A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes

Khalid Elhassan - September 13, 2020

A life is full of perils we strive to escape, and sometimes it seems that the world is out to get us, with the Grim Reaper breathing down our necks. Risk to life and limb is greater in wartime, but even peacetime has more than its fair share of hazards. Some escape mortal threats with panache via ingenuity and daring, while others owe their escape to plain dumb luck. Following are forty things about some fascinating escapes from history.

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
Bruce Carr’s P-51 at war’s end. PME

32. More Heroics After a Heroic Escape

Bruce Carr was promoted to first lieutenant, and given a well-deserved leave. However, his wartime exploits were not over. On April 2nd, 1945, First Lieutenant Carr led three other American fighters on a reconnaissance mission, when they spotted 60 German fighters above them. Despite the 15:1 odds against his flight, Carr immediately led an attack. Within minutes, Carr and his companions had downed 15 Germans. Carr personally downed two Fw190s, three Me109s, and damaged a sixth plane. That made Carr the European theater’s last ace-in-a-day (somebody who shot down 5 or more enemy in a day). It also earned him a Distinguished Service Cross, the country’s second-highest award for valor.

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
Distinguished Service Cross. War Relics

By war’s end, Carr had flown 172 combat missions, scored 15 confirmed air-to-air kills, several more unconfirmed victories, and numerous ground kills. He flew another 57 combat missions during the Korean War, and 286 more in Vietnam, earning a Legion of Merit and three Distinguished Flying Crosses. He retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 1973, died of prostate cancer in 1998, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
‘Into the White’ poster. DVD Release Dates

31. Survival and Escape in Scandinavian Snows

In 2012, one of WWII’s more dramatic but lesser-known survival and escape stories hit the silver screen with the release of Into the White. Set during the Norwegian Campaign, the movie depicts the travails of the crews of a German Heinkel He 111 and a British Blackburn Skua after they shot each other down. They crashed not far from each other, and were then forced to come together to escape a wintry death and survive the harsh elements.

Based on true events, although jazzed up and dramatized, the movie’s core event actually happened. On April 27th, 1940, Captain Richard Thomas Partridge of the British Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm shot down a German Heinkel He 111 bomber in Norway, and was then forced to crash land nearby soon thereafter. Once on the ground, Partridge and his crewmate made contact with the downed German bomber’s surviving crewmen, and the enemies agreed to cooperate. British and German airmen then hung out together, helping each other out, until rescued by a Norwegian ski patrol.

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
German troops marching through Oslo, on the first day of their invasion of Norway. Wikimedia

30. The Background of a Dramatic Escape and Survival Story

In 1929, Richard Thomas Partridge joined the British Royal Navy. After a stint in the China Station serving aboard HMS Hermes, the world’s first purpose-built aircraft carrier, he decided that naval aviation was the thing for him. So he applied for pilot training, made it through the aviation curriculum, and received his wings in 1934. Partridge then spent the next few years serving in naval aviation squadrons aboard aircraft carriers, interspersed with brief stints aboard a cruiser and with the Royal Marines. He returned to the Fleet Air Arm in 1939, a few months before WWII began.

On April 9th, 1940, months of relative inactivity following Germany’s conquest of Poland, derisively known as the “Phony War” or sitzkrieg, ended when the Germans invaded Norway. The Germans sought to protect their access to Swedish iron ore, upon which their war industry depended, huge quantities of which reached Germany via the Norwegian port of Narvik. Britain and France sought to disrupt that access, so they sent a ground and naval expedition to contest the matter with the Germans. The stage was set for a remarkable escape and survival story.

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
Blackburn Skuas aboard HMS Ark Royal. Wikimedia

29. An Aerial Meeting of Enemies – and Eventual Temporary Allies

Captain Partridge joined the Norwegian Campaign on April 24th, 1940, when he was made commanding officer of No. 800 Squadron, aboard the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal. His unit flew Blackburn Skuas – low wing carrier-based two-seater, single-engine planes, that combined the functions of dive bombers and fighters. Within 24 hours of taking command of the squadron, Ark Royal was positioned 120 miles off the Norwegian shore, and Partridge was in the thick of the fighting.

