Excerpt from Wings, Women and War, Chapter 6
Liliia Litviak was something of a rebel. She made few concessions to conformity; even among the other women at Engels, she stood out from the crowd. Later, when she was among men, she was circumspect in her behavior, but never attempted to act like “one of the guys.” For example, Litviak loved flowers. She had them painted on her aircraft, she kept pictures of them above her bed, and whenever possible, she placed flowers in the cockpit of her fighter. Pasportnikova laughed when she recalled, “When men flew Lilia’s plane, they sometimes found one of her little bouquets. They would pick it up between their fingers,” Inna demonstrated, using her thumb and one finger, as if holding something rotten and smelly—“and shout, ‘What the hell is this?’ and they threw it out of the cockpit.” . . .
Litviak was deadly determined to prove herself as a fighter pilot — not just from personal ambition and patriotism, but also in order to redeem her family name. Her father had been among the thousands “purged” and imprisoned in 1937, for charges that were never specified. She never stopped believing in her father's innocence, and believed that should could reclaim the family's honor by gaining fame in combat. But if her father's status as an "enemy of the people" heightened her desire to fight, it was also the source of her deepest dread. More than anything else, Litviak feared that she would go missing in action. Any Soviet soldier whose body could not be found, who went "missing without a trace," was automatically suspected of desertion. Pilots often flew deep into enemy territory; they could be taken prisoner, or they might crash with their aircraft, leaving their bodies impossible to identify. Litviak was determined not to die that way, but to land in friendly territory, even if it was with her dying breath. . . .
Early in her career Litviak adopted the showy, and strictly forbidden, habit of buzzing the airfield when she returned from a kill. Approaching the airfield after a successful mission, Litviak would break from formation and perform high-speed, low-altitude passes and victory rolls. Pasportnikova said that "after her 'circus number' in the air, Liliiaa always asked me, 'Did Batya swear terribly?' And if I said, 'terribly!' she would hang her head and walk over to him with her post-mission report." In other words, Litviak was careful to give the appearance of being appropriately contrite after breaking the rules.
Litviak was badly wounded in air combat on March 22, 1943. She was flying as part of a group of six Yak fighters when they attacked a dozen Ju-88 bombers. Litviak shot down one of the bombers, then felt a sharp pain in her leg. She was being attacked by a pair of Messerschmitts. As she evaded the attack, four more enemy fighters joined in, and Litviak found herself in a singlehanded dogfight against six Me-109 fighters. In an aerial game of "chicken," Litviak employed a tactic often used by Soviet pilots who had especially steely nerves: she pushed the throttle forward and raced directly into a group of enemy fighters. At the last minute, they veered and she was able to get into good firing position; she shot down one Messerschmitt before the fight ended. In severe pain and losing blood, Litviak managed to return to her airfield and land her plane. She stopped on the runway but could not taxi the plane to a parking spot; she lost consciousness.
After receiving field treatment, Litviak was sent to a hospital in Moscow for surgery. She received permission to recuperate at home; hospital beds were in short supply. But she was restless and anxious to get back to the front; after a few days Litviak talked her way onto a transport and returned to her regiment. Less than six weeks after her injury, Litviak was back on the scoreboard. . . .
A lot has been written about the supposed romance between Litviak and Alexei Solomatin, who flew together in the 73rd. Inna Pasportnikova believed that “Liliia understood that Solomatin was an exceptional pilot and she appreciated him. Everyone knew that he loved her, everyone knew. But she never told me she was in love with him.” General Eremin, who was Solomatin’s flight lead early in the war, said that “Solomatin had a very high opinion of [Litviak] as a pilot. He said, ‘You know, Boris Nikolaevich, she’s a great pilot. She understands me perfectly.’” Eremin was asked in an interview whether he thought Solomatin’s love for Litviak affected his performance; Pasportnikova, who was present, interjected, “Quite the reverse!” Eremin agreed: “On the contrary. Solomatin, Lilia—they fought well. Such friendship. They had a special friendship.” According to Litviak’s letters, she did not realize she loved Solomatin until after his death. She wrote a wrenching letter to her mother at the end of May, a few days after Solomatin's funeral:
"Fate has snatched away my best friend Lyosha Solomatin... He was everyone’s favorite and he loved me very much, but at that time he was not my ideal. Because of this there was a lot of unpleasantness. I transferred to another squadron and maybe that’s why I was shot down over Rostov. [Next