Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Marina Raskova and the Night Witches

This badass chick of history personally dropped more than 900 tons of bombs on Nazis. But she'd never planned on becoming a bomber pilot - she wanted to be an opera singer. Today, she's remembered as a Russian folk hero. Meet the tough and photogenic Marina Raskova, commander of the so-called "Night Witches."

Raskova's father was a noteworthy opera singer. Her mother, a teacher, had a great respect for knowledge and had seen to it that Raskova's brother, Boris Malinin, became a scientist who specialized in shipbuilding. Like most parents, they foresaw a fine future for their child that didn't pan out. Trained and pushed to become a musician, Raskova kept at it even after her influential father's death in a motorcycle accident when she was just seven years old. To honor his memory, she wanted to be the best opera singer in the world.

Turns out, Raskova was her own worst critic. She was so hard on herself, so impatient with her own perceived shortcomings as a singer, that she eventually quit music entirely. Instead, she followed her mother and brother into the field of science, focusing on chemistry in her later school years. When she completed secondary school, she helped to support her mother and brother by taking a job as a chemist with a company that made dyes. There, she met and married a handsome fellow by the name of Sergey Roskov. Together, they had a baby in 1933, and gave her the appropriately Russian name of Tanya.

Then things started to change for Raskova. In addition to her scientific background, she was a talented artist and had a good eye for detail. This led to a fateful job - a draftswoman with the Soviet Air Force Academy. While there, she was trained as a pilot and became the first woman in Russian history to obtain an official pilot's license. She was promoted to teaching at the academy soon after.

She could have stopped there and rested on her laurels, but Raskova was a driven woman. She participated in three record-breaking flights and became a folk heroine almost overnight. Her most famous flight was with two other women on a non-stop journey of more than 4,000 miles from Moscow to deep in Siberia. The entire trip took 29 hours, but it was not without peril. In a plane called the Motherland (a converted bomber), they made it almost to their destination when, in the terribly cold weather, the plane accumulated so much ice on its wings it began to lose altitude. To make matters worse, visibility was so poor that the women were literally flying blind, and had very little idea where to find the airfield they were to land on.

In a desperate move, the crew began to jettison everything they could out of the airplane to reduce weight and gain altitude. In the end, it wasn't enough. Raskova, figuring they needed to drop at least another 100 pounds, realized there was one thing they hadn't dropped yet - a crew member. She heroically rose to the occasion, strapped on a parachute, and dropped into an icy-cold sea of cloud in the dead of night. Miraculously, she survived her landing, but found herself in deep woods. Meanwhile, the other two crew members were able to gain altitude, find their bearings, and make land.

But it took Raskova some 10 days to rendezvous with the plane. Presumed dead, she appeared out of nowhere at the airfield with a handsome hunter who'd found her in the wilderness. Together, they made the long trek through the cold to meet up with the plane (whether this hunter had anything to do with her later divorce has been a source of occasional speculation and gossip over the years).

The Soviet media, such as it was, made great play of this, and Raskova was given the award "Hero of the Soviet Union" - the first woman to be so honored, and one of only three people to receive the honor before World War II.

This may have been the last anyone heard of Raskova, if not for a man named Adolph Hitler. In June 1941 Nazi troops stormed into Russia. Ultimately, this would devolve into a nightmare for the Germans, but in the first stages they were shockingly successful. By November that year, they'd captured some 3 million Russians, had Leningrad under siege, grounded the Soviet air force, and wiped out a huge chunk of the Red Army.

Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin pushed the country to rebuild and fight on, but he was short of men. Perhaps this was why, when Raskova approached him about forming all-female combat regiments, he agreed. Technically, there was no bar against women serving in the military in Soviet Russia. In reality, their appointments were often blocked or held up. But Stalin agreed to Raskova's request in October 1941, and with the famous "Order 0099" he established three fighting forces made up entirely of women. Raskova was assigned to oversee these three air regiments, and personally commanded the 125th Guards Bomber Aviation Regiment. The vast majority of these women were under the age of 20, and the oldest were not yet 30. 

Very soon, the women were running night-time bombing raids on Nazi military targets. These ranged from "harassment raids" meant to unsettle and demoralize the Germans to precision strikes against military targets. They were phenomenally successful, and by the end of the war, they'd flown more than 30,000 combat missions.

