The Explainer General
Russian pilot Marina Raskova was famous for her long-distance flying records. In WW II, she gathered the Soviet Army’s first female pilots into the 588th Women’s Night Bombardment Regiment. They wore hand-me-down pilots’ uniforms and, even worse, they had to cut their long hair to a regulation two inches.
Major Raskova worried about her girls. “Don’t you know the Germans will shoot at you?” she asked her new regiment. A woman yelled from the back, “Not if we shoot them first, Major Raskova!”
They flew Polikarpov U-2’s, fabric-covered wood and wire biplanes. The only way they could carry a load of six 50 pound bombs was to leave the weight of their parachutes behind.
They attacked in threes, cutting their engines and gliding down over German camps before dropping the bombs, only restarting their engines to head for home. The sleepless ground soldiers were especially upset when they learned that they were being bombed by women! The gliding whoosh just before the bombs reminded Germans of broom-sweeping, so they called them Nachthexen, “night witches.”
A German captain said, “We simply couldn't grasp that the Soviet airmen that caused us the greatest trouble were in fact women. These women feared nothing. They … wouldn't give us any sleep at all.”
The Luftwaffe was ordered to shoot the Night Witches down. Not easily done. The PoU2s flew slower than German fighters could fly without crashing. The cloth-and-wood biplanes didn’t appear clearly on radar, and they could maneuver more quickly than fast fighters.
Ground troops surrounded their camps with searchlights and antiaircraft cannon but the Witches outwitted them. Two PoU2s roared in under power to attract the searchlights and cannon, then separated, turning and jinking to escape, while the third biplane glided in quietly— bombs away! The Witches would join up and switch places until all three Witches had dropped their loads. They were persistent witches: they sometimes flew 18 missions every night.
Twenty-three of the brave women of the 588th received the USSR’s highest medal: Hero of the Soviet Union. A more tender award of flowers was given to them by admiring Free French pilots who flew from their airfields. The French pilots said:
Even if it were possible to gather and place at your feet all the flowers on earth, this would not constitute sufficient tribute to your valour
Jan Adkins is a superb storyteller as well as a talented illustrator and he is now available for classroom visits throughout the country. He is a member of INK's Authors on Call which uses Field Trip Zoom, a technology that requires only a computer, wifi, a webcam, and a roomful of enthusiastic children. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Adkins, Jan. "The Night Witches: Dangerous Women." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think
Tank, 24 May 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
The Explainer General
For us “Doodlebug” is a name for a “roly-poly” or “pill bug.” During World War II, however, it meant a flying bomb. Putting a silly name on such a wicked object was characteristic of Britain’s plucky humor during a devastating war.
Adolph Hitler gave it an official name: Vergeltungwaffe 1 or the V1, “first vengeance weapon.” It was also called the buzz bomb, because it was powered by a pulse jet with metal shutters that opened and closed over its intake fifty times a second to direct the force of its jet-fuel combustion to the rear. This noisy but simple jet engine made a loud, stuttering buzz. You could hear a buzz bomb 10 miles away, and you hoped to keep hearing that buzz as it passed overhead. Attached to the nose of the buzz bomb’s body was a propeller that measured the miles it had traveled. Once the mile counter reached a preset distance, the engine stopped. That was the worst sound: sudden silence. It meant that the doodlebug was plunging to earth near you carrying almost a ton of high explosive.
A doodle bug was only about 26 feet long. The body and engine were metal, the stubby wings were mostly plywood. They were cheap to build; they didn’t put a German pilot at risk. In war terms, they were a bargain.
Doodlebugs were also fast, about 400 miles an hour. Most airplanes couldn’t catch them. Even when the fastest fighters closed in on a buzz bomb, bringing it down wasn’t easy. Machine gun slugs bounced off the sleek metal body. Fighters with cannons were effective but the ton of explosive in the doodlebug could destroy the fighter if it got too close.
Intrepid fighter pilots found another way. They flew right beside the flying bomb and slipped the tip of their wing under the doodlebug’s wing. Airflow over the fighter’s wing flipped the V-1 over in a roll from which its autopilot couldn’t recover. Hundreds of doodlebugs crashed into fields far short of London.