On April 27th, Partridge, with Lieutenant R. S. Bostock in his plane as radio operator/ aerial gunner, led his men on a sweep north of the Norwegian capital, Oslo. They came upon a flight of German Heinkel He 111 bombers without fighter escort. Most of the bombers scattered upon sighting the British airplanes, but one of them, flown by a lieutenant Horst Schopis, doggedly flew on. Partridge led three Skuas in falling upon it. They shot up the bomber’s port engine, forcing it down in a remote mountainous area miles away from anywhere.

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
Heinkel He 111s. ThoughtCo

28. Short-Lived Triumph

Captain Partridge’s and Lieutenant Bostock’s joy over shooting down the German bomber was short-lived. Shortly after downing the He 111, Partridge discovered that his own airplane had sustained damage, probably from the Germans’ return fire, and his engine began to act up. Before long, he lost all power as his engine quit on him altogether, and Partridge’s Skua became overweight and unwieldy glider.

With great difficulty and considerable skill, Partridge managed to escape death by gliding down to a bumpy landing on a frozen lake, not far from where the Heinkel had crashed. Partridge’s plane was totaled, but he and Bostock survived: a few minor bumps and bruises aside, neither airman had sustained any serious injuries. They were alive, but unless they figured out how to escape the deadly cold, they would not stay alive for long.

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
Blackburn Skuas. Captured Wings

27. A Rough Landing and a Lucky Escape

Captain Partridge and Lieutenant Bostock came through the crash landing relatively unscathed, without either being much the worse for wear. The same could not be said for the German bomber crew they had shot down. It consisted of Lieutenant Horst Schopis, the pilot; Sergeant Karl-Heinz Strunk, the crew chief; Lance Corporal Josef Auchtor, the plane’s mechanic; and Private Hans Hauk, the tail gunner.

The Luftwaffe airmen’s return to earth had been far tougher than that of Partridge and Bostock. All the Heinkel’s crew were dinged up when their plane crash-landed in the mountains, and Hauk, the tail gunner, was killed. Although the rest of the crew had managed to escape death, they too, like the British airmen who had shot them down, were in serious trouble.

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
Richard Thomas Partridge. Traces of War

26. A Tense Meeting

During his forced descent, Captain Partridge had spotted a dwelling near his intended landing site, which turned out to be a reindeer hunter’s hut. After crash landing, he and Bostock trudged through high snow drifts to find shelter there. No sooner had the British airmen made it to the hut, shaken off the snow, and started to warm themselves, than a piercing whistle alerted them that others were in the area. Through the swirling snow, they saw three figures approaching their hut: the downed Heinkel’s surviving crew.

Understandably, the Germans men were not in a good mood, alternating between scowls and shouts, and wildly gesticulating as they brandished pistols and knives while approaching the British airmen. The Germans were in a dangerous frame of mind, unlikely to let bygones be bygones and be good sports if they came across those who had shot them down. So to save their lives, Partridge and Bostock lied.

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
Wellington bombers. Encyclopedia Britannica

25. Lying to Escape Death

Captain Partridge and Lieutenant Bostock reasoned that they were in a situation in which discretion was clearly the better part of valor. So they refrained from volunteering that it was they who had shot down the Germans. The British airmen claimed that they, too, were bomber crew, who had been flying a Wellington bomber when it was shot down by a Luftwaffe fighter.

Having established some commonality that crossed nationality, based on a supposed mutual detestation of fighter pilots – a detestation that was quite genuine on the Germans’ part – the grounds for a temporary truce were set in place. It was cold outside and getting dark, so Partridge and Bostock invited the Germans into the hut, while they left to find shelter elsewhere. They found it at the nearby Grotli Hotel – an empty summer vacation chalet, closed for the winter.

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
The Grotli Hotel in 1940. Gudbrandsalsmusea AS

24. How to Survive and Escape a Mutual Predicament?

While the German airmen spent the night of April 27 – 28 in the reindeer hunter’s hut, Captain Partridge and Lieutenant Bostock made do in the far more commodious Grotli Hotel. The following morning, the Germans spotted the hotel, and made their way there. Rooting through the establishment’s cupboards, the airmen found enough in the larder for a decent meal, and the enemy combatants sat down together around a dining table to share a hearty breakfast.

