Above - war time portrait of Capt. Pekuri. On the bottom - his photo in front of jet fighter (Hawker Hunter?), in 1956.
Lauri Pekuri was born on 6 Nov 1916 in Helsinki. (His original surname was Ohukainen which he abandoned as he got married. Connotations of his original name include "crépe" and "Stan Laurel".) As a young boy he decided to become a pilot and spent his time and energy consequently, in Civil Guard activities and constructing and flying model aircraft. He dropped out of school at the age of 17. In his obituary he is described as "purposeful person", a trait shown early.
In 1937 he applied for FAF training but was rejected, and he did his military duty in the Army. He was demobilised as Field Artillery Res. Ensign. He reapplied for pilot training and was accepted in 1939 for a Reserve Officer Pilot course. During training he completed his formal education and continued in the Cadet School in spring 1940.
Lt. Pekuri, with 160 hours of flying experience, was posted in Fighter Squadron 24 in August 1941 together with his friend Hans Wind. Both men were thrilled for getting a chance to serve in the best squadron of the FAF. Type training for the Brewster comprised four takeoffs and landings, then the newcomers were considered prepared for real missions.
During the first mission Lt. Pekuri loaded his guns and turned the safety off immediately after takeoff. When he responed to a radio message he by accident pushed the trigger instead of the transmitter tangent, nearly hitting his leader! The greenhorn pilot was much ashamed, but the older pilots were forgiving.
Pekuri fought his first successful battle on the 4th October 1941. Lt. Pekuri and Flt.Mstr. Turkka were escorting a Blenheim that had dropped leaflets to Medvedyegorsk. As they were returning, a lone I-153 tried to intercept the bomber and was engaged by Pekuri, flying BW-354. He ordered Turkka to stay by the bomber while he took on the enemy.
Two inexperienced fighter pilots were having a "turning contest" at 1500 m, just at the cloudbase. Turkka advised Pekuri to pull up and make use of his superior speed, but due to the cloud he could not do that. The Soviet pilot, however, was not able to turn his very manouverable plane tighter than the BW. The pilots circled "back to back" until both found themselves in the cloud and had to resort to instrument flying. Pekuri emerged cautiously from the bottom of the cloud and immediately saw the I-153 come tumbling out of the cloud, totally disoriented. The Finnish pilot fired a salvo in the Tchaika which continued its dive in the forest below. The wreck was later found and Pekuri's first victory confirmed.
Pekuri continued flying in Eastern Carelia and gained some victories and experience. On 10 Jan 1942 the 2nd Flight of LeLv24 was providing air cover for a field artillery battery placed in the middle of a frozen lake. Soviet fighters tried to strafe the guns, but BWs intercepted them. Pekuri shot down one MiG-3 and began to chanse another, but found that only his fuselage 7.7 mm gun was working. The panicked enemy pilot flew in a straight course to East without any evasive action. Seeing that the back armour of the MiG held, the Finnish pilot tried to damage the tail of the enemy, forgetting to look around. Another MiG surprised him, BW-351 was hit in one wing and another projectile smashed the fuel tank selector before holing the main fuel tank. Pekuri pulled a turn, the enemy pilot was not willing to continue the fight and disappeared to the East. The BW was leaking fuel and the pilot could not switch to another tank. He turned back and flew with full power until the holed fuel tank was empty. At the moment he was near Medvedyegorsk. Fortunately his fighter had been experimentally fitted with a ski undercarriage, so forced landing on a lake near the artillery battery he had been protecting was successful. Luckily, the suspicious artillerymen did not shoot Pekuri, who in gratitude treated them with brandy found in the rescue kit of the fighter. BW-351 was easily repaired and returned to service. Her pilot decided to be more careful in future.
The BW pilots based at Tiiksjarvi met Hurricane Mk.II fighters in spring 1942. On 30 March Pekuri led the flight to the enemy a/b Segezha to challenge the adversary. In response 12 Hurricanes took off. In the ensuing battle 8 enemies were shot down, Pekuri claimed one of them.
Some days later, on the 6th April 13.45 hrs Pekuri again led the flight on a recce mission to the Murmansk Railway. The mission was carried out and the BWs were just preparing to land as there was an alert of several dozens of enemy a/c approaching the base. Despite low fuel - the mission had lasted nearly 2 hours - the BWs turned to meet the enemy. 10 km from the base the Finnish pilots saw ten DB-3 bombers escorted by 20 Hurricanes. The defender was in an unfavourable position below the enemy, with 15 minutes worth of fuel. Pekuri ordered the six foremost Brewster pairs to engage the fighters, leaving one pair to attack the bombers. The result of the battle was 12 enemy fighters and two bombers shot down, the base AAA got three more fighters, without any losses to the BWs. Pekuri had shot down three Hurricanes as he landed at 15.50 hrs.