With Britain’s improved anti-aircraft shells and enormous lines of anti-aircraft cannon, most of the doodlebugs launched from the European coast were shot down but they still kept coming. Before Allied forces stopped the bombs in late 1944, more than 8,000 had hurtled toward England, damaging more than 1,125,000 buildings in London, and killing almost 23,000 Britons.
Jan Adkins is excited by things tiny and by enormous concepts. He’s published about forty-five books but they seem to be only excuses to find new stories and learn new facts. He’s been called “The Explainer General” because most of his work unsnarls complicated knots of confusion and re-builds them as simple paths to understanding. He explains bright bits of the world in pictures and words, often to young people. He’s written about sandcastles, bridges, pirates, knights, cowboys, maps, sailing, knots, coal, oil and gold. He’s got a long list of things he still wants to figure out and explain. Adkins (this is what his grandsons call him) believes real history and real science are ten or twelve times cooler than fairy tales and magic.
Adkins is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Adkins, Jan. "Doodlebugs: Evil Robots in the Skies." Nonfiction Minute, iNK
Think Tank, 10 May 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Stories About Regular Folks Doing Remarkable Things
I learned about the Caterpillar Club when I interviewed some flying WASPs—not the kind that buzz around on tiny wings. These WASPs were airplane pilots, the first women to fly for the United States military. They served during World War II: the Women Airforce Service Pilots (or WASP, for short).
The Caterpillar Club they told me about was named for silkworm caterpillars that helped save pilots’ lives. If a plane developed engine trouble in midair, pilots could float to safety by using a parachute made from silk, a lightweight cloth that silkworm caterpillars help create. These caterpillars use a spit-like substance in their mouths to spin a long silk thread that they wrap around themselves, forming a cocoon that they live in for several weeks until they become moths. Those long silk threads can then be unwound from the cocoons and woven together to make silk cloth.
About twenty years before World War II, a parachute company started the Caterpillar Club for people whose lives were saved by using a parachute to escape from a disabled plane. People could write to the company about their parachute rescue, pay a membership fee, and the company would send them a little caterpillar pin.
However, the WASP pilots I spoke with said that some pilots liked to feel they were part of the Caterpillar Club even if it wasn’t an aircraft’s fault that led them to use a parachute. During World War II, pilots—both men and women—trained to fly military aircraft for the Army in small open planes. The planes didn’t have a roof. If a nervous pilot-in-training forgot to buckle the seat belt and the plane tipped over, the pilot could fall out! Fortunately, they always wore a parachute. Landing safely—thanks to the parachute—not only let them feel part of the Caterpillar Club, but also helped the students remember to never, ever forget to buckle up again.
However, by World War II, many parachutes used by U.S. pilots weren’t made of silk. The silk-producing areas of the world were controlled then by Japan, which the U.S. was fighting in this war. Because U.S. companies could no longer get silk cloth, they began making parachutes from a new material scientists had just invented—nylon. Most parachutes are made of nylon today. Even so, the Caterpillar Club lives on.
Click here for source notes on this article.
If you are interested in finding out more about the WASPs, Amy Nathan has written a book on the subject. Through firsthand accounts, she tells how these early pilots they test-flew newly repaired aircraft, dragged banners behind their planes so male trainees could practice shooting moving targets with live ammunition (!), and ferried all kinds of aircraft from factories to military bases.
Yankee Doodle Gals will give you a new look at World War II and show you just how dramatically society has changed since then. Click here for more information.
MLA 8 Citation
Nathan, Amy. "Caterpillars to the Rescue." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 20
Mar. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
The Explainer General
Among the fiercest foes the United States ever fought were its Native Americans. Our Indian Wars blazed over the West after the Civil War and lasted 45 years. It was a bitter struggle on both sides. The U.S. enforced a harsh peace on the warring tribes and didn’t grant Native Americans citizenship until 1924. They weren’t allowed to vote until after WW II. Native American children were often boarded in harsh schools where they were forbidden to speak their own language. But those nearly-lost languages were to save American lives.
Even after shoddy treatment from the government in Washington for more than a century, American Natives quickly volunteered to defend “their country” against enemies in World War I France. A group of Choctaw Natives were hurried to the trenches to send critical messages in a language wire-tapping Germans couldn’t possibly understand.
