Daring Escapes from Concentrations Camps, Enemies, and Crashed Planes

Daring Escapes from Concentrations Camps, Enemies, and Crashed Planes

Khalid Elhassan - November 11, 2021

Dangers and perils come at us in many shapes and forms, and all we can do is try to duck and escape them as best as we know how. Some are better at escape than the rest of us. Take the World War II Soviet pilot who was captured and ended up in a Nazi concentration camp, where thousands toiled in horrible conditions. So he stole an airplane and flew it back to the USSR. Following are thirty things about that and other fascinating escapes from history.

Daring Escapes from Concentrations Camps, Enemies, and Crashed Planes
Colorized photo of Mikhail Devyataev. Klimbim

30. A Soviet Fighter Ace Better Known For His Intrepid Escape Than for the Nazi Planes He Shot Down

Soviet fighter ace Mikhail Petrovich Devyataev (1917 – 2002) shot down nine German airplanes during WWII. He is best known, however, for a daring escape from a Nazi concentration camp in a stolen German airplane. The thirteenth child of a peasant family, Devyataev had captained a small ship on the Volga River, before he was conscripted and sent to flight school, from which he graduated in 1940. He trained in fighter airplanes, and his first kill came on August 24, 1941, just two days after the Nazis attacked the USSR, when he downed a Junkers Ju 87 “Stuka” dive bomber. A severe injury to his left leg a few months later put him in a hospital for many months.

Upon his discharge, he was assigned to fly Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes for a medical unit. He returned to fighter airplanes in May, 1944, and by early July, his combat sortie total had risen to 180 flights, and his kills included not just a Stuka, but also a Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighter. On July 13, 1944, as Devyataev flew in an American-made Bell Airacobra P-39 as wingman for the commander of the 104th Guards Fighter Regiment, he was shot down over Lviv. Although injured, he parachuted safely, but landed behind German lines, was captured, and sent to the Lodz concentration camp as a prisoner of war. He immediately began to plan an escape.

Daring Escapes from Concentrations Camps, Enemies, and Crashed Planes
The gallows of Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Holocaust Research Project

29. Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire

Mikhail Devyataev was not content to sit out the rest of the war as a POW and sought to escape, get back to his side, and get back into the fight. He dug a tunnel to try and get out of the Lodz concentration camp, but it was discovered by guards and he was caught on August 13, 1944. The attempted escape got him packed off to the even more hellish Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Brandenburg, Germany. As he recalled decades later: “When we came through the front entrance, two corpses were hanging on it [the gallows] … It shocked me. I thought, ‘What place have I come to?’

There, Devyataev figured that his odds of survival as a Soviet pilot were slim – Nazi guards treated them with extra brutality. So he stole the identity of a dead Red Army infantryman named Nikitenko. Bad as Sachsenhausen was, things got worse for Devyataev in late 1944 when he and about 500 other inmates were packed like sardines into cattle cars on the first leg of a tortuous journey. At least 30 prisoners perished in his railcar. Their destination was Peenemunde on the island of Usedom in the Baltic Sea. It was the test site for Germany’s V-1 and V-2 rockets, and the new arrivals were to replenish the stock of slave laborers who were routinely worked to death.

Daring Escapes from Concentrations Camps, Enemies, and Crashed Planes
A Heinkel He 111, the kind of bomber that Devyataev stole. Bundesarchiv Bild

28. A Desperate Plan

The Peenemunde concentration camp was patrolled by vicious dogs and even more vicious Nazi guards. Mikhail Devyataev recounted that: “They beat us while we were working. There were ‘unwritten rules.’ One punishment was called ‘Ten Days of Life.’ It meant that a prisoner was beaten for 10 days solid, mornings, afternoons and evenings. If he didn’t die on his own during this time, they would kill him on the tenth day.” As the concentration camp was on an island surrounded by sea, escape seemed hopeless, but Devyataev was determined to try. His plan was to steal a Heinkel He 111 bomber from an airfield he was assigned to work on. He convinced three Soviet prisoners to join him.

At noon on February 8, 1945, when most guards were at lunch, one of them killed their guard with a crowbar. Another quickly stripped the dead German of his uniform and donned it, then the “guard” marched his comrades to the runway. Devyataev broke into the cockpit, and one of his comrades spotted a Russian work gang nearby and invited them to join the escape. They eagerly rushed into the airplane, and with a total of ten men on board, Devyataev tried to start it up. To the prisoners’ horror, the engines wouldn’t rev. “I pressed all the buttons at once“, he recalled. The devices did not light up…there were no batteries!” Fortunately, a prisoner sprinted outside, returned with a battery cart, and helped start the engines.

