I served on a submarine depot ship when the war broke out. The passenger liner Volga was converted into a depot ship. The ship was a part of the 1st Submarine Brigade of the Black Sea Fleet.
On August 19, 1941, Supreme Commander Staff formed the Odessa Defense led by Admiral G.V. Zhukov. Two regiments of the navy and a few detachments of sailors were formed to defend the city. I volunteered to be in the first detachment, which had eight hundred bayonets. Mayor Potapov was appointed commander. We took a defensive position in a western sector near the railroad station Razdelnaya.
Our enemies called us “black devils” not because we wore bellbottom pants, black peacoats, and sailor caps but because we showed tremendous bravery, sought hand-to-hand combat fearlessly, and fought like beasts. There were periods when Mayor Potapov sent us into battle a few times a day.
The Romanians were afraid of us and refused to engage us in hand-to-hand combat. They abandoned their nearest trenches. We won some trophies and returned to our trenches. This was called an active defense. But we still suffered casualties from enemy fire. During one such attack I suffered a head injury.
After two weeks in a medical battalion I rushed back to my detachment, but when I arrived there I found a different detachment. I started asking questions. Nobody could give me any explanation until I stumbled upon a command post. A commander checked my documents and explained: “Sailor, your detachment passed on. Your commander was gravely injured and sent to the hospital. The rest of your detachment, two dozen fighters, are scattered along our infantry fortification. We will find a position for you now. Do you know how to handle a Maxim machine gun?”
“I used one at the front line,” I told him.
“Great,” he said. “I appoint you commander of the machine gun company.” He then gave orders to enlist me so that I would have access to all allowances. We barely had learned to handle machine guns and to get to know each other when the order arrived to evacuate to the Crimea in order to fortify its defense.
Seventy-three days of the heroic Defense of Odessa ended on October 16. On that day we managed to get on the last ship, the Kuban, which headed to Sevastopol. On October 25 our unit fought bitterly in entrenched positions near the Vorontsovka settlement. The area was swampy, and there was nowhere to build trenches. We were under constant enemy fire. At the next changing of the guard I helped the first squad member to carry a machine gun; his assistant was killed. We were crawling in mud when my right arm went numb and I lost consciousness. An enemy bullet passed through my left shoulder and grazed my spine. I regained consciousness in a crater caused by a mine. Next to me lay a unit commander whose leg was blown off above the knee. Blood. Stillness. I could not hear any sounds of battle or any voices.
I did not know who to thank for dragging us into the crater or whether I should have scolded that someone for leaving us there to die. To avoid suffering and capture, I wanted to shoot myself but could not reach my pistol, and I lost consciousness again. I regained consciousness when it had started to darken. I heard Russian speech. I wanted to shout for help but could only moan loudly. A Red Army man with a rifle on a shoulder belt stopped above the crater and asked, “What are you doing here, soldiers?”
I summoned enough strength to joke, “We set up a date, but the girls are quite late.”
He came down into the crater, examined our condition, shook his head, and said worriedly, “Guys, you need emergency care. But unfortunately, there are no phones or vehicles here. We are surrounded by a swamp. The Germans are around, but those bastards will not help.”
He rushed to call the men who knew the area, but they decided not to stay. The Red Army man waved in disgust, lifted my neighbor on his back, and asked me, “What is your name, dear, and where are you from?”
“Vladimir is my name,” I replied. “I am from Tbilisi.”
“We are almost fellow countrymen,” he said. “I am from Stepanakert. Wait for me, Volodya-jan. I will come back for you right after I carry him away. Word of Man. Got it? Wait.”
And he disappeared into the darkness. By his speech and accent I understood that he was Armenian. To tell the truth, I did not believe he would come back and that he would be able to find our crater at night. There were probably countless craters like that one here. My situation was completely miserable. I could not move my right arm and right leg. With every movement I lost consciousness because of the pain in my back. My clothes were soaked, and the cold northern wind promised frost that night. From pain and cold I lost consciousness, and when I regained it, I lost hope. Fortunately, a tiny ray of hope lived within me. It is true what they say—that hope dies last.
It was past midnight when someone shook me awake. It was my “Jan.” I did not have any strength to tell him “thank you” or to ask his name. He lifted me on his back and carried me approximately two and a half kilometers to the place where there were britzkas that carried the remaining wounded and dead bodies. He put me with the wounded, wiped sweat from his face, shook my hand, and said, “Doctors will help you soon. And girls will be waiting for you on dates, Volodya-jan.”
He might have said something else, but I passed out. I awakened after getting bandaged. I was treated in hospitals at Tuapse, Baku, and Tbilisi. I got rid of my paralysis and resumed my service with the depot ship Volga. As a part of a submarine cre,w I hunted enemy ships.
All kinds of things happened during the war and during my long life after the war. But the brightest and most touching memory I have is of that noble, brave stranger who saved my friend and myself. Not knowing his name, I could never find him. Yet I have never forgotten him. He remains my hero and his “Word of Man” is the most ceremonial oath and an unbreakable promise.
After the war ended, every day on Victory Day I raised a glass for my savior. You don’t believe me? Word of Man! It is sacred for me.
Written by Vladimir Kovach, Never Heard, Never Forget: Vol. I, 2017