• Imants Zeltins,
    Bauska, LatviaMORE...

    The beginning of my childhood was difficult after the First World War. Eventually, my family had managed to acquire some land. By 1939, we were doing very well. I remember these as good times. In 1938, we could afford a bicycle. 

    We had no thoughts of going to war. In school, we were taught that Germany was our biggest enemy. But in 1940, when the Red Army occupied Latvia, that perspective shifted dramatically. 

    When Germany attacked Russia on June 22, 1941, we thought they would be our liberators. On May 1, 1943, I attempted to volunteer for the army. I was sixteen, so they didn't take me. A general had us all in a line and said, "Those who are underage, step forward." There were fifteen of us. They sent me back to Bauska. I found work at the police station. By then, Latvia was under German administration. 

    In 1944, the Red Army was pushing back and closing in on Bauska. On July 28 of the same year, I joined the volunteer force. I was finally eighteen. But there were people who were as young as fifteen and as old as eighty years old, and everyone wanted to fight the Russians. No one wanted another Soviet occupation. We waged guerrilla war for several weeks. I was injured on September 14, 1944. That's where the war ended for me. I was injured in the fight where twenty-eight Soviet T-34 tanks went up against two hundred Latvian conscripts. We were trying to cross a river, but the Russians came at us from all sides. There were planes flying over, tanks on the ground, artillery fire. It was hell. Many men died trying to swim across the river. We had six mine throwers and all the men that knew how to use them were dead. I tried to use one from a rooftop, but a tank fired at the building and everything caved in beneath me. I was brought to a German hospital. My right arm was only attached by skin, so they cut it off. My left was completely smashed. The doctor there told me I had twenty-eight injuries total.

    By February 1, 1945, the Americans had invaded Germany. The soldiers put signs on hospital doors that forbade patients to leave the area. After a few days, all the Latvians there got together and literally cried, not because the war was ending, but because they knew Latvia will be once again occupied by the Russians. On April 9, we were free to go. I knew a Latvian woman who had married a German. I went to see them and they gave me a room, but they were short on food. I stayed there until the Americans handed that territory over to the Russians. I no longer remember the name of the town we were in. Eventually I was arrested for taking part in the resistance.

    I was moved across different concentration camps in Germany, Poland and Russia. Most of the people held alongside me ended up in Siberia, where they would remain for decades. I was the only one that didn't go. I hadn't done anything wrong. I told them if they thought I had, I wanted them to shoot me right away.

    When I was free, I returned to my home, only to be mistaken for a vagrant by my mother before she realized who I was. After three days back in Bauska, I tried to get my documents. But I was arrested and jailed for two weeks. They asked me for a list of names of all the people I worked with during the war. I gave them one and was set free. I still didn't have any documents, so I couldn't find work. I yielded to failure and left Bauska. I married a woman in Riga. I found a job there as a security guard for different shops. When my boss discovered that I hadn't served in the Red Army, he fired me after only three months of employment. I couldn't find another job. I started my own business and that's how I earned money to raise my children.

  • Arturs Vidners,
    Liepaja, LatviaMORE...

    My name is Arturs Vidners. I was born on August 14, 1925.

    I went to school here. My father was in the army, an infantry commander. In June of 1940, the Russians came. They took my father to the garden and shot him in front of me.

    In 1943, I turned 18 and volunteered for the army. I wanted to avenge my father's death.

    I was sent to Germany for training, we were initially trained to fight Americans, but we refused because we wanted to fight the Russians. Soon, we were sent to Denmark for more training. Then to Czechoslovakia, then back to Latvia. I could have stayed in Germany, to fight there. But I wanted to return to my country and help gain freedom. I returned in 1944.

    When I got back, I participated in major battles. I was awarded six medals.

    In 1944, on December 23, we knew a fight was going to take place. We knew how big the Russian army was. They thought we were going to celebrate Christmas. But the fight was very bloody, because there were 23 Russians for every 1 Latvian.

