Stories that surprise and inspire
On Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, Cornelia Fort was doing something few people expected a woman to do. This 22-year-old was in a small two-seater plane, flying over Honolulu’s Pearl Harbor, teaching a student to fly. At that time, most people felt that flying was a “man’s job.”
Cornelia had fallen in love with flying about two years earlier when, just for fun, she took a ride in a small plane. That ride changed her life. She took flying lessons and became such a good pilot that she was hired to teach others, one of the few flying jobs open to women in those days.
On that sunny December 7 morning in 1941 in the skies over Pearl Harbor, something happened that changed her life yet again—and the lives of many others. Cornelia saw a military-type plane zoom straight at her. She pulled up on her plane’s controls to keep from being hit. She was accustomed to seeing military planes because there were U.S. Navy and Army bases nearby. But the plane that almost hit her wasn’t American. It had a big red circle on its wings—the symbol of Japan. Looking down, she saw smoke billow up from ships in Pearl Harbor. A squadron of foreign planes flew by. Something shiny dropped from one plane and exploded in the harbor. As Japanese fighter planes sprayed her plane with bullets, she skillfully managed to land safely at a nearby airport,
She and her terrified student had just had a bird’s-eye view of Japan’s surprise attack on U.S. military ships and bases in Pearl Harbor, an attack that forced the U.S. to enter World War II. But the U.S. military wasn’t ready to fight air battles around the world. It didn’t have enough pilots. So it called on women to help. Cornelia joined the first women pilot’s unit to fly for the U.S. military, a group that became known as the WASPs--Women Airforce Service Pilots. They weren’t allowed to fly in combat overseas, but they handled much of the military flying in the U.S. Nevertheless, their missions were often dangerous. Sadly, through no fault of her own, in March 1943, Cornelia Fort became the first woman pilot to die flying for the U.S. military. The excellent job that she and the more than 1,100 other WASPs did showed that being a pilot could very well be a “woman’s job.”
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Amy Nathan's book Yankee Doodle Gals tells the stories of many women who served as pilots from 1942 to 1944, including Jacqueline Cochran and Nancy Love, the true leaders of the WASPs. The history of the group, the hardships they faced, the obstacles they overcame, and what has transpired since the end of the war are supplemented by numerous photos that complement the text.
For more information on the book, click here.
Two weeks before Halloween in 1944, a small jet fighter plane was parked on an Ohio airfield. The plane was wearing a kind of costume. It had fake propellers attached to the front of its wings. Was this jet getting dressed up so it could zoom off trick-or-treating at airports around the country?
Not exactly. Those fake propellers weren’t a Halloween prank. They were serious business, a disguise that the Army hoped would fool enemy spies.
Jet planes don’t use propellers, the spinning blades that give other aircraft the power to fly. A jet’s power comes from jet engines attached to the under side of its wings. A jet engine sucks in air and spins the air very fast inside the engine. The air is then mixed with gas fuel in the engine and an electric spark sets the gas-air mixture on fire. This burning mixture blasts out of the back of the engine with so much force that the plane can move forward and zoom up and away.
In 1944, World War II was still raging. For most of the war, military planes had been propeller planes, both for the United States and Britain, as well as for their enemies, Nazi Germany and Japan. Jet engines had only been invented a few years before the war began but weren’t used in military planes until early 1944, when Germany became the first country to use a jet fighter in battle.
The U.S. had built a jet plane—the XP-59A—but it was still being tested. In the fall of 1944, a version of this new jet, called the YP-59A, was shipped for testing to Wright Field, an Army aviation test center in Dayton, Ohio. To keep spies from finding out about the plane, it not only had fake propellers but also an armed soldier standing guard.
On October 14, 1944, test pilots took turns test-flying this jet at Wright Field, after the fake propellers were removed! They noted problems, so none of these U.S. jets were ever used in the war. But although the plane never made history winning any battles, one of the pilots testing it did make history that October day: 26-year-old Ann Baumgartner Carl. That day she became the first American woman to pilot a jet aircraft. She was one of the WASP pilots--Women Airforce Service Pilots—the first women’s unit to fly for the U.S military.
If you are interested in finding out more about the WASPS, Amy Nathan has written a book on the subject. Click here for more information.
MLA 8 Citation
Nathan, Amy. "When a Jet Wore a Costume." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 28 Sept. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/when-a-jet-wore-a-costume.
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/