Daring Escapes from Concentrations Camps, Enemies, and Crashed Planes
Mikhail Devyataev had to escape not only German pursuit, but also survive his own side’s antiaircraft fire. History Net

27. In Stalin’s Russia, This Hero Was Punished Rather Than Rewarded for His Courageous Escape

Devyataev and his comrades were not out of the woods yet. He had never flown a bomber, and when he tried to take off like he would with a fighter, it only made the He 111 screech and do donuts on the tarmac. The Germans finally realized something was up and tried to stop the plane, only to almost get run over by Devyataev. He eventually got the plane to move in a straight line, and after two chaotic takeoff attempts on the runway, finally got airborne. The Germans scrambled a fighter to intercept their stolen bomber, but Devyataev evaded it when he flew into clouds and headed towards Sweden. Another fighter intercepted them on its way back from a patrol, but Devyataev once again ducked into the clouds, and the German, low on fuel, was unable to linger.

Devyataev then turned towards the USSR, where the bomber was fired upon by Soviet guns. He managed to land safely, but once on land, the NKVD – the KGB’s predecessor – refused to believe that prisoners could have stolen a plane, unless the Germans had helped them as part of some plot. Seven enlisted escapees were sent to penal units, where five were killed in action by the war’s end. Devyataev and two officers spent time in prison, where they endured intense interrogations. He was discharged from the military in November, 1945, but was classified as a “criminal”. He couldn’t get a job for a long time, and eventually became a manual laborer in the countryside. Devyataev was not cleared until 1957 when he finally received a Hero of the Soviet Union award, and his escape became the subject of multiple newspaper articles and books.

Daring Escapes from Concentrations Camps, Enemies, and Crashed Planes
A B-24 Liberator heavy bomber of the 783rd Squadron, 465th Bomb Group, Fifteenth Air Force, bursts into flame and comes apart after it is struck by antiaircraft fire in 1944. Imgur

26. The Men Who Managed to Escape Death Despite Falling Thousands of Feet From Airplanes Without Parachutes

For combat personnel of the Western Allies who served in Europe, few jobs were more dangerous than those of bomber crews. Especially in the days before Allied fighters secured aerial supremacy over Europe’s skies, when bomber losses were horrific. In 1943, for example, some American Eighth Air Force bomber groups recorded a 400 percent turnover in personnel in just three months. At the time, bomber crews were tasked with a 25-mission tour of duty, but most never made it past five missions.

Things were even more horrendous for those who served in British bombers. Out of a total of 125,000 airmen who flew for the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command, over 55,000 were killed – a 44.4% death rate. A further 8400 were wounded in action, and nearly 10,000 were taken prisoner, for a total loss rate of 58%. Amidst the carnage, there were some extraordinary survival stories – such as those of airmen who somehow survived falls without parachutes from miles up in the air.

Daring Escapes from Concentrations Camps, Enemies, and Crashed Planes
Nicholas Alkemade. RAF Museum

25. The Indestructible Alkemade

An oft-repeated bit of gallows humor bandied about by paratroopers has it that it is not the fall from high up that will kill you. It is the sudden stop at the end that will do you in. The preceding is a good rule of thumb, but like most rules, it has some exceptions. One such was RAF Flight Sergeant Nicholas Stephen Alkemade (1922 – 1987), who served as a rear gunner in an Avro Lancaster heavy bomber on the night of March 24th, 1944.

Part of No. 115 Squadron RAF, Alkemade’s Lancaster was on its way back home from a nighttime bomber raid that had plastered Berlin, when it was attacked by a Junkers Ju 88 configured as a night fighter. The attack set Alkemade’s plane aflame, and it began to spiral out of control. Alkemade’s parachute was burned in the fire. As the flames licked their way towards him, Alkemade decided that he would rather die from a fall than get burned to death, and jumped out of the bomber. He fell 18,000 feet to the ground, but as seen below, somehow managed to escape the Grim Reaper.

Daring Escapes from Concentrations Camps, Enemies, and Crashed Planes
Nicholas Alkemade’s fall. La Bruja la Verde

24. The Gestapo Disbelieved This Airman’s Miraculous Escape Story, Until They Found Proof

Nicholas Alkemade’s guardian angel was especially attentive on the night when the British airman jumped without a parachute into the night sky from a height of more than three miles. He fell into a stand of pine trees, then onto soft snow that covered the ground. Trees and snow broke and cushioned his fall. A stunned Alkemade discovered that he was alive, that he could move all of his limbs, that nothing was broken, and that the only injury he had suffered was a strained leg.

Sergeant Alkemade was captured and interrogated by the Gestapo. The Nazi secret police disbelieved his claims until they found and investigated his bomber’s wreckage. Alkemade spent the rest of the war in a prisoner of war camp, where his miraculous escape story made him a minor celebrity. After the war, he worked in the chemical industry and was featured on Just Amazing, a British TV series about people who pulled off exceptional and extraordinary feats or survived against incredible odds.

