Attacks on parachutists
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Attacks on parachutists, in term of the law of war, is when pilots, aircrews, and/or passengers are attacked while descending by parachutes from disabled aircraft during times of war. This practice is considered by most militaries around the world to be inhumane, barbaric, and unchivalrous, that it is unnecessary killing (e.g., they would eventually become prisoners of war if parachuted over enemy territory), that it is contrary to fair play, and that military pilots have to be held to a higher standard. Attacking persons parachuting from an aircraft in distress is a war crime under Protocol I in addition to the 1949 Geneva Conventions. However, it is not prohibited under this Protocol to open fire on airborne troops who are descending by parachutes, even if their aircraft is in distress.
After the First World War, a series of meetings were held at The Hague in 1922–23. Based on experiences and stories from fighter pilots who participated in the First World War, a commission of jurists attempted to codify this practice with the Hague Rules of Air Warfare, Article 20 proscribed that:
When an aircraft has been disabled, the occupants when endeavoring to escape by means of parachute must not be attacked in the course of their descent.
However, the Hague Rules of Air Warfare never came into force, and despite the strong feelings of chivalry around this issue, there was no legal prohibition on targeting defenseless airmen before or during the Second World War. In 1949, as a result of widespread practices and abuses committed during the Second World War, the newly modified and updated versions of the Geneva Conventions came into force providing greater protections to protected persons but there was still no explicit prohibition on the shooting of parachuting enemy pilots. However, despite this, military manuals around the world contained prohibition on attacking enemy pilots parachuting from an aircraft in distress. Paragraph 30 of the U.S. Army's Field Manual published by the Department of the Army, on July 18, 1956 (last modified on July 15, 1976), under the title "The Law of Land Warfare", states:
30. Persons Descending by Parachute
The law of war does not prohibit firing upon paratroops or other persons who are or appear to be bound upon hostile missions while such persons are descending by parachute. Persons other than those mentioned in the preceding sentence who are descending by parachute from disabled aircraft may not be fired upon.
In 1977, this practice was finally codified in Protocol I in addition to the 1949 Geneva Conventions:
Article 42 - Occupants of aircraft
- 1. No person parachuting from an aircraft in distress shall be made the object of attack during his descent.
- 2. Upon reaching the ground in territory controlled by an adverse Party, a person who has parachuted from an aircraft in distress shall be given an opportunity to surrender before being made the object of attack, unless it is apparent that he is engaging in a hostile act.
- 3. Airborne troops are not protected by this Article.
Not many states have ratified Protocol I but it is an accepted principle of international humanitarian law that targeting persons, other than airborne troops, parachuting from an aircraft in distress is a violation of the customary laws of war and is binding on all belligerents, whether or not they have ratified them.
First World War
This custom began during the First World War when fighter pilots were targeting enemy observation balloons. However, after shooting down their balloons, many pilots refrained themselves from firing at downed persons who were parachuting to earth, because they felt it was inhumane and unchivalrous which only a few people could stomach. The chivalrous response to this practice, which only began towards the very end of the First World War when parachutes were finally deployed to pilots in fixed-wing aircraft, was seen as one whereby the pilots without defense should not be shot at. While this may have been true in some instances, it should be remembered that the tactical characteristics of the single seat fighter in the First World War made it advisable to shoot an opponent from behind, or if possible, to dive on him without warning. Although there were certainly instances of long and skilfully conducted duels between equal opponents, the majority of kills achieved by the major aces were at the expense of fledgling pilots, barely able to control their planes. Thus, the average life expectancy of a new aviator on the western front was somewhere between three to six weeks. By July 1918, German and Austria-Hungarian Air Force parachute escapes had become routine. The Heinecke chutes that German and Austria-Hungarian pilots received were not perfect and sometimes failed to operate safely. Some were destroyed by fire before they could open, and occasionally, as they swayed gently down to earth, pilots faced the further peril of being shot at by Allied fighters. British flying ace James Ira T. Jones had no compunction in doing this. 'My habit of attacking Huns dangling from parachutes led to many arguments in the mess,' he said. 'Some officers of the Eton and Sandhurst type, thought it "unsportsmanlike". Never having been to a public school, I was unhampered by such considerations of "form". I just pointed out that there was a bloody war on, and that I intended to avenge my pals.'
