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.
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.
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.
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 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 Pyracies, 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.
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.
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 Â£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 an impoverished pauper.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 air base, 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.
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.
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.
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 thing 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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“.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 treetop at 350 mph.
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.
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.
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 ploughed his way to the bottom. He was seriously hurt, and suffered spinal injuries and a broken pelvis. However, he had managed to escape the Grip 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