    There was no moment in that battle when Latvians wanted to run. We stayed and fought because we knew how much each person counted. There were soldiers on the field that couldn't move. Some went to the field to try and help them, and they shot at us, and the soldiers weren't because of that. During the Christmas fights, we needed to get ahead of the Russians. There was a moment when a Russian man was below me with a gun in his hand. I thought I was going to get shot. There were shots from elsewhere and the man fell dead in front of me. I never saw the guy who saved me. Not far from where we are, there's a special cemetery for Legion soldiers. In 1944, the Germans were helping because the Russians had tanks and they could shoot us from farther away than we could hit back. One time, another soldier and I were in the woods, surrounded by Russians. We understood that if we approached them head-on, we would be killed easily. So we ran out in a zigzag in different directions and together killed over two hundred men with our guns, over 4km. We got medals for that fight. But we didn't feel courageous, because it had been necessary, because had we not done that, we'd have been killed. One of the last episodes I remember from the war took place in 1944, on March 22. The Latvian Legion had to retreat, and I remember that I couldn't sleep. I was at a house and the Russians found us and surrounded the place with tanks. There were eighteen men inside. We proceeded to destroy five of the seven tanks and the other two fled. We won that fight. After that, on March 23, I was badly injured on an ammunition run when I was hit with shrapnel, and that was the end of the war for me. I was in a hospital when I heard the war was over. We were happy the war had ended, but we were upset also because the Russians had won. After the war, I was stuck at home, without documents, but fortunately I had a classmate who was a policeman and he helped me get documentation. Afterwards, I attended music school. It was hard after the war, because no one had money. Food was scarce. I tried to earn money by playing accordion. I didn't finish the education. The director of the school was Russian and he didn't allow me to take the exams. After that, I went on to work odd jobs. Like fishing.

  • Pyotr Alaev,
    Riga, LatviaMORE...

    My name is Pyotr Alaev, and I was born to the family of workers in 1922 in Biysk, which is in Altay. Funny enough, when I was in primary school, a teacher asked us what we wanted to be in the future, and I remember writing on a piece of paper that I wanted to be a pilot. And so it happened. When I was in the seventh grade, a man from a local flying club came to our school. You know, there were these flying clubs that belonged to the Union of Societies of Assistance of Defense and Aviation-Chemical Construction of the USSR, an organization that trained military staff in peace time.

    So that man came to our school to talk to us kids and tell us more about the club. I remember that he was rather well-dressed, wearing a suit, a coat and felt boots. I think it was in March of 1937 or 1938. It didn't take me long to decide to join that club, and I immediately signed in for the medical check-up. When I told my mother about this decision, she got surprised and asked me what was to become of me in the future then. What kind of question was that? A pilot of course!

    I studied in the flying club for about two years, without giving up secondary school. In 1939, I finished my training in the club, when a representative from Omsk Aviation School came to our club recruiting student pilots for their school. So I accepted that offer. I got enrolled in February 1941, and in June the war broke out. We had already had some training before that, on small agricultural biplanes. Besides, we used to have those R-5 planes, similar to the modern An-12. Having finished the obligatory course, we went on to training on SB planes, which were the most advanced modern bombers for the time, as well as I-16 fighter planes, which had a nickname "ishak" (Russian for "donkey").

    When we were finishing our training, things got pretty tough. A lot of other pilot schools from western regions were being evacuated to Omsk. For example, the one from Rogan, which is near Kharkov. So, instead of four training squadrons in our school, we had 12.

    The overall situation in the country was very complicated. We were attacked from three different sides: Berlin, Rome and Tokyo. So after graduating from the aviation school, I as well as my 120 other fellow students were sent to the Far East. That was in 1942.

    They gave us the military ranks of sergeants. In fact, we were supposed to become lieutenants, but I guess the economic situation in the country was too tough to make it happen. Because if they make you an officer, you should be given higher wages, a new uniform - this sort of thing. But as long as we were sergeants, we could go to the war wearing the same clothes as we did when we were in the pilot school. However, the wages were a bit higher, as we were pilots, after all. It wasn't until 1943 when Stalin issued a decree saying that military school graduates should be promoted to the rank of officers, that we finally became junior lieutenants.

    We were doing pretty well in the Far East. I and some other guys from my regiment were given special assignments. Once, it was the first day when hostilities started on the border with Manchuria, near Bikin and Khabarovsk, we were given the assignment to destroy all the communication lines of the enemy, which basically meant hitting the wires from above. They even organized some training for us, so that we could practice hitting such narrow targets.

    You can't imagine how patriotic we were at that time, but it's hard to expect anything else from 19 to 20-year olds, right? We even thought of raising some funds and buying our own plane. A small biplane could cost say, 47 thousand. By that time we had already bought some clothes, boots, etc. So the plan was to club together and buy another plane. And if we didn't have enough money, we could always cut the wood in taiga where we were staying and sell it. Our political supervisor (deputy commander in charge of propaganda) kind of liked the idea, but then his superior officer came from Khabarovsk and criticized us, saying that it wasn't good for a fighting unit to engage in that sort of trading.

