RT looks into WWII mystery with amateur who found crash site of Soviet hero pilot

RT looks into WWII mystery with amateur who found crash site of Soviet hero pilot
For over 70 years, the location of the crash site of a Soviet fighter jet piloted by Aleksey Maresyev – a household name in Russia – remained a mystery. RT’s Documentary team met the amateur researcher who found it, in its film Skybound.

On April 4, 1942, in one of the battles of World War II, known as the Great Patriotic War in Russia, Aleksey Maresyev's Yak-1 plane crashed in a forest in the Novgorod region in central Russia. For 18 days, the pilot had to crawl through deep snow and swampland with badly injured legs. Maresyev later lost both legs, but his courage and will to live helped him return and become the best pilot in his regiment, and one of the most renowned in Soviet history. In all, he took part in 26 air battles.

“We flew out to cover our land troops near the city of Oryol. We saw three groups of nine Junkers Ju 87 bombers being escorted by about 20 Focke-Wulf fighters. While we immediately attacked the first nine planes, I remembered that one of our pilots flew with no legs, and thought, ‘How would he manage in an air battle to defend us.’ I downed a plane, and he downed a plane. I then hit another one and then saw that I had been hit myself. When another Nazi plane was about to finish me off, it blew [up] in mid-air – it was Maresyev who did it,” a fellow pilot later recalled.

With both of his legs amputated below the knees, the pilot danced and jumped off a chair, shouting, “Aren’t these legs?” to persuade the command to let him fly after his crash.

Even as a double amputee, he still was a better pilot than many who had two legs, his fellow servicemen would say. However, Maresyev saw fame as a burden, as he knew there were many disabled pilots in the Red Army who continued to serve. Aviation historians only later revealed there were others like Aleksey Maresyev.

But it was the incredible story of the fighter pilot whose plane was downed in a hostile area, but who somehow managed to reach a village with his legs fractured, that became widely known in Soviet times. A book, The Story of a Real Man, by writer Boris Polevoy, became a hit and a must-read in the country.

What remained a mystery was the plane itself. Maresyev refused to go to the crash site, as “he didn’t want to remember,” his son Viktor told RT’s documentary channel (RTD).

“Legend had it, his plane lies somewhere. Many people searched for it... In the end, and quite by chance, I found it,” Aleksandr Morzunov, the leader of an amateur Nakhodka investigator group, told RTD. He said he would only reveal the secret to the pilot’s son. “I would never visit the site without him,” he said.

The researcher owns a farm in the region, which was the site of fierce battles during the war against the Nazis. After moving to the countryside, he started finding rusty helmets, remnants of trenches, and unmarked graves in the area.

He didn’t plan to become a researcher until one day he found a human skull in the forest. He then discovered bones and an ID tag, with a scrap of paper inside it.

“A young lad born in 1923 wrote on it: ‘I ask you, the person who finds me and this note, please tell my father,’” Morzunov told RTD.

“What do you do with that note in your hand? The last note from a man who died for you?”

He then found the remains of around 80 more people. While some of his neighbors built their property on a mass grave, Morzunov’s main focus has become searching for and burying the remains of the fallen from the Great Patriotic War, and finding their relatives.

One day, while searching the archives of the Russian Defense Ministry, Morzunov stumbled upon papers that revealed what happened to Maresyev’s aircraft. He found a document that showed that after it had been shot down, the Yak-1 plane was removed from the crash site and delisted.

The papers also contained the exact location of the crash, which made it possible to visit the site. Ironically, it was located just a few kilometers from the position of the Soviet troops.

Soviet hero Aleksey Maresyev died of a heart attack in 2001 while getting ready for a big event prepared to celebrate his 85th birthday.