Last year we wrote a lot about the expedition of the Russian Geographical Society and the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation searching for the aircraft that crashed on the Chukotka stage of the Krasnoyarsk Air Route (ALSIB) in 1942-1945. A separate article was devoted to the search for each plane – in particular, about the death of the crew of Major Fyodor Ponomarenko on the Douglas C-47 aircraft on November 25, 1943. As one of the versions, sabotage was considered. Alexey NIKULIN, a member of the expedition, continued the investigation upon his return. Here is his story.
Eyewitnesses and participants in the events suspected that a time bomb had been planted on the plane even before departure to Chukotka from the USA. This, for example, was mentioned in the diaries of one of the participants in these events – the radio operator Viktor Glazkov. You can read about the search for the plane and the progress of the investigation here.
Six months after the end of the expedition, the version about the mine planted in the plane was unexpectedly continued – the relatives of the flight engineer Leonid Deribin, who died in that crash, were found. His son Alexander Leonidovich (retired colonel) lives in St. Petersburg, and his daughter Olga Leonidovna (teacher, Candidate of Economic Sciences) lives in Moscow. I wrote to everyone, made calls, and went to visit the daughter.
At that moment, I and all of us realized that our work was not in vain. We dig through archives, we disappear for months on expeditions, we make films – all of this is not in vain! We, because there are many of us – the staff of our editorial office, the film company “Skyfirst”, the RGS expeditionary team, and a lot of caring people who help us.
To begin with, the family admires their heroic ancestor Leonid Aleksandrovich Deribin(and this also applies to the youngest Deribins – grandchildren and great-grandchildren, including those living outside of Russia).
His personal belongings, documents, photographs, and postcards brought by him from the USA are carefully kept in the family. They show Native Americans, Eskimos, episodes of the gold rush, views of Alaska and American cities. It's funny that from one of the flights he brought a hefty box of chocolate, which was finally finished only in 1956. This cardboard box has been preserved. Interestingly, after the death of the pilot, the American Red Cross sent the family a large can of ham, a two-kilogram bag of flour and ... a baby dress with a blouse.
Leonid Deribin's biography seems similar to that of other people of that time – a village guy with a dream of the sky. He was born on May 25, 1907, in the village of Kurishevskaya, Vozhegodsky District, Vologda Region. In 1931 he graduated from the Military Theoretical School of Pilots. Since September 1932 became part of the Civil Aviation Administration: aviation technician, head of the airport, engineer of the Research Institute of the Civil Aviation Administration, deputy commander of the Yenisei Aviation Group, commissioner of the aero club of the OAH (Osoaviakhim). Since August 1940, he became an aircraft technician at the Uzbek Civil Aviation Administration. At the front since August 1942 – flight mechanic of the Moscow Special Purpose Air Group. On the air route since August 28, 1942 – a military technician of the 2nd rank, a flight technician of the 4th ATR (Air Transport Regiment); since March 10, 1943 – a flight technician of the 8th ATR (Air Transport Regiment).
But here I come across his application to the university for admission as a student to the Faculty of History, dated 1940. And it turns out that he was an extremely versatile person and wasn’t just dreaming of the sky.
According to Olga Leonidovna, her father had a huge library at that time – not for a collection, for knowledge. Honestly, I was really glad when I saw his application. History is our everything! Another proof that history is a subject that makes a citizen out of a person.
And the family can be called a clan in a good way! I'm talking about the whole family, not just about Leonid, who had three brothers. Ivan was a tank driver during the war, Alexander fought in the artillery. The oldest, Zosima, was a legendary shipbuilder, head of the Central Design Bureau-112, chief designer of submarines of projects 613, 633, 641 (submarines of Project 613 are the most massive series of submarines of the USSR Navy).
Everything I wrote above is, perhaps, the main benefit of this story. These family details of the Deribins must certainly become part of the next film. But still, let's return to the strange picture of the death of the C-47 crew, taking into account the circumstances discovered.
