In 1937, he joined the Red Army and served in the border patrol aviation unit as a technician – but all he did, according to Maresyev, “was put the tail of the plane into the proper parking position.”
A year and a half later he was sent to a pilot school in the city of Bataisk in the south of Russia. He graduated from the Military School of Aviation in 1940. Aleksey Maresyev was stationed in Central Ukraine in the squadron, equipped with Polikarpov I-16 fighters. He began his flights as a fighter pilot in August 1941. He had shot down four German aircraft by March 1942.
In April 1942, Alexey Maresyev got into a dogfight with two German fighters. Maresyev’s plane was shot down in the forest near the city of Staraya Russa. He managed to bailout from the flaming aircraft with a parachute. During grounding he badly injured his legs. Despite that, Aleksey had to fight for his life in the winter forest. He started crawling in search for help. After 18 days in forest, fighting pain and hunger, Aleksey Maresyev managed to reach the village of Plavni.
During his 18-day wandering in the winter forest, his injuries became so bad that the amputation of both legs below the knee was the only way to save Aleksey’s life..
But Aleksey decided that he would fly again! Desperate to return to his fighter pilot career, he spent nearly a year of exercise to master the control of his prosthetic devices, and succeeded at that, returning to flying in June 1943.
He returned to the 63rd squadron, but the commander was cautious about Aleksey. In first two months Alexey was only allowed to fly missions over Central Russia, with the squadron commander as his wingman. Finally, he was allowed to fly solo. During one of his first flights he downed three FW-190 fighters. During his career, Maresyev completed 86 combat flights and downed 11 German planes.
On August 24, 1943 Alexey Maresyev was decorated with the Golden Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest military decoration of the USSR. In 1946 he retired from the army.
Alexey Maresyev spent the rest of his life helping Soviet WWII veterans. In 1952, Maresyev graduated from the Higher Party School. In 1956 he was elected Secretary and in 1983 Chairman of the Soviet War Veterans Committee. Also, he was a member of the USSR Supreme Soviet (the parliament of the country).
On May 19, 2001, hundreds of people gathered in the Central Russian Army Theater to greet the hero for his 85th birthday, but an hour and a half before the celebration Alexey Maresyev suffered a heart attack and died in Moscow hospital
His story became the basis for a novel by Boris Polevoy, Story of a Real Man, and subsequent film, where his name is changed to Meresyev. The novel was the basis of Sergei Prokofiev’s last opera, The Story of a Real Man.