These missions were usually undertaken in horrible conditions. The planes they used were outdated, mere toys compared to German planes. But while they were not speedy, they were highly maneuverable. This meant that they were light, with almost no insulation. The women often flew in temperatures of -55 degrees Fahrenheit with only flight jackets and helmets. The planes got so cold that if a woman accidentally touched the metal with her bare skin, it would stick to the metal and rip off. The planes - which were modified crop-dusters - could only carry a few bombs at a time, which meant the pilots had to fly up to eight missions in one night. Finally, in order to save carrying capacity for bombs, the women always flew without parachutes.

Raskova developed the tactics for a special squadron of female bombers who were given a fearfully respectful nickname by the Nazis - the "nachthexen," or "night witches." She personally recruited them, interviewed them, trained them, and supervised their missions. The name came from the fact that the Nazis could never hear their engines - just the sound of wind passing above before a firestorm of devastation. It sounded to some Germans like flying broomsticks. The women used a tactic developed by Raskova: a few miles out from their targets, they'd cut their engines and glide into range. Then they'd drop the bombs, restart the engines in mid-air after leaving the target area, and fly back home amidst a withering hail of anti-aircraft fire (often to pick up another load of bombs and do it all over again).

Not everyone was impressed with Raskova and the Night Witches. While the Soviets lauded them in public as great heroes, information released since the fall of Communism in Russia indicates the women were frequent targets of abuse by their male colleagues. Not only was male chauvinism on display - there was jealousy, too, because the female bombers often got the best planes. Because the women weren't generally trained as mechanics or ground crew, men often filled these roles, which they felt made them subservient or less heroic than their female counterparts. There were at least two recorded cases of sexual assaults on the air bases (suppressed at the time), and a great deal of what we would today call sexual harassment: a poor thank-you to some of the bravest pilots on either side in World War II. Even in her personal life, Raskova was affected by this attitude. Unable to bear playing second fiddle to his heroic wife, her husband filed for divorce in 1935.

The state, however, honored dozens of these women, many of whom lived through the war and retained their heroic status, trading it in to provide good careers and well-connected husbands.

Unfortunately, Raskova was not one of them. She did not live to see the end of the war. After a bombing raid deep into Nazi-controlled territory, she was leading two crippled planes back to an ad hoc airfield near Stalingrad when, we must assume, something went terribly wrong with her aircraft. She was forced to attempt an emergency landing in the best place available - the banks of the Volga River. It wasn't the perfect spot to land, and indeed, Raskova crashed. She and her crew were killed.

Stalin personally saw to it that Raskova received the first Russian state funeral of the war. She was honored with full Soviet pomp and circumstance. Her face was placed on propaganda posters, films were made about her, and she adorned several postage stamps in Russia and its client states. A street in Moscow was named in her honor. Her ashes were buried in the Kremlin Wall on Red Square.

Perhaps the nicest tribute to her came from Soviet scientists who orchestrated the Venera spaceships that investigated the planet Venus between the early 1960s and 80s. A prominent patera, or shallow bowl-like crater, on Venus is named in her honor. Naming part of a celestial body for her seems a fitting tribute to this woman who certainly know how to fly high.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Stanislawa Leszczynska

Most of our Badass Chicks of History have been fighters, driven to violence to achieve their ends. You don't have to be a "hero" to be a "badass." This time, let's look at someone who instead of defending cities under siege, spying, or dressing as men to join wars, was a badass for delivering babies. What's so badass about that? Read on.

There are numerous people the Catholic Church is officially considering for sainthood. One who should certainly make the cut is Stanislawa Leszczynksa, who delivered some 3,000 babies during World War II at the Nazi concentration camp is Auschwitz. She's one of many individual Catholics who risked their lives to stand up to the world's greatest villains. Any unbiased reading of history proves Pope Pius XII did very little to help those persecuted by the Nazis, and his cowardly failure to publicly denounce the so-called "Final Solution" should be a source of shame to Catholics to this day. At the same time, the heroism of Catholics like Stanislawa should be a source of immense pride, and proof that good can triumph over evil - even when evil carries a badge and a gun.

Stanislaw was born in the late 1890s in Vistula Land, better known as Polish Russia. Her father was drafted in to the Imperial Army of the Tsars, and was sent off to fight the Turks. Meanwhile, her mother worked brutal hours at a factory so she could afford to send Stanislawa to a private school. When her father returned from the army, he moved the family to Brazil, where he hoped to find better economic opportunities. Apparently it didn't work out - the family moved back two years later. In retrospect, they probably wished they hadn't. But if they hadn't, at least 30 people still alive today would never have been born, or died soon after.

When World War I broke out, her father was drafted again. During the war Stanislawa met a handsome man who ran a print shop, Branislawa. They married and had four children (three sons and a daughter). Not content to sit at home, Stanislawa continued her education, graduating with top academic honors from a college for midwives in 1922. These skills served her well.

When Nazi Germany invaded Poland, the family found themselves in the middle of the Jewish Ghetto. Stanislawa's family were Catholics, but the ghetto was established around their neighborhood. Defying not only the Nazis, but the general anti-Semitic feeling of the time, the family took great risks to help their Jewish friends. This included everything from smuggling food and medical supplies into the ghetto, to printing forged documents to help Jews leave Europe. Unfortunately, Stanislawa was caught in a sting operation mounted by the Gestapo. She was immediately arrested, along with her daughter and two youngest sons. Bronislawa and their eldest son were away at the time, and escaped arrest (she never saw her husband again - he died in the Warsaw Uprising some years later). Her two young sons were sent to work as slaves in stone quarries, while Stanislawa and her daughter (now 24) were sent to the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp. Stanislawa's camp tattoo was "41335," and she wore it for the rest of her life.

Stanislawa was stripped, shaved, and given only two left-foot slippers and lice-ridden underwear for clothing. Undaunted, she almost immediately began breaking the rules. Having concealed her midwife license, she stopped a camp guard and showed it to him - that in itself was against the rules, and took much courage. She was referred to the camp physician - the infamously vile Dr. Josef Mengele. He assigned her to the "sick ward," a 120-foot-long building crammed with some 1,200 ailing prisoners. About a dozen people died every single day. It was heated by a single brick stove that was lighted only a few times a year. Mengele used prisoners who were physicians to care for sick prisoners, because he did not want Nazi doctors polluted with the blood of inferior races. He assigned Stanislawa to work as a midwife. Even then, when he ordered her to declare every baby "stillborn" and to drown them, she flat-out refused right to his face. It's a wonder Mengele didn't order her killed right then and there. Why he didn't, we'll never know.

We're almost forced to conclude that Mengele had some measure of respect for her skill. He didn't expect any babies to survive full-term, and was astounded that Stanislaw, in such horrid conditions, with no medicine, in freezing cold, could boast a better record of healthy births than even well-funded German hospitals of the time. It behooved him to have her handy, because any babies born with blue eyes (or were otherwise appropriately "Aryan-looking") were taken from their mothers and given to childless Nazi couples. Once, he joked with Stanislawa that under different circumstances, she would be making so much money as a midwife she could "stand for beer" for the whole camp (that is, buy all the guards a beer). Mengele even said to other officers, on the record, that Stanislawa was "the personification of hope" for the inmates. Lest he seem too friendly, though, let's remind ourselves he was one of the most sadistic butchers of all time.

For example, even though Mengele didn't kill Stanislawa for defying his orders to murder babies, he did have his subordinates viciously beat her to break her resolve. It didn't work. In the end, he directed a child-murderer who happened to be a prisoner to drown all non-Aryan-looking newborns in a barrel of water. This prisoner, known only to history as "Klara," was aided in her baby-killing by a redheaded prostitute named Pfani. But what they didn't know was that Stanislawa was actually managing to hide babies from them.

Some 3,000 children were born on Stanislawa's watch. Of those, 2,500 were either discovered and killed, or died from freezing or starvation. Only about 30 lived through the war and grew to adulthood - and most are still alive. The "Aryan" babies who were allowed to live and were taken from their mothers, Stanislawa marked with a secret tattoo, in the desperate hope that maybe, after the war, the mothers could find their lost children. When mothers couldn't breast-feed their babies due to malnutrition and ill health, she did the best she could to round up wet-nurses. Not once was she ever reported by another prisoner hoping for better treatment or a reward from the camp guards. If that's not a ringing endorsement of the bravery of the entire sick ward, I don't know what is.