"On November 25, 1943, the crash of the C-47 aircraft, tail number 22398, occurred. The crew was killed and buried in Yakutsk. Killed: Major Ponomarenko Fyodor Lukich – squadron commander of the 8th ATR; military technician 2nd rank Deribin Leonid Aleksandrovich – flight mechanic of the 8th ATR; petty Officer Popov Ivan Vasilyevich – radio operator of the 8th ATR; passenger Khavronin. The cause of the crash was a fire from a short circuit in the wiring in the cockpit. The collision of the aircraft with the ground occurred due to difficult piloting conditions due to fire and smoke in the cockpit."
The lost Douglas with the tail number 22398 was discovered from the air four days after the disappearance – on November 29, 1943.
"We searched for them for a long time and found them only on December 18, and brought the remains to Yakutsk," wrote the commander of the 8th Air Transport Regiment V. A. Pushchinsky to Leonid Deribin's wife, who personally took part in the search and transportation of the bodies of fallen comrades.
Praskovya Vasilyevna flew to Yakutsk on the same transport C-47 for her husband's funeral. The Douglas was piloted by the commander of the Air Transport Regiment, the legendary polar pilot, Hero of the Soviet Union Ilya Pavlovich Mazuruk himself. He also gave her a box of matches found in her husband's possession and a plate from one of the Pratt&Whitney engines of the crashed plane. By the way, we did not find it, deciding that it had been taken by those who found the plane before us.
According to Mazuruk, Deribin was found at the crash site without a head, which was found separately. But the body itself was not damaged, except for the hands – the palms were damaged by deep cuts. According to colleagues, these were traces of attempts to break something. Obviously, after the cockpit had filled with smoke, the crew fought to save the aircraft. Perhaps the cause of the damage to the hands was just the burning electrical wiring.
A conspiracy theory was also voiced: "The cause of the fire on board were charges placed in the pilot's seats." According to Olga Leonidovna, both I. P. Mazuruk and V. A. Pushchinsky stubbornly adhered to the ‘sabotage’ version, and it had also persevered for decades in family stories.
Viktor Glazkov, a radio operator, also writes about this in his unpublished diaries: "The commander of the 8th ATR Lieutenant Colonel Pushchinsky V. A. went to the crash site on a tractor with a sledge. He brought three corpses of our comrades wrapped in parachutes. The crew of Benkunsky G. S. with which I flew as a radio operator, with Pushchinsky on board, delivered the corpses to Yakutsk, where they were buried. The causes of the explosion of the aircraft were not found at the scene. They put forward a version that in the States, where Ponomarenko had delivered our trade delegation earlier, a time bomb was planted on him. The explosion occurred on the seventh day after returning from Washington."
The diaries of the radio operator Viktor Glazkov, by the way, have never been published and were discovered by us in the museum in the village of Egvekinot, Chukotka, during the expedition in the summer of 2022.
But in official documents, at least to which I had access, such details and versions are not mentioned. Not even a hint. This does not mean that they did not exist – such facts could not be made public for some political reasons. Olga Leonidovna also mentioned one more detail: one of the highest-ranking diplomats was supposed to fly to the USSR on this plane, but at the last moment he did not fly – his child fell ill. According to the official conclusion, the cause of the crash of the Douglas C-47 transport aircraft with the tail number 22398 on November 25, 1943, was a "technical malfunction".
As for me, I don't really believe in sabotage. A whole week had passed since returning from the USA. Even if we assume that there was a mine with a time mechanism, given the absolutely unpredictable weather in Chukotka even in summer, the plane could easily have spent two weeks in Uelkal instead of one. And catch fire on the ground, when neither the crew nor the passengers would have been on board. However, you may have your own arguments – speak out.
Saying goodbye, we gave Olga Leonidovna a token made from the skin of the C-47 aircraft with the tail number 22398, which crashed in Chukotka on November 25, 1943, as a souvenir…