10 Unique People of the Second World War

  • May 05, 2010
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Mikhail Devyatayev

Homeland: Soviet Union

Mikhail Devyatayev was born on July 8, 1917 in what is today Mordovia, Russia. In 1941, Devyataev entered World War II as a Soviet fighter pilot. He was highly skilled and fiercely defended his homeland against Nazi invasion. On September 23, 1941, Devyatayev was seriously injured in battle and didn’t resume his duties as a fighter pilot until May of 1944, after meeting with the famous Soviet ace Aleksandr Ivanovich Pokryshkin. On July 13, 1944 Devyataev’s plane was shot down near Lvov over German-held territory. He became a prisoner of war and was held in the Łódź concentration camp. He soon made an attempt to escape, but was caught and transferred to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Devyataev realized that as a Soviet pilot he would receive extreme brutality, so he exchanged identities with a dead Soviet infantryman.

mikhail devyatayev

With his new identity, Devyataev was transferred to a camp in Usedom to be a part of a forced labor crew working for the German missile program on the island of Peenemünde. Security was harshly enforced on the Island, with many guards and dogs. However, Devyataev managed to convince the nine other prisoners in his work gang that they could escape and he could fly them to freedom. In the early morning of February 8, 1945, the men killed their German guards and managed to take over the camp commandant's He 111 H22 bomber and fly it from the island. The Third Reich tried desperately to intercept the bomber and the Soviet air defenses labeled the event an attack and severely damaged the aircraft. Devyatayev managed to land safely in Soviet-held territory. The escapees provided important information about the German missile program, especially about the V-1 and V-2.

However, The Soviet police did not believe Devyataev's story, arguing that it was impossible for prisoners to take over an airplane without cooperation from the Germans. Thus, he was suspected of being a German spy and sent to a penal military unit along with the other nine men. Devyataev spent the remainder of the war in prison. After the war ended, Devyatayev’s classification remained that of a "criminal,” so he was unable to find any work. Soviet authorities eventually cleared Devyataev in 1957, after the head of the Soviet space program Sergey Korolyov personally presented his case, arguing that the information provided by Devyataev and the other escapees had been critical for the Soviet space program. Since that time, Mikhail Devyatayev has become a hero in the Soviet Union, and has been the subject of multiple books and newspaper articles. He died in 2002 at the age of 85 and is buried in an old Arsk Field cemetery in Kazan, near a World War II Memorial.


Elwin F. Knowles

Homeland: America

Elwin F. Knowles was an American naval commander during World War II. He was the captain of the Liberty Ship SS John Harvey. During World War II, a Liberty Ship was a cargo ship built by the United States. In August of 1943, U.S. President Roosevelt approved a shipment of chemical munitions containing a mustard agent to the Mediterranean theater. Knowles and the SS John Harvey were given the task of transporting the chemical weapons. The John Harvey was scheduled to sail from Oran, Algeria, to the port of Bari in south Italy. The vessel was carrying 2,000 M47A1 World War I type mustard gas bombs, each of which held 60-70 lb of sulfur mustard.

elwin f knowles

The Bari port was routinely packed with ships during the war, and the John Harvey had to wait for several days to unload its cargo. Captain Knowles wanted to tell the British port commander about his deadly cargo and request that it was unloaded as soon as possible, but secrecy prevented him from doing so. On December 2, 1943, 88 German aircraft attacked Bari, killing over 1,000 people, and sinking 17 ships, including the SS John Harvey, which was destroyed in an enormous chemical explosion. The blast caused liquid sulfur mustard to spill into the water and a cloud of sulfur mustard vapor to blow over Bari. Elwin F. Knowles and his crew were instantly killed in the blast. Witnesses aboard USS Pumper, a tanker carrying aviation fuel, said their ship listed 35 degrees when the John Harvey exploded.

During the German attack, the Americans sustained the highest ship losses, losing the Liberty ships John Bascom, John L. Motley, Joseph Wheeler, Samuel J. Tilden and John Harvey. The British lost four ships, the Italians three, the Norwegians three, and the Poles two. In all, 628 military victims were hospitalized with mustard gas symptoms. By the end of the month, 83 of them had died. The number of civilian casualties is thought to have been greater, but could not be accurately determined since many people had fled the city. The sinking of the SS John Harvey caused the single release of chemical weapons in the course of the Second World War by the Allies. The Air Raid on Bari put the port out of commission until February 1944. The event was often reported as the “Little Pearl Harbor.”


Albert Pierrepoint

Homeland: England

Albert Pierrepoint was born in Clayton, which is located in the West Riding of Yorkshire, England. As a child he was influenced by his father’s occupation, which was that of an executioner. In the autumn of 1931, Pierrepoint received his first interview at Manchester's Strangeways Prison. After a week of training at London's Pentonville Prison, Pierrepoint's name was added to the List of Assistant Executioners in 1932. During this time in history, executioners and their assistants were required to be extremely discreet and to conduct themselves in a respectable manner, especially avoiding contact with the press. Pierrepoint's first execution as chief executioner was that of gangster Tony Mancini at Pentonville Prison, London, on October 17, 1941. Following the end of World War II, the British occupation authorities conducted a series of trials for the German concentration camp staff.

albert pierrepoint

During the initial Belsen Trial, eleven death sentences were handed down in November of 1945. It was agreed that Pierrepoint would conduct the executions and, on December 11 he flew to Germany for the first time to execute the eleven criminals. Over the next four years, Pierrepoint traveled to Germany and Austria 25 times to execute 200 war criminals. The press soon discovered his identity and he became something of a celebrity, hailed as a sort of war hero for delivering justice to the Nazis. Pierrepoint resigned in 1956 over a disagreement with the Home Office about his fees. It is believed that he executed at least 433 men and 17 women, including Irma Grese and 202 Nazi war criminals after World War II. Albert and Anne Pierrepoint retired to the seaside town of Southport, where he died on July 10, 1992 in a retirement home.

Written by Bryan Johnson – Copyrighted © www.weirdworm.com Image Sources

Image sources:

  • - Lyudmila Pavlichenko: http://www.badassoftheweek.com/pavlichenko1.jpg
  • - Juan Pujol: http://www.canaltcm.com/estadocritico/post/2009/12/11/garbo-espaaa-hombre-sin-sombra
  • - Hiroo Onoda: http://willohroots.files.wordpress.com/2009/06/onoda-hiroo-my-hero.jpg
  • - Jack Churchill: http://www.badassoftheweek.com/churchill3.jpg
  • - Audie Murphy: http://www.khurak.net/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/Audie-Murphy.jpg
  • - Rudolf Hess: http://static.howstuffworks.com/gif/united-states-enacts-lend-lease-bill-22.jpg
  • - Niels Bohr: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6d/Niels_Bohr.jpg
  • - Mikhail Devyatayev : http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_wEtkaYiEOpY/R6xraMaRfVI/AAAAAAAAAGc/gPxAFWFxSLk/s320/devyataev.jpg
  • - Elwin F. Knowles: http://ahoy.tk-jk.net/ImagesMarch52006/BariShipsBurning.jpg
  • - Albert Pierrepoint: