The story of Alexey Maresyev’s bravery in the face of incredible odds, inspired generations of people with disability to forget their problems and live life to the fullest
The name Aleksey Maresyev is unlikely to ring a bell with most readers in the English speaking world. That is a pity, because this illustrious Soviet fighter pilot of the World War II scripted a heroic saga of human survival in the wild. Unfazed by the loss of both his legs, he went on to resume combat flying. In this respect he resembled the celebrated Douglas Bader of the Royal Air Force (RAF) who, despite losing both his legs in an aircrash, got back to fighter flying and claimed 22 kills.
Maresyev himself lived by the maxim of the Douglas Bader Foundation, a charitable organisation looking after the needs of the disabled, which is “A disabled person who fights back is not disabled... but inspired.”
Aleksey Petrovich Maresyev was born on May 20, 1916, in a remote village near the city of Kamyshin on the banks of the River Volga in the Russian Empire. He was a rather sickly child, suffering several attacks of malaria and severe pain in the joints. He had to walk four kilometres to school, sometimes almost being carried home by his big brother. Once he was in imminent danger of death, but survived. In his teens, Aleksey saw a film about aviation circulated by the Soviet government in its efforts to encourage young boys to join amateur aviation and parachute clubs. And Aleksey decided he would be a pilot one day.
He tried to join the army when he came of age, but the youth wing of the local Communist Party decided instead to send him to the Far East as part of a special group responsible for the construction of a new city, Komsomolsk-on-Amur. Aleksey was understandably reluctant initially, but was persuaded to go. It was a turning point in his life. The tough conditions and bracing air helped improve his blood circulation and general health. He learned the skills necessary to survive in the taiga or snow forest and this was to stand him in good stead when his aircraft was shot down ten years later.
After Aleksey Maresyev returned home he joined the Soviet Air Force as a technician. He enjoyed tinkering with the planes, but his dream was to be an aviator. He soon enrolled in the Military School of Aviation, an institution for professional pilots and proved to be one of their best trainees. When he graduated in 1940, he was retained as an instructor at the School. The Second World War broke out in September 1939 and initially the Soviet Union was not involved. In June 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa and the German forces rapidly penetrated deep into Russian territory. As the Soviet Air Force could not match the Luftwaffe’s brilliant planning and advanced technology, it suffered heavy losses. Aleksey Maresyev’s squadron was stationed in Central Ukraine and was equipped with Polikarpov I-16 fighters. He got his first taste of combat flying on August 23, 1941, and by March 1942 managed to shoot down four German aircraft.
On April 4, 1942, Alexey Maresyev was engaged in a dogfight with two German fighters when his aircraft was critically hit. He managed to land the flaming plane in a thick forest – part of Soviet territory that had been occupied by the invading Germans. Although the snow softened the impact, both his legs were badly injured. It took him 18 days of crawling through the winter forest to reach the village of Plavni and safety. Bleeding from several wounds, cold, hungry and under constant fear of being discovered by the Nazi soldiers, it was only the desire to live that kept him going. His childhood ability to endure intense pain and his teenage experience of the taiga proved invaluable.
However, by the time he was able to get medical treatment, his injuries had become so bad that both his legs had to be amputated below the knee in order to save his life. In due course, he was fitted with prosthetic devices and then began another struggle to learn to use them. He was determined to return to combat fitness, so he learned to walk and even dance, despite the pain, till the military doctors finally acceded to his request to resume flying in June 1943.
It did not take him long to get back in the groove. During one of his first flights he managed to shoot down three German Focke-Wulf FW-190 fighters. In the remaining months of the war, he achieved an overall tally of 86 combat flights and 11 German aircraft confirmed shot down, including seven after the amputation. On August 24, 1943, he was awarded the Golden Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union – the nation’s supreme military decoration.
Maresyev spent the rest of his life helping other war veterans. He became a member of the Supreme Soviet and never tired of advocating the rights of the disabled and veterans. He died on May 19, 2001, in Moscow, just minutes before a celebration to mark his 85th birthday the next day.
The story of Alexey Maresyev’s incredible bravery and heroic determination in the face of incredible odds inspired generations of military and other wounded people to forget their problems and live life to the fullest. His exploits were immortalised in the book A Story about a Real Man by Boris Polevoi, later turned into an opera by the famous Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev. However, Maresyev was modest to a fault and repeatedly insisted that he didn’t merit any praise. In one newspaper interview he said, “There’s nothing extraordinary in what I did. The fact that I’ve been turned into a legend irritates me.”