Every Russian border guard holds great respect for the heroes of Damanski. Hero of the Soviet Union Vitaly Bubenin, Lieut. Gen. (ret.), was a first lieutenant at the time. His service record also includes the commanding posts with Alfa, a special antiterrorist unit of the KGB. Just like an Izvestia correspondent suspected, “the truth about the armed conflict on Damanski is even grimmer than the picture painted by the media”.
The hunt for Bubenin and Strelnikov is on
Fierce hand-to-hand fights between the Soviet border guards from a border post Sopki Kulebyakinskiye which I commanded at the time and the Chinese soldiers had been going on for a year prior to the clashes on Damanski. My boys would normally overpower the Chinese in those close fights on the iced river. Most of my soldiers were the stocky Siberians with huge fists of a foundry’s workers so the Chinese stood no chances of a win at the beginning. Then they brought in reinforcements from Northern China and each Siberian would be confronted by a cluster of Chinese servicemen armed with boat hooks, pickets and sticks with spiked heads. We didn’t have body armor back then. My combatants were wearing thick winter sheepskin jackets. Those jackets were good for saving my boys from the sticks with spikes. The fights occurred on a daily basis and one day we realized that we won’t last long by using our bare hands. We got ourselves some bear spears and maces with metal heads similar to those used by epic warriors. The new weapons proved to be just perfect during the first fight. We were using the bear spears to contain a advancing throng of attackers while swinging the maces to knock down those who somehow managed to filter through.
The weapons become hugely popular with all the border guards stationed around the area.
Ivan Streknikov and me, the commanders of the “sturdiest” border posts, were declared “the revisionists” by the Chinese. They posted our pictures on every fence in each village of Northern China. We became the celebrities of sorts. The Chinese were after us during those fights. The hunt was on. Once they grabbed another officer in the middle of a fight. They dragged him into a vehicle and took a better look at his face. Having realized that they got the wrong guy, they threw him out and rushed back to join the crowd of scuffling men in search for the right target.
There was the only purpose they were trying to achieve with those actions. They wanted us to pull the trigger. But no matter how bloody the fighting in the snow could be, we always kept our Kalashnikovs behind our backs. Once a young soldier, fresh from the boot camp, just couldn’t help firing a long burst at the wheels of a Chinese vehicle after they crossed his submachine gun’s strap around his neck and started dragging him away. The bullets hit the tires and the Chinese got scared. They jumped in the vehicle and rolled away on the rims. The incident got no publicity at the time.
“Don’t look now, just step on it”
Then the Chinese began taking their carbines for the fight on the ice. Then they attached bayonets to their carbines. We attached the bayonets too and switched into a counter bayonet charge. Then they filled the cartridge chambers of their carbines. The tension just kept going higher every day.
The most memorable fight involving more than a thousand men from both sides took part in January of 1968. A column of trucks pulled up on the other bank of the river. More than 800 troops dismounted and were warming up for a fight. Music was playing at a maximum, speakers were frothing at their mouths and the mob was roaring. We saw them distributing boat hooks and spiked sticks. “Looks like they’re going right to the limit this time, no bars held,” said to me an interpreter, a Korean kid. On our side of the river, we had only about three hundred “green caps” at the moment including a mobile motorized group that joined us in the nick of time. The fighting broke out and half an hour later I could see the enemy slowly but surely getting the upper hand. Something had to be done to change the situation. I climbed the APC and gave orders to a driver to cut the mob in two. “There’s people out there,” said the driver. “You don’t look now, just step on it,” I said to the driver and we moved forward. I sat on the armor at the front and kept the vision slits covered so that my humanistic driver might see nothing. Instead, I was directing him myself . I just shouted to him “turn it to the right” or “to the left now” as we moved along. When we finally turned around, I looked at the tracks and saw the bodies of four Chinamen lying in the snow. The rest of them fled to the other side of the river. They apparently didn’t bother to ask for a second helping.
Chinese authorities staged the sumptuous funeral one day later. The caskets were real topnotch. I still remember those caskets. And the Chinese news agency kept repeating my name over and over again.
