Today, we fly with the first women's combat air
units. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
My wife studies photos of 68 women in Anne Noggle's
book, A Dance With Death. They're in
their mid '70s, dressed in lace and silk. Their
garments sag under a weight of medals for heroism.
These are the surviving Soviet women combat pilots
from WW-II. "What are you looking for?" I ask. "I'm
trying to see who is alive and who is numb," she
Well might she look for death in the faces of these
women! Take the case of Anna Timofeyeva-Yegorova.
She was a squadron leader in an otherwise all-male
air regiment. Most women flew in one of three
women's units. But a few, like Timofeyeva-Yegorova,
were attached to regular groups. First she flew
reconnaissance in an antique wooden biplane. She
was shot down on a dangerous daylight mission and
Later, flying a light bomber, she was shot down
over German territory -- badly burned, bones
broken. She somehow survived her wounds in a German
prison camp. When Russians took the camp, they sent
her off to a gulag. "There are no Russian
prisoners, only traitors," Stalin had said. She was
accused of collaboration.
When she was finally repatriated she found she'd
been presumed dead and made a posthumous Hero of
the Soviet Union. It was 1965 before they actually
gave her the medal. Her 1992 photo shows an
attractive and completely composed face.
Here's a cheerful face. It's Mariya Dolina. She
holds five major medals. She flew 72 missions in
dive bombers. "I was born under a lucky star," she
says. Then she adds, "It is distressing to speak
about the war ... we lost 47 of our girls."
My favorite face is Nina Yegorova-Arefjeva's. She
smiles and tells how, when she throttled her engine
back over German ground troops, she could hear them
shouting "Night Witch!" at her.
During the '30s, Stalin drove Russian designers to
build airplanes that could set long-distance flying
records. He wanted the publicity. As a result
Russia entered WW-II with an air force of light,
slow-moving airplanes. Not anything you wanted to
ride into combat. When Stalin realized how
ill-prepared he'd left his air force, he sent his
best airplane designers off to the gulags.
So the women now gather each year in Moscow.
Dressed in party clothes, practical shoes, and
special hairdos, they might be any women's club
anywhere. They sing the old songs and toast the
gallant mechanics who kept them in the air. They
swap stories and take quiet pride in having helped
save their country -- fighting off Hitler outside
their city gates, and Stalin within them.
These gentle warriors have prevailed -- their faces
are content. In the end, this seems a fine way to
enter old age.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds