Did you know that, during World War II, Russian women were given special injections that allowed them to have night vision? That was the rumor spread by Germans to explain the abilities of the Soviet Air Force’s 588th Night Bomber Regiment, an all-female aviation group that conducted over 23,000 bombing missions against the Germans from 1942 to the end of the war.
The group flew Polikarpov PO-2s, developed as agricultural crop dusters and able to fly at very low altitudes. The group would shut down their engines in the final stages of their missions and fly close to their targets. The only sound that would be heard before detonation was a whoosh, like the sound of a flying broomstick, thus earning them the nickname Nachthexen, or Night Witches.
The Polikarpov above was found in a forest outside Vladisvostok.
I learned their story at the Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach, Virginia, a massive and stunning private collection of WWI and WWII planes. I’ve never seen Mr. History Tourist so excited about anything, much less being dragged to a museum, as he was in this place. The WWII planes are all original. Most of the WWI planes are reproductions, with a few notable exceptions, like the (heavily reconstructed) Flying Jenny below. Most are in flying condition and the museum conducts two air shows each summer, one with the WWI planes and one with the WWII.
The collection is housed in hangers, so it’s a good museum to do in inclement weather. The volunteer docents, many retired military aviators, were exceptionally well-informed and enthusiastic. They said that their volunteer hours earn them riding time on the planes. If you don’t live in the Virginia Beach area and can’t volunteer, you can pay to ride one of the WWII planes. That is going on my to-do list.
The museum also has lots of ground vehicles and other WWI and WWII related items.
The owner of the collection has announced his interest in selling the collection. He says that he can no longer afford to keep it up and subsidize the museum. So visit the museum soon (1) in case it closes and you miss an opportunity of a lifetime, and (2) to show that there is interest in the museum, and keeping the collection accessible to the public.