Daring Escapes from Concentrations Camps, Enemies, and Crashed Planes
Henry Every. Imgur

23. The Pirate Who Got Away With It

Henry Every (circa 1655 – disappeared 1699), also known as John Avery, Captain Bridgeman, and Long Ben, might have been one of history’s luckiest pirates. Not only did he successfully pull off one of the most lucrative heists in the history of piracy, Every was one of the few major pirates who was not killed in battle or arrested and executed. Instead, he reportedly managed to escape clean, and retire with his loot. Daniel Defoe modeled the hero of his 1720 novel, Life, Adventures, and Piracies, of the Famous Captain Singleton, after Every.

His life also inspired a popular play, The Successful Pyrate, about a fortunate outlaw of the sea who manages to retire after one year of piracy and lives the rest of his life under an assumed name as a rich man. The real-life figure who inspired such fiction was born in Plymouth, England, and went to sea at an early age. By 1694, he was First Mate in the Charles II, a privateer that served the king of Spain, when he led its disgruntled crew in a mutiny that seized the ship.

Daring Escapes from Concentrations Camps, Enemies, and Crashed Planes
A proclamation by the Privy Council of Scotland for the apprehension of Henry Every. National Library of Scotland

22. The Indian Ocean’s Richest Prize

Henry Every was elected by his fellow mutineers to captain the seized Charles II, which was renamed the Fancy. He then made the jump from privateer – semi-official pirates authorized by governments to prey on enemy ships – to outright pirate. He issued a proclamation to assure English ships that they had nothing to fear from him and that he would only attack foreign ships. The proclamation was not the worth the paper it was written on: Every’s first act of piracy was to plunder provisions and supplies from three English merchantmen.

He then sailed into the Indian Ocean and arrived in Madagascar in 1695, where he had the Fancy refitted and modified for speed. Soon thereafter he seized a French ship and convinced 40 of its crew to join him. Eventually, with a crew of about 150 men, he sailed north towards the Red Sea, to intercept the Indian Mughal fleet as it returned from the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. The Mughal fleet was the Indian Ocean’s richest prize, and its capture would yield fabulous riches. Every joined forces with five other pirate ships, and on September 7th, 1695, they spotted their target, a 25-ship Mughal convoy.

Daring Escapes from Concentrations Camps, Enemies, and Crashed Planes
Henry Every’s capture of the Ganj-i-Sawai. Wikiwand

21. A Clean Escape?

Of the Mughal convoy, the richest prize was the fleet’s flagship, the Ganj-i-Sawai, which carried 62 guns and 500 men armed with muskets. The pirates seized it after an hours-long ferocious fight, in which the Mughal captain panicked and fled to hide below decks among concubines. After they secured the vessel, Every and his crew then went on a days-long orgy of assaults and torture. The loot from the Ganj-i-Sawai came to about £600,000 in gold, silver, precious metals and goods. It was the largest single haul ever scored by pirates. There is no honesty among thieves, however, and Henry Every and his men did not want to share with the other pirate ships. So they resorted to trickery.

Every’s men loaded their hold with the loot and made arrangements to meet and divide the bounty, but took off instead. The Fancy, recently modified for speed, soon out-sailed the other pirate ships that followed in her wake in impotent rage, until she disappeared below the horizon. The Fancy made it to the Caribbean, and after the loot was divided, the crew split up and Every disappeared from history. It was commonly assumed that he had made a clean escape, established a new identity somewhere, and spent the rest of his life in the lap of luxury. However, some sources claim that he returned to England, only to get swindled out of his riches and end his days as an impoverished pauper.

Daring Escapes from Concentrations Camps, Enemies, and Crashed Planes
Japanese soldiers surrender their weapons at war’s end. Pinterest

20. The Soldiers Who Fought On After WWII Had Ended

When Japan surrendered in August of 1945, millions of Japanese military personnel were spread across vast swathes of Japanese-held territory in East Asia and the Pacific. Most overcame the shock of defeat and duly obeyed the orders to surrender, broadcast by the Japanese emperor as well as relayed through their chain of command. However, a stubborn minority did not, and set out to escape the perceived shame of surrender. Their motives varied. Some had been cut off from communications with their chain of command, and so never received official notice that the war was over and that they should surrender to Allied military personnel.

Others received the orders to surrender but did not trust their veracity because of their military indoctrination. The Japanese military instilled in its men a warped bushido-based ethos that demanded they fight unto death and avoid the ignominy and dishonor of surrender. As such, it was inconceivable to some that their leaders could have actually gone ahead and accepted the ignominy and dishonor of surrender. By that logic, it followed that the orders to surrender could not have possibly come from their government, but were an enemy trick or ruse of war.

