Mariya Nikitichna Tsukanova would be the only woman awarded the “Hero of the Soviet Union” in the Soviet-Japanese War. She would also have a monument erected in Vladivostok. However, nothing could compare to the hardships and sacrifices she endured to help her fellow Soviets during that time of uncertainties and chaos, even when she could’ve just run and saved herself.
Girl from Smolenka
Before Tsukanova was born on September 14, 1924, her father had died several months before. She was taken to a Russian peasant family in the village of Smolenka, in the Tyumen region. Her mother remarried when she was five and grew up living with her mother, stepfather, and brother.
She spent her childhood and adolescence in the Krasnoyarsk Territory until junior high. In 1941, Tsukanova worked as a telephone operator and a nurse in a hospital in Rostov. She then moved to Irkutsk and worked at the Irkutsk Aviation Plant from February to June 1942— as a student and later as an inspector and controller of the 4th category. She was a working student who, at the same time, was taking courses in medicine.
Volunteered to Serve
When the decree of the State Defense Committee of the USSR appealed to the public for 25,000 female volunteers for the Navy in May 1942, Mariya did not think for a second and enlisted herself. On June 13, she was already on her way to serve on the Pacific front to fight as part of the 51st artillery battalion as a signalman. Later, she was reassigned to the 100th and 419th artillery batteries as a rangefinder. After graduating from the school of junior medical specialists in 1944, she was deployed as a medical orderly of the 355th Independent Guards Naval Infantry Battalion.
The USSR won over Nazi Germany, but the chaos was far from over. They entered a war with Imperial Japan on the Kuril Islands territory, the Korean peninsula, and northern China. This was just three months after their victory, along with the Anti-Hitler Coalition in Europe countries.
The Soviet Union invaded the Korean port of Seisin on August 13, 1945. This port was well guarded and fortified with a large Japanese garrison of some 4,000 people. The next day, Tsukanova and the 355th Battalion arrived at Seisin and joined the rest of the troops in operation. She was part of a landing group tasked to take control of the port. They were, naturally, welcomed by the Japanese forces with heavy shelling.
Tending to the Wounded
On that first day she was there, Mariya had already got wounded on her shoulder, which she chose to disregard and instead continued to provide medical help to the injured troops. As the battle raged, more and more of the Navy got wounded. For two days, she carried about 52 sailors off the warzone. Finally, on August 15, she was with a group of soldiers in the fortified hill region. It was unclear if she became a part of the wounded soldiers trying to withdraw or in a reconnaissance team, but she again got injured in the leg, rendering her unconscious.
When she woke up, Tsukanova found herself in the hands and mercy of the Japanese troops, who wanted her to give out information about the tactics of the Soviets. She did not say anything, and the Japanese began torturing her cruelly and unimaginableFirst, her hands were cut off. They then poked her eyes and killed her by cutting her head off when she still didn’t say anything.
Her mutilated body had to wait until the Soviets managed to capture the hill where the Japanese headquarters was. There, they discovered the butchered body of their Navy nurse. They had her remains wrapped in cloth before being buried there in Seisin and the other bodies in the common grave.
Mariya Nikitichna Tsukanova was posthumously awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union on September 14, 1945, by the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. This made her the only woman to receive such a title in the Soviet-Japanese war. In 2010, her monument was erected on the “Hill of Heroes.” There were also streets named in honor of her.