Attacks on parachutists
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Attacks on parachutists, as defined by the law of war, is when pilots, aircrews, and passengers are attacked while descending by parachute from disabled aircraft during wartime. This practice is considered by most militaries around the world to be inhumane, barbaric, and unchivalrous, that it is unnecessary killing (the attacked personnel would eventually become POWs if parachuted over enemy territory), and that it is contrary to fair play. Attacking parachutists from aircraft in distress is a war crime under the Protocol I addition to the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Firing on airborne forces who are descending by parachute is not prohibited.
After World War I, a series of meetings were held at The Hague in 1922–1923. Based on the testimony of First World War pilots, a commission of jurists attempted to codify this practice with the Hague Rules of Air Warfare. Article 20 prescribed 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.
The Hague Rules of Air Warfare never came into force. There was no legal prohibition of targeting parachuting enemy airmen before or during World War II. 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 combatants. However, despite this, military manuals around the world issued prohibitions on attacking enemy personnel parachuting from aircraft in distress. Paragraph 30 of the United States 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.
First World War
Targeting parachutists became an issue during the First World War when fighter pilots targeted manned enemy observation balloons. After shooting down a balloon, most pilots refrained from firing at the balloon observers as they escaped by parachute, because they felt it was inhumane and unchivalrous. The extension of this courtesy to enemy pilots began towards the end of the First World War when parachutes were provided for pilots of fixed-wing aircraft, but it was again widely perceived that once aircrew were forced to bail out of a damaged aircraft, presuming they did not offer any further resistance, they were considered to have been honorably defeated in battle and should not be "finished off".
By July 1918, German and Austro-Hungarian Air Force parachute escapes had become routine. The Heinecke chutes that German and Austro-Hungarian pilots received were not perfect and sometimes failed to operate safely. Some were destroyed by fire before they could open, and occasionally pilots faced the 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
At the beginning of World War II, there was a strong sense of chivalry between the British RAF and German Luftwaffe pilots. They regarded themselves as "knights of the air" and shooting parachuting enemy aircrew was contrary to their code of honour. The question of shooting an enemy pilot parachuting over his own territory aroused bitter debate on 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 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., piloting 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".
Despite such sentiments, there were a number of incidents where the shooting of parachuting enemy aviators occurred. On September 1, 1939, in the Modlin area, during the German invasion of Poland, pilots of the Polish Pursuit Brigade encountered a group of 40 German bombers escorted by 20 Bf 109 and Bf 110 fighters. During combat, Lt. Aleksander Gabszewicz was forced to bail out of his aircraft. While in his parachute, Gabszewicz was strafed by a Bf 110. Second Lt. Tadeusz Sawicz, 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 direction. In the battle, Dzwonek's plane was shot down and he was forced to bail out. Hanging in 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. Dzwonek later recounted the story:
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 did 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.
During the Battle of Britain, Polish and Czech pilots serving in the RAF sometimes shot at Luftwaffe pilots parachuting over Britain. Many Germans charged that this was regular practice by the Poles and the Czechs, but there was little hard evidence of it. The leading historian of the Polish Air Force, Adam Zamoyski, conceded 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. 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 Bf 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 have 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 part 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, was 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. He was 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, agreed that "normally, nobody, including the Germans, would be shooting anybody in a parachute. It just wasn't done. I mean, there's no challenge with shooting a guy in a parachute, for God's sake." However, on one mission he saw an Bf 109 systematically firing at American B-17 bomber crews as they descended in their parachutes. After Peterson forced the offending German pilot to bail out, he killed him as he was descending. He recalled that some of his unit were nervous that this would invite a retaliatory response from the Luftwaffe. "But they had to be there to know what I was seeing," Peterson said. "Those guys were helpless, the bomber crews going down".
Several German sources (examples below) claim that American pilots frequently practised shooting at parachutes, especially closer to the end of the war when Germany had more planes than pilots:
Gefr. Hans Thran bailed out successfully but, according to ground witnesses, was shot in his parachute by a P-47 pilot while only sixty feet above the ground. German pilots had a fear of being killed while hanging helpless in their parachutes, and every such report was investigated and carefully documented. These incidents were especially common during the summer and autumn of 1944.
Hofmann gave this advice to his pilots: If you ever have to bail out, remember that the Americans are known to shoot us in our parachutes. Therefore, free-fall to about 200 meters; only that way can you be sure of survival. I have seen one of my best friends torn to bits by enemy cannon fire while still hanging in his chute.
