They flew flimsy wood-and-canvas planes into hails of deadly flak and wore no parachutes. They preferred to commit suicide by crashing rather than be taken as POWs. Their German enemies dubbed the daredevil female Soviet pilots the Nachthexen: the Night Witches.
For Russians, May 9--Victory Day, marking the defeat of the Nazis in World War II--is the most glorious holiday, when memories of the nation's past as a great power are revived.
But for the Night Witches, the flag-waving reunions this year had special significance, marking the 60 years since Josef Stalin's decree that established three female air force regiments.
The women of the 46th Regiment had to be brave. They sometimes flew 10 to 12 missions a night in slow and obsolete biplanes with primitive navigational instruments. A wire cable jury-rigged to the wings was used to release their bombs.
Klavdia Deryabina's hair is white and her manners are sedate, but she still displays her steel as she describes the feeling of being suspended in a huge beam of light in a fragile airborne cage amid a storm of gunfire.
"It was just canvas and wood. They would burn up like a match," the 78-year-old veteran recalled Tuesday, turning the pages of the 46th Regiment album in which she has marked the photographs of her many fallen comrades with small crosses.
"I'll never believe anyone who denies having been scared when you were above your target and you were caught in the German floodlights and the guns were firing from the ground," she said. "That was terrifying."
The pilots flew without parachutes so that the lightweight planes could carry an extra load of bombs--a sacrifice none of the women dreamed of questioning.
Veteran Covered With Ribbons and Medals
In her air force uniform, Deryabina jingles like a pocketful of change every time she moves. Her chest is ablaze with bright ribbons and medals. She reels off the awards: for liberating Novorossiysk, for fighting in Belarus, for freeing Warsaw, for defending the Caucasus, for combat merit.
According to Soviet-era figures, the regiment won 23 Hero of the Soviet Union medals, flew more than 24,000 sorties and dropped 3,000 tons of bombs during the war. At full strength, it had 40 two-person crews, and 31 of its members died in combat. One terrible night, German fighters shot down four of the lumbering biplanes, claiming eight lives.
The regiment's dead were but a drop in the vast ocean of Soviet war casualties. The figure cited by Russian authorities is 26 million people killed, including civilians, which matches that of the Moscow University demographic center.
Top Speed 94 mph--Without Bombs
With their buzzing 100-horsepower engines and their burden of explosives, the small Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes seemed to take forever to leave the ground.
Nicknamed the "Flying Desk" for its boxy shape, the Po-2 was launched in 1928 as a training plane and had a top speed of 94 mph. That's without the bombs on board.
"We were psychologically prepared to be killed," Deryabina said. "It was a tense situation all night. I told my co-pilot that no matter how terrible things got, to stay calm because I might need just one split second to do something to save our lives and if she shouted at me, we might lose that vital second."
Once, as they narrowly avoided a head-on collision with one of their own planes, Deryabina's co-pilot did scream in terror. She later apologized profusely.
When the plane got into trouble, there were no prayers--Deryabina was an atheist. But she carried photos of her father, brother and sister in her map case.
The 46th Regiment was the only one of the three original regiments that remained an all-female force. Men joined the ranks of the other two regiments, which flew heavier fighters and bombers.
The regiment's members were at first ridiculed by their male comrades. One air force regiment commander, Maj. I. Kleshchov, declared that it shamed Soviet manhood to see women engaged in the unwomanly business of war.
More shaming perhaps was the fact that the men flew aluminum alloy planes with parachutes on board.
"The men had the proper technical equipment," Deryabina pointed out. "They had gauges and buttons to push. They didn't have to pull this primitive wire to release the bombs. They had all the right gear."
Life was staid and serious in the women's barracks. They flew all night, returned for breakfast and the 100-gram, or about 3-ounce, "front-line allowance" of vodka, then slept most of the day.
The Night Witches were proud of the nickname, which they considered a reflection of Germans' fear of them. But with such notoriety, being taken prisoner was unthinkable.
Once, her plane damaged, Deryabina lost altitude over enemy-held territory, barely managing to glide over the front line to Soviet turf. If she had been farther from the line, Deryabina would have crashed on purpose.
"My co-pilot and I had agreed we'd never land on enemy territory. We decided better to crash the plane than be taken prisoner. A lot of us took that decision. You wouldn't want to be a Night Witch in captivity. We'd have been doomed to torture."
Many of their missions involved bombing Russian villages and towns in Nazi-held territory. But Deryabina sternly pushed aside thoughts of the civilians who must have perished. It was a taboo subject the women never mentioned.
"We didn't know if we killed civilians, and maybe it's easier on us that we did not know," she reflected. "Orders are orders."
She repeated the line like a mantra, over and over. "Orders are orders."
The women volunteered as bright-eyed, patriotic romantics. Many, like Deryabina, still look back on the war years as the best of their lives.
Deryabina is a sprightly, optimistic figure who retains the vigor of her youth and a conviction that whatever bad things are said these days about Stalin, he was the greatest of them all, dwarfing later leaders such as Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Boris N. Yeltsin.
When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, and with it its status as a great and powerful nation, she had nothing to believe in anymore.
That left only one choice.
"I needed something to replace my faith. I started to believe in God."