Daring Escapes from Concentrations Camps, Enemies, and Crashed Planes
Japanese soldiers lined up in a POW stockade after their country’s surrender. Associated Press

19. Some Japanese Soldiers Hid and Kept up the Fight for Years to Escape the Perceived Shame of Surrender

Some Japanese military personnel were true believers in Japan’s claims that the war was fought to free fellow Asians from European colonialism. So they stayed behind when their comrades marched off to POW camps and joined forces with nationalist anti-colonial movements such as the Viet Minh. Others had snapped and suffered what would be diagnosed today as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As such, they acted irrationally because of mental instability. Others were simply jerks. They could not swallow their pride and admit that all their wartime sacrifice had been for naught, and face up to the fact that they had lost.

Whatever their motives, thousands of Japanese failed to surrender after WWII had officially ended. Most holdouts did not hold out for long, and within a few months, were convinced that the war had ended. So they stacked their arms and turned themselves in to the nearest Allied forces, or if unable to face the humiliation of surrender, committed suicide. Others, cut off from supplies of food and medicine, starved to death or succumbed to illnesses. Others were tracked down by Allied or native forces and killed. However, a tiny minority survived and held out for far longer continued the war and managed to escape the perceived shame of surrender for years – in some cases, for decades.

Daring Escapes from Concentrations Camps, Enemies, and Crashed Planes
Sergeant Shoichi Yokoi. Wikimedia

18. The Last Holdout in Guam

One of the longest holdouts was that of Imperial Japanese Army Sergeant Shoichi Yokoi, who managed to escape capture for 28 years. He had been posted to Guam in 1943, which was attacked and captured by US forces a year later. Yokoi and nine other Japanese soldiers hid in the island’s interior and refused to surrender at war’s end. The group gradually dwindled over the years, until Yokoi’s last two companions drowned in a flood in 1964, and he was left as the last holdout on Guam.

Daring Escapes from Concentrations Camps, Enemies, and Crashed Planes
Shoichi Yokoi’s underground cave. Mike Dash History

Unlike the majority of holdouts who did not believe that the war was over, Yokoi knew by 1952 that the war had ended with Japan’s surrender. He simply could not bring himself to swallow his pride and return home as a defeated soldier. He also convinced himself that Japan would rise again and attempt to retake Guam, in which case he would be ready and in place to assist with the reconquest. As he awaited that day, Yokoi survived in the jungle and spent his days hidden in an elaborate hole in the ground, from which he emerged at night to hunt lizards and gather tubers and snails.

Daring Escapes from Concentrations Camps, Enemies, and Crashed Planes
Shoichi Yokoi at a police station after his capture. World War II Multimedia Database

17. “I Was Really Good at Hide and Seek

In January 1972, two Guamanian men came across Shoichi Yokoi in the jungle. They took him for a local villager and were ready to move on, but a paranoid Yokoi assumed that they were about to attack him, so he attacked them first. In his emaciated state, after decades spent in a hole in the ground, sustained by a diet of lizards and snails, he was not in the best of shape. The duo beat him up and subdued him, then carried him out of the jungle and back to civilization, where his story finally came out.

Asked how he had managed to escape detection and capture for so long in such a small island, only two miles from a major American airbase, Yokoi replied “I was really good at hide and seek“. Yokoi was famous by the time he arrived back in Japan. Despite 28 years of isolation in a Pacific jungle, his mind was still sharp. He swiftly parleyed his celebrity into a successful media career and became a popular TV personality and an advocate for an austere lifestyle. He succumbed to a heart attack in 1997 and was buried under a gravestone that had been commissioned by his mother in 1955 when he had been officially declared dead.

Daring Escapes from Concentrations Camps, Enemies, and Crashed Planes
A young Johnny Torrio in 1903. My Al Capone Museum

16. The Mob’s Fox

Johnny Torrio, also known as “The Fox” and “Papa Johnny” (1882 – 1957), is best known as the founder of the Chicago Outfit – the criminal empire inherited and made infamous by his protege and successor, Al Capone. A criminal with a vision, he created what became known as the National Crime Syndicate in the 1930s, and became an adviser to infamous mobster Charles “Lucky” Lucky. Torrio was also known for his exceptional luck and a miraculous escape from an attempt by rivals to rub him out.

Torrio had started his criminal career in a street gang and eventually became its leader. He then steadily worked his way up the criminal world’s ranks as loan shark and bookie, before he caught the eye of Paul Kelly, leader of NYC’s Five Points Gang, who took him on as a protege. Eventually, Torrio was invited to Chicago by his aunt’s husband, “Big Jim” Colosimo, the owner of over 100 brothels, to deal with extortionists who sought to prey on his businesses. Torrio took care of the problem and stayed on as Colosimo’s right hand and muscle.

