GONE WITH THE WIND ADRIFT IN THE OCEAN

After 49 days adrift in the Pacific, the exhausted soldiers told American sailors, “We only need fuel and food, and we will make it home on our own.”

Image source: RIA Novosti. Servicemen Filipp Poplavsky (left) and Askhat Ziganshin (center) talk to an American sailor (right) on board the aircraft carrier USS Kearsarge, which rescued them after a long drift on a barge and lost in the ocean.

THE MIRACULOUS SURVIVAL STORY OF FOUR SOVIET SOLDIERS ABOARD A T-36 BARGE ADRIFT IN THE “CURRENT OF DEATH: THEY COOKED THEIR BOOTS AND LEATHER BELTS

Translated from Russian.

On 7 March 1960, an aviation surveillance team from the aircraft carrier USS Kearsarge spotted a T-36 barge with four Soviet soldiers onboard drifting about a thousand miles northwest of Midway Island. After 49 days adrift in the Pacific, the exhausted soldiers told American sailors, “We only need fuel and food, and we will make it home on our own.”

MISSING IN ACTION

Background.
January 1960, the Island of Iturup Island, one of those four islands of South Kuril chain that Russia’s Japanese neighbors are still dreaming to reclaim to this day, the so-called Northern Territories.

The rocky and shallow waters make it is extremely difficult to deliver cargoes to the island by ship; therefore, the T-36 self-propelled tank barge served as a transshipment point being used as if it were “floating berth,” a kind of improvised facility it was.

On January 17, 1960, the elements were really in full swing. At around 9 am the wind reached 60 meters per second and tore the barge off its mooring and threw the vessel into the high sea.

Those men who were ashore could only watch the desperate struggle of the men on board the barge exposed to the conditions of the stormy sea. Soon the T-36 disappeared from view…

The soldiers’ next of kin were informed that their loved ones went missing when in line of performance of their active military duty. However, their residence locations were put under surveillance, just in case some of the missing men didn’t die, and deserted.

But most of the young men’s fellow soldiers believed their comrades died in the ocean…

GONE WITH THE WIND

The four men aboard the T-36 barge fought off the storm for ten hours until it finally abated. The scarce stock of fuel was used when fighting for survival, and the 15-meter waves had badly battered the barge. The barge was carried further and further away and out into the open ocean.

Sergeant Ziganshin and his comrades were not sailors; they had served in the civil engineering corps, which was called “stroibat,” using a Russian slang catchword for it.

They had been assigned to offload the cargo from a transport vessel that was expected to arrive soon. But the storm changed the course of the events…

The soldiers found themselves in a hopeless situation since the barge had no more fuel and there was no communication with the shore, the hold was leaking, not to mention the fact that the T-36 was not at all suitable for such “journeys”.

The barge foodstuffs included a loaf of bread, two tins of stew, a jar of fat, and a few spoons of cereal. There were also two buckets of potatoes, which had been scattered around the engine room during the storm, soaking up the fuel oil. The tank of drinking water, which was partly mixed with the seawater, had also capsized. The barge lifeline stocks were limited to a firewood stove, matches, and a few packs of mouthpiece cigarette Belomor.

PRISONERS OF THE “CURRENT OF DEATH”

It seemed as if fortune was playing to mock them: when the storm abated, Askhat Ziganshin found a copy of the Red Star newspaper in the cabin and which read that just in the same area where they were being carried away, there would be training missile launching drills and the entire area was declared unsafe for navigation.

The soldiers concluded that no one would be looking for them in that direction until the end of the rocket launching exercise. Therefore, it was deemed necessary for them to hold out until the end of the naval military games.

They drew fresh water from the engine cooling system, it was rusty but usable. Rainwater was also collected. For food, they cooked some stew — some stew, a couple of potatoes that smelled like fuel, the bare minimum of cereals.

This was their diet to survive but also to fight for the seaworthiness of the barge wherefore they would break off the ice from the boards to prevent it from capsizing and to pump out the water that had collected in the hold.

The soldiers did not know that the current that carried them further and further away from home was called the “Current of Death.” They tried not to think of the worst at all, for such thoughts could easily lead to despair.

A SIP OF WATER AND A PIECE OF BOOT

Day after day, week after week… There was less and less food and water. Sergeant Ziganshin once recalled his schoolteacher’s story about sailors in distress and suffering from hunger. Those sailors cooked and ate leather. The sergeant’s belt was leather.

First, they boiled and crumbled the belt and mixed it with noodles, then they used a leather strap from a broken radio, then they ate the boots, then peeled and ate the leather from an accordion which was on board…

The water situation was very bad indeed. Apart from the chowder, everyone got a sip of it. Once every two days.

