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Women's History Month

The women of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, with their aircraft in the background.

The women of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, with their aircraft in the background.

MCENTIRE JOINT NATIONAL GUARD BASE, S.C. -- Women have been an integral part of combat since the beginning of war. We may not have always been on the front lines, but we have always assisted the fight in many ways. As barriers are torn down in the fight for equality, it's important to examine our history to see how far we've come. As a Swamp Fox, I was interested in what this looks like for a female in the world of aviation.

The first American women were allowed to fly in military aircraft in England's Air Transport Auxiliary from as early as 1940. While they were only allowed to conduct noncombat missions, they were still in a combat environment. In 1942 the Army Air Corps opened two separate units of female pilots; the 319th Women's Flying Training Detachment and the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron.

I remember when I was in the 8th grade my goal was to become the first female fighter pilot. Unfortunately, I was born a few years too late for that to become reality. The ban on women participating in combat was lifted and in 1993 we received our first female fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force. She is now Col. Jeannie Leavitt, commander of the 4th Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C. In addition to being the first female fighter pilot, she is also the first female commander of a fighter wing.

Outside of the U.S., however, women were flying combat aircraft long before that. In World War II, Russia's 588th Night Bomber Unit was comprised completely of female pilots. These women were the epitome of doing more with less. They flew repurposed 1920s biplanes, made of canvas-draped plywood, that were previously used for crop dusting. The planes lacked even basic instrumentation and the navigation was done at night with a stopwatch and a map. Their stealth technique was to idle their engines and glide as they approached their target. This resulted in only wind noise that reminded the German soldiers of a witch's broomstick. They were named "Nachthexen" or "night witches" by the Germans. Even though their planes could only carry 2 bombs at a time, they would fly multiple sorties a night. This enabled the "Night Witches" to achieve roughly 30,000 missions dropping a total of 23,000 tons of bombs on the invading Nazi armies. Despite all their obstacles, they were feared by the German soldiers.

As we celebrate the progress we've made toward equality, let us not forget to honor the folks who endured much hardship as they fought the early battles for the rights we enjoy today.