Then the spring thaw, "rasputisa", made the runways soggy and useless for weeks starting mid April 1942. The enemy had suffered heavy losses in aircraft and pilots which further dampened the air activities in the Maaselka front, until they got replacements in June 1942.
Lt. Pekuri was leading a Division (four a/c) on an interception mission on 25th June 1942 near Segezha. They failed to find the enemy but a radio message from Flt.Mstr. Juutilainen was received, requesting assistance in battle against superior enemy near Segezha. Pekuri's Division arrived at the scene at 5000m, the leader ordered the second pair to engage while Pekuri and his wingman, a newcomer Sgt. Anttila, provided top cover.
As more Hurricanes were seen to arrive to join the uneven fight, Juutilainen gave a general order to disengage. To enable this, Pekuri and Anttila tied the new enemies in a dogfight. But Anttila, in his first real dogfight, was not able to shake the enemy off and disengage. Pekuri saw how an enemy got behind his wingman, but he was too far away to be able to help in time. The Hurricane had fired fatal hits in Anttila's fighter before Pekuri got her in his gunsight and shot her down. (Sgt. Anttila made a successful forced landing and saved himself after two days' march in the wilderness.) Pekuri dived steeply to shake the enemies off and headed for the home base at a low altitude.
He had flown some 40 km and began to calm down from the exitement of the battle. He was thinking about the fate of his wingman as he suddenly heard cracking noises in the fuselage of his BW-372 and flames burst out of the engine, which stopped immediately. The damaged fighter decelerated rapidly, and the attacking Hurricane overshot her, filling the windscreen of the BW. Instinctively Pekuri pushed the trigger and the enemy fighter burst in flames and exploded.
Pekuri was far too low to use his parachute. He opened the cockpit canopy, and seeing a small lake ahead, decided to belly land there. Flames reached the cockpit and the pilot had to touch down at a too great speed. As the BW hit the water she nosed over and began to sink. The pilot got out of the plane and surfaced in burning fuel. Flames signed his cheeks and brows before he could dive again. Submerged, he saw how the burning slick extended. Pekuri resurfaced and saw he had 200 m to swim. He got rid of his parachute, then he kicked off his boots. Nearly exhausted he swam slowly on his back until his head touched the stones of the beach.
Pekuri had breathed some water, but he recovered quite soon. He was in enemy territory, but there was no trench line in the wilderness. He also had lost his map but he knew the lie of the land quite well, having flown dozens of missions there. He headed to the West, taking direction from the sun for the nearest Finnish stronghold. He also was virtually barefoot and expected to meet an enemy patrol any moment. After a few hours jogging he was tripped over by a steel wire that had been left in a disassembled minefield. The pilot was now sure he was heading for the right direction, and soon he found a live minefield which he slowly crossed, examining each spot with his hand before putting his foot down. Then he heard somebody sing a ditty in Finnish, and having got closer to the stronghold managed to persuade the infantrymen that he was a Finnish pilot, shot down 6 hours ago.
Maj. Magnusson offered Lt. Pekuri a recovery furlough but he declined. He was to get married on the 12th July and he did not want to change his plans. Instead he wanted to regain his self-confidence, which he did by flying six more missions before his wedding furlough.
Air activity at Maaselkä slackened as the German army found it impossible to make a breakthrough to the Murmansk Railway at Kiestinki. Mannerheim refused to co-operate, and without Finnish troops Germans could not operate in the unfamiliar subarctic terrain. Pekuri and his fellow pilots had shot down 50 enemy planes and lost four of their own, and one pilot while based at Tiiksjärvi. Splendid fishing waters and hunting grounds had to be abandoned as the BWs were transferred to the Carelian Isthmus in November 1942.
In early 1943 Lt. Pekuri was one of the pilots selected for the new Fighter Squadron 34 (LeLv 34) to be equipped with Messerschmitt 109 fighters. The personnell was summarily trained in Germany and the new equipment received. Pekuri served in capt. Ervi's flight that was assigned to defend Helsinki, and it was mostly boring on duty readiness.
In June 1943 Pekuri was promoted to Captain and he took over the 1st Flight from Capt. Ervi. The flight was moved to Suulajarvi to support LeLv24. Pekuri scrored only two victories in 1943.