Shooting jet pilots in their parachutes was justified by some as a necessary evil. It was believed that these pilots were a special elite and that training them to fly such aircraft was a protracted and expensive effort. This logic held that killing such men whenever possible could help shorten the war. For their part, many German pilots were so concerned about being attacked in their parachutes that they waited until they were at low altitude before pulling their ripcords.
On 4 April, Sinner led seven other Me 262s off from Rechlin. Emerging from the clouds shortly after take-off, the flight was bounced by P-51 fighters of the 339th Fighter Group, USAAF. In the ensuing combat "Rudi" Sinner's aircraft was hit. With his face and hands badly burned, he bailed out at low level. His parachute deployed at the last moment, but did not completely fill, and he was hanging by just the left strap when he hit the ground heavily in a ploughed field and dragged into a barbed wire fence. He reported that the P-51s then strafed him, but he feigned death and, as the P-51s departed, made his way to the safety of a deep furrow.
With a little course correction, he is in my crosshairs and I fire: the Mustang shows a white trail and makes a turn downwards. But at the same time, the pilot in the other Mustang has me in his crosshairs and fires. I notice that my bird has become uncontrollable, jettison the canopy, unbuckle and get out. To my horror. I notice that we are really, very low – will my chute open in time? I immediately pull my ripcord – the chute opens – I am just over some woods, see a Mustang flying towards me, it shoots at me.
I have arrived in the tops of some trees and finally hang suspended between the branches. I turn the buckle on my harness, leave my chute in the trees and climb down using some branches. Already the first people arrive at the scene. They have seen the dogfight and have also seen that the Mustang fired at me in my chute.
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. They insisted that they were trying to destroy aircraft rather than pilots. If an enemy airman 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 a Focke-Wulf 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.
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 parachuting aircrew 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.
The Japanese gained a bad reputation among the Allies in the Pacific War 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 targeted by IJNAS aircraft. Hanging in his parachute, he was killed after being shot by Japanese pilots. Pilots from both the IJNAS and IJAAS 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 IJNAS 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, 12 P-40 pilots of the American Volunteer Group (AVG) Flying Tigers intercepted 54 Japanese bombers escorted by 20 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 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 he was forced to bail out. While parachuting over the rice paddies south of Rangoon, he was killed after being attacked by three IJAAS 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 buried on February 4, 1950.
In June 1942, as part of the Japanese Midway operation, the Japanese attacked the Aleutian islands, off the south coast of Alaska. Tadayoshi Koga, a 19-year-old flight petty officer first class, was launched from the Japanese aircraft carrier Ryūjō as part of the June 4 raid. Koga was part of a three-plane section. His wingmen were Chief Petty Officer Makoto Endo and Petty Officer Tsuguo Shikada. Koga and his comrades attacked Dutch Harbor, shooting down an American PBY-5A Catalina flying boat piloted by Bud Mitchell and strafing its survivors in the water. Three successive attacks killed the PBY's crew. Koga was then killed when his damaged aircraft crash-landed on the island of Akutan.
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. While the downed B-24 crew members were descending, they were machine gunned by Japanese fighters. Two of the crewmen were killed and Baggett was wounded in the arm. He then 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. 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 at 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 continued the mission. When the five B-24s reached Haiphong, they were attacked by Japanese fighters. One plane went down, forcing the other planes to abandon the mission as they were continuously attacked. Two more planes went down and forced the aircrews to bail out. The Japanese pilots then went after one of the B-24 plane's parachutists and fired at them while they were descending 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 at 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, beginning the return flight to 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 as its crew had been hastily assembled on Guam. 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.
Syrian Civil War
In September 2015, Russia conducted military operations within Syria in support of the Syrian government, bombing areas held by rebel groups, including the Syrian Turkmen Brigades, which operate close to the Syria–Turkey border. On November 24, 2015, a Russian Su-24 attack jet was shot down by a Turkish F-16C, and the two pilots ejected within Syrian territory controlled by Turkmen rebels. A commander of the Syrian Turkmen Brigades told Reuters that his forces opened fire on a pilot parachuting from the downed aircraft while attempting to land in non-rebel territory, and the group uploaded an image of rebel soldiers holding flaps of a NPP Zvezda K-36 ejection seat. Russian RIA later reported after retrieval that one of the pilots was killed by gunfire.
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