It's March 3rd, 1942, and a KLM Douglas DC-3, registration number PK-AFV, has departed Bandung, Java, Dutch East Indies, en route to Broome in Western Australia.
At the controls is Captain Ivan Vasilyevich Smirnov, a Russian-born pilot who was a fighter Ace of the Imperial Russian Air Service during the First World War.
Captain Ivan Vasilyevich Smirnov
However, before I continue the story, we need to take a short detour.
Ivan Smirnov (soldier)
Born on January 30, 1895, Ivan was the fourth child born into a peasant family in Russia.
Given that he was raised on a peasant farm, there was little chance for improving one's life. He could not even work in a local factory without continuing to farm the community's land.
As soon as World War I in 1914 broke out, Ivan enrolled as a volunteer in the 96th Omsk Infantry Regiment.
After basic training, the regiment was sent into ferocious combat in the Battle of Lodz. The regiment suffered severe losses, and Smirnov remarked that "We were thrown in as mere gun fodder..."
In late October, Smirnov carried out a number of hazardous ground recon patrols for which he was recommended for the Fourth Class Cross of St. George.
Shortly thereafter, he was the only man remaining of the original 90 recruits.
Having been seriously wounded in the leg by machine gun fire on December 8, 1914, he was evacuated to a hospital in Petrograd. He spent five months in the hospital, and during that time, he met a nurse whose father was a general on the staff of Grand Duke Michael, the inspector-general of the Imperial Russian Air Service.
This encounter piqued his curiosity about flying. While on convalescent leave, he made an official appeal to Grand Duke Michael requesting a transfer to the Imperial Russian Air Service, which was granted.
Ivan Smirnov (aviator)
After 3.5 hours of dual instruction in a Caudron trainer at Petrograd, Smirnov was then transferred to the flying school in Moscow for transition into the Farman IV Biplane.
He soloed in the Farman and was the first one in his class to graduate and be sent to advanced training.
On September 10, 1916, Ivan Smirnov qualified as a military pilot on the Morane-Saulnier L fighter.
The Morane Saulnier L WWI fighter.
Smirnovs aerial combat experience began towards the end of April 1917, and on May 18, 1917, he had his first tangle with an enemy aircraft. No witnesses saw the enemy's forced landing, and Smirnov's aircraft was severely damaged in the dogfight.
By July 5, 1917, Smirnov had been promoted to Military Pilot and was moved up to a Niueport 17.
Russian Nieuport 17, like the one flown by Ivan Smirnov
In August of 1917, Smirnov was promoted to Ensign, making him an officer in the Imperial Russian Air Service.
Over the course of the next five months, Smirnov continued his aerial battles and shot down 11 enemy aircraft.
The October Revolution
The October Revolution in Russia brought political turmoil, which, in turn, was followed by the formation of local Revolutionary Military Committees that quickly took command of the Russian Military.
Soldiers Committees took over running the Russian Military, and they condoned the murder of the Russian Military officers.
Smirnov and two fellow officers fled for their lives, secretly boarding a train to Vladivostok and spending a hazardous month dodging the Bolshevik authorities.
Smirnov and his fellow officers visited a number of foreign consulates. After many refused help, the British stepped forward and offered them an opportunity to join the Royal Flying Corps in England.
Once Smirnov was demobilized from the Royal Air Force, he obtained a flight instructor's job teaching Russian pilots to fly Sopwith Camels in England.
Eventually, Smirnov began flying for the Dutch Airline KLM in 1922. In 1928 he pioneered the postal route from Amsterdam to Batavia in the Dutch East Indies.
World War II
When the Japanese invaded the Dutch East Indies in December 1941, Smirnov returned to military flying as a captain in the army aviation corps.
At the same time, Smirnov continued his civilian flying, evacuating Dutch women, children, and VIPs to Australia, sometimes taking off just minutes before the Japanese invaders arrived.
KLM had an East Indies fleet of DC-3 aircraft under the KNILM banner, and one of them, PK-AFV named Pelikaan, was very busy flying between Bandung in Java to Broome in Northwestern Australia.
The Story Continues
And, now we are back on March 3, 1942, a few days before the Japs arrive on Java.
