Red Star Aviatrices
A while back I noted the obituary of Nadezhda Popova, a Soviet bomber pilot and commander in World War II. She was one of many. The obituary mentioned an oral history, of the three all-female bomber and fighter regiments that served on all major fronts throughout the war. A Dance With Death tells the stories of the pilots, navigators, armorers and mechanics. Working on metal surfaces with bare fingers in 40 below zero weather and skin sticking to the metal. Flying in white out conditions. Living in dugouts. Dodging fascist fighter planes. Crash landings. Losses. This is war at its most brutal. These women experienced it.
The stories do not become repetitious even though many recount individual experiences of common events. Each story adds depth and detail that builds a larger narrative. The women are patriotic, strong and fighting for their homeland, wanting to serve well, dealing with hardship, even finding time for fun. They are also telling the story almost half a century after the fact and after the collapse of Communism. That allows them to offer perspective on their nation's history and leadership but none doubt or question their service. It was after all, The Great Patriotic War.
I was surprised at how many Soviet women learned to fly airplanes and gliders and to parachute before the war. A number of the women mentioned the admonitions to Soviet youth to develop a skill that would serve society. Aviation was a cutting edge technology which made it an attractive and interesting way to fulfill the state's request. Not a few of the women mentioned wanting to fly at first sight of an airplane. As it was, they got to fly a lot. Hundreds of missions. Thousands of hours.
Best of all, A Dance With Death includes 67 portraits of the Soviet airwomen taken in 1990-91 by author Anne Noogle, a fomer Woman Airforce Service Pilot. The women are in their late 60's-early 70's, same age as Maggie's mom who was born in 1921. The text has WWII photos of some of the women and I found myself flipping back and forth at times as I read the story. The portraits are in turn charming, thoughtful, revealing and familiar. Here are a few examples.