|Select magazine number|
The One Who Has Passed Through Fire
There are all sorts of romantic stories — pure inventions, factual — that really happened, and those that mix fact and fantasy. The story of a Ukrainian, Ivan Datsenko, air force pilot turned Indian chief, has never been properly resolved and is open for several interpretations. Oles PANASENKO presents here his essay based on the materials gleaned from several sources.
A boy, Ivan Datsenko, who was born on November 29 1918 into a peasant family in the village of Chernechy Yar, in the Land of Poltavshchyna in Ukraine (which at that time was part of the soviet empire known as the Soviet Union), was destined to become an air force pilot.
This is a conjecture, wishful thinking about his being destined to become a pilot — we do not know whether he had a young boy’s ambition to fly.
Upon graduation from school, Ivan was drafted into the army, and was trained to fly bombers at a military pilots’ school. He stayed in the military and when the Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, his skills of a military pilot came in very handy.
He distinguished himself as a courageous and apt commander of a long-distance heavy bomber in the Battle of Stalingrad and later in a heavy fighting in the vicinity of the Russian city of Oryol when the Germans were already retreating. His almost 300 sorties earned him the honorary title of the Hero of the Soviet Union, a distinction bestowed for exceptional bravery.
In April 1944, he and his crew were assigned a task to bomb certain targets in the vicinity of Lviv in Western Ukraine, and according to several reports, the bomber he commanded was caught in a heavy anti-aircraft fire, was hit and exploded.
From here on the story forks into two major versions.In one variant of it, Datsenko did die when his plane exploded; in another — he survived, parachuted to safety, was captured by the Germans, escaped, returned to his unit, but was arrested by SMERSH (the soviet counterespionage agency Smert Shpionam — Death to Spies), was put into a concentration camp, escaped and made his way to Canada where he married a Native American woman, was given the Indian name of The One Who Has Passed Through Fire (also known as Chief Poking Fire), had some children by her, rose to the status of chief in the tribe he had joined, changed his name and died as John MacComber.
Vasyl Reshetnikov, a retired general and former heavy-bomber unit commander, who is now 93 and lives in Moscow, gave an interview in July 2011 to a Ukrainian publication. He claims to have known Ivan Datsenko during the war and to possess reliable information concerning Datsenko’s death. According to Mr Reshetnikov, Captain Datsenko and his crew did not have a chance to parachute to safety after their bomber was hit by flak — the plane exploded in a way that suggests that the fuel tank was hit, thus any opportunity for the crew to survive was instantly denied.
Mr Reshetnikov rejects the story of Datsenko’s survival and some years later becoming a chief of an Indian tribe in Canada as absolutely incredible. In his opinion, even if Datsenko had survived, he would have never gone to Canada under any circumstances “because he was a true soviet communist and would have never left his Motherland for a capitalist country.”
But there is some evidence that suggests quite a different story.
Datsenko survived but was captured by the Germans. He managed to escape, crossed the frontline, presented himself to his unit but was arrested by the soviet secret police on suspicion of having been “ideologically corrupted” by the Germans in captivity. But Datsenko escaped from the soviet concentration camp too and somehow managed to travel to the distant continent of Northern America.
In still another version, he never returned to the soviets but finding himself in the US zone of occupation, asked to be taken to America — which he was, where he married a Native American girl, etc. The pilot-chief story was inadvertently given a start by a professional soviet dancer Mahmud Esambayev who had come to Canada with the soviet delegation to the world exhibition Expo 67, asked to see an Indian reservation. His wish was granted, and to his great surprise the Indian chief, named TheOneWhoHasPassedThroughFire, returned his greeting in Ukrainian, and even sang a Ukrainian song. Later, Esambayev mentioned it to a journalist and out of this encounter an amazing story was spun. Esambayev himself later produced several versions of the encounter which differ considerably. But the core of the story remained more or less the same — he had met an Indian chief of Ukrainian descent, married to a Native American woman by whom he had at least four children.
Ivan Datsenko’s surviving sister and her daughter who lived in Datsenko’s native village, tried to find out more about their relative’s destiny. In the soviet times their search did not produce any results, but in the early 2000s, a decade after Ukraine had regained independence, the international Red Cross in response to their request, reported that there was indeed a John MacComber who had evidently been of Ukrainian extraction and who had indeed been chief of an Indian tribe, but since there were no more Indian reservations in Canada, and since the man had died, it was impossible to establish any more reliable facts.
The two women claimed that they had also learnt some details of Ivan’s escape to Canada – Ivan Datsenko had met an American soldier of Native American descent in a German POW concentration camp; they made good friends and the American soldier encouraged Ivan to go to America.