    Interestingly, three months later, somewhere in April 1944, we found out that our commander had gone away to headquarters and was expected to bring some news. When he was coming back on an SB plane whizzing low above the ground, he made a special stunt in the air, and our officers understood that we were about to set off to get some new planes. So two weeks later we flew to the west, to Zaporozhye, where we were trained to fly on the Bi-2, which is an experimental dive bomber. There we finally received our planes, straight from the Kazan aircraft plant. In fact, those planes came as a gift from Lozova, a small place in the Kharkiv region. Kolkhoz farmers from that area gathered money to buy us those planes, so our squadron was called Lozovskiy kolkhoznik. Another squadron received planes from Kegichevka, which is another small town in the Khakov region.

    In 1943, we had our bases on airfields which were literally fields, or agricultural fields leveled with rollers. You can imagine having to land on this! Once we had a flying mission to bomb the Vistula. There were nine of us in the group of bombers. Usually there were 12 planes in a squadron of fighters, and nine in a squadron of bombers. A usual bomber plane crew consisted of a pilot, a navigator and a gunner who was also a radio man. The latter was sitting in the third cabin, the so-called F3. The battery was also located there. So when we were already coming back, the gunner told me that the battery was boiling. I told him to switch it off; but once he did it, the communication ceased as well. I was about to land, but noticed that the previous plane had not yet exited the runway. So I took another circle around when I understood that the plane was in complete disorder. I had to land it as soon as possible, but that field was a complete mess. You know, snow mixed with earth and god knows what.

    Before too long I realized that I had lost the right course, and my airfield remained somewhere aside. Luckily I saw an IL-2 attack plane flying ahead of me. I guessed that it was heading for its airfield, so I followed him. I got a warm welcome there. Planes that had a forced landing were usually received well. Then they checked my plane and found out that there was an oil leakage in one of the two engines, and the anti-freezing liquid was leaking in the other. They wired to my unit so that they could send a car to get us home. It turned out that it was 30 km away. On the next morning I came back to get the plane.

    You should understand that being a pilot you don't really have time to look around. Your main job is to fly the plane and keep up with the rest of the group. If you lag somewhere behind, you'll definitely get hit. Besides, there were usually four fighters escorting us - two on either side. It felt safer that way.

    I remember one assignment when we flew out to bomb some crossing. The problem was that one of our pilots was not allowed to fly that morning, because he had got loaded up on the previous night. As our group was incomplete, they gave us a new guy. Well, he wasn't really new, he even seemed to have more experience than us. All his chest was covered with medals. So he was in the leading group of three planes, flying on the right-hand side in front of me. We were about to make a turn and fly back home when he suddenly started to fall back on me. I naturally fell back on the one behind me, and the whole formation got disrupted. To make things worse, my radio man reported that there was a strange plane approaching us from behind with an unusually long body. German planes, Messerschmitt for example, had just this kind of long body. So I told the radio guy to give it a burst from his machinegun. We actually had two of them: a large-caliber 12.7 mm short-range machinegun and a Shkas, but the former one got stuck. Some sand grain must have gotten inside. That was a hot battle, I should say. Luckily we survived it. Then I found my partner, the one who used to fly on my right, and we returned to our base together.

    There was another case when we suddenly noticed that we have a problem with our fuel tank. At first I thought that it was my partner who had a problem, but then I realized that the fuel was evaporating from our tank! I remember looking at the gauge and watching the pointer moving fast towards zero. We only had 150 liters left when I saw an airfield with a special sign saying that we could land there. I landed, and people came running to us to help. After they fixed the tank and filled it with 500 liters, I went to their headquarters - a mere dug-out in fact - to ask for permission to leave.

    The commander, however, told me to bring a reference from the weather forecasters to make sure that the weather was good enough to fly. It turned out that it wasn't. I went back to my crew who was standing beside the plane waiting for me. I can't help mentioning that my navigator was the father of Gennagiy Troshev, the one who commanded the 58th Army in Checnhya in the 90s. So I came up to my crew and suggested a way to leave. So guess what? An escape ensued! How? Very simple! We told the guardsman that we were about to check the engines, then removed the braking clamps and took off! As simple as that. And the weather was just fine, by the way.

    You know, when you take off from a field, you find yourself in such a thick cloud of dust, that you virtually can't see anything. I was the last one to take off, so I told my navigator to watch carefully so that we didn't lose our group. When I finally reached the necessary altitude I saw a group of planes in the distance, but when I came closer they turned out to be our neighbors! My mates had already flown away while I was circling in the dust. We radioed to our base asking them if we could land with bombs on board. Luckily they allowed us to do so and didn't even scold us for that. It's a dangerous thing to land a heavy plane full of bombs, but I managed to do it very smoothly.