In World War II, Comanche Code Talkers waded ashore with our troops on D-Day, June 6, 1944, in Normandy. Our technically advanced enemies in Europe and the Pacific were listening to our radio messages. Mechanically coding and decoding orders could take hours when seconds meant lives. The Code Talkers’ messages in their undecipherable language were quickly delivered, and replies came back immediately. Their tongue was taught orally, never written down, and the Talkers made it even harder by using a shorthand code within a code: a tank was a “turtle,” chay da galli; a fighter plane was a “hummingbird,” da he toh hi.
United States Marines in the bloody battles of the Pacific hopped from one Japanese-held island to another with Navajo Code Talkers. The Navajo tongue was even more difficult than the Comanche’s because one word could mean many things when paired with other words, and subtle pronunciation changed meaning. Neither the Comanche nor the Navajo codes were ever broken.
The Code Talkers were so successful that their service was kept secret until 1968, when heroic Code Talkers could finally tell their families about their part in winning the war and saving hundreds of thousands of lives.
In 2014 Chester Nez, the last of the Navajo Code Talkers, died at 93. Three years earlier he and all 29 of the original Navajo Code Talkers were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for distinguished service to a country that finally recognized a debt to its Native Americans, and to their language.
You know all about cowboys, right? They're the good guys in the white hats, carrying six-shooters and wearing fancy boots. Well, no. Cowboys weren't like that at all. Come inside with Jan Adkins and meet Jake Peavy. He's the real deal. Jake's a crackerjack cattle herder but he wears a grubby hat and he limps from when that horse fell on him. He's small, wiry, has bad teeth, and it's been a while since he washed. Come spend some time with Jake, his saddle-mates, and his fleas. You'll learn all about riding the range, roping dogies, and surviving in the down-and-dirty world that was the REAL wild West. For more information, click here.
Adkins, great story-teller, is a member of Authors on Call. You can invite him to your classroom using the iNK Zoom Room. For more information look here.
MLA 8 Citation
Adkins, Jan. "Code Talkers: Native Americans Come to the Rescue, But Why?"
Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 6 Mar. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/
The Explainer General
She was 15 pounds below minimum weight for the Navy when she joined, but she had a mighty mind. Admiral Grace Hopper changed the Navy. And your world.
She graduated from Vassar College in math and physics then took a doctorate from Yale in math. She joined the Navy in World War II because it needed mathematicians to build the massive machines that computed tables of distance, gun elevation, projectile weight, windage and other factors for precise naval gunnery. Almost immediately she saw something other mathematicians didn’t see: computers could talk.
They weren’t just number crunchers to Grace. They could do much, much more if they were given a simple language that would bring the advantages of gigantic computing power and enormous data storage to common uses.
While working on the early computers she developed a “compiler,” a kind of translating machine that turned plain-language needs into a set of mathematical commands that retrieved number data from storage banks, performed thousands or millions of math operations, and provided real-world answers.
In 1959 she was crucial in devising the first broad-based computer language, COBOL (COmmon Business Oriented Language). It is the root of the many computer operating systems we use today.
Then-Captain Grace worked with the National Bureau of Standards to develop self-testing capabilities so a computer could “de-bug” itself. She coined this word when she extracted a fried moth disrupting one of her computers.
She led the Navy away from a few giant computers to interconnected, smaller, scattered computers, opening the door to the internet. You are reading plain language words from my small computer on your web-connected small computer. Thank you, Grace.
In 1985, at 79, she was promoted to rear admiral of the United States Navy Reserve. She said, “The most important thing I've accomplished, other than building the compiler, is training young people. They come to me, you know, and say, 'Do you think we can do this?' I say, ‘Try it.’ And I back 'em up. They need that. I keep track of them as they get older and I stir 'em up at intervals so they don't forget to take chances.” She died in 1992 at 85.
Admiral Grace Hopper received many awards and decorations but the Navy’s most sincere tribute came in 1996 when it named the guided missile cruiser DDG-70, USS Hopper. Naturally, its sailors call their ship “Amazing Grace.”
Jan Adkins successfully tackles the art and science of 10,000 years of bridge building and imparts a lot of historical drama along the way. The process is given fascinating life in this accessible study, wonderfully illustrated by Jan Adkins himself. Ranging from ancient Rome to the present day, from simple log bridges to marvels of industrial technology, and from well-known landmarks to little-known feats of engineering and art, this book gives readers a new appreciation for that most familiar of structures, the bridge.
Jan Adkins is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Adkins, Jan. "Amazing Grace." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 25 Jan. 2018,