The two sides then tried to figure out the best course of action to get out of their mutual predicament. They were stuck in snow-covered mountainous terrain, in the middle of nowhere, with no means of communication with their chains of command or the outside world. They reasoned that it was unlikely that anybody would come looking for them, and that sooner or later, they would run out of food. That being so, they figured that in order to escape death, they would have to shift for themselves.

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
Norwegian WWII ski trooper, right, and other Norwegian soldiers. Pintrest

23. Enemies on a Joint Mission

The two sides eventually decided upon a joint mission to escape their predicament. British Captain Partridge and German Sergeant Strunk would set out together to explore the surroundings and try to spot civilization or other people. The duo did not end up going far on their joint mission. Within moments of exiting the Grotli Hotel, Partridge and Strunk came upon a Norwegian ski patrol. Strunk shouted “Ingleesh“, to which a Norwegian responded with a warning shot. Partridge immediately dove to the ground for cover.

The commotion outside the hotel resulted in consternation inside, and Bostock came rushing out, fearing betrayal and suspecting that the German had shot Partridge. He arrived just in time to witness Strunk make the foolhardy decision of trying to pull out his pistol. It is unclear just what was going through the German’s mind, and his intentions will never be known. The ski patrol, seeing Strunk reaching for a weapon, shot him dead on the spot. Lieutenant Schopis and Lance Corporal Auchtor surrendered to the Norwegians. They were handed to the British, who shipped them to POW camps in Canada where they spent the rest of the war.

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
Reunion of Horst Schopis and Richard Partridge in 1977. Pintrest

22. Aftermath of a Dramatic Escape

As to Captain Partridge and Lieutenant Bostock, the Norwegians took them for Germans, and were highly skeptical of their claims that they were British officers. They eventually convinced the Norwegians, and were set free to rejoin their countrymen. By then, the British had all but lost the Norwegian Campaign. After hiking through the mountains, and commandeering a car, Partridge and Bostock made it to a British-held port, just in time to escape capture.

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
Horst Schopis during the filming of ‘Into the White’. Last Bass Outpost

They were evacuated to Britain, but their freedom did not last long. On June 13th, 1940, they took part in a failed raid that sought to sink the German battleship Scharnhorst, and both were shot down. Lieutenant Bostock was killed. Captain Partridge was captured and spent the rest of the war in a German POW camp. He died in 1990. Lieutenant Horst Schopis lived to the ripe old age of 99, dying in 2011, one year before the release of Into the White.

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
The Grim Reaper must have grown frustrated with his many failed attempts to gather in Frane Selek. Pinterest

21. How Many Times Can a Man Escape Death?

For as long as Frane Selak can remember, the Grim Reaper seems to have been out to get him. Yet he somehow managed to escape his clutches time after time. Born in Croatia, Selak has often been labeled the world’s luckiest unlucky man. Unlucky because he faced more than his fair share of horrific mishaps and accidents. Lucky because he survived and managed to escape with his life – and some of those accidents were of a type that nobody had any business surviving.

Selak’s record of mishaps includes being in a train that derailed and plunged into a river. He was in a bus that skidded off a road and fell into a river. He was blown out of an airplane. His car erupted into flames while he was driving – twice. He was hit by a bus. His car hit a guardrail and plunged 300 feet off a cliff.

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
Frane Selak survived a derailment that sent his train plunging into an ice-cold river. Watt the Fisk

20. An Escape Record Going Back Decades

In 1962, Frane Selak kicked off his decades of ducking death when a train in which he was riding skidded off the rails, and plunged down a canyon into an icy river. Seventeen passengers drowned, but Selak managed to escape the Grim Reaper. He got away with a broken arm and hypothermia from immersion in the cold water.

In 1963, on his first and only plane ride, Selak was blown out of a malfunctioning door, but again managed to escape death: he landed on a haystack. The plane crashed, killing nineteen people. Three years later, he was on a bus whose driver lost control, plunging it into a river. Four passengers drowned, but Selak survived with just some cuts and bruises.

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
Frane Selak was driving a car, when it started spurting flames at him through the air vents. Spiegel

19. Capping Off a Miraculous Escape Streak by Winning the Lottery

Harrowing as the 1960s had been for Frane Selak, the 1970s were no better. The decade began with his car erupting into flames while he was driving. He jumped out just before the fuel tank exploded. In 1973, a bad pump sprayed his new car’s engine with hot oil while he was driving. It caught fire, and shot flames into the passenger compartment. He escaped with no worse than singed hair.