    Later, in September 1944, we were sent to the 1st Belorussian front. Brest-Litovsk, Brest, and then Warsaw. We made flights with all sorts of missions. Once we even bombed the ice on the Vistula River, so that the retreating German troops could not cross the frozen river. We also attacked groups of tanks, mostly at some crossroads where they were most visible. Our regiment bombed Finsterwalde, Frankfurt an der Oder, and some other German towns.

    Not long before the war ended we had a flying mission near Werneuchen, which is a big air field. They had a major crossing of roads there with a large gathering of machines. I also took part in three air raids in Berlin. We bombed the railway stations where most German troops were located. First Silesian and then Stettin railway stations. Besides, we had some flying missions in Seelower Hohen, as well.

    I have already told you that if you are a bomber pilot you don't really see anything in particular. All you have to do is to operate the plane and follow your group. However, one thing I remember very well is Berlin. It really struck me to see its gray dim buildings, which were very unpleasant to look at. At least this is how they seemed to me from above. It was very different from Zaporozhzhye, for example, with its pretty white houses and tile roofs.

    Once we flew to Steszew, and our task was to bomb a road there. However, when we arrived there we saw a huge number of German troops, so the commander of our squadron told us to attack them, forgetting the initial assignment was completely different! So we did hit them, and quite successfully, I should say, but none of us got awarded for that, because we were not authorized to change the task. Discipline should always come first.

    We were staying near Landsberg, a town on the Warta River, which is now known as Gorzow Wielkopolski, when we learnt about the victory. They told us about it at night, and our guys started to make a great noise firing their arms to celebrate the happy news. There in Poland, I continued my military service after the war was over.

    In December 1949 there was rotation, and I found myself in Vilnius. Because of my deteriorating eyesight I couldn't fly anymore, so they transferred me to the command post. The Cold War started. Our job was to send our fighters to patrol the air space, so that everybody could see that we were not sleeping there and the border was being guarded. Once in a while the Americans would send out their planes flying along the Baltic border, so we had to send ours too as a warning. We had 24-hour shifts, and sometimes we had to send as many as 20 to 25 planes during one single shift.

    Then I was transferred to the Far East, and then back to the west, to Germany. In 1956 I was sent to Sakhalin, where I served for three years as an aircraft controller. It was already Khrushchyov's time when a lot of people in the army were made redundant. Some people had only one year left before their legal retirement after 25 years of service, and they were made redundant all the same.

    I was lucky to survive those redundancies. In fact, I was sent again to Germany - me and three other men from my command post - where I stayed until 1967. I was even promoted to the rank of a major, and I served as a deputy commander of a unit.

    In Kaliningrad I used to work with one major Ryabov, who was a very good navigator. People said that during the war his regimental commander would always take him in his crew, because he was that good. Once they had some young pilots joining their nine-plane squadron, and the task was to bomb the German battlefront. You know when they dug trenches, our troops on the one side and the enemy on the other, they would always mark the first row of trenches so that the planes would not drop bombs on their own troops. So their squadron did the task well and came back with good photos. There were several photo cameras in a squadron that used to take a record of our performance. After each mission we would take out the cassette and analyze our work.

    So everything seemed to be all right with Ryabov's squadron, but some time later they received a complaint from the infantry. It turned out that some bombs did hit our fortifications. Certainly they made an investigation trying to find the one who "dropped the ball." As Ryabov was the main navigator of the group, he had a hard time proving that he was not the one to blame. Later, it turned out that it was the fault of a young pilot.

    The thing is that a bomber carries bombs inside the plane's body, and it is the navigator's job to open the bomb door. So that guy was watching his partners flying ahead of him and opened up the doors when he was still above our battlefront.

    The tribunal sentenced him to serve in a penal company, the one which was in the very front line followed by anti-retreat detachments. Later, he told us about his experience. Their task was to distract the Germans in order to gain some advantage for our leading units so that they could easily win the battle. Everybody understood that it was sheer suicide, but they had no choice. Luckily, he and seven other people from his company managed to accomplish the task and stayed alive. Five days later they let him leave the penal company saying that he had done enough to atone for his guilt. And he returned to his former regiment.

    What else can I say? It was a war, after all, so it wasn't much fun. However, have you ever watched that old Soviet movie "Only Old Men Are Going to Battle"? Where Bykov's character organizes an amateur music band in his squadron? We also had something like that. There was that talented guy - Sasha was his name - who wrote poetry and music. We even had our own small orchestra! You know, bottles with different levels of water in them to make different notes. One would make a melody on this makeshift xylophone and somebody else would accompany him on the accordion.