After preparing their barge for an upcoming voyage, these four Soviet soldiers found themselves caught in a vicious storm that left their ship helplessly adrift. With their equipment in tatters, they ended up lost at sea in freezing waters. To make matters worse, it was the height of the Cold War. Left with scarce rations in forbidden territory, no one found them until an American warship showed up and took bewildering measures.
1. Remote Assignment
For a group of young Soviet soldiers boarding a ship just north of Japan in the frigid waters of the North Pacific Ocean, the tension of their era must have seemed far away. Little did they know that they were on the brink of disaster — and that they would unwillingly embark upon a journey that would lead them straight into the hands of their country’s sworn enemy.
The Cold War and escalation of hostilities between the United States, the Soviet Union, and their respective allies was at its peak, soon to bring the world to the very brink of nuclear annihilation. A terrific storm was brewing, and about to strike. And the small group would be caught in the middle of it, unaware of the inconceivable journey fate had in store.
2. The T-36
Four soldiers loaded and prepared the small T-36 barge, that measured just 57 feet long. With two engines, and a maximum speed that could barely reach 10 knots the boat was taking off from Kasatka Bay, in the Soviet-controlled Kuril Islands between Siberia and Japan. The crew of the transit ship were all military construction workers, without a background as sailors.
The four soldiers had been tasked with a mission to ferry resources back and forth from a base on land, bringing food supplies and ammunition to larger vessels that could not get close to the rocky shoreline of the islands. But as they prepared to ship out, they had no idea that their entire surroundings were about to betray them.
3. Danger Approaches
The supply vessel would usually sail, at most, 1,000 feet from the rocks off the island of Iturup. It was not designed to go further, and was too flimsy to be taken out into the far larger and more unpredictable waves of the open ocean.
The men on the barge were due to soon receive their rations for the next 10 days. But suddenly, on the morning of January 17, 1960, a massive storm with hurricane-force winds descended upon the area without warning. They were in serious danger — and before they could sail out of harm’s reach, the hurricane caught them.
4. Struggling To Survive
Massive and terrifying waves, stirred up by the hurricane, reached nearly 50 feet in height, threatening to swamp them as they pummeled their battered craft. In charge of the barge was 21-year-old junior sergeant Askhat Ziganshin, commanding 21-year-old Anatoly Kryuchkovsky, and 20-year-olds Filipp Poplavsky and Ivan Fedotov.
As they tried to turn the ship around three different times in a desperate attempt to flee back to shore, the crew of the supply boat headed straight into the very same obstacle their mission helped larger ships avoid: the nearby island’s craggy rocks. But, their shipping mission was about to come to an abrupt end, swiftly turning into a scramble to survive.
5. Dashed Against The Rocks
Even as the crew attempted to flee the grip of the hurricane, the rocky shore caught the small vessel like prey, jabbing a hole into the side of the boat. Freezing ocean water began to surge into the engine room, and the four soldiers scrambled to bail out water and keep it away from the engines.
Another cataclysmic series of waves smashed into the barge’s cabin, swamping and killing their radio. The crew managed to get out one final message to their fellow forces in the area just before all lines went dead: “We [anticipate] disaster, we cannot come ashore,” they relayed.
6. Cut Loose
It was late at night on January 17, and the boat was officially adrift on the subzero high seas of the North Pacific Ocean, with both engines dead and their scant fuel supplies petering out. Attempting to swim back to shore was not an option, given the water’s frigid temperature would kill them within a matter of minutes.
All four men had survived the onslaught of the storm, and managed to keep their ship from sinking. But now, like jellyfish, they were at the mercy of the tides, drifting aimlessly, hoping to be discovered. And the odds were stacked against them.
7. Fearing The Worst
Back on shore in the Kuril Islands, Soviet military search and rescue forces tried in vain to find the missing barge and its crew. It was during that time that one team made a chilling discovery: a keg of drinking water had come ashore in pieces, clearly pulverized during the storm.
Rescuers took this as a sign that disaster had befallen the crew, and became certain that the ship had been lost, destroyed and sank. Due to those assumptions, official condolences were sent to the families of the four soldiers, informing them their sons had died at sea. The truth was, all four were very much alive — and drifting straight into a danger zone.
8. In The Danger Zone
As the wayward supply boat drifted to the southeast, its crew hoped to see other vessels that might tow them to safety. The problem was, they had been taken by the current precisely into forbidden waters designated by the Soviet military as a testing site for the types of intercontinental ballistic missile, primarily designed to deliver nuclear weapons.
