Archival photo of russian paratroopers on the wing of a Soviet heavy bomber in 1937

This video clip of Russian airborne troops sliding off the wing of a Soviet heavy bomber in 1937 seems almost comical, as if it’s some kind of emergency drill. But this was an airborne demonstration maneuver created for none other than Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin himself. You can see the full film, taken from a Pathe newsreel, at the Internet Archive (and if you cue to 4:35, you can watch a hilarious sequence of an ice skater experimenting with a rocket pack)

One of those wing sliders was Soviet WWII veteran Colonel Knanon Zaretsky, interviewed by Pete Mecca in 2015 through an interpreter. Here is a digest his story:

Born in Bobruisk, Belarus, in 1924, Knanon Zaretsky was in the 9th grade at the dawn of WWII. Belarus did not fare well in WWII, losing over 1/3 of its population.

Luckily, the Zaretsky family relocated to Kazakhstan. The Colonel recalled, “I studied tractors, the mechanics of many things, but ended up being sent to the war academy then to officers school for communications. I studied hard and graduated in the top of the class. They said I was near genius; I’ll agree with that,” he said, grinning.

“So instead of going to the front I was ordered to Moscow.”

My interpreter wrestled with the translation but evidently Colonel Zaretsky developed into one of Moscow’s premier ‘innovators’ or ‘inventors’. The Colonel continued, “We were always upgrading things, tweaking this and that, trying to improve on the old or invent the new to help the war effort.”

Alas, the romanticism of war for an 18 year old is difficult to resist.  He recalled, “I asked for a combat posting, I wanted to participate in the war, but I wasn’t anticipating parachute school. It was very dangerous but also very exciting. Our jump platform was the Tupolev TB-3.”

Note to readers: Americans ‘jumped’ out of airplanes; the Russians ‘slid’ off airplanes. However, the Tupolev TB-3 was indeed a ‘platform’. Russian paratroopers either ‘scooted’ or ‘slid’ off the wings, sometimes hanging on for the entire flight by grasping a cable attached to the upper part of the wing.

Colonel Zaretsky revealed another problem: “Our parachutes were poorly made.  Usually 1 out of 10 parachutes failed causing many deaths. We finally received American parachutes. They opened! Our casualties decreased considerably.”

Reflecting on war at 18: “It was dangerous, yet romantic in a way. I was 18 years old, no fear, fighting for Mother Russia. Actually, I walked into combat the first time, I wasn’t required to parachute. As commander of a communications unit, I had about 30 people under my command. Our first combat mission was at night. We came to a small city, it was on fire, everything burning, but we didn’t panic, we were all calm. Our job was to provide communications, and that’s what we did.”

Pausing for a moment, Colonel Zaretsky stated, “……I could tell you a thousand stories.”

With casualties of such horrific scale, the Colonel lost many of his men to the German invaders. His unit saw action in Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, and Germany.

He recalled an incident in Germany, “We were in a small German town when a woman approached me, frightened and crying.  ‘You are an officer,’ she said. ‘One of your men stole my watch.’  My reply was, ‘So what?’ She explained it wasn’t just a watch, but had been a gift with special meaning. I believed her. I asked my men, ‘Who took the watch?’  No reply, so I warned them, ‘Either return the watch, or if I find out later who did this, I will have you shot.’  A soldier stepped forward and returned her watch.

Later he asked me, ‘You really would have shot me over a watch?’ And I told him, ‘We are not like Germans, we fight for a different reason.’”

While visiting Germany with his wife in 1996, the Colonel was walking his dog one morning when he met a German gentleman who was also walking a dog.  Recalling the conversation, the Colonel said, “We talked about the war. Why and how did it happen? The man wanted to learn about me and the Russian people.

The next morning he was waiting for me, wanting to understand more. He couldn’t comprehend why he and I were once enemies.”

In another incident, the Colonel and his wife realized they had become lost en route to the airport. They asked a German lady for directions. “We were surprised that she was so helpful and so friendly,” he said. “The woman was truthfully concerned. We couldn’t believe it.”

Our interpreter, Yuriy, explained the reason Colonel Zaretsky and his wife were shocked by the lady’s courtesy. “You see, in Russia, if you ask for directions, people look at you like, ‘are you stupid or something? Go find yourself a map.’ It is difficult for Americans to understand. Very different attitude in Russia.”

Colonel Zaretsky has lived in America since May of 1990. He has three diplomas, one awarded for the studies of Communism while under the iron fist reign of Joseph Stalin. He recalled, “Under Stalin you could not say what you thought.  Very dangerous to speak truth.”

When asked if the Russian people are better off after the fall of Soviet Russia, Colonel Zaretsky replied, “Even after Stalin’s death, the Russian economy started to improve. And after communism failed, the people could travel, leave the country. The economy really got better.”

Russian paratrooper Colonel Knanon ZaretskyWhy did the Colonel come to America? “My children are here,” he said, grinning. Does he enjoy America? “America has it right. You built your county the right way. If you really want something in America you have to study for it, work for it, but you can go for it. Freedom, is good.”

Among his final comments. “A world war is no good now, nobody win; everyone die. Our mission is to be sure war does not happen. We need peaceful talk to avoid war. Peace is better than war.”

Sadly, Colonel Zaritsky reported for his Final Inspection a year later, on November 25, 2017, two days after Thanksgiving.  And with his death, the statement, “……I could tell you a thousand stories,” died with him.