Second World War
War in Europe
In the beginning of World War II, there was a strong sense of chivalry between the British RAF and German Luftwaffe pilots; they liked to regard themselves as 'knights of the air' and shooting defenseless enemy pilots in their parachutes would be contrary to their pilots' professionalism. The question of shooting an enemy pilot parachuting over his own territory aroused bitter debate from both sides. On August 31, 1940, during the Battle of Britain, RAF Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding dined with Prime Minister Winston Churchill at Chequers. After dinner, they discussed the topic about the morality of shooting parachuting Luftwaffe pilots. Dowding suggested that German pilots were perfectly entitled to shoot RAF pilots parachuting over Britain as they were still potential combatants (i.e., going back to a new aircraft to conduct another military mission) while RAF pilots should refrain from firing at German pilots as they were out of combat and would eventually become prisoners of war once they landed on British soil. Churchill was appalled by this suggestion, arguing that shooting a parachuting pilot "was like drowning a sailor". On the German side, Luftwaffe commander-in-chief Hermann Göring asked Luftwaffe fighter ace Adolf Galland about what he thought about shooting enemy pilots while in their parachutes, even over their own territory. Galland replied that, "I should regard it as murder, Herr Reichsmarschall. I should do everything in my power to disobey such an order". Goering—who had been a fighter ace himself during World War I—said, "That is just the reply I had expected from you, Galland".
This did not mean that it never happened. In fact, there were numbers of incidents where the shooting of parachuting enemy aviators occurred. On September 1, 1939, in the Modlin area, during Germany's invasion of Poland, pilots of the Polish Pursuit Brigade encountered a group of forty German bombers escorted by twenty Bf 109 and Bf 110 fighter planes. During combat, Lt. Aleksander Gabszewicz was forced to bail out of his aircraft. While hanging in his parachute, Gabszewicz was strafed by a Bf 110. Second Lt. Tadeusz Sawicz, who was flying nearby, attacked the German plane and another Polish pilot, Wladyslaw Kiedrzynski, spiraled around the defenseless Gabszewicz until he reached the ground. On September 2, Sec. Lt. Jan Dzwonek, along with eight other Polish pilots, attacked a couple of German fighters approaching their way. In the battle, Dzwonek's plane was shot down and was forced to bail out. Hanging at his parachute, he was attacked twice by a Bf 110. Apparently, the Luftwaffe pilot was so busy attacking the defenseless Dzwonek, that Corporal Jan Malinowski, flying an obsolete P.7 fighter, downed the German plane without any problem. Dzwonek said the story regarding being shot down by a German pilot and being attacked while hanging in his parachute:
I was hanging in the chute at about 2000 meters altitude when I noticed tracers passing near to me. They missed, but this pirate of the Third Reich not give up and attacked me again. This second time the wave of bullets also spared me. Shells passed to the left and right of my body. The German didn't get a third chance to kill me because my friend Jan Malinowski from 162nd Escadrille (flew on P.7a !) successfully attacked the German. On the first attack he set the right engine of the Bf 110 on fire, and on the second pass killed the pilot. The aircraft fell, crashing in pieces.
During my landing I damaged my backbone. I was transported to the hospital in Pabianice, where I heard someone say I had no chance to see next sunrise. I did go into a coma for 20 hours. When I awakened, the doctor told me, that in the same hospital was a Bf 110 pilot - - the one I downed.