In March 1944 Capt. Pekuri received orders to destroy a troublesome artillery observation balloon, and he selected "Illu" Juutilainen as his wingman for the task. The two pilots approached the target at very low altitude, "hopping" over the front line barbed wire entanglements, hoping to surprise the balloon crew. But the balloon was not there, only the defensive AA guns were, and a lucky Soviet gunner hit Pekuri's Me by chance. A single 40mm shell hit the fuselage just through the national insignia and exploded inside, destroying the radio and some of the tailplane controls. Juutilainen saw how pieces of metal sheet hung below the fuselage, as if the Me had had an open bomb door. Pekuri managed to control his fighter and even land without major problems. As he taxied to the dispersal the damaged fuselage was bent by its own weight...
Then Capt. Pekuri was assigned to fly new Messerschmitts from Germany to Finland, he made four trips, but he preferred fighting duties.
During the first days of the enemy offensive in June 1944 Pekuri shot down on 14 June one P-39 and one La-5 while escorting bombers.
On 16 June 1944 Immola air base was cleared to make room for the Luftwaffe Kampfgruppe Kuhlmey. The new base was Lappeenranta, and for the transfer flight Pekuri put on his best uniform and boots to spare them from the rigors of truck transport. As the fighters were grouping after takeoff, they received orders by radio to intercept ground attack planes harassing Finnish troops at Kivennapa. 16 Me's headed for the target and found about a dozen unescorted Il-2s. The enemy jettisoned their bombs, turned South and tightened their formation at a very low altitude for mutual protection.
Capt. Puhakka and his 3rd Flight attacked first, and Pekuri saw how Puhakka shot one enemy in flames at his second firing pass. Then the 2nd Flight attacked, and during his second pass Pekuri hit the pilot of one Stormovik. The enemy plane tilted slowly to the left, then dived and exploded upon impact with the ground. The Finnish pilot managed to avoid the debris flying in the air, then he pulled up for another attack.
During his fourth firing pass Pekuri heard a loud bang in the front of his fighter. Immediately the engine stopped and began to develop thick smoke. He had been hit by the Stormovik gunners or AA guns. A second later flames emerged from the seams of the engine covers.
Pekuri had "next to none" altitude and the stopped, unfeathered propeller decreased his airspeed. Instinctively he converted his remaining speed into altitude as smoke filled the cockpit. He had to bail out, but he did not have enough altitude for a regular parachute jump. He ejected the cockpit canopy, opened his harness and squatted on the seat. Quickly he glanced at the instrument panel through the smoke: altimeter reading was 100m, airspeed below 200 kmh.
Pekuri kicked the stick and the resulting centrifugal force popped the pilot out. A buckle of his harness hit him in the face, breaking a tooth, and a fraction of a second later the horizontal stabilizer grazed the back of his head. Fortunately the pilot did not pass out, he pulled the release of his chute. He was spinning in the air, then the chute harness jerked him just as his feet hit the ground!
The wreck of his MT-420 was burning fiercely about 100m away. Pekuri knew the place, it was the small auxiliary airstrip Jäppilä, near Ino. A Me passed overhead, so his pilots had seen him bail out. Pekuri heard a Soviet AA MG firing as he ran for the cover of the forest.
When safe, Pekuri thought of his chances. He was deep behind enemy lines, he had forgotten his compass in the pocket of his regular uniform, and he did not have any food. Also his map had been torn into shreds during the jump. But it was not the first time he was in such a situation. He had a rough map of the Isthmus in his mind. The enemy was advancing along the main roads, he would stay out of them and find Finnish troops.
The enemy was at that time advancing very fast; Capt. Pekuri managed to hide and run for five days and advance 60 km before he was caught sleeping in a barn. His days in the enemy rear were full of action but being unrelated to aviation not described here.
Capt. Pekuri was handed over to the GRU (Red Army Counterintelligence Service) by his captors. As interrogations started, Pekuri stuck to the Geneva Convention of treatment and rights of POWz, just telling his name and rank. His first interrogation streak took three days and nights. He was deprived of sleep, food and drink, threatened but not beaten. Then Pekuri feigned submission and described accurately a/b Suulajarvi - which was now in the hands of enemy. He was transferred one location after another, subjected to ever new interrogations, his wedding ring, watch, boots, even underwear were gradually robbed from him.
Once he was beaten: a Finnish speaking GRU Major told him that "it is your duty to help to crush the criminal activities of Hitler's gang by honestly answering all questions" (1993, p.78). Pekuri did not respond. The Major pulled his pistol and said: "I am going to count to three, if you by that time do not promise to answer my questions, I shall shoot you!" Looking at the pistol muzzle 2m away, the Finnish Captain decided that if that was not another empty threat, it would be better to die with clean conscience. He remained silent. The Major counted to three, then fired. The bullet hit the wall behind Pekuri, who said in a calm voice: " Your shot poorly, try again." The Major hit him in the face and Pekuri feigned K.O.