Daring Escapes from Concentrations Camps, Enemies, and Crashed Planes
Big Jim Colosimo, left. Pinterest

15. Prohibition as an Opportunity

As soon as Prohibition was declared in January 1920, Johnny Torrio recognized that it represented an opportunity to reap fabulous riches. He proposed to make alcohol and sell it at a steep markup, now that it was illegal. He came up with an idea to buy breweries, now shuttered and thus readily purchased for pennies on the dollar from desperate sellers. He would then operate them illegally to supply the thousands of speakeasies, brothels, and nightclubs in Chicago and the nearby region.

However, when Torrio ran the idea by his boss, he shot it down. Big Jim Colosimo reasoned that all of Chicago’s criminal outfits were bound to have had the same idea and that if got involved in the illegal alcohol business, it only invite trouble and drag him into confrontations that he would sooner avoid. When Torrio proposed to run the racket on his own, assume all the risk, and split the proceeds with his boss, Colosimo flatly prohibited him, and decreed that nobody in his organization was to participate in bootlegging. That was bad news – for Colosimo.

Daring Escapes from Concentrations Camps, Enemies, and Crashed Planes
Frankie Yale mugshot. Al Capone Museum

14. The Creation of the Chicago Outfit

The potential profits to be made from illegal alcohol were too lucrative for Johnny Torrio to listen to his boss. So he, with the assistance of his protege Al Capone, went ahead and bought breweries behind Big Jim Colosimo’s back, and began to operate them rake in the profits. However, it became increasingly difficult to juggle the books, which were regularly inspected by Colosimo, and things began to get tricky. When Colosimo started to get suspicious, Torrio decided that he should best strike first. So he called in a business associate from New York City, Frankie Yale, who shot Colosimo dead in May 1920.

Within hours of Colosimo’s death, Torrio took over his empire, created what became known as The Chicago Outfit, and became that city’s biggest mobster and one of its most powerful kingpins. As the Outfit expanded its operations from its base in Chicago’s South Side, it came into conflict with the Irish-American North Side Gang. After initial attempts at peaceful coexistence failed, Torrio ordered the murder of the North Side boss in November 1924. The result was a bloody gang war, in which only a miracle allowed Torrio to escape with his life.

Daring Escapes from Concentrations Camps, Enemies, and Crashed Planes
Johnny Torrio after he managed to escape death, and his bullet-riddled car. Chicagology

13. Jonny Torrio’s Miraculous Escape

In retaliation for the assassination of their boss, the North Side Gang ambushed Johnny Torrio outside his apartment on January 24th, 1925. The hitmen unleashed a fusillade of gunfire, and Torrio took bullets to the jaw, lung, abdomen, groin, and legs. As he lay severely wounded on the ground, a hitman walked up to the stricken mobster to finish him off with a coup de grace shot to the head. Fortunately for Torrio, the killer’s gun jammed. The miraculous escape from death shook Torrio and convinced him to get out while he still could. So he handed control of the Chicago Outfit over to Al Capone and moved to Italy. His retirement did not last long, however. Italy’s Fascist dictator cracked down on the mafia, and Torrio had to return to the US in 1928.

Back home, he became a mob consultant and respected emeritus figure, and demonstrated that he was a criminal visionary and one of the American mafia‘s most talented and intelligent leaders. Torrio branched out from traditional rackets and went into the boardrooms, to become the godfather of corporate crime. He also set up the National Crime Syndicate – a loose confederation of several ethnic organizations. It included the Italian-American Mafia and the Jewish mob, and to a lesser extent, Irish-American and African-American gangsters, among a total of fourteen different organizations, which cooperated from 1929 until the 1960s. Torrio managed to escape the violent end of many mobsters and passed peacefully of a heart attack in a barber’s chair in 1957.


Daring Escapes from Concentrations Camps, Enemies, and Crashed Planes
Staff Sergeant Alan E. Magee, poses for the camera halfway into the tight confines of his B-17 ball turret. Historic Wings

12. The Turret Gunner of Snap! Crackle! Pop!

Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor thrust the United States into WWII, Alan Eugene Magee (1919 – 2003) of Somerset, New Jersey, stepped up and joined the United States Army Air Forces. After he completed aerial gunnery training, he became a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress ball turret gunner and was sent to the Eighth Air Force in Britain. He joined the crew of a B-17 nicknamed Snap! Crackle! Pop! that was part of the 360th Bomb Squadron of the 303rd Bomb Group.

