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 a 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 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.