Interrogations continued day after another. One day Pekuri saw in the next cell a captured Finnish pilot, Lt. T. of his squadron. GRU had managed to break his will, and T. had told all he knew about Pekuri. Now the Soviets had some "real evidence". Pekuri was told his crimes: "You have destroyed some 20 Soviet aircraft and killed several Soviet airmen defending this country and the freedom of other nations, and other Soviet soldiers. You have lied in interrogations and refused to co-operate to crush the enemies of Soviet Nations. All these factors shall affect your fate." (1993, p.90)
Next day Pekuri was allowed to wash and shave himself for the first time in several weeks, and the day after that he was ordered to sign his interrogation protocols. They were in Russian, and Pekuri refused to take a pen in his hand. A GRU captain told him in Finnish: "You are more stupid than old women in Leningrad. You have sealed your fate. You shall never get back to Finland!" (1993, p. 98)
Pekuri was transported by train with about 100 Finnish POWs to Leningrad, where he was separated and sent to Fort Petropavlovsk, in the center of the city. There he spent about 8 weeks in a cell with half a dozen Soviet soldiers beingh tried for collaborating with Germans. It was the advice of his cellmates that saved Pekuri's life as he got dysentry and was told to wait 3 weeks for medical assistance. By this time the Armistice between Finland and Soviet Union had been concluded, but Pekuri had not received any news during his inprisonment.
From Ft. Petropavlovsk Pekuri was transferred to Shpalernaya Prison, where his father had been imprisoned 1918 and had escaped having bribed a guard. Now Capt. Pekuri was put in one 2x3m cell with five other captured Finnish Army officers without knowing why he was there and how long they would be held there.
Then one day a "tour" of POW camps started. In Camp Tcherepovetch he saw in the sick bay malnourished and sick men. "Skeletons like this were stumbling about in every POW camp, both in defeated and victorious countries' camps. The defeated ones were the only ones publicly condemned", Pekuri wrote in 1993.
Capt. Pekuri was returned to Finland weighing 48kg in the first lot of repatriation comprising 1241 men. After 3 weeks of quarantaine camp he could proceed to a/b Utti to report to Col. Magnusson who immediately granted him recovery furlough.
Capt Pekuri continued his service in the FAF. His career advanced, he became a part time one man evaluation team as FAF acquired new equipment in the 50's and 60's. He flew the MiG-15, Hawker Hunter, Folland Gnat, Mystere IV, Saab Lansen and also MiG-17, Mirage III, Saab Draken. He became the first Finnish citizen to break the sound barrier, in a RAF Hunter. In the Soviet Union he experienced matter-of-factly treatment, his time as POW was not referred to by anybody, including himself.
Pekuri retired as Colonel having finally commanded the Carelian Fighter Wing in 1968. He continued working in civilian aviation, as the manager of aviation maintenance training for Wihuri Oy.
He moved to Spain in the 80's but then the memories of 1944 came back and haunted him in his sleep. Many a time he woke up, not knowing whether he was in Shpalernaya or at home, until he wrote a book about his experiences (see list of sources). Then the ghosts of past left him alone for good.
One more time he was drawn into publicity as his old fighter BW-372 was retrieved from the unnamed Carelian lake in 1998. (check the link for more details: http://www.danford.et/buff.htm )
Col. Pekuri died on the 3rd Aug 1999, survived by his widow and five children.
(Sources: Pekuri, Lauri, Spalernajan sotavanki, Juva 1993 Hurtti Ukko, no. 2, 1942)
PS. Lt. T. 23 yrs in age, was on a bomber
escort mission on 26 June 1944 as his fighter was shot down at 11.00
hrs. T. bailed out wounded and was captured. During
interrogations a Soviet Major suggested to him that if he agreed
to "supply military data for considerable financial
remuneration" he could be sent home. T. agreed, to get home,
without any real intent to become an enemy agent. Some time later
he was sent across a waterway in the night and was met on the
opposite side by a man in Finnish Army Sergeant uniform. On 10th
July 1944 T. reported to his commander. He was transferred to
rear echelon duties in another branch of the military for the
rest of the war. T. had flown some 150 missions and scored 7
confirmed victories. T. died in Helsinki in the 1970's.
(Source: Hyvönen, Jaakko, Kohtalokkaat lennot 1939-1944, Vaasa 1982)
2000.06.21, © WW II Ace Stories.