Home - Tuesday 22.10.2002

Two Soviet WWII pilots exhumed from resting place of 60 years

 Skills acquired under grisly circumstances in Bosnia and Kosovo put to use in Finland

Link to a larger image
By Jaakko Hautamäki

"Those are some of the lumbar vertebrae leading to the pelvis", provincial forensic scientist Kaisa Lalu says as she stands over the opened grave in the rural community of Valkeala in Southeastern Finland, staring down at the remains of two Russian pilots shot down during the Second World War.
"Now that the grave's been opened, let us honour the deceased with a moment's silence", adds Det. Sgt. Matti Oravisto immediately afterwards.
Lingering smoke from a nearby open fireplace adds to the solemnity of the scene as the police and military officers present remove their hats and squeeze them between their hands.
Both Kaisa Lalu and Matti Oravisto have been accustomed to opening newer, nastier graves than these while working for the UN War Crimes Tribunal in Bosnia and Kosovo. The two pilots resting in this grave were buried over 60 years ago.

On the 25th of June, 1941
- the very first day of the so-called Continuation War between the Soviet Union and Finland - Heimo Lampi of the Finnish Air Force shot down a Russian bomber piloted by 35-year-old Major Fedor Panjushini. Rather later in life, Lampi went on to become Chief Justice of the Court of Appeal.
Panjushin, for his part, had achieved a certain notoriety amongst Finnish fighter pilots already from the days of the Winter War in 1939-40. He and his crew became some of the first casualties of what was to be a three-year conflict.
Panjushin's bones were exhumed under the watchful eye of the Russian military attaché Valeri I. Molostov, from a piece of lakeside land owned by the Finnish Karelian League Chairman and MP Markku Laukkanen (Centre Party).
As the landowner, Laukkanen had requested the removal of the pilots' remains. Molostov was present to ensure everything was done according to an agreement on respecting the memory of fallen soldiers. The reciprocal agreement between Finland and the Russian Federation was negotiated by the former Minister for Foreign Affairs Paavo Väyrynen, now a MEP in Strasbourg.
According to the agreement, the party whose soldier's remains are to be exhumed has the right to send a representative to supervise the operation. The lakeside peninsula where the graves were located was last this busy when the Russian soldiers were laid to rest here, some 60 years earlier.

On June 24th, 1941
there was still technically peace in the country, but because of the ongoing mobilisation the schools in the area were packed with soldiers.
The aerial battle on the 25th changed everything. Russian Tupolev SB-2 bombers rumbled across the sky on their way back from a mission to bomb bridges across the River Kymi in the Heinola area. The planes belonged to the 201st Bomber Regiment. The 201st lost six planes in combat that day.
Heimo Lampi was alerted at 7:15 in the morning. He had planned on taking his American-made Brewster up for some target shooting, but ended up in a dogfight instead. As the Russian plane opened fire on him, Lampi made the sound assumption that peacetime had apparently ended. Despite his lack of practice, Lampi then attacked Panjushin's Tupolev.
After the Brewster's guns had done their work, the Tupolev carrying Major Panjushin and his co-pilot Lev Karasev and flight-sergeant Vladimir Trofimov plunged into the small lake. According to eyewitnesses, two of the men attempted in vain to jump from the plane before it was too late.
Finnish soldiers buried the bodies of two of the ill-fated Russians the same day. The third body didn't surface until a month later. It was buried on the other side of the lake.
The remains of the plane are still in the lake and partly on the shore. Only the turret-guns have been taken into a museum.

On a frosty October Monday
, no one seemed to know exactly where to look for the grave. Soldiers with mine detectors had been called in to help. Maybe a button or a belt buckle would give the needed signal to locate the bodies.
A unit from the criminal investigation unit of the Kouvola Police Department, together with a police security team, a squad of army engineers from the Karelia Brigade, plus a few war historians approved by Orasmaa were present at the scene.
An air combat enthusiast Leevi Tolvanen had brought Major Panjushin's Communist Party membership card with him. Someone had removed it from the dead man's pocket 60 years ago.
Orasmaa and his assistants had made inquiries in advance concerning the possible location of the grave. There were no signs left to indicate where the pilots might have been buried. The police dug in several different locations, levering out large rocks - but they found nothing.
Finally Markku Laukkanen remembered how a nearby neighbour Juhani Sipari used to tell him about the grave. Sipari was called in to act as a guide.
The crowd waited in silence as the elderly man examined the terrain. "Somewhere around here there used to be a big wooden cross back in the 1940s. I remember it, because we used it as a high bar for pull-ups", Sipari said. He also commented on how much trees tend to grow over a period of 60 years. Finally Sipari stopped and pointed at a small, flat clearing in the middle of a group of short pine trees.
Within half an hour, Orasmaa's group had found the first vertebra at a depth of less than a metre. It soon became clear that there were two bodies in the grave. They had been buried crosswise. One arm had stayed in a vertical position pointing upwards. Apparently the Finnish soldiers had buried their Russian counterparts in some haste on the first day of the Continuation War.

As of now,
the bones of the pilots are in the cold storage of Kouvola police station. Soon they will be sent to an anthropologist at the Department of Forensic Medicine of the University of Helsinki.
With DNA samples taken from the bones, the identity of the deceased can be verified. Teeth from one of the skeletons will also be examined. The other one's head was missing. "Samples are always taken just in case", Orasmaa explains.
So far, the Russian Embassy has not commented on whether Russia would be interested in taking possession of the pilots' remains, finding a new grave for them, and possibly contacting the living family members.
If not, they can be buried in the Russian Military Cemetery in Utti a short distance to the south, which is maintained by the police out of a small annual fund.
MP Markku Laukkanen, on the other hand, can now freely decide on the future use of the Pitkäniemi headland where the pilots were buried. He can, for instance, build a smoke sauna there if he so wishes.

Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 15.10.2002

Previously in HS International Edition:
 Finnish forensic team to Kosovo (3.8.2000)

 Brewsters to Finland
 The Finnish Karelian League
 Tupolev SB-2 Katyuska

JAAKKO HAUTAMÄKI / Helsingin Sanomat

Back to homepage