From 1944 to 1945, as he flew lend-lease C-47s behind enemy lines, senior lieutenant Vladimir Fydorovich Pavlov had more than his share of harrowing moments. During that time he flew more than 80 missions from an airfield near Bari, Yugoslavia, to resupply Yugoslav partisans in German-held territory. All of the missions were flown into rough landing strips hastily prepared in mountain pastures by the Yugoslav partisans.
While all the flights were dangerous, the one Pavlov flew the night of Aug. 22, 1944, is still vivid in his memory 52 years later. The mission would be risky but not unusual: Fly night re supply to a partisan group surrounded by German forces. After the C-47 landed, the partisan commander quickly approached Pavlov. As the cargo was unloaded, the commander told Pavlov he would have to take on unexpected passengers. Pavlov was concerned. The weather was closing-in and he was eager to get back into the air. He paused to listen to the partisan commander's plea. Thirty-two U.S. flyers had made their way to the partisan group after being shot down on missions over Romania. The Americans were on their way with the partisans toward friendly lines when the Germans surrounded them. The only escape was over rough forest paths and sheer mountain terrain. Most of the downed flyers, injured in their bailout or weakened by their long overland trek, were in no condition to attempt the breakout. They faced death or capture by the Germans. The partisan leader and Pavlov realized the Americans' only chance for escape was on the C-47. Pavlov was doubtful, 32 passengers could be too many for takeoff from the short meadowland strip. To further complicate the situation, some trees at the far end of the runway encroached on his takeoff distance. Experience and cool calculation, not bravado, helped Pavlov make his decision. He knew the C-47 well: its capabilities and limitations, and was impressed by its rugged reliability. He surveyed the landing strip not once but twice and decided the takeoff was possible. He asked the partisan leader to have his men chop down the trees and to push the plane back to the limit of the meadow. The takeoff was successful, but the bad weather brought new danger. Clouds closed in on the C-47, forcing Pavlov to descend from 10,000 feet and keep descending in search of a break in the ceiling. With low fuel and nowhere to return, Pavlov and his passengers now had no choice but to press on. They flew into a thunderstorm and soon lightning struck the C-47. Flashes blinded Pavlov and his co-pilot for seconds at a time. The aircraft stayed in the storm 37 minutes, a time Pavlov describes as "a kind of hell." As he says today, "It created a feeling of helplessness. Under fire, you could try to evade or simply fly away but there was nothing you could do to escape the storm." Pavlov held his plane on course and hoped to spot his airfield. Finally, he saw the field through a break in the clouds and landed safely. The rescued Americans thanked the Russian crew with handshakes and hugs. The senior American flyer approached Pavlov, but the only word he spoke that Pavlov could understand was "captain." Pavlov says regretfully that he does not know the name of a single passenger from that night. Pavlov was matter-of-fact about the mission but admits that on that night "My shirt was glued to the back of my seat with sweat." He eventually flew more than 250 missions behind enemy lines for which he was awarded the gold star medal of Hero of the Soviet Union, the country's highest honor. After the war, Pavlov remained in the Soviet air force's long-range aviation and retired as a colonel. At last report he was a pensioner and living with his wife in Moscow. In May 1992, he attended a Victory Day commemoration. Two U.S. aircrews on humanitarian missions to Russia were also there. Pavlov said it was important to him to speak on Victory Day to American men who could be the sons or grandsons of those he and his crew had saved almost 50 years before.
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