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
Frane Selak after winning the lottery. Next Shark

The 1980s were uneventful, but then in 1995, Selak was hit by a bus. He escaped with only minor injuries. The following year, he barely avoided a head-on collision with a truck on a mountain road – but only by swerving into and through a guardrail. His car fell 300 feet down a gorge. Luckily for him, he was not wearing a seatbelt: he was flung out the door, and in cartoon fashion, managed to hang on to a tree branch, while his car was totaled and incinerated below. Then in 2003, fate finally decided to do Selak a solid with no strings attached: he won €800,000 in the lottery – equivalent to U$1.1 million.

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
Dr. William Brydon, the last survivor of the British retreat from Kabul, arriving at Jellalabad. British Battles

18. A Doctor’s Lucky Escape

In 1842, Afghanistan was as messy and wracked by strife as it is today. On January 13th, British sentries in Jellalabad, Afghanistan, were on high alert. They were on the lookout for a British army that had recently evacuated the Afghan capital, Kabul, and was expected to arrive any day now.

No army arrived, but late that afternoon, the sentries saw a single rider approaching. It was Dr. William Brydon, a surgeon in the East India Company’s Bengal Army. He was the sole survivor to complete the British retreat from Kabul, and escape an epic disaster that had annihilated an entire army. The ordeal that had consumed his comrades was a harrowing one.

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
The Russian bear and the British lion vied for Afghanistan during The Great Game. Amazon

17. The British Enter Afghanistan

For most of the nineteenth century, Afghanistan was a football over which Russia and Britain struggled as they jockeyed for influence in Central Asia. The Russians pursued their version of “Manifest Destiny” and sought to expand into the region. The British suspected the Russians of coveting India, the jewel of their crown, and sought to keep Tsarist borders as far away as possible from Britain’s most prized imperial possession.

In the 1830s, an Afghan ruler became too friendly with Russia for Britain’s tastes. So the British invaded Afghanistan in 1839, and deposed its Russophile ruler. They replaced him in Kabul with a British puppet, and garrisoned the Afghan capital and key cities to keep their new pet in power. Things initially went well. The British made themselves comfortable in Afghanistan, and it seemed only a matter of time before they annexed it.

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
The British storming an Afghan fortress en route to occupying Afghanistan. Wikimedia

16. The British Try to Escape Afghanistan

Unfortunately for the nineteenth-century British, they were about to discover what the Soviets learned in the twentieth century and the Americans would in the twenty-first: the Afghans were an obstreperous and turbulent lot. Britain’s puppet ruler proved incapable of controlling Afghanistan, and chaos soon engulfed the country. By 1841, discontent had flared into open revolt as the Afghan tribes rebelled against the British and their pet ruler. As the countryside was lost and supply lines to India were cut off, British control shrank to the garrisoned cities. Eventually, the British controlled little more than the grounds of their fortified garrisons.

The British sought a face-saving escape from what had become an untenable situation. They removed their puppet ruler, dusted off the ruler whom they had deposed in 1839, and reinstalled him in power. In exchange, they extracted his promise to control the unruly Afghan tribes long enough for the British to evacuate Afghanistan and withdraw in peace.

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
The retreat from Kabul soon became a shambles. British Battles

15. Dashing Hopes For a Smooth Escape

It is unclear whether the reinstalled Afghan ruler deliberately betrayed the British, or whether he simply lacked the influence to control the tribesmen. Either way, things went sour for the British and their hopes for exiting Afghanistan with dignity.

On January 6th, 1842, a British column of 16,5000 soldiers and civilians set out from Kabul amid falling snow. They had barely made it a mile beyond the city, before they began to take sniper fire from the surrounding hills. By day’s end, emboldened Afghan tribesmen were dashing in and out of the column to loot the supply train and butcher whoever they could lay their hands on. On the first night of the retreat, many froze to death when the column halted and set up camp in the open without tents.