Magee’s seventh mission, on January 3rd, 1943, was a daylight raid against U-boat pens in Saint-Nazaire, France. Little did he know that it would end with him falling over 22,000 feet from his B-17, without a parachute. The ordeal began when Magee’s ball turret was struck by antiaircraft fire over Saint-Nazaire. The damage rendered the turret inoperative, so Magee exited – and discovered that the flak that had damaged his turret had also shredded his parachute. Before he had time to contemplate the implications, another flak hit destroyed the B-17’s right-wing. Then things got worse.

Daring Escapes from Concentrations Camps, Enemies, and Crashed Planes
A B-17 on fire over Nis, Yugoslavia, in 1944. War History Online

11. By a Miracle, Sergeant Magee Managed to Escape Death

The antiaircraft shell that destroyed a wing of Alan Magee’s bomber also started an uncontrollable fire, and sent the B-17 spinning towards earth. As he crawled toward the stricken aircraft’s front, Magee blacked out due to lack of oxygen. Unconscious, he fell out of the burning plane. He plummeted for four miles, and crashed through the Saint-Nazaire railroad station’s glass roof, which shattered and observed some of the impact, then slammed into the station’s floor. He somehow managed to escape death and was injured, but alive.

Alan Magee’s fall left him a bloody mess. In addition to 28 shrapnel wounds he took in the Flying Fortress, he sustained damage to his lung, kidney, nose, and eye, had several broken bones, plus a nearly severed right arm. Nonetheless, he had miraculously survived. Magee spent the rest of the war in a POW camp until he was liberated in 1945. In 1993, on the 50th anniversary of his fall, Saint-Nazaire erected a monument in honor of Magee and the crew of Snap! Crackle! Pop!

Daring Escapes from Concentrations Camps, Enemies, and Crashed Planes
A North American P-51 Mustang. Wikimedia

10. The Other Allied Pilot Who Managed to Escape in a Stolen Nazi Airplane

The Second World War had no shortage of extraordinary deeds by heroic figures, and Mikhail Devyataev, above, was not the only Allied pilot who managed to escape the Nazis in a plane stolen from under their noses. Another intrepid pilot who matched Devyataev’s feat was US Army Air Forces Second Lieutenant Bruce Ward Carr (1924 – 1998). Like the Red Air Force flyer, Carr also boosted a German plane – in his case a fighter, rather than a bomber – and flew it to the safety of Allied lines.

Carr ended WWII as a fighter ace with fourteen confirmed victories and a Distinguished Service Cross. He also ended the war as the only USAAF pilot to have left on a combat mission in an American plane, and returned to base in a German one. It happened in November 1944, when Carr flew a strafing mission in P-51 fighter but was shot down over enemy territory. As seen below, he evaded capture, then made his escape in a Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighter that he stole from a German airfield and flew back home.

Daring Escapes from Concentrations Camps, Enemies, and Crashed Planes
A modern replica of Bruce Carr’s 51, ‘Flying Angel’. Lock-on Files

9. A Born Flyer

Bruce Carr began to fly in 1939 when he was just fifteen years old. In 1942, at age eighteen, he joined the USAAF’s Flying Cadet Training Program. He had the good fortune to get assigned to the same flight instructor who had taught him how to fly in 1939. Carr’s prior experience in the cockpit got him sent to Spence Airfield in Georgia, for an accelerated pilot training program in P-40 Warhawk fighters. After 240 hours in the air, he graduated as a flight officer in late August 1943, and was sent for more advanced instruction.

After he graduated from Spence Airfield, Carr spent an additional two months on qualification for the early models of the North American P-51 Mustang fighter, and its ground attack and dive-bombing variant, the A-36 Apache. He was sent to England in early 1944 and was assigned to the 380th Fighter Squadron, 363rd Fighter Group, Ninth Air Force. Until then, Carr had never flown above 10,000 feet. When he took his P-51 to 30,000 feet, he was so impressed by its handling that he named his airplane “Angel’s Playmate“.

Daring Escapes from Concentrations Camps, Enemies, and Crashed Planes
A P-51 makes a low-level pass on a German airplane. Art Station

8. This Pilot’s Superiors Alleged That he Was Too Aggressive

Bruce Carr notched his squadron’s first kill on March 8, 1944, when he pursued a Messerschmitt Bf 109 near Berlin, and chased it to near-ground-level with his guns blazing. Only a single bullet hit the enemy fighter, but its pilot panicked. Unable to escape in his Bf 109 from Carr’s P-51, the Luftwaffe airman figured that ought to abandon his plane and parachute to the ground. Unfortunately for the German, he jumped too close to the ground for his parachute to fully open.

Unfortunately for Carr, higher-ups declined to give him credit for the downed enemy fighter, on grounds that it had crashed, rather than been shot down. He argued that it was his close pursuit and aggressive flying that had caused the crash. As Carr saw it, he had literally scared the enemy pilot to death, and made him kill himself. Carr was not only denied credit for his first kill, his style of flying got him labeled as “overaggressive” by his superiors. His days in the 380th Squadron, 363rd Fighter Group, were numbered.