The last of the potatoes were cooked and eaten on February 23, it was Soviet Army Day. By that time the torment of hunger and thirst was supplemented by auditory hallucinations. Ivan Fedotov began to suffer from fits of fear. His comrades supported him as best they could, reassuring him.

Throughout the drift, there was not a single quarrel, not a single conflict within the team of four men. Even when there was almost no strength left, not one of them tried to take food or water from his comrade in order to survive on his own. It was simply agreed: the last one who survived would leave a record on the barge of how the T-36 crew had died before dying himself…

THANK YOU, WE CAN MANAGE IT OURSELVES!

On 2 March 1960, for the first time they saw a ship passing by in the distance, but they themselves did not believe that it was not a mirage in front of them. On 6 March, the new ship appeared on the horizon, but nobody noticed the soldiers’ desperate signals for help from…

On 7 March 1960, an air survey team from the aircraft carrier USS Kearsarge spotted the T-36 barge about a thousand miles northwest of Midway Island. The semi-submerged barge, which should not have been more than 300 meters away from shore, had traveled more than a thousand miles across the Pacific Ocean, covering half the distance from the Kuril Islands to Hawaii.

During the first few minutes, the Americans failed to understand what it was all about, a kind of a miracle that they actually saw appearing in front of them and what kind of people were aboard the vessel?

But even more shocking for the aircraft carrier sailors was when Sergeant Ziganshin, who was taken by helicopter from the barge, declared, “We are OK, all we need is fuel and food, and we will make it home ourselves.”

Without question, in reality, the soldiers were no longer fit for sailing anywhere at all. As medics later said, the four men had very little time left to live: death from exhaustion could come in the next few hours. And on the T-36 barge, by that time there was one boot and three matches left.

American medics marveled not only at the endurance of the Soviet soldiers but also at the surprising self-discipline: when the crew of the aircraft carrier began to offer them food, they ate very little and stopped. If they had eaten more, they would have died immediately, as many who had survived the long famine did.

HEROES OR TRAITORS?

When aboard the aircraft carrier, and it was clear that they were safely rescued, the strength finally left the soldiers, Ziganshin asked for a razor but fainted near the washbasin. The Kearsarge sailors had to shave him and his comrades.

After the soldiers had a good night’s sleep, they started to feel a different kind of fear — it was a cold war, and help came not from anyone, but from the “potential enemy”. In addition, a Soviet barge had gotten into the American hands.

The captain of the USS Kearsarge could not understand the reason that the Soviet soldiers so persistently asked him to load their rusty tub aboard the aircraft carrier. To reassure them he told them: the barge would be towed to the port by another vessel.

Actually, Americans had sunk the T-36 barge because the half-sunken barge was a threat to navigation and not because of a desire to do harm to the USSR.

The US military deserved their credit in terms that they did decently treat the Soviet soldiers. They were not interrogated and questioned and their cabins were guarded so as not to be disturbed by nosy visitors.

But the Soviet soldiers were worried about what they would say in Moscow. With a piece of news from the US broken concerning their rescue story, Moscow, remained silent for some time. In the Soviet Union, they were waiting to see whether or not the rescued men would ask for political asylum in America, so as not to get into trouble with their statements.

When they knew that the Soviet soldiers were not planning to “choose freedom”, the heroic story of the men went mainstream and was aired on the Soviet television, radio, and by newspapers, whereas Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev sent them his personal greeting telegram

HOW DO THE BOOTS TASTE?

The heroic soldiers had their first press conference when onboard the aircraft carrier, where fifty journalists were airlifted by helicopters; they had to end their interview early because Askhat Ziganshin’s nose was bleeding.

Later on, the guys had to take many press conferences and practically everywhere they were asked the same question, How do the boots taste?

The leather tasted bitter and smelled bad. Who would have cared about taste back then? There was only one thing I wanted: to trick my tummy. But you can’t just eat the leather, it’s too tough. So, we cut off a small piece at a time and set it on fire. When it burned, it turned into something that looked like charcoal and became soft. We smeared this “delicacy” with lubricant grease to make it easier to swallow. A few of such ‘sandwiches’ made up our daily ration,” Kryuchkovsky recalled.

When back home, the schoolchildren asked the same question. “Try it yourself,” Philip Poplavsky once joked. I wonder how many boots were cooked after that by the boys in the love of experiments, in the 1960s?

By the time the aircraft carrier arrived in San Francisco, the heroes of the unique voyage, which according to the official version lasted 49 days, were already a bit stronger. America greeted them enthusiastically and the mayor of San Francisco presented them with a “golden key” to the city.

History Writer, WWII