The vast majority of the babies were Jewish, but Stanislawa secretly baptized every single one as a Catholic. Under normal circumstances this would be rude to say the least, but in this case I think we can overlook it. Stansislawa's faith is probably what kept her going. Over and over, she attributed the birth of the healthy babies to the direct intervention of God. She also provided hope and comfort for prisoners of all races and religions, organizing very quiet prayer meetings attended by Catholics, Protestants, and Jews alike.

"She stayed up every night, hardly ever sleeping," said one survivor, Maria Salomon, whose daughter, Liz, was delivered and successfully hidden by Stanislawa. "She was able to create a peaceful atmosphere in a terrible place. My Liz owes her life to Stanislawa Leszczynska. I cannot think of her without tears coming to my eyes."

Liz and Maria were members of a lucky few who survived the horrors of the Holocaust. So were Stanislawa, her daughter, and her two sons who'd been captured. When the Soviets liberated Auschwitz, she quietly returned to her home in Lodz, where, amazingly, her entire family was reunited, minus Branislawa. She continued working as a midwife until her retirement in the 1950s.

Stanislawa was taciturn about her experiences at Auschwitz. Understandably, she didn't like to talk about it. But in 1970, the Polish government honored her at long last, and she shared part of her story. At the celebration, she was moved to tears when some 30 of the children she'd delivered - adults by then - sang to her a lullaby she used to sing to babies at Auschwitz. The local obstetrician's college was named in her honor. Stanislawa died soon after in 1974.

So while the image of a "badass" often conjures up fists, blades, and guns, I can't think of anyone more badass than a women who managed to stand up to Dr. Mengele and get away with it, who was a beacon of comfort and hope in conditions that are as close to Hell as Earth has ever been, who had the courage, the skill and the wherewithal to not only deliver, but successfully hide, precious babies from the worst villains the world has ever known. When I think of some of the jackasses, butchers, and madmen that have achieved sainthood, to deny this role to Stanislawa would be nothing short of spiritually criminal.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Margaret "Captain Molly" Corbin

You know who thought Margaret Corbin was a badass? The U.S. Congress, that's who. She was the first woman in United States history to receive a government pension for military service. She's also believed to be the first woman wounded in battle during the American Revolution.

Margaret, better known to history as Captain Molly, had a troubled past. Born in western Pennsylvania to an immigrant from Northern Ireland, she was raised in what passed for "frontier" at the time. At age five, she and her brother went to visit their uncle. While they were gone, Native Americans raided her cabin and killed her father. They kidnapped her mother and carried her off to who-knows-where (she was never seen again). Margaret spent the rest of her childhood with her uncle, who took over raising her and her brother.

When she was 21, she met a handsome southern farmer, John Corbin of Virginia. When hostilities broke out between England and her American colonies, Corbin was one of the first to enlist, joining the First Company of Pennsylvania artillery. Like many women of the time who were married to soldiers, Margaret went with her husband as a "camp follower." She, like others, helped the cause by cooking, cleaning, tending to the wounded, and generally playing "Mother Hen" to the soldiers.

Corbin would lose his life, however, and Margaret would become a hero in one of the most costly and humiliating defeats of the American Revolution - the surrender of Fort Washington.

The fort, commanding high ground in northern Manhattan, was one of several that General George Washington hoped would prevent the British from taking control of the Hudson River and the waterways around New York. The short version of the story is that it didn't. Once the British invested the rivers with heavy gunships, Washington decided it would be best to move the entire army north to White Plains.

However, he left it to his subordinates whether Fort Washington should be abandoned, or whether those men should be left behind to hold out and harass the British. The fort's commander, Colonel Magaw, believed he could hold out until the end of the year (this was mid-November). Washington was going through a period of great indecisiveness at this time, telling General Nathaniel Greene that he should decide whether the men in the fort should stay or go. Filled with false confidence, Greene and Magaw decided to stay. About 2,000 men were available for defense.

But the fort was not as impregnable as it looked, high on its rocky bluff. There was no source of fresh water, for one thing, and there were at least two places where highly disciplined troops could expect a reasonable chance of success if they attacked.

