Was This The Toughest Pilot Of World War II?
This Guy Certainly Went Beyond The Call Of Duty!
World War II has seen the biggest and greatest air battles of all time. With so many pilots taking part in this brutal six year conflict, it’s very hard to pinpoint who was the greatest, the best or the bravest. These men and women are all heroes in our book, however, Aleksey Maresyev’s story does stand out quite a bit when you dig into certain aspects of his life.
Born in 1916 in Kamyshin, Russia, Aleksey wanted to be an aviator from his teenage years. Wanting to join the army right after vocational school, he was instructed by the Communist Party to go help in the building of a new city in Russia. This was an order he couldn’t refuse. Upon completion however, he joined the Red Army and was trained as a technician, a job that put him near planes but not inside them.
Unsatisfied, it took him a year to get into pilot school but he finally earned is wings in 1940, just one year before the USSR joined the war. Upon entering the war, Aleksey’s story of being one tough S.O.B. began. Given an I-16 (which most of you wouldn’t even know about), he was pretty much sent off to fly and die. Although the I-16s were quite maneuverable, the Bf 109s they went up against had a higher service ceiling, rate of climb, speed, and ammunition capacity. In other words, it was a tough fight to fight.
That did not stop Aleksey however, as he managed to shoot down four 109s despite his inferior fighter plane, but then he got shot down himself. This was on April 2, 1942 in Russia, which means it was still REALLY cold. Badly injured and bleeding all over the place, he crawled through a forest in German occupied Russia and reached friendly territory. That was 18 days later by the way. Yes, that’s 18 days of eating bark off of trees and snow to sustain himself.
Although he survived, his legs were so badly frostbitten they had to be amputated below the knees. So now the resilient Aleksey had no legs but guess what? He wanted to get back in the cockpit and fight for his country even more. Since you do need legs to fly a plane, he was fitted with some crude prosthetic legs and trained every day for a year to be as mobile as possible.
By 1943, Aleksey was so proficient walking with his prosthetics that most people couldn’t even tell they weren’t his real legs. He was reinstated and flew again that same year, and during one of his first missions shot down four Bf 109s in a single day. By the end of the war, he knocked off a total of 11 German planes.
When asked about his exploits, Aleksey is quoted saying, “I’m a man, not a hero,…the fact that I’ve been turned into a legend irritates me.”
Well Aleksey, we still salute you for your war efforts.