Sunday, March 15, 2015
Mikhail Petrovich Devyataev
Mikhail Devyataev as a lieutenant in 1942. While the Russian government pays scant attention to their old Heroes, Devyataev's funeral was attended by President Mintimer Shaimiev of the Republic of Tatarstan and his ministers, along with thousands of mourners. (Nat. Museum of Tatarstan)
The amazing prison escape of Mikhail Devyataev from German captivity should have been heralded by his superiors as the epitome of Soviet fighting spirit. Instead, he was punished. His story is one of many injustices suffered by brave fighting men and women under Stalin's rigid "no prisoner" decree.
Mikhail Devyataev was born in July 1917 in a settlement in Mordovia, the 13th child in a peasant family of 14 children. His father died in 1919, and the barefoot child knew only hunger and extreme poverty in his youth.
In 1932, Devyataev left his village to enter the Kazan Water Transport School, and took up amateur gliding and sports flying in his spare time.
He graduated from the trade school and became a stoker aboard an oil transport ship. However, his love of flying and adventure led him to change his career. The local Komsomol (communist youth) organization directed him to Orenburg Aviation School in the Urals. In 1940, he finished the two-year course.
Within months of the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War, Sr. Lt. Devyataev had flown 180 missions, engaged in 16 dogfights, shot down eight enemy aircraft, and received two wounds. His last wound grounded him, but he was determined to fly again. He made his way to Alexandr Pokryshkin's unit and wheedled his way into combat duty.
On July 13, 1944, Devyataev's fighter was hit in combat and he was forced to parachute above Lvov. Though captured and tortured, he revealed nothing. After an escape attempt, he was sent to the Zaksenhausen Death Camp. While there, fellow prisoners managed to change his identity to Nikitenko and he escaped the gas chamber.
Devyataev eventually wound up at Svinemkonde Death Camp on Uzedom Island where the secret V-1 and V-2 rockets were being manufactured. Prisoners were executed once they had fulfilled their tasks. Under such conditions, he had no choice but to put a daring escape plan into action.
On February 8, 1945, Devyataev and a group of ten other Soviet prisoners were shoveling snow on the airfield. They overpowered the guards, jumped into a Heinkel bomber and, with Devyataev at the controls, took off. A FW-190 fighter was scrambled to shoot them down, but Devyataev evaded his pursuer and finally made it back to the Soviet lines, bringing valuable military information.
After interrogation by the NKVD, Devyataev and his comrades were arrested for having been captured. Sent to a gulag, they were released only after the death of Stalin in 1953. The injustice they suffered was a sore point with many comrades, who could do nothing about it. But the new regime strove to right the wrongs of the past.
Mikhail Devyataev was "politically rehabilitated," thanks to the intervention of Sergey Korolev, the famed Soviet space scientist. On August 19, 1957, Devyataev became a Hero of the Soviet Union. He worked as a captain of the river fleet and gave talks to youth groups.
Mikhail Devyataev died at age 85 on November 24, 2002 in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan. Thousands of mourners came to his funeral to say farewell to a great role model and living legend.