The next day, six Polish fighters battled against the German Bf 110s. In hard combat over Wyszkow city, Cpt. Zdzislaw Krasnodebski was forced to bail out. The German pilot who shot him down, aimed to finish his victim, shooting at Krasnodebski while he slowly glided down in his parachute. But Lt. Arsen Cebrzynski saw this deadly pass and Lieutenant Barents, a veteran of "Legion Condor", bailed out safely, and became a POW. Three days later, a lone PZL.23 Karaś aircraft took off on patrol, in the area of Warta-Sieradz-Zdunska Wola. The crewman were: Lt. Edmund Gorecki (observer), Corporal Marian Pingot (pilot), and Corporal Jan Wilkowski (gunner). During their way back from the mission, over the village of Borecznia near Kolo city, they flew at 1500 meters altitude. Suddenly they were attacked by four Bf 109's. The "Karas" caught fire. Corporal Pingot was killed in the plane, but Lt. Gorecki continued to fly until he was down to 1000 meters. When he bailed out, German pilots shot and killed him in the air. Corporal Wilkowski witnessed this act, and because he bailed at the last moment, at only 300 meters, he injured his legs.
During the Battle of Britain, Polish and Czech pilots serving in the RAF sometimes shot at Luftwaffe pilots parachuting over Britain. This wasn't surprising considering that their homelands were invaded and thousands of inhabitants killed by German forces. Many Germans charged that this was regular practice by the Poles and the Czechs but there was little hard evidence to show this. The leading historian of the Polish air force, Adam Zamoyski, does concede that 'it is true that some pilots still finished off parachuting Germans by flying directly over them; the slipstream would cause the parachute to cannon and the man would fall into the ground like a stone.'
In mid 1942, the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) arrived in Britain and carried out air raids over German-occupied Europe in order to devastate the German war machine. During the war, there are verified accounts of German fighter pilots stopping their attacks to allow bomber crews to parachute from mortally stricken bombers. Nevertheless, the air war was bloody business and the objective of both sides was to wipe out the other. Some USAAF fighter pilots claimed they received unwritten orders from their officers to shoot enemy airmen parachuting over their own territory as they would rejoin their own units upon landing and fly in the air again to kill more Americans. Virgil Meroney of the 487th Fighter Squadron never shot a German pilot in his parachute, although on the other hand, he understood the mean realities of warfare and had no problem about killing an enemy aviator, regardless of whether or not he was helpless.
On March 8, 1944, Meroney and his Blue Flight were at the rear of 352d Fighter Group as it reached the end of its escort leg. The group turned to leave as they crossed the Dutch border into Germany near Meppen. "Three Me-109s came out of the sun with a lot of speed and made a 90-degree attack on the rear bombers, breaking away in rolls," Meroney recalled. "I called them in and went after the lead two as they stayed together, the third having broken in a different direction." Meroney drove his P-47 along with his squadron to attack the Germans who were trying to shoot down the USAAF B-17 heavy bombers and fired at the German planes. When the German pilot realized that his Me-109 was badly in flames, he jumped out of his plane and pulled out his parachute. Amazingly, Meroney and his squadron didn't fire at the German pilot who was parachuting safely back to earth. This might been because he and his flight were low on fuel and there was no knowing if there were other enemy aircraft in the area. Indeed, that more pilots and aircrew were not shot in their parachutes was probably due at least in party to the nature of aerial combat. The fights were a confusing whirl and a pilot who concentrated too long and hard on killing a man in a parachute could easily fall prey himself and end up, ironically, in the position of being shot up while in his parachute. Not molesting enemy pilots in their parachutes was a practical matter as well as a chivalrous one.
On December 20, 1943, a B-17 bomber piloted by 2nd Lt. Charles 'Charlie' Brown after a successful bombing run on the German city of Bremen were attacked by dozens of German fighters. Brown's bomber was seriously damaged, most of his crewmen were wounded, and his tail gunner was killed. Luftwaffe pilot and ace Franz Stigler then approached the crippled bomber who was clearly able to see the injured and incapacitated crew. To the American pilot's surprise, Stigler did not open fire on the crippled bomber. Remembering the words of one of his commanding officers from the Jagdgeschwader 27, Gustav Rödel, during his time fighting in North Africa – “You are fighter pilots first, last, always. If I ever hear of any of you shooting at someone in a parachute, I'll shoot you myself." Stigler later commented, "To me, it was just like they were in a parachute. I saw them and I couldn't shoot them down." Twice, Stigler tried to get Brown to land his plane at a German airfield and surrender, or divert to nearby neutral Sweden, where he and his crew would receive medical treatment but be interned and sit out the remainder of the war. Brown refused and flew on. Stigler then flew near Brown's plane, escorting it until they reached the North Sea and departed with a salute.
