Heroes of World War II are beginning to come home, some on leaves, others to be based here permanently, and the ribbons they wear on their tunics pique the curiosity of men and women who pass them. Most people have a difficult enough time recognizing American decorations. Now, with soldiers, sailors and airmen of our Allies drifting in and out of the United States, even insignia-conscious undergraduates aren't so sure of their prowess.
Few civilians, for instance, are able to recognize the honors Russia bestows on her war great, less know the accomplishments that merit the various awards. Actually, Soviet decorations are exceptionally handsome, their significance very colorful. During the first two years of fighting, 428,904 decorations went to men in the Red Army and of this number a healthy percentage were won by Air Force flight and ground crews. However, with very few exceptions awards are the same for each branch of the service.
Until recently recipients wore the actual medals, but in June of last year Russia followed the lead of other Allied nations and instituted ribbons to be worn in place of the medals during wartime. As in the United States, an individual may receive the same decoration any number of times, but unlike our system of awarding silver stars to add to a decoration already won, a man or woman in the Russian Forces may receive the medal itself two, three or even more times.
Although most Russian decorations date back many years, three new ones have made their appearance in the present conflict. The Order of the Patriotic War, or Order of the War for the Fatherland, as it is alternately known, was instituted in May, 1942. It has the distinction of being the only Soviet award given for specific achievements, goes to both enlisted men and officers who have displayed courage, staunchness and gallantry in fighting. It also goes to military men and women who, by their actions, contributed to the success of an operation. The award has two degrees gold for first class winners, silver for second class winners.
In the Air Corps, the Order of the Patriotic War, First Degree, goes to the crew of a plane whose pilot or navigator has already been awarded the Order of Lenin and who gallantly fulfill their duty on an operational flight. It is awarded also to crews of planes which shoot down three, four, five or seven planes, depending on the type ship flown; to crews of planes which make fifteen, twenty, twenty-five or more effective operational flights, again depending on the type of plane flown; to those who organize precise functioning of their headquarters; to crews of ships, planes or coast batteries which sink an enemy warship or two transports. For lesser achievements along these lines, the second degree award is given. Along with this medal, recipients receive a pension of 20 rubles (about $4.00 at the current rate of exchange) monthly.
Later in 1942, The Order of Victory and The Order of Glory were established. The former was designated the highest military decoration available to higher commanding officers of the Red Army. Its emblem is unusually striking a five-pointed ruby star bordered with diamonds. In its center is a circle covered with blue enamel, bordered with a wreath of laurel and oak leaves. A miniature of the Kremlin Wall with Lenin's mausoleum and the Spasskaya Tower is set in the circle. Up to the present time, no one has received this decoration.
The Order of Glory, instituted for enlisted men and non-commissioned officers of the Red Army and for Junior Lieutenants of the Red Army Air Force who have distinguished themselves in battle, is the only decoration specifically designed for the Air Forces.
In the USSR distinguished service in civilian work is honored as highly as military service. Civilian medals are awarded for exceptional contributions and rank in order along with military decorations.
With the exception of the new Order of Victory medal, the highest Russian military decoration is the Gold Star Medal, denoting a Hero of the Soviet Union. Highest civilian decoration is the Hammer and Sickle Medal, denoting a Hero of Socialist Labor. Both awards are always accompanied by the Order of Lenin which, while it is given alone, always accompanies Hero designations. It ranks fourth highest in the Soviet honor system.
Next in line is the Order of the Red Banner, oldest Soviet military decoration. Then comes the Order of Suvorov, awarded to top-ranking officers only for distinction in carrying out operations. Second and third classes of this medal are awarded for not quite as outstanding achievements along the same lines.
The Order of Kutuzov follows. Its first class medal is given to officers of intermediate ranks for executing operations, second and third class to the same group for assistance in executing operations.
The Order of Alexander Nevsky is awarded to officers of lower ranks for tactical distinction. These three medals, Suvorov, Katuzov and Nevsky, are named after pre-revolutionary heroes, although all current decorations, these included, came into existence after the Soviet Union was born.
Just under these three awards is one of the new decorations, the Order of the War for the Fatherland, The Order of the Red Banner of Labor, oldest civilian decoration comes next, followed by the Order of the Red Star, a military medal. The Badge of Honor, for civilians, and the Medal for Valor, for military personnel, rank next.
In 1938, the Twenty Years of Red Army medal was issued to anyone who had been in the Forces since their inception. Last in line are two civilian medals Valor in Labor and the Medal for Distinction in Labor.
With the exception of the Orders of Suvorov, Kutuzov and Nevsky and the Order of Victory and Air Force award of the Order of Glory, which are for officers only, the rest of the decorations go to both officers and enlisted men. Barring the first three, the Order of the Patriotic War and the Order of the Red Star, all medals are worn on the left side of the chest. Wound stripes are worn above any other medals on the right side of the chest; Army badges for proficiency such as sharpshooting, rest on the right side below any decorations.
The Russian government does not issue ribbons to designate service in specific theatres of combat but has designed medals for participation in the Defense of Leningrad, the Defense of Odessa, the Sevastopol Defense and the Defense of Stalingrad. All four are very much in circulation among members of the Air Force.
Although the records piled up by Russian air crews have been publicized far less than the accomplishments of Soviet land forces, they are equally outstanding. One of the most hazardous air jobs is done by Guerrilla pi1ots men who devote themselves entirely to carrying arms, ammunition, medical supplies and food to Soviet guerrillas operating in the deep rear territories. Having deposited their load of supplies, these pilots evacuate the wounded guerrillas in their planes. They make dozens of flights behind enemy lines, orienting themselves only by guerrilla landing torches. Nikolai Zherkov, the first pilot to fly in the Smolensk Region, is one of the most famous of these airmen, wears the Order of Lenin. He spots the guerrilla bases by dark patches in the woods or from the reflection from a lake or swamp.
Typical of Soviet fortitude, four aces, Major Rzwanov, Major Shnelev, Senior Lt Leshchenko and Senior Lt Fleischman, recently named Heroes of the Soviet Union, have together destroyed 129 enemy planes, have made a total of 1,300 operational flights.
Another pilot who wears the Hero of the Soviet Union medal, Squadron Commander Alexei Smirnov, reports that his men make ten and sometimes more flights daily, flying American Airacobras, an apparently popular ship among Russian airmen.
To fight German planes, blast Nazi transports and other vessels the Russian Air Force uses both American lend-lease aircraft and ships of Soviet design. Big three of Soviet light plane design, Alexander Yakovlev, Sergei Iliushin and Semyon Lavochkin, are heavily laden with both civilian and military decorations for their achievements.
This article was originally published in the March, 1944, issue of Air News magazine, vol 6, no 2, pp 49-51, 64.
The original article includes 19 captioned photos; subjects include 14 photos of decorated pilots, Su-2, Yak-9, AR-2, Il-4.
Photos credited to Sovfoto, Presslit.