Daring Escapes from Concentrations Camps, Enemies, and Crashed Planes
A P-51 sets an Fw 190 on fire. War Thunder

7. A Transfer to a New Unit Was Just What This Fighter Ace Needed

As Bruce Carr’s relationship with his superiors began to grow toxic, it was decided that it might be better for all involved if he served in a different unit. So he was transferred to the 353rd Squadron, 354th Fighter Group. It was his old squadron’s and fighter group’s loss. Carr became one of the 354th Fighter Group’s top aces, and it began on June 14, 1944, when he was credited with a probable kill of a Messerschmitt Bf 109 over Normandy, France. Three days later, on the 17th, he shared a kill when he helped another pilot down an Fw 190 fighter. That August, Carr was commissioned a second lieutenant.

On September 12th, 1944, Second Lieutenant Carr’s squadron strafed Ju-88 bombers on a German airfield. On the way back, his flight spotted more than 30 Fw 190s two thousand feet below them. The Americans pounced, and in-display of exceptional airmanship, Carr personally shot down three enemy fighters in just a few minutes – an aerial hat trick. He then escorted a fellow American pilot, whose airplane was badly damaged, back to base. His exploits that day earned Carr a Silver Star, America’s third-highest decoration for valor in combat.

Daring Escapes from Concentrations Camps, Enemies, and Crashed Planes
Gun camera view of a P-51 as it strafes German bombers on the ground. World War Wings

6. Shot Down Deep Inside the Third Reich

Bruce Carr became a fighter ace on October 29, 1944, when he shot down two more Bf 109s over Germany, to reach five total kills. Four days later, as he led a flight of P-51s on a strafing run over a German airfield in Czechoslovakia, Carr’s Mustang, Angel’s Playmate, was hit by antiaircraft fire. He bailed out from his fatally damaged plane and parachuted safely to earth. Carr had managed to escape death in the air. Now he set out to escape Germans on the ground.

Stranded deep in enemy territory, hundreds of miles from friendly lines, Carr managed evaded capture for several days. Eventually, cold, wet, exhausted, and famished, he reached the end of his tether and decided to surrender. Aware that German airmen treated enemy airmen better than other POWs, Carr headed to a Luftwaffe airfield that he had spotted. He made it to its fence, and decided to hide in adjacent woods that night, and walk up to the front gate and surrender the next day.

Daring Escapes from Concentrations Camps, Enemies, and Crashed Planes
Focke-Wulf Fw 190D-9 cockpit at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. US Air Force

5. A Spur of the Moment Escape Plan

As he hunkered down outside a German airfield’s fence, Bruce Carr saw something that made him rethink his decision to surrender. Just a few yards away, Luftwaffe ground crew were fueling and performing maintenance on an Fw 190 fighter near the runway’s edge, not far from where Carr lay hidden. When they were done, the Germans tightened the panels back on the plane and departed, leaving it ready for combat the following morning. An escape plan began to form in Carr’s mind – but it required extraordinary courage to pull off. That night, he worked up the nerve to sneak up to the enemy fighter and climbed into its cockpit.321

Next, Carr had to fight off sleep until dawn’s early light allowed him to inspect the instruments. Everything in the cockpit was labeled in German, but there were enough similarities between it and American cockpits for Carr to guesstimate what did what. He found the Fw190’s starter lever, spent half an hour to build up his courage, then pulled it. Nothing happened. German starters worked the other way around. He eventually worked out that he needed to push it forward, and the fighter’s BMW motor roared to life.

Daring Escapes from Concentrations Camps, Enemies, and Crashed Planes
The stolen Fw 190 in which Bruce Carr made his escape. Large Scale Planes

4. A Dramatic Escape Worthy of an Action-Adventure Film

With the FW 190’s engine turned on, Bruce Carr decided that he would not risk his escape with an attempt to taxi to and line up on the runway. He poured on full throttle, raced across a corner of the airfield, slalomed between two airplane hangars, then took off over the heads of the sleepy and befuddled Germans below. When he reached Allied territory, ground troops opened up with flak on his FW 190. To avoid friendly fire, he flew just above the treetop at 350 mph.

After 200 miles, he reached his airfield. Unable to deploy the landing gear, or communicate via radio, Carr decided to make a belly landing before his escape was ruined by his own airfield’s defenses blasting him out of the sky. Military police surrounded the crashed Fw 190, and refused to accept Carr’s word that he was an American airman. It was finally sorted out when the group commander arrived and identified his missing pilot. Carr is the only Allied pilot to fly off on a mission in a P-51 and return to base in an FW 190.