Still, both German and American pilots did shoot enemy airmen in their parachutes, albeit infrequently. Richard "Bud" Peterson, a P-51 pilot with the 357th Fighter Group based out of Leiston, recounted a mission during which he saw an Me-109 pilot firing at B-17 bomber crews as they descended in their parachutes. He said that no Air Force pilots could ever think about an idea of shooting parachuting enemy airmen. "[N]obody, including the Germans, would be shoot anybody in the parachute. It just wasn't done. There was no challenge for shooting a guy in a parachute for God's sake." Peterson said he didn't want to blow up the plane but wanted the German pilot to bail out. After he shoots down his plane, the German pilot bailed out in his parachute. Peterson then fired at him as he was descending back to earth. After that, he recalled that some of his unit were nervous because it would invite a retaliatory response from the Luftwaffe. "But they had to be there to know what I was seeing," Peterson said. "Those [parachuting bomber] guys were helpless." The video of Bud's interview about his account can be seen here.
Thaen Kwock Lee was a B-17 waist gunner with the 483rd Bomb Group, a 15th Air Force unit, when his aircraft was shot down by German Me-262s on March 22, 1945. He recalled that he and his crew bailed out in their parachutes and while descending back to earth, they were attacked by German Me-262s:
Three fighters came after me. The first one missed and the second also missed. When the third one came by I was too low for him to shoot at me. When I hit the ground a burst of machine gun was fired at me. I hit the dirt fast. Then German soldiers came and drove me on a motorcycle to a building. On the way we passed a row of dead American airmen, about twelve of them covered with blood soaked parachutes. I knew they were shot dead on the way down.
While some American aviators shot enemy airmen in parachutes, the vast majority of USAAF fighter pilots detested the practice as they could not reconcile themselves to the notion of killing helpless enemy airmen even if it made sense in the context of the hard reality that was war. They insisted that they were trying to destroy only the aircraft rather than the pilot. If an enemy airmen perished with his aircraft, it was simply the brutal nature of war. But shooting him while he was in his parachute was quite another matter that few of them could stomach, even if he stood a good chance of flying in the air again. USAAF pilot Stanley Miles shared his experience on May 13, 1944, when the 352nd encountered a massive formation of enemy fighters. After getting involved in a dogfight with one of the German planes for a while, Miles shot down the plane which caused the German pilot to bail out in his parachute. "I had my gun camera running," he recalled, "so I got some good shots of the tracers hitting the plane and the pilot jumping out. My wing-man was still with me, so I eased around, came back and got some nice film footage of the German pilot in his chute." Miles considered shooting the enemy pilot as he drifted helplessly back to earth. It was a topic that he and his squadron units had considered in earnest. "One school of thought was that if you didn't shoot the guy, he'd land and be right back up fighting you the next day. I couldn't do it, however, and just took the film footage of him." Most American pilots used gun cameras to ensure they had adequate proof of their victories. Robert O' Nan of the 487th Fighter Squadron did this on April 10, 1944, after forcing an FW-190 pilot to abandon his aircraft: "I followed the plane down where it crashed, exploded, and burned up, in the middle of a plowed field. I took pictures of this. I also got pictures of the pilot dangling in his chute." None of them were considering shooting German pilots hanging in their parachutes.
