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During World War II the war- ring air arms generally used women in auxiliary roles, in their most active roles serving as test or ferry pilots. A notable exception was the Soviet air force, which fielded three all-female combat regiments: one of fighters, one of dive-bombers and, perhaps best known, one of night bombers, 23 members of which received the Gold Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union. Less publicized until recent years were several Romanian volunteers who flew in and out of combat zones to evacuate wounded troops. It took the fall of Romania’s communist government and the longevity of one of the country’s wartime pilots for the deeds of the White Squadron to come to light.

Marie Ana Aurelia Dragescu was born on Sept. 7, 1912, in the southern Romanian town of Craiova, the daughter of an army officer and a music teacher. Mariana, as she was known, chose an avocation entirely her own. In 1935 she was among the first Romanian women to graduate from aviation school, and in 1938 she joined the Royal Aero Club. Later that year aviatrix Marina Stirbey convinced the Romanian military to form an all female aeromedical evacuation unit. Stirbey, Dragescu and fellow pioneers Nadia Russo, Virginia Thomas, Virginia Dutescu and Irina Burnaia performed well in military maneuvers, and in 1940 they formed a squadron equipped with Polish-built RWD-13S high-wing monoplanes, painted white with red crosses. The unit came to be known as the Escadrila Albà (White Squadron).

When Romania joined Operation Barbarossa, Nazi Germany’s 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union, 2nd Lt. Dragescu and her colleagues accompanied the Romanian army. From August through November 1941 they transported wounded during operations at Odessa, for which Dragescu received the Romanian Order of Aeronautical Virtue. Moving up to airfields inside Russia in 1942, the White Squadron flew intensive sorties from August through October during the pivotal Stalingrad campaign. For their work Dragescu, Russo and Thomas received the Order of the German Eagle—Germany’s highest decoration for foreign combatants. The following summer the unit, re-designated the 108th Light Transport Squadron, flew rescue missions out of Simferopol, Crimea, to and from the collapsing front.

With the war going badly for the Axis, Romanian officials staged a coup in August 1944, signed an armistice and went over to the Allies. Through May 8, 1945—war’s end in Europe— Dragescu continued to support the Romanian army as a liaison pilot. By then she had personally flown more than 1,500 wounded men from battlefronts to medical facilities.

Dragescu worked as a civil aviator and flight instructor in Romania until 1955, when she was suddenly fired —ostensibly a victim of postwar repression by communist dictator Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, whose puppet Romanian government was a Warsaw Pact ally of the Soviet Union. Dragescu’s “crime”? Her service— initially, anyway—with the Axis (the “wrong side”) in World War II.

Grounded, Dragescu worked in obscurity as a secretary until her retirement in 1967, though she lived to see the overthrow of Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist regime in 1989. Since then Romania has been rediscovering its history and honoring those who served in its armed forces during the war. In 2003 Dragescu was made a knight of the Order of the Star of Romania and promoted to the rank of air commander (retired). She also served as a consultant for a 2004 film about the White Squadron. Pioneering aviatrix Mariana Dragescu died in Bucharest on March 24, 2013, at the age of 100.


Originally published in the May 2015 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.