This week, the RedState Department of History looks down on everyone else through the story of a remarkable airman who, on this date in 1944, accomplished a truly remarkable feat.
Nicholas Alkemade was born December 10, 1922 and during the Second World War, served as a tail gunner on a Royal Air Force Lancaster heavy bomber.
On the night of March 24-25, 1944, Alkemade’s group was attacking Berlin when, on the trip home, his plane was attacked by a Junkers JU-88 night fighter.
The attacker scored hits and the pilot ordered his crew to bail out. To his horror, Alkemade discovered that his parachute had been destroyed by fire. He had the ultimate choice to make at 18,000 feet:
“I had no doubts at all that this was the end of the line. The question was whether to stay in the plane and fry or jump to my death. I decided to jump and make a quick, clean end of things. I backed out of the turret and somersaulted away.”
Alkemade plummeted toward the ground and gave up hope at that time.
“It was very quiet, the only sound being the drumming of aircraft engines in the distance, and no sensation of falling at all. I felt suspended in space. Regrets at not getting home were my chief thoughts, and I did think once that it didn’t seem very strange to be going to die in a few seconds – none of the parade of my past or anything else like that.”
The real miracle of the event was that not only did Alkemade survive the jump, he was relatively unhurt. Striking a tall pine tree and a series of remarkably soft and fortuitous snow drifts, Alkemade lived through the event.
“Three hours later, Alkemade opened his eyes. He was lying on snowy ground in a small pine wood. Above him the stars were still visible, only this time they were framed by the edges of the hole he had smashed through the tree canopy. Assessing himself, Alkemade found that he was remarkably intact. In addition to the burns and cuts to the head and thigh, all received in the aircraft, he was suffering only bruising and a twisted knee. Not a single bone had been broken or even fractured. Both of his flying boots had disappeared, probably torn from his feet as he unconsciously struck the tree branches. Being of no further use, Alkemade discarded his parachute harness in the snow.”
But as fate would have it, Alkemade chose one of the worst possible nights to bail out over occupied Germany. That same night at nearby Stalag Luft III near Sagan, 76 Allied prisoners of war escaped from the camp in what came to be known as “The Great Escape“.
Alkemade was placed in the same room where the escaped prisoners had started their tunnel — though filled in, of course — about a week after being shot down. The Germans accused him of being a spy because, as his interrogators understandably asked, how could he have survived bailing out of a bomber with no parachute?
Yet, he had. And now he spent the next fifteen months as a kriegie, prisoner language for kriegsgefangener, or ‘prisoner of war’.
As amazing as Alkemade’s story is, he was, incredibly, not the only airman to survive a free fall from such a height. A webpage known as the “Free Fall Research Page” lists at least two other men who beat unbelievable odds:
Lt. I.M. Chisov — a Russian airman who, after being shot down in his Ilyushin IL-4 bomber in 1942, fell nearly 22,000 feet, landing on the edge of a snow-covered ravine. He was badly injured but survived.
Sgt. Alan Magee — thrown from his B-17 before he could put on his parachute during a raid on St. Nazaire, France in 1943, Magee hit the angled skylight of the St. Nazaire train station, rolling to safety on the station’s roof with only an injured arm.
Yet even after the war, Alkemade lived a charmed life. After marrying his wartime sweetheart, he survived three industrial accidents, any one of which might well have taken his life:
“After discharge from the RAF in 1946, Alkemade returned to Loughborough, finding work in a chemical plant. Not long after starting his new job, he again cheated death. While removing chlorine gas-generating liquid from a sump, he received a severe electric shock from the equipment he was using. Reeling away, his gas mask became dislodged and he began breathing in the poisonous gas. An agonising 15 minutes were to pass before his appeals for aid were answered and he was dragged to safety, nearly asphyxiated by the fumes. Not long after, a siphoning pipe burst, spraying Alkemade’s face and arms with industrial sulphuric acid. With astounding presence of mind, he dived head-first into a nearby 40 gallon drum of limewash, thereby neutralising the acid. Alkemade ‘escaped’ with first degree burns. Returning to work, Alkemade was pinned beneath a nine foot long steel door runner that fell from its mountings as he passed by. Somehow only minor bruising resulted.”
Alkemade died — and we’re sure of that — in 1987, after having lived a truly remarkable life. Happy Sunday and enjoy today’s open thread!