In fact, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, felt compelled to specifically forbid the practice. In the directive issued to U.S. Major General Carl Spaatz, commander of the United States Strategic Air Forces in Europe, and British Air Chief Marshal Arthur Tedder (or Sir Arthur Harris according to D-Day Bombers: The Veterans' Story: RAF Bomber Command and the US Eighth Air Force Support to the Normandy Invasion 1944 by Stephen Darlow) on June 2, 1944, in a preparation for Operation Overlord, he wrote:
During current and future intensive air operations, Allied airmen are required by their duty to fly and fight continuously over enemy and occupied territories of Europe. The enemy who is fearful of these attacks because of their devastating effect of his transport and the morale of his troops, is endeavouring to prevent them by propaganda designed to prove to the peoples of Europe that Allied airmen are wilfully shooting up harmless civilians in the course of their fighter sweeps and tactical bombing attacks. It is essential to remember that much of the air fighting will take place over the heads of friendly people, who have endured the savagery of the Germans for years. Humanity and the principles for which we fight demand from our pilots scrupulous care to avoid any but military targets. The Air Forces of the United Nations are privileged to be the spearhead of the forces fighting for freedom and the herald to the oppressed peoples of Europe of our approach. Be careful that nothing is done to betray this trust or to prejudice our good name in the eyes of our friends still dominated by Nazi tyranny. I request that those instructions be brought to the attention of every member of aircrews fighting over Europe. I would add that similar considerations apply to enemy airmen compelled to escape by parachute. Such personnel are not legitimate military targets, and may not be deliberately attacked.
There were episodes of shooting against bailed out pilots also in the Mediterranean theater: on October 2, 1942, Captain Livio Ceccotti of the Regia Aeronautica was engaged by five Allied fighters, reportedly Spitfires, and after a dogfight in which two Spitfires were reportedly downed by him he was hit and forced to bail out from his Macchi C.202 fighter; as he was descending, he was reportedly strafed and killed by the surviving three fighters.
War in the Asian/Pacific War
The Japanese gained a notorious reputation among the Allies for shooting enemy airmen dangling in their parachutes. This was because the Japanese viewed surrender as dishonorable and to them, bailed-out enemy pilots were considered to have surrendered. The first confirmed case was over the Chinese city of Nanking on September 19, 1937, during the Second Sino-Japanese War, when a Chinese pilot of the Boeing 281 (export version of the P-26) bailed out in his parachute after being approached by IJNAF aircraft. Hanging in his parachute, he was killed after being shot by Japanese pilots. Pilots from both the IJNAF and IJAAF did this routinely throughout the war. As a result, Chinese and Russian volunteer pilots delayed opening their parachutes to avoid being strafed. Even after a safe parachute descent, the Japanese would still go after them. In July 1938, one Russian volunteer, Valentin Dudonov, bailed out in his parachute and landed on a sand bank in Lake Poyang after a collision with an IJNAF A5M aircraft. Another A5M aircraft came and strafed him on the sand bank. Dudonov had to jump and hide under water in the lake to avoid being attacked.
On December 23, 1941, twelve P-40 pilots of the American Volunteer Group (AVG) Flying Tigers intercepted fifty-four Japanese bombers escorted by twenty pursuit planes, who were bombing the city of Rangoon in Burma. During the battle, the AVG downed only five Japanese bombers with the loss of two P-40 pilots. P-40 pilot Paul J. Greene's plane was badly damaged which forced him to bail out in his parachute. He was strafed by Japanese fighters while descending back to earth but managed to survive. "You want to see my 'chute," he told Daily Express war correspondent O.D. Gallagher. "It's got more holes in it than the nose of a watering-can."
On January 23, 1942, the AVG attacked Japanese bombers and fighters who resumed carrying out bombing raids on Rangoon. The AVG shot down 21, suffering only a single loss of a pilot named Bert Christman. During the dogfight, Christman's plane was damaged and was forced to bail out. While parachuting over the rice paddies south of Ragoon, he was killed after being attacked by three IJAAF Nakajima aircraft. Bert Christman was buried the next day at the church of Edward The Martyr in Rangoon. Christman's remains were returned to his birthplace of Fort Collins, Colorado, after the war, where he was laid to rest on February 4, 1950.