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
Afghans cutting down the retreating British in mountain passes. The Telegraph

14. Vanishing Hopes

The following day, some Afghan leaders arrived and demanded that the British halt while they tried to ensure the safety of the route ahead. The Afghans extorted a large sum of money, negotiated a British agreement to withdraw immediately from all of Afghanistan, and demanded that they be given officers as hostages.

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
‘Last Stand of the 44th Foot at Gandamak’, by William Barnes Wollen. Wikimedia

When the British resumed the march, many of their soldiers had become too debilitated by the cold to fight. British aspirations were reduced from exiting Afghanistan with dignity, to a simple hope of surviving what was shaping out to be a hellish fix. That was driven home when the column entered a narrow pass, and was fired upon by tribesmen from the rocks above. What little semblance was left of an orderly retreat vanished, as the column was transformed into a panicked mob, stampeding its way through the deadly pass with no hope other than escape. By the time the column exited the path, it had lost about 3000 casualties. Over the following days, the Afghans shook down the British for more hostages and more money, in exchange for empty promises to rein in the hostile tribesmen.

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
Dr. Brydon entering Jellalabad. The Telegraph

13. A Lone Survivor

On January 11th, the British commander and his deputy were forced to surrender in exchange for yet another promise of safe passage. Like the previous promises, it was worthless. Soon thereafter, the British found their escape path barred, this time for good, by entrenched Afghans who had blocked and fortified a pass. A desperate charge was made to try and breakthrough, but it was beaten back.

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
Dr. William Brydon in old age. Granger Collection

Dr. William Brydon and five other British officers managed to escape as far as Fatehabad. There, hostile Afghans fell upon them, and all of Brydon’s companions were slain. On January 13th, 1842, a week after setting out from Kabul, the last group of armed survivors formed a tiny square and made a last stand. They put up a heroic fight, but went under just the same. Later that afternoon, British sentries in Jellalabad, on the lookout for the arrival of the Kabul garrison, saw a single rider approaching. It was Dr. Brydon, wounded and just about on his last legs from hunger, thirst, and fatigue. He was the only one who completed the British retreat from Kabul.

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
Teddy Roosevelt campaigning in 1912. ThoughtCo

12. Teddy Roosevelt Stunned an Audience by Stating “I Don’t Know Whether You Fully Understand That I Have Been Shot

In 1912, former American President Theodore Roosevelt had come to regret his decision to leave the White House in 1908. So he returned to the campaign trail, running for president as candidate of the Bull Moose Party. On October 14th of that year, he made his way to a podium at the Milwaukee Auditorium and opened with the unremarkable statement “Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible“.

Next, however, he delivered one of the most remarkable lines ever uttered on the presidential stump: “I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have been shot“. As the horrified audience gasped, TR unbuttoned his vest, to reveal a bloodstained shirt beneath and demonstrate his lucky escape from death. The former president then topped his previous statement with an even more memorable one: “it takes more than that to kill a bull moose!

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
Roosevelt’s blood-stained shirt, with the bullet hole. History Channel

11. “I Do Not Care a Rap About Being Shot

Roosevelt pulled out a 50 page speech from his coat pocket, pierced through with a bullet, and continued: “Fortunately I had my manuscript, so you see I was going to make a long speech, and there is a bullet—there is where the bullet went through—and it probably saved me from it going into my heart. The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best“.

Just about any other candidate – except maybe Andrew Jackson – would have keeled over in shock. That, or at least bid the audience adieu before rushing to seek medical care. Not Theodore Roosevelt. Assuring his audience “I give you my word, I do not care a rap about being shot; not a rap“, he proceeded to deliver a ninety-minute fiery speech.

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
John Flammang Schrank, Teddy Roosevelt’s would-be assassin. Fine Art America

10. Saving His Would-Be Killer’s Life

Teddy Roosevelt’s assassination had been attempted at 8 PM, as he got into an open-air car outside his hotel and waved his hat at the crowd. Just then, the darkness was lit up by a flash from a .38 Colt revolver – TR had been shot. An aide grappled with the would-be assassin and prevented him from firing another shot, before the crowd joined in.

The culprit, a deranged Bavarian immigrant named John Flammang Schrank, would have been lynched on the spot if Roosevelt had not intervened to save his life: “Don’t hurt him. Bring him here. I want to see him. Roosevelt then asked Schrank “What did you do it for?” When Schrank stayed mum, TR told the crowd to turn him over to the police.

