Updated: Jan 10, 2021
We walked into the forest not knowing what to expect, later the same day we had solved a 74 year old mystery.
Picture above: Soviet pilots and ground crew pose in front of a Pe-2 dive bomber at Poltava, June 1944.
In December 1944, Petlyakov PE-2 Serial Number 15/273 was shot down by Focke Wulf FW190s and crashed in the woods about 5 miles SW of Saldus, Latvia.
Before crashing, the pilot ejected to safety whereas the bombardier and gunner went down with the plane. The pilot evaded capture for 2 days but was eventually discovered by the German forces and interred until he was freed by the Red Army in February 1945. This airman was one of the lucky ones who survived the war.
The PE-2 was a Russian twin engined aircraft used in a variety of roles - ground attack, fighter, night fighter, and reconnaissance. They are fairly large planes being around 40ft long with a 60ft wingspan.
The Legenda team hiked through the forest to the crash site where a water filled crater marked the spot. A water pump drained the crater and then we set about clearing it up. An excavator joined once we had gone through all the surface wreckage. The aim of the dig was to recover any remains but also to confirm the ID of the plane so we could ensure the crew was correctly identified.
The Russian government provided Legenda with the serial numbers of the engines from the plane - 34-36-35 and 34-32-68.
Once we were around 8ft down, the base of the hole was a morass where you’d sink to your knees and searching required using your hands up to your elbows in slop. The search was productive as one of the crew’s side arms was found – a Tokarev TT33 that was heavily damaged from the impact of the crash. We then searched by fingertip and found some cockpit instruments. As a result of these finds, we knew we were close to the area where human remains might be.
The fingertip search was messy, dirty work but we managed to find what we were looking for - a few sad sections of spine, jaw, and teeth were witness to the incredible force of a plane smashing into the ground at hundreds of miles per hour. Over the next few hours more pieces were recovered along with parts of uniform and parachute.
While the search continued in the pit, other Legenda members searched for plane debris in the surrounding area. The force of the impact must have been catastrophic as pieces of the plane were found over 300 yards from ground zero.
After many hours of searching, we came across an engine cylinder wall with one of the serial numbers scribbled on the side of it. Mission complete!
The job was done and two more lost aircrew finished their mission and returned from their 74 year sortie in an unmarked swampy resting place. Now be reburied in the main Russian cemetery with full honours.
The excavation can be partially seen in the video at:
A little more about the crew:
The Gunner/Radio Man: Sgt Nicholas Egoroviča, went down with the aircraft.
The Navigator: Lt Kurâev Alexander Pavlovich, holder fo the Order of the Red Star and the Order of the Great Patriotic War 1st Class. He too, went down.
The Pilot: Lt Yamshchikov Vasily Ivanovich, holder of the Order of the Red Banner and the Order of Great Patriotic War 1st Class. He successfully bailed out, and evaded capture on the battlefield below for two days before being captured by German Forces, he was liberated by the Red Army in Feb, 1945.
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