During the Malayan Campaign in 1942, Japanese pilots often shot British, Commonwealth, and Dutch airmen hanging in their parachutes. Australian pilot Herb Plenty witnessed a Dutch Brewster aircraft being shot down by Japanese fighters and the pilot bailed out in his parachute on January 17, 1942, near Bilton Island, some miles of Singapore. He also said that while most Japanese fighters were heading back to their own bases, two of them, however, came back and shot the parachuting Dutch pilot:
But two Japanese pilots, in a parting gesture of hate, dived towards the descending parachute and poured long bursts of gunfire at the Brewster pilot swinging helplessly in the canopy rigging. A concerted and immediate growl of rage rose from most of us, conveying our feelings that the Japanese pilots had just perpetrated an act amounting to unfair tactics, treachery, and an outrageous course of conduct. Previously, among British and German pilots, an unwritten code of honour — chivalry, if you like — assumed that pilots descending by parachute should not be shot at by opposing aircraft. The Japanese served notice that they held no such gentlemanly opinions.
On March 31, 1943, a squadron of USAAF B-24 bombers sent to destroy a bridge at Pyinmana, Burma, were attacked by Japanese Zero fighters. One B-24 aircraft was shot down and its occupants, including 2nd Lt Owen J. Baggett, bailed out in their parachutes. While the downed B-24 crew members were descending back to earth, they were machine gunned by Japanese fighters. Two of the crewmen were killed and Baggett was wounded in his arm who played dead in his harness, hoping the Japanese would leave him alone. One Japanese plane, however, circled and approached very close to Baggett to make sure he was dead. Baggett raised his M1911 pistol and fired four shots into the cockpit, hitting the pilot; the Zero stalled and crashed. Later reports from a Japanese officer indicated that the Zero pilot died from a single bullet wound to the head. Baggett became legendary as the only person to down a Japanese aircraft with a M1911 pistol.
On September 15, 1943, seven B-24s of the 308's 373rd Squadron based out of Yangkai Airfield were dispatched to attack a Vichy French cement plant in Haiphong, a major port on the Gulf of Tonkin, that had just been turned over to the Japanese — though not without resistance — from Governor-General of French Indochina, Jean Decoux. Two B-24s, however, broke down while attempting to take off from Yangkai Airfield so the five remaining planes only went for the mission. By the time the five B-24s reached Haiphong, they were attacked by Japanese fighters. One plane went down, forcing other planes to abandon the mission as they were continuously attacked. Two more planes went down and forced the aircrews to bailed out in their parachutes. The Japanese pilots then went after one of the B-24 plane's parachutists and fired at them while they were descending back to the ground, killing three and wounding three others. The other two B-24 planes escaped severe damage and returned to Yangkai Airfield (one plane, however, crashed into the airfield, killing the entire crew).
On May 5, 1945, an American B-29 bomber was flying with a dozen other aircraft after bombing Tachiaral Air Base in southwestern Japan and beginning the return flight to the island fortress of Guam. Kinzou Kasuya, a 19-year-old Japanese pilot flying one of the Japanese fighters in pursuit of the Americans, rammed his aircraft into the fuselage of the B-29, destroying both planes. No one knows for certain how many Americans were in the B-29; its crew had been hastily assembled on Guam. But villagers in Japan who witnessed the collision in the air saw about a dozen parachutes blossom. One of the Americans died when the cords of his parachute were severed by another Japanese plane. A second was alive when he reached the ground. He shot all but his last bullet at the villagers coming toward him, then used the last on himself. The other nine B-29 airmen who were captured by the Japanese after landing were subjected to vivisection at the Kyushu Imperial University; Professor Ishiyama Fukujirō and other doctors conducted four such sessions throughout May and early June. The Western Military Command assisted in arranging these operations. Many of the Japanese personnel responsible for the deaths of Allied airmen were prosecuted in the Yokohama War Crimes Trials following World War II. Several of those found guilty were executed and the remainder were imprisoned.
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