‘You and What Army?’: How Viktor Leonov Did What Custer Couldn’t

Why you should care

Sometimes badass is much more than just a state of mind.

It almost sounds apocryphal (it was not), this idea that if Soviet soldiers during World War II retreated they would be shot — hence their relentless drive forward. In any case, drive forward they did, and when Berlin fell in 1945, Stalin wasted no time in redirecting the efforts of his battle-hardened troops toward the countries that hadn’t yet surrendered. Namely, Japan.

Very specifically, to where Japan was still a danger to the world at large: its air force. Soviet forces headed to a Japanese airfield at Port Vonsan, headed by Naval Senior Lt. Viktor Leonov. While sending a naval officer to an airfield might have seemed like a strange call, Leonov had, in an even stranger twist, started his military career as a scuba diver.

Scuba diving may not sound like that rough and tough of a military calling until you remember that scuba diving in 1941 was very different from scuba diving in 2019. There were risks that you just won’t find when diving nowadays in the Caribbean — like other scuba divers trying to murder you, for starters — but Leonov’s love for risks was precisely what drove him, when the Soviet Union entered the war that very same year, to become a naval scout in the 4th Special Volunteer Detachment. Picture a Soviet SEAL and you’ll have an idea of the man — and the 70 other vets in his detachment.

And as though to put a thoroughly earnest exclamation point on this, Leonov pulled out a hidden grenade, making the implications more than clear …

Leonov led his troops on raids that racked up German kills like German kills were going out of style. His penultimate pièce de résistance was a secret raid in 1944 to destroy a German stronghold of big artillery guns at Cape Krestovy.

And how did he and his troops get there? They hiked. And once there they captured the big guns and turned them on the Germans, a situation that fairly effectively convinced the German high command that it made more sense to gutter the guns rather than risk letting the Soviets get them. It was a career-making move for Leonov and one that earned him top military honors at the age of 28. But there would be no resting on any laurels.

As soon as Berlin fell, Leonov and 140 other soldiers decamped to that Japanese airfield, parachuting in to find themselves promptly captured by more than 3,500 Japanese soldiers. These were forces that had laid waste to China and were fearsome enough that someone somewhere in America had started hatching a plan to drop an atomic bomb on them.

Leonov’s commander, Capt. Kulebyakin, made of less stern stuff, sought an immediate meet with his rough corollary, a Japanese colonel. The Japanese colonel’s response? Peel off 10 of the Soviets as hostages. Which was about all Leonov could stand.

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Viktor Leonov in 1942.

Source Russia in Photo

“We’ve been fighting in the West throughout the war and understand our situation,” said Leonov, as recounted in Henry Sakaida’s book Heroes of the Soviet Union 1941-1945. “We will not allow ourselves to be taken hostage! You will all die like rats when we break out of here!”

And as though to put a thoroughly earnest exclamation point on this, Leonov pulled out a hidden grenade, making the implications more than clear: We all die if you don’t surrender. Then, after a few more utterances along the lines of him not fearing death, the Japanese colonel chose to believe Leonov and did the only sensible thing a leader of almost 4,000 Japanese soldiers could do under the circumstances. He surrendered.

The total death toll? Zero.

Moreover, from the capture of the big guns at Cape Krestovy to the conclusion of Soviet-Japanese hostilities, Leonov himself lost only nine soldiers, which, when you consider the degree of difficulty in the aforementioned, is a rare feat. And which his multiple awards and medals postwar attest to.

After the war but before the fall of the Soviet Union, Leonov spent his time writing an autobiography and being used by the Soviets as an exemplar of what a solid citizen should and could be. But when the Soviet Union fell, Leonov also fell out of favor. So much so that by the time of his death in Moscow in 2003, the paper carried, in total, zero obituary announcements touting either the man or his exploits.

“These guys were not sad-old-guys-sitting-in-parks kind of forgotten,” says U.S. Marine and military vet Ben Kroskey. “For a lot of them, without the war, not much of life held very much visceral thrill anyway. And after what they went through, you’d probably feel the same way.” 

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