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
The speech that saved Roosevelt’s life. History Channel

9. Roosevelt Owed His Escape From Death to a Speech

Roosevelt reached inside his shirt and felt around, until he encountered a dime-sized hole, and told an aide “He pinked me“. The former president then coughed into his hand a few times. Seeing no blood, he determined that his lung had not been pierced. He then directed that he be driven to the Milwaukee Auditorium, to address the waiting audience. Whether or not the pen is actually mightier than the sword, in this case, it was conclusively demonstrated that words were literally mightier than a bullet.

TR owed his escape from death to his hefty speech. Squeezed into his jacket pocket, the speech had combined with a glass case and a dense overcoat to slow the bullet. It was later recovered lodged against his fourth rib, on a trajectory to his heart. As to the shooter, Schrank acted because of a dream, in which the assassinated President William McKinley had urged him to avenge him by killing his vice president and successor, Roosevelt. Schrank was found legally insane, and institutionalized until his death in 1943.

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
The mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. History Daily

8. The Japanese Man Who Managed to Escape the Frying Pan by Heading Into the Fire

On the morning of August 6th, 1945, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries employee Tsutomu Yamaguchi was going about his work while on an out-of-town business trip. Unfortunately, that trip had taken him to Hiroshima, so he was there when an American B-29 dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on that city.

The blast blinded him temporarily, ruptured his eardrums, and inflicted serious burns on his upper body. Nonetheless, although he had suffered some burns, Yamaguchi managed to escape with his life and survived. After spending the night in an air-raid shelter, he left the devastated Hiroshima the following day and returned home. Unfortunately, home for Tsutomu Yamaguchi happened to be Nagasaki.

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
Tsutomu Yamaguchi. All That Is Interesting

7. Super Unlucky, or Super Lucky?

Tsutomu Yamaguchi made it back home to Nagasaki, and reported for work on the morning of August 9th, still heavily bandaged. He was in the middle of describing the Hiroshima atomic blast to a supervisor, when a B-29 dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. This time around, Yamaguchi was about two miles from ground zero, so he was not as badly hurt as he had been in Hiroshima. However, between the shock and possible radiation sickness, he ended up throwing up for a week while suffering a high fever.

Yamaguchi might have been one of history’s unluckiest individuals, considering that had an atomic bomb dropped on him – twice. He might also have been one of history’s luckiest individuals, seeing as how he survived having an atomic bomb dropped on him, and managed to escape death twice. Either way, Tsutomu Yamaguchi recovered fully and lived until 2010, when he died at the ripe old age of 93.

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
Radioactive plume from the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, as seen from 9.6 kilometers away. Pinterest

6. Hundreds Managed to Escape With Their Lives From Two Atomic Bombings

Tsutomu Yamaguchi’s experience of surviving two atomic bombings might have been quite extraordinary. As things turned it, however, while what had happened to him was rare, it was not unique.

Hundreds of people were atomically bombed in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Although up to 200,000 people perished in the nuclear explosions and in their aftermaths, at least 200 survivors of the Hiroshima explosion had sought refuge in Nagasaki, only to face the same fate again, just a few days later.

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
Battered religious figures stand watch on a hill above a tattered valley in Nagasaki after the atomic bombing. Wikimedia

5. There Is Even a Japanese Term for “The Double Atomic Bombed

In 2006, a documentary called Twice Survived: The Doubly Atomic Bombed of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was produced, and screened at the United Nations. The documentary’s producers had tracked down 165 people who had been in Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945, when that city was nuked, then ended up in Nagasaki when that city experienced a similar fate three days later on the 9th.

Those who survived were able to testify for the rest of their lives about what it was like to escape not one, but two atomic blasts. The Japanese, who coined the term hibakusha (“atomic bombed”) to describe the survivors of the atomic bombings, refer to those double survivors as the nijyuu hibakusha (“double atomic bombed”).

