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Sometimes it takes more than courage under fire to merit a nation’s highest military honor. For Polina Gelman it took persistence.

Polina Vladimirovna Gelman was born in 1919 to a Jewish working-class family in the Ukrainian town of Berdichev. The Russian Civil War was raging at the time, and her father—a Bolshevik revolutionary—was killed when she was five months old. Her mother had participated in the October Revolution of 1917 as a nurse and after her husband’s death moved the family to Gomel.

Polina excelled in secondary school, and in ninth grade she enrolled in a glider school. But the diminutive teen was a few inches shy of the minimum height for a pilot, and on her first flight she could barely reach the controls. Washed out, she was studying history at Moscow State University when Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.

In October Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin authorized the formation of three all-female air regiments—the 586th (fighters), the 587th (dive-bombers) and the 588th (night bombers). “By this time there were many experienced women pilots in the USSR,” Gelman said, “but few women trained as navigators and mechanics.” She trained as a navigator and was assigned to the 588th.

The unit’s two-woman aircrews carried out night raids over enemy lines in wood-and-canvas Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes that lacked bombsights. “We devised a method of visual sighting,” Gelman explained, “by making a chalk mark on the wing of the aircraft to indicate when to drop the bombs.” The Po-2 crews often flew without parachutes and faced anti-aircraft fire, searchlights and the occasional enemy fighter. Flying multiple sorties each night, they prompted enemy soldiers to refer to them as Nachthexen (“Night Witches”), a nickname the crews detested.

One of Gelman’s more exceptional sorties came in August 1942 when the 588th attacked German forces in the Kuban region of south Russia. While returning from the mission, she dropped remaining bombs on enemy fuel stores adjacent to a railway station—destroying thousands of tons of fuel—and knocked out enemy searchlights with her machine gun.

Gelman described several narrow escapes: “Once when we were fulfilling a mission, a shell hit below my cockpit, and it stopped inside the parachute I was sitting on! God saved me. Another time a shell came through my high boot, but it did not even hit my foot or leg.”

On May 8, 1945, the redesignated 46th Guards Night Bomber Regiment’s Po-2s were preparing for takeoff from an airstrip in Germany when mechanics ran up to deactivate their bombs. “The Germans had surrendered,” Gelman recalled. “The war was over. I burst out crying. Everybody cried that day.”

By war’s end Gelman had flown 860 combat missions, logging some 1,300 flying hours, and was credited with dropping 113 tons of bombs. On May 15, 1946, she received the Gold Star of a Hero of the Soviet Union. In the postwar period she obtained her history degree and later earned an economics degree. Gelman retired from the air force as a major in 1957, but attained a lieutenant colonelcy in the reserves. She wrote a memoir of her wartime career in 1982 and taught political economics at Moscow’s Institute of Social Sciences until 1990, months before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Gelman died in Moscow at age 86 on Nov. 25, 2005.