There are no challenges that are big enough if you’re dedicated and passionate about what you do. That’s what a Soviet pilot proved. Despite all the circumstances that he went through from the very beginning of his life, he managed to show the world that you could overcome and rise above all adversaries if only you put your heart into whatever you do. Oh, and he didn’t even want to be all dramatic about it.

Rough Start

Alexey Maresyev was born just before the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1916. He grew up in Kamyshin together with his three other siblings. He was considered the weakest among the four of them due to his illness. He had constant pain in his joints that his brother sometimes had to carry him from their remote village to their school, which was four kilometers away, and then back home.

In his teens, he joined the political youth organization of the Soviet Union, Komsomol. He was sent as a worker to help in the construction of Komsomolsk-on-Amur, a city in the Russian Far East founded in 1932. In the beginning, Maresyev was unsure if he really wanted to go, but he was persuaded to leave anyway, and so he did. In the Far East, he faced the toughest conditions he had ever been in, at least at that time. He learned to live in the cold and harsh climate. Unknown to him at that moment yet, these prepared him for what was to come in the future.

Maresyev had already set his eyes on being a pilot, and so despite his health issues, he managed to learn how to fly an aircraft and joined the Soviet Air Force, where he initially worked as a technician. In 1940, he graduated from the Military School of Aviation and became a professional pilot. The following year, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, and he was deployed to work as a fighter pilot.

Shot Down by the Enemy

It was in August 1941 that Maresyev first saw action. That day, a superior German-built aircraft were shooting down a lot of Russian planes resulting in heavy losses. Amidst all the dangers and overwhelming odds, he managed to stay in the air and shot down six Nazi planes in six months.

Soviet Air Force fighter pilot & flying ace Alexey Maresyev.
Soviet Air Force fighter pilot & flying ace Alexey Maresyev. (Mil.ruCC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

On April 5, 1942, Maresyev’s plane was drilled by a Luftwaffe fighter, and his plane crashed into a forest just behind the German lines. His aircraft was severely damaged and torn into pieces, but he miraculously managed to survive, although he was severely injured. Both of his legs were mangled in the crash, but he pulled through and used his remaining strength to crawl his way out and away before the German ground forces found him.

For 18 days, Maresyev crawled to safety in Russian-controlled territory. His legs had open wounds. He had no food, was cold, and had nothing but a knife to defend himself in case Nazi troops found him. He survived by eating nothing but tree barks and pinecones. Fortunately, he was surrounded by rivers with fresh water and remnants of fresh snow. To decrease the risk of being captured by the Germans, he stayed away from nearby villages. Finally, he made it back. His surprised comrades immediately flew him to a hospital in Moscow.

Back to the Game and More

Upon inspection, the doctors discovered that his legs were gangrenous and frostbitten. They didn’t have a choice but to amputate them. He recalled,

One day, a doctor came, I was taken to the operating theater, the doctor took a pair of sterilized scissors and before my very eyes simply cut off my legs with the scissors. In some places, where the tissue was still a little bit alive, it was painful, but on the whole it didn’t hurt.

He was given prosthetic legs along with the news that his flying career was basically over. But not for him. Instead of just returning home and just accepting what he was told, he trained long and hard, relearning how to walk and fly. By the time of the Battle of Kursk, he was already there assigned to the front, and although his legs’ stumps were sore and bleeding, he hid them well, for he didn’t want to be sent back home.

Alexei Maresiev 2016 stamp of Transnistria. (Post of Transnistria, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In the beginning, his fellow pilots were hesitant about Maresyev’s capabilities, worried that he would let them down during crucial moments. Worries that he proved to be baseless as he showed them instead that not only he was highly effective but that he could also save the lives of many other pilots during combat.  In some ways, Maresyev may have been a better pilot in combat.  When fighters pulls Gs, the blood in your body is forced into your lower extremities and the loss of blood to the brain causes a blackout condition that can be fatal.  Missing his legs, Maresyev may have been able to pull more Gs than the average pilot and in a turning fight with an ME-109 or FW-190 that could mean the difference between life and death.

All in all, Maresyew flew 86 combat flights and had 11 confirmed German aircraft that he shot down. He received the Golden Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union award, which was the highest military decoration in the country. Back home, the publication of war correspondent Boris Polevoi wrote A Story about a Real Man. It told Maresyev’s story and was also made into a film. To Maresyev, there was nothing extraordinary about what he accomplished, and he remained modest all his life.