Smirnov took off in the DC-3 PK-AFV with a co-pilot, radio operator, and eight passengers, including a woman with an 18-month-old child, en route to Broome, Australia.
Just as the flight crossed the Northern coast of Australia near Kimberly, a flight of three Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zeros spotted the DC-3, and they immediately pounced on the aircraft.
A Japanese Navy Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero aircraft in flight.
The DC-3 took a large number of direct hits, and Captain Smirnov was struck several times in his arms, hips, and leg.
Smirnov, an expert combat pilot, made an evasive dive despite his wounds.
Next, the left engine of the DC-3 burst into fire, the spreading flames jeopardizing the aircraft and the threat of an explosion.
Somehow, in what was later described as the most incredible escape flight anyone had ever survived, Smirnov managed to land the aircraft on the beach with wheels down.
However, one of the tires exploded, swerving the aircraft toward the surf which extinguished the engine fire.
Everyone survived the ordeal, even though some of the passengers had been hit by machine gun fire from the Zeros.
The Japanese Zeros continued to strafe the downed DC-3 inflicting more injury and damage, and as a result, the woman, her 18-month-old child, and two other passengers died the next day.
Wreck of KNILM Douglas DC-3 PH-AFV, north of Broome, Western Australia, 1942
Seven days after the ordeal, the survivors were found and brought back by truck to Broome.
The Mysterious Diamonds
Just before the DC-3 departed Bandung, the airport manager handed Smirnov a sealed cigar box wrapped in brown paper with instructions to hand it over to the Commonwealth Bank in Broome.
Needless to say, Smirnov had more important things on his mind during the encounter with the Jap Zeros.
He later recalled that he had placed the package in the first aid box in the cockpit, which, when he last saw it, was being washed out of the fuselage into the surf, never to be seen again.
Later, a beachcomber named John ("Diamond Jack") Palmer showed up with a parcel of diamonds which he claimed were found on the beach.
Here is an article describing how the diamonds were found:
Parker and two associates, John Arthur Mulgrue and Frank Archibald Robinson, were charged with unlawfully receiving the diamonds.
Smirnov was flown across the country to give testimony at the trial of the three men, but in the end, all were acquitted for lack of direct evidence.
After The War
Back in the Netherlands, Smirnov returned to his flying career with KLM, but in 1948 he received an offer he could not resist.
The American Atlas Supply Company, a subsidiary of the Standard Oil Company, planned a 100-day round trip around the world in the Sky Merchant, a Douglas DC-4.
It was a flying stockroom loaded with film, scale models, samples to give away, and literature in a number of languages.
The Atlas Sky Merchant
The Atlas Sky Merchant was a unique 1948 World Flight Airletter with 29 foreign postmarks.
This flying showroom for the Atlas Supply Company embarked on a 100-day 44,500-mile round-the-world flight in 1948 to expand their export business.
This retired World War II DC-4 also carried a supply of U.S. airletter sheets (aerograms) which were postmarked at each of the 29 cities on the global tour, requiring a great deal of cooperation from foreign post offices.
For publicity upon their return, these aerograms were given to individuals who made a contribution to the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund, headed by radio personality Walter Winchell.
Each historic aerogram also includes a copy of a 1948 donor letter from Ernest Kehr authenticating its exciting journey!
The Atlas Sky Merchant World Flight Airletter with 29 Foreign Postmarks.
Smirnov was delighted to fly this trip.
After this trip, Smirnov continued his career with KLM until his retirement in 1949.
Smirnov passed away peacefully at his home in Mallorca, Spain, in 1956, at the age of 61.
I joined the USAF in 1959 and served until 1965 as a Russian Language Specialist.
The USAF was kind enough to send me to Syracuse University to learn Russian.
Afterward, when I was learning what I was going to do with this language, I learned to fly at the local airport in San Angelo, Texas.
My tours of duty took me to a little island called Shemya, next to the last island in the Aleutian Chain. From there, I went to England for three years.
After completing my service, I enrolled at Michigan State University, where I continued advancing my flying skills, graduating with a degree in Romance Languages and Political Science in 1969.
I hope you enjoyed this trip through some of the history of aviation.
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Until next time, keep your eyes safe and focused on what's ahead of you, Hersch!