I introduced my new book at American Library Association
Today I want to talk about powerful women. Exceptionally powerful and courageous young women.
I just want to start right in with words not from my new book, not from fiction but real life, a real and powerful life:
“I sometimes stare into the blackness and close my eyes. I can still imagine myself as a young girl up there in my little bomber and I ask myself, Nadia, how did you do it?”
The words were those of Nadezhda Popova, last surviving pilot in the all women 588th Regiment of the Night Bombers.
I found out about Nadja Popova five years ago when I read her obituary in the NYTimes. She was the last Night Witch. I had to know more.
I did research and found out incredible things about Nadja Popova and many more: Nina Karayova -Buzino, Maryia Smirnova and their fearless commander Yevdokiya Bershanskaya. It feels so odd to me say these names. I don’t think I’ve really ever said them out loud before. I’m sure I’m pronouncing them wrong. Need I say the life of a writer is a very interior one.
They were among hundreds of women who flew these indescribably fragile bi-planes made of wood and fabric and became key to the defense of Stalingrad. So many died. And yet they kept flying and in fact chased Nazi butt all the way back to Berlin.
There were three all women Russian regiments but it was only the night bombers, the 588th that came to be called the Night Witches and that remained completely female throughout the war. They did not name themselves. It was the Nazis who called them that—Nacht Hexen: Night Witches. This is a fragment of a letter I found during my research that had been written by a pilot of a Stuka fighter bomber.
I had heard rumors, unbelievable rumors about women pilots who fly silently through the night on seemingly engine-less planes. There is only a swooshing sound in the darkness and then they drop their bombs. It is said that the Russians inject these women with chemicals so they can see through the darkness on the most moonless of nights.
It’s true they did fly silently, “like witches on brooms”, as the Nazis said. The little engines of the PO 2 trainers could not exceed a speed of 94 mph, and they could fly as slowly as 40 mph. Both these speeds were way under the stall speed of Nazi fighter planes. Often the women pilots shut off their engines entirely and coasted in silently on a target. Whenever possible, the women flew close to the ground to further evade detection. They wore no parachutes. Had no guns. They had no lights. They were psychologically prepared to die. But on the other hand as pilots they had no equal. They flew in all 24,000 sorties and dropped 23,000 tons of ordnance. In winter months, when the nights were long, a single pilot would fly an average of eight missions a night. Nadja Popova flew close to a thousand missions during her service.
The Nazis were definitely spooked by these courageous women and their supposedly injected eyeballs that gave them to quote “a feline’s perfect vision”.
But are we surprised? I mean were not the women of the 588th regiment some of the 20th century’s first Nasty Women to defend the country they loved. Doesn’t history and society often vilify, in fact demonize, powerful women? Remember Salem. Ma, 1691.
As a writer, I can share this story to inspire young women (and young men), and as librarians you are in the unique and powerful position to share these stories as well
Could I ever do what Nadja or her fictional counterpart Valentina did? No way. But can I tell their story? Yes, I needed to tell it. Five years ago when I read that obit I didn’t realize how crucial it would be for young people today, especially young girls to know about fearless young women who can serve as inspiration and serve as a catalyst to action and are not constructions of our insane celebrity culture.
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