As if it wasn’t bad enough to be lost at sea, powerless to control the course of their ship, they now ran the additional risk of accidentally being blown up by a rocket before being seen and rescued. As a result, no other ships were even in the area. They were quite alone — and resources were scarce.
9. Basic Necessities
The four young men took stock of their extremely limited food and water resources. The situation was dire. At most they had one loaf of bread, some peas and millet, jerky beef in three cans, a can of cooking fat, a few spoonfuls of cereal, and potatoes — which, of course, were largely spoiled, as diesel fuel had spilled on them and soaked them.
To drink, they had some freshwater left in the cooling systems of their now-dead engines, but it was already in a vile state, filled with mud and rust. When that ran out, they would have to collect rainwater. A plan was needed.
10. Resource Allocation
The leader of the crew, Ziganshin, stepped up to the plate to command the situation, and decided how they ought to ration their food. They had no way of knowing just how long they would be out at sea before being spotted, and they had to make their meager resources last as long as absolutely possible.
In the beginning, the Soviet soldiers ate one meal a day, using a cup of soup. They took the spoiled potatoes and the rust-filled water, and mixed them with a spoonful of fat. Three times each day, they drank only one sip of water. That system, however, would quickly deteriorate.
11. Desperation Sets In
It soon became painfully apparent that even Ziganshin’s ration system of one meal per day would not be enough to properly stretch out the crew’s resources. Eventually, as the days dragged on, the castaway soldiers switched from eating once a day, to eating once a day every other day in order to conserve resources.
But that didn’t help. The food stockpile, if it could even be called that, was vanishing bit by bit. They were losing weight fast, and could see how hunger transformed their bodies. Fedotov worried aloud that they were all going to die of starvation. Something had to be done — and fast, otherwise they wouldn’t make it.
12. The Black Current
Out on the ocean, the four soldiers ought to have had ample resources to glean from the sea: fish. The problem was, the area that they had drifted into just so happened to be notoriously lacking in fish. The warm Kuroshio current to whom they were prisoners was known by Japanese fishermen as ‘the Black Current.’
The reason was that the current moved so fast, traveling upward of 78 miles a day, that almost no fish could stay in it. There were seabirds, but none came close enough to be caught and eaten. The men had almost no food left, and no food they could hunt. So they turned to far more extreme measures.
13. Thinking Outside The Box
As the torture of their unwilling odyssey ate away at their physical health as well as their psychological health, Ivan Fedotov became increasingly paranoid. He went so far as to keep an axe under his pillow, concerned that his fellow crew members might end up resorting to cannibalism, and try to eat him.
Instead, Ziganshin came up with a strange idea. They would take non-food items, and try to cook them into something that might trick their stomachs into thinking they were full. The stranded soldiers had one resource on board that, by a stretch of the imagination, could become food.
14. Repurposing The Inedible
Ziganshin and the other three men took items they might never have considered food, but under the circumstances of severe hunger, became more plausible to use as nourishment. They took toothpaste and soap, and ate them. They also scoured the ship for leather, taking their leather belts, slicing them into thin strips like noodles, and making them into boiling soup.
The Soviet soldiers’ military walkie-talkies also had a leather strap they could use: after all, it was originally from a cow. Now, they had found something moderately ‘edible,’ and in a burst of creativity fueled by necessity, took one more item.
15. Bare Boots
Now unable to avoid it, the Soviet soldiers had to look differently at even the most basic of their bare essentials — and decide to use their tarpaulin boots as food. To take off the nasty shoe polish, they stewed their boots in the seawater, and then sliced them up.
They tossed the pieces of tarpaulin boot into the fire they had on board, which seared them into charcoal-like chunks. Then they begrudgingly swallowed down the concoction. Despite their terrible situation, they maintained their military discipline, even cramming themselves into one bed to huddle up for warmth against the cold. But a new challenge soon arose: one of their own making.
16. Patriotic Duty
Although lost at sea, the crew members had been keeping diligent track of the days they had been adrift on the waters of the North Pacific. February 23 arrived, and with it, a national holiday of theirs: Soviet Army and Navy Day. As any patriotic soldier would, they wanted to do something special to honor this important holiday.
But their strict food regimen dictated that that day happened to fall on one of their fast days. So, instead, they turned to their precious few resources, and took one final cigarette out of their supply, smoking it to honor the day. Yet even as hope dwindled, they couldn’t have imagined what they were about to run into.
After more than six weeks lost at sea, the adrift crew spotted a ship for the first time since their horrible odyssey had began. Gathering what few resources they could spare to burn, they lit a bonfire on the deck of their battered ship to try and alert the passing ship to their presence, but to no avail.