“From that moment I fought the rest of the battle as if in my subconscious”
Than the clashes on Damanski took place. A Chinese battalion of estimated 400 soldiers
moved to the island under cover of the night. All of them were painstakingly disguised with snow. The Strelnikov group from the neighboring border post was the first to reach the island. The Chinese shot them at point-blank range while we were still moving in. Before reaching the island, we built a line and began advancing. Soon we came under heavy fire. We ran out of ammo pretty fast – back then a border guard carried only two ammo clips. We started to retreat. The Chinese mortars across the river went into action, they were shelling the area behind us in an effort to cut our retreat ways. I couldn’t make a single move since I was being shot at by a sniper and a machine gunner at the same time. I had to lie still and feel the sheepskin jacket on my back turning in rags. The bullets were ripping it apart. Luckily for me a shell landed really close and the blast wave rolled me out of my shelter. I found myself lying under the birch tree soon to be shaved by a burst from a machine gun, the trunk fell on the snow right before my body. The Chinese couldn’t see me for the time being. That was my first shell shock that I got during the fight. From that moment I was fighting on as if acting in some different world.
I made it to the river bank and got into an APC with a few soldiers. We flanked the enemy and took in the rear. The maneuver caught them really off-guard, they popped up one by one from the snow just seconds before our vehicle was about to roll them over. That when the reality started to sink in – they were hundreds of them. We spent the next two hours riding around their positions. We were just squashing and shooting them. After getting back to our bank of the river after completing another tour, I counted only four combatants who were still up and shooting. The rest were killed or wounded. We loaded the casualties into the APC and sent it to the border post. We embraced in silence, and, after a short while, we were on our way back to the island. All of us knew that the next combat would be the last.
Then our reinforcements came around. The missile launchers dealt a devastating blow on the island. The Chinese battalion was demoralized and crushed down. According to official sources, the Chinese lost more than 200 men in that battle. It was an unprecedented combat operation even by WW II standards, according to some military analysts. Three of us, Ivan Strelnikov, sergeant Yura Bababski, and myself were awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. Ivan was awarded posthumously. Ten servicemen were awarded with the Order of the Red Banner. The rest got the Orders of the Red Star and other decorations.
“They always fell like a bolt out of the blue”
I got my transfer orders in 1974 and arrived in Moscow. Yuri Andropov, then the head of the KGB, appointed me the commander of a newly formed antiterrorist unit “A” or Alfa.
Terrorism had become a reality of life by that time and steps had to be taken to tackle terrorist activities. We handpicked the best out of the best for our team, mostly masters of sports and rated athletes. We tested all kinds of fire arms in search for the best one, from American M-16 to Israeli Uzi. We realized that our Kalashnikov was the best. Once we were testing the nerve gas on the rabbits. I got in the cab of a minivan for terrorists. The rabbits were put at the back, behind the Plexiglas window. We sealed the glass around the edges with modeling clay to keep the gas from leaking into the driver’s compartment. So went for a ride. Our escort group gave us a special sign, and all the doors along with an accelerator and a brake were locked up immediately. And then my head felt really heavy and my eye lids were starting to shut. We apparently failed to seal the window the way we should. I looked back and saw the poor creatures getting gassed, their long ears hung listlessly.
We used pigs for testing the flak jacket of a new type. We arrived in one of the pig-breeding farms near Moscow and chose the most awesome boar in a livestock. The flack jacket was then fixed on the animal. We fired a few rounds from our standard-issue weapons. The hog got lucky. The bullets couldn’t pierce the armor, they left only the dents on it. As a result, the new jacket became our standard piece of equipment.
Special training conducted on a regular basis enabled us to mold a special force composed of highly professional personnel. Our opponents in the combat training were no strangers to martial arts and target practice, most of them were the operatives with tons of experience from other departments of the KGB. One of them told me once that he “was on a lookout all the time trying to guess where the special force would come from. But they always fell like a bolt from the blue.”
People keep asking me if there’s any difference between today’s Alfa and the Alfa that operated in the past. I can tell you that they’re as different as heaven and hell. In comparison to the modern special forces, we were barely armed back then.