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
A model of Kokura, made for bomb targeting purposes in 1945. Nuclear Secrecy

4. A City’s Lucky Escape

Disaster and an escape from disaster, catastrophe or salvation, are often separated by a thin margin that depends on little more than the vagaries and whims of fate. Few examples are more illustrative of that than the fate of the Japanese city of Kokura on August 9th, 1945. At 3:49 AM that morning, a B-29 piloted by US Air Force Major Charles W. Sweeney, nicknamed the Bockscar, took off from Tinian Island in the Pacific, headed for Kokura.

In Bockscar’s bomb bay was Fat Man, a plutonium atomic bomb, more powerful than the uranium core weapon that had devastated Hiroshima three days earlier. As late-night turned to dawn and then morning, Kokura stirred and came to life, its inhabitants blissfully unaware that death was winging its way towards them. Weather observation planes reported clear skies over Kokura. Bockscar proceeded to a rendezvous point where it was supposed to link up with Big Stink, another B-29 that was tasked with filming the strike. Then fate intervened, and decreed that Kokura was to escape destruction.

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
Bockscar, the B-29 that took off with an atomic bomb intended for Kokura. National Air and Space Museum

3. Saved by the Weather

Big Stink, the B-29 with which Bockscar was scheduled to rendezvous, was nowhere to be seen when the bomber with the atomic bomb reached Kokura. So Bockscar circled around, waiting for the film plane to show up. After 40 minutes of flying around, Major Sweeney gave up on Big Stink, and proceeded to Kokura. By then, however, clouds, plus smoke from a conventional bombing raid on a nearby city, had combined to obscure Kokura.

For the next 50 minutes, Bockscar crisscrossed the skies above Kokura, hoping for enough of a break in the cloud and smoke to drop its bomb. Below, the Kokurans went about their daily lives, oblivious to the death circling above. After three failed bombing runs, Sweeney finally gave up and flew at a new heading for his designated alternate target in case he was unable to bomb Kokura: Nagasaki. One city’s salvation proved to be another city’s doom.

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
Pancho Villa. Biography

2. A Mexican Icon’s Reprieve

Mexican rebel Francisco “Pancho” Villa (1878 – 1923) led a long and adventurous life, in which he rose from destitute peon to bandit to warlord to folk hero. He began his outlaw career at age sixteen, when he reportedly killed his first man: a hacienda owner whom he accused of raping his sister. He then stole his victim’s horse and fled to the hills, which became his base for years to come as he turned to banditry.

Villa was captured in 1902 and faced the death penalty. However, he managed to escape that fate by getting inducted into the Mexican army. He deserted after killing an officer and stealing his horse, and returned to banditry. In 1910, when the Mexican Revolution began, Villa was persuaded that he could fight for the people by directing his banditry against hacienda owners. He proved adept at the revolution’s style of warfare and was instrumental in defeating the government’s forces in northern Mexico.

A Downed Pilot Who Ran Away in a Stolen Enemy Plane and Other Historic Escapes
Pancho Villa in front of a firing squad, moments before he was scheduled to be executed. Wikimedia

1. A Dramatic Last Minute Escape From Death Before a Firing Squad

When Mexico’s new government failed to enact promised land reforms, its rebel alliance split. Pancho Villa, appointed a brigadier general, supported the new government against his former comrades. Then he struck a superior general during a heated argument, and was sentenced to death. In dramatic fashion, he managed to escape death at literally the last minute, when a telegram from the president arrived, commuting the death sentence to imprisonment instead.

It did not take long for Villa to escape. He fled to the US, but returned to Mexico in 1913, after securing American support to fight against a new government that had seized power in a coup. He again achieved considerable success, and local military commanders appointed him governor of the state of Chihuahua. As governor, he confiscated grand haciendas, and broke them up into smaller plots which he redistributed to the widows and families of fallen revolutionaries. It was during this period that Villa gained international fame, and was depicted in the press as a romantic bandit-warrior who took from the rich and gave to the poor.

Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

All That’s Interesting – The Seven Unbelievable Survival Stories Of Frane Selak

History Collection – Pilot Accidentally Lands in Enemy Airfield and Other Historic Mistakes

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Brown University – Dr. William Brydon and the massacre of the British force in Afghanistan in 1842

World Atlas – The Hibakusha – Survivors Of The Hiroshima And Nagasaki Atomic Bombs

The New York Times – Kokura, Japan: Bypassed by A-Bomb

Medium – Hiroshima and… Kokura?