The ship did not see them, and their hearts sank as they watched it sail onward into the distance, their hope fading as they saw it disappear into the horizon. It looked in that moment as though they were truly doomed to die alone on the high seas.
18. A Peculiar Sight
Five days later, in the dim twilight of March 7, 1960, a lookout man scanning the horizon in the middle of the western expanses of the tumultuous Pacific Ocean spied something extraordinary. It was so utterly out of place on the high seas that he was compelled to run and inform the personnel aboard his ship.
The aircraft carrier called the Kearsarge had been sailing east out of the port of Yokosuka in Japan. The aircraft carrier began to approach the mysterious object — and when they got close enough to make out the life forms on board, they were all in for the shock of their lives.
19. Close Encounter
The Kearsarge was a vessel of the United States Navy, heading to California. At the moment, it was sailing 1,200 miles away from Wake Atoll. Given their allegiances, they were not only utterly flabbergasted to see four emaciated men standing on a broken ship, but wearing uniforms in deep green, and caps with red stars on them.
The foreign boat was in a terrible state, and its well deck was submerged under several feet of water. What’s more, they were Soviet, the aircraft carrier was American, and neither of the two parties was sure as to what the next move should be.
20. A Shocking Discovery
Ziganshin had been lying in the cockpit of the lost boat with the other Soviet soldiers, exhausted and weak. He heard a loud noise from outside, and went out on deck to investigate. In a seascape where the only noise for months had been wind and waves, anything would stand out — but this was distinctly sharp. There, above, he saw a helicopter hovering.
While the adrift crew couldn’t speak their language, there was a clear standoff: these were Americans. But instead of trying to attack, the Americans were trying to save the stranded crew. If the Soviet soldiers complied and allow themselves to be rescued by their country’s enemies, they were deeply worried that their cooperation could be interpreted back home as betraying the motherland. They were so close to safety — but hesitated. What would happen?
21. Awkward Standoff
Two separate times, American helicopters tried to offer the stranded soldiers assistance, and were refused. Captain Robert L. Townsend, the commanding officer of the Kearsarge, sent a report to the headquarters of the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The US State Department then notified the Soviet Embassy in Washington DC.
Unsure of what to do and baffled as to why the soldiers denied their gesture, the carrier was about to sail off. But the Soviet soldiers panicked, and decided survival was their best option. They took the Americans up on their offer, and climbed up the helicopter’s rescue gear unsure of what was to come next.
22. Aboard The Kearsarge
None of the soldiers spoke English, so the American crew tried to use broken Russian to understand their plight. The Soviets felt they didn’t need to be rescued, maintaining a fierce sense of independence. They insisted they only needed food, a map to understand their course, and fuel for their tattered boat.
As the Kearsarge took them across the Pacific, they were in safe hands. When they were rescued, the four soldiers had remaining just one boot (for food, of course), three matches, and only a half teapot of drinkable water. That would have lasted them just two more days at most. They had been on the brink of death. What awaited them now?
23. Acclimating To Reality
After having drifted about 1,020 miles for 49 days, having lost up to 40 pounds per person, the temptation of real food must have been absolutely overwhelming. Yet despite this, the malnourished soldiers ate slowly and carefully, with remarkable restraint and discipline. They were concerned that if they wolfed down the servings, they would burst their emaciated stomachs.
Then, they passed out into a deep sleep for several days, before waking up terrified, confused, bewildered by their surroundings, uncertain of how their cooperation with their Cold War enemy would affect their future or that of their families. They were about to find out.
24. San Francisco
The Kearsarge at last reached dry land, and docked in San Francisco. There, dizzied by this foreign land that they were supposed to loathe, the rescued men were given civilian outfits, spoke at a press conference, and even granted several press interviews.
Despite the hostilities between their nations, San Francisco’s mayor gave them each a key to the city, and made them honorary citizens. They received $100 pocket money for tourism, met with the Soviet consul general, and were then whisked away to New York before being set aboard the Queen Mary to Europe. They donned their military outfits again, unsure of what awaited them in Moscow.
25. Heroes In Their Time
To their joy, the four soldiers rescued by the Americans were treated with wild fanfare back home. In a reception headed by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and Minister of Defense Rodion Malinovsky, they were honored with the Order of the Red Star, lavished with gifts, and then, treated as national heroes, received press coverage that made them the celebrities of their day, on par with cosmonauts or, later, The Beatles.
Ziganshin was promoted in rank to senior sergeant for his duty in commanding the doomed T-36 vessel. Pop songs, Russian nursery rhymes, poems, and even a film were produced singing their praises. Yet above all, most remarkable, was the way that the two superpowers of the Cold War treated human beings in need with the utmost dignity and respect in this epic tale of survival.
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