General Howe, commander of the British, decided to call in his big guns - not the gunships in the river, but the dreaded German mercenaries known as Hessians. Under the command of the very capable General Knyphausen, some 4,000 Hessians attacked the fort early in the morning on November 16 (just four days after Margaret celebrated her 25th birthday).

The American defensive lines outside the fort had some success holding off the attack - at first. But they were inexperienced and undisciplined compared to the Hessians. They were also woefully under-gunned. Even still, with just one 18-pound cannon (that is, one that fires 18-pound balls) and about 150 men, Americans on a ridge of high ground were able to hold off about 800 Hessians who tried to storm their position (in what today is Fort Tryon Park).

Manning that gun was John Corbin. Long after the other American guns outside the fort were silenced, his group fought on. Suddenly he was struck by a Hessian musket-ball, and died almost instantly. Margaret took no time to grieve, but immediately took his place at the gun. She made sure it was fed with ammunition, and fought on even though she was struck three times with musket-balls. Finally the Hessians fired a canister of deadly grape-shot that tore into Margaret's shoulder, mangled her chest, and lacerated her jaw. Her fellow-soldiers abandoned their position and fled to the fort, dragging her along to receive what scant medical attention there was. By this time all the outlying defenders who could fled back to the fort - Fort Washington was, in fact, barely big enough to hold them all.

By this time Colonel Magaw realized he'd miscalculated. There was no way to hold the fort. Knyphausen demanded surrender, but Magaw asked for a half-hour to think about it. No one wanted to surrender to Hessians - they had a bad reputation for stabbing people with bayonets after they'd surrendered. One Hessian, in this battle, beheaded a Colonial soldier and put his head on a pike. But the British General Howe offered terms for surrender: that is, surrender and we won't kill you. Magaw made the hard choice.

The British took some 2,000 prisoners in one fell swoop. It was a terrible blow and had half of Congress thinking maybe they'd chosen the wrong fellow in General Washington. Nevertheless, British military honor was somewhat more humane than German, and the troops who surrendered were not run through with bayonets. Some might have wished they had been, however. Over the course of that winter most of them died from disease, starvation, or freezing in hastily erected prisons.

The British weren't interested in caring for the wounded, however, and most of them were paroled and allowed to seek medical attention where they could. Margaret was one of them. A few of her companions rowed her across the Hudson River to seek medical care at Fort Lee in New Jersey. After being stabilized, she and a few others were transported via bumpy wagon ride to Philadelphia.

Unfortunately, Margaret never fully recovered. For the rest of her life, she was without the use of her left arm. It was difficult for her to bathe and dress herself. Three years later, through the influence of General Henry Knox (a true hero of the revolution), Pennsylvania awarded her $30 for the "relief of her present difficulties." Later, again with Knox's influence, Congress granted her a lifetime pension - that is, half the monthly pay of an active soldier - and a one-time cash award to purchase a new set of clothes. Margaret was the first woman ever so honored. She was enrolled in the Corps of Invalids, who were stationed near West Point.

Margaret was cared for by a family friend, Mrs. Randall, and retired to Buttermilk Falls (now Highland Falls) near West Point. Sadly, however, Margaret had a very tough time integrating herself into the community. The "laidies" of the town looked down on her and snubbed her socially, partly because of her "uncleanliness" and partly because of her "disagreeable temper." Margaret spent most of her time with the invalid soldiers, smoking her pipe in the sunshine all day long when she could.

Luckily, those same townsfolk who snubbed Margaret saved her story from historical oblivion. They told stories about her to their children and grandchildren. Margaret died in 1800, just a few days shy of her 50th birthday. She was buried near her home, but within a generation the grave site was overgrown and lost.

But there's a nice coda to the story. Thanks to the persistent folk tales about her, the Daughters of the American Revolution in the early 1900s tried to confirm her identity. They used the recently edited treasure trove of papers left by General Knox. With the help of a riverboat captain who claimed his grandfather helped bury Margaret, they located and exhumed her body. A physician confirmed it was her, from the obvious signs of her wounds that lingered even in death. She was reburied in 1926 with full military honors at West Point - one of only two Revolutionary War soldiers so honored.

Today, a scenic drive in Fort Tryon Park (where the battle took place) is named for her, and there's a monument plaque at the entrance to the drive. Her memory lives on, of course, not only as a heroic symbol of equality-under-fire, but as a Badass Chick of History.