Daring Escapes from Concentrations Camps, Enemies, and Crashed Planes
Distinguished Service Cross. War Relics

3. An Intrepid Escape Was Not the End of This Ace’s Heroics

Bruce Carr’s extraordinary escape earned him a well-earned promotion to first lieutenant, as well as a well-deserved leave. However, his wartime exploits were not over. On April 2, 1945, First Lieutenant Carr led three other American fighters on a reconnaissance mission, when they spotted 60 Luftwaffe fighters above them. He was game to have a go at the enemy despite the 15:1 odds against his flight and immediately led an attack. Within minutes, he and his companions had downed 15 Germans. Carr personally downed two FW 190s, three Bf 109s, and damaged a sixth enemy fighter.

That made Carr the European theater’s last ace-in-a-day (somebody who shot down five or more enemy planes in a day). It also earned him a Distinguished Service Cross, the country’s second-highest award for valor. 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, and in the process earned a Legion of Merit and three Distinguished Flying Crosses. He retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 1973 and succumbed to prostate cancer in 1998. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Daring Escapes from Concentrations Camps, Enemies, and Crashed Planes
Ivan Chisov and an Ilyushin Il-4. Hello Travel

2. Ivan Chisov’s Dilemma

World War II saw multiple airmen survive falls from thousands of feet without a parachute. As seen above, British airman Nicholas Alkemade survived a fall without a parachute from 18,000 feet. American airman Alan Magee topped that and managed to escape the clutches of the Grim Reaper despite a 22,000-foot fall without a parachute. However, Soviet airman Ivan Mikhailovich Chisov (1916 – 1986) exceeded both records with his miraculous survival of a 23,000-foot fall without a parachute.

It happened in January 1942, when an Ilyushin Il-4 bomber in which Lieutenant Colonel Chisov served as a navigator was jumped by Luftwaffe fighters. The bomber was wrecked and spun out of control, so Chisov exited at a height of 23,000 feet. He had a parachute, but he was worried that if the nearby German fighters spotted him as he drifted slowly to the ground beneath its open canvas, they would pounce upon and shoot him. Neither side paid much attention to chivalry on the Eastern Front.

Daring Escapes from Concentrations Camps, Enemies, and Crashed Planes
Ivan Chisov. Wikimedia

1. A Soviet Airman’s Extremely Lucky Escape From the Grim Reaper’s Clutches

Because he feared that might get shot by German fighters while he dangled defenseless beneath a parachute, Ivan Chisov decided that he would not open his parachute until he got close to the ground. However, lack of oxygen in the thin air so high up caused him to blackout. Unconscious, he continued all the way down without deploying his parachute. As a result, he plummeted 23,000 feet from his stricken Il-4, before he hit the ground at an estimated speed of 118 to 150 miles per hour.

Luckily, for the Soviet airman, he hit the edge of a snowy ravine, and the snow absorbed and dissipated enough impact energy to keep him alive. Chisov bounced from the ravine’s edge and slid, rolled, and plowed his way to the bottom. He was seriously hurt and suffered spinal injuries and a broken pelvis. However, he had managed to escape the Grim Reaper and was alive. He underwent surgery and spent a month hospitalized in critical care. He was a tough Russian, however, and three months after his dramatic fall, Chisov was back in the air, flying more missions against the Nazis.


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

303rd Bomb Group History – 20,000 Feet Without a Parachute: The Alan Magee Story

Air Force Magazine, February 1st, 1995 – Valor: Thanks, Luftwaffe

Aviation Geek Club – The Story of Bruce Carr, the P-51D Pilot Who Left on a Mission Flying a Mustang and Returned to Base Flying a Luftwaffe FW190

Baer, Joel H. – Pirates of the British Isles (2005)

BBC – Shoichi Yokoi, the Japanese Soldier Who Held Out in Guam

Check Six – The Free Fall of Sergeant Magee

Encyclopedia Britannica – John Avery

Encyclopedia Britannica – Johnny Torrio

Historic Wings – The Miracle of Saint Nazaire

History Collection – 16 Steps These Criminals Took to Escape From Alcatraz

How Stuff Works – Japanese Holdouts

La Bruja la Verde – The World War II Airmen Who Survived Falls From Thousands of Feet High

McPhaul, Jack – Johnny Torrio: First of the Gang Lords (1970)

National Park Service – The Soldier Who Did Not Surrender

Rogozinski, Jan – Honor Among Thieves: Captain Kidd, Henry Every, and the Pirate Democracy in the Indian Ocean (2000)

Royal Air Force Museum – The Indestructible Alkemade

Russo, Gus – The Outfit: The Role of Chicago’s Underworld in the Shaping of Modern America (2003)

Together We Served – Carr, Bruce W. (DSC), Colonel

War History Online – Amazing Escape: Soviet Prisoners Stole a German Plane and Flew Home

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