled with such ignorance.