Saturday, May 09, 2020

The Last Soviet Airwoman Remembers

Brok-Beltsova in her days as a navigator in the 587th Regiment.

The history of World War II that I learned growing up was mostly about how America saved the world from Nazi Germany.  My college history courses introduced me to the idea that the Soviet Union also contributed to that victory and my subsequent readings tell me that while both US nor Soviet efforts were necessary for Germany's defeat, neither was sufficient on its own.  I also learned about the scale of Soviet casualties (almost 479,000 Soviet dead and missing in the Battle of Stalingrad--more than the 437,000 American dead and wounded in the entire war).

What I did not learn about was the role of women in the Soviet war effort.  I knew the stories about how women contributed to America's war effort--Rosie the Riveter and even the women pilots who ferried aircraft in the US to free male pilots for combat.  In 2013 I came across the obituary for Nadezhda Popova, one of the most famous women pilots who flew combat missions for the Soviet Air Force.  Wanting to know more, I found an oral history of Soviet airwomen, A Dance With Death.  I always knew that the Soviets were formidable warriors but the exploits of their female combat pilots showed me that strength was widespread.  In case I needed further proof, Svetlana Alexievich's The Unwomanly Face of War dramatically drove home that point, documenting the wide variety of ways that Soviet women served in the war--from laundry workers and cooks to combat medics and snipers.

So reading about the last surviving Soviet airwoman remembering her and her comrades' service in The Great Patriotic War (the Soviet/Russian name for World War II) on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the German surrender brought that history back to mind.  If nothing else, it's a reminder that Russia has a long history of defeating invaders in no small part to the valor and determination of its people.

Post-Soviet Russia may be a kleptocratic oligarchy but I would never bet against the Russian people.


The historical novel, The Huntress, offers an accurate description of the life and times of a Soviet airwoman as one of its sub-plots.  The novel is a combination adventure-mystery-historical story with fully developed characters that  becomes more compelling and fast-paced as it moves toward its conclusion.

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Monday, May 04, 2020

Memories of a Long Ago Spring

The history of late April and early May are very much on my mind today.  Today, May 4 is the 50th anniversary of  the Kent State Massacre in which Ohio National Guard Troops killed four students and wounded nine others in an attempt to quell protests of the US invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War.   I was a senior in college then, about to lose my student deferment and a draft number low enough to make my conscription, if not certain, very likely.  By the spring of 1970 I was firmly opposed to the war for both policy and self-preservation reasons.  Nixon was withdrawing US troops from Vietnam but American casualties were still running about 500 dead a month.  It was becoming clear that Nixon's plan for ending American combat was not at all immediate and it was looking more and more like I would end up in the military not too long after graduating.

None of this was new to me in early May 1970.  The draft was a constant during my college years.  By my senior what had been a distant possibility had become a real likelihood.  When demonstrations erupted on campuses around the country in response to the Cambodian invasion and expanded exponentially after the Kent State killings I participated in the nationwide student strike that closed most colleges.  I finished my college career without taking exams in most of my classes and took one early so I could head to Washington, DC to join the organizing and protests there.

And despite that activity I never found a good alternative to military service.  Nor did I have the courage to refuse to serve.  Within two months I was in the Army, having enlisted for two years.  Six months later I was an infantry grunt risking my life in a war that I didn't believe in.  The logic of those choices seemed plausible at the time although in retrospect I marvel at my naivete.  (I won't explain that logic here; if you really want to know, (shameless pluggery  ahead) you can read all about it here.)   As it turned out, I was very, very, very lucky.  Unlike the dead at Kent State and two weeks later at Jackson State, I survived.

So for me, after 50 years, May 1970 feels like the time when everything I knew about life seemed to fly apart.  Not only were fellow students under lethal attack but I was being sucked into a pointless war.  By the end of the year I was in Vietnam facing the very real possibility that I would not live to see 1971 much less survive a full year in-country.  The memories of those times always come back to me every spring and follow through the rest of the year.  But then again, I am alive to have memories.  So many others are not.

Memory is cumulative so other Vietnam-related events also fit into the late April-early May timeline.  Almost a year later in April 1971 when I was still humping the boonies in Vietnam with an M-16 in my hands and a PRC-77 radio on my back, Vietnam Veterans Against the War launched Operation Dewey Canyon III, the first ever protest of an American war by the veterans of that war.  Reading about their protest in Stars and Stripes (which seems to have reported the event objectively) I was electrified to see fellow soldiers speaking out so forcefully and dramatically against the war.  It certainly increased my determination to speak out as a veteran if I made it home alive.  Given my lack of any serious combat, reading about Dewey Canyon II may be one of my most exciting memories of my year in Vietnam.

I did make it home alive and whole.  Which means that four years later in the closing days of April 1975 I watched, along with the entire world, as National Liberation Front and North Vietnamese Army forces swept rapidly through my former area of operations on their way to capturing Saigon.  I saw the South Vietnamese Army fight desperately and tenaciously at Xuan Loc in a futile effort to stop the onslaught.  And I rejoiced to see the end of a war that should have ended 20 years before when those same forces defeated a US-backed French colonial regime that had ruled Vietnam for almost a century.  In 1975 the war was finally over.

The war may have ended but the memories remain.  They are part of a never-ending kaleidoscope that plays in my head.  Different dates trigger different memories and my reactions have varied over the years but I never forget those events.  But I am alive to have memories.. And I can do no greater justice to those memories than to remember the many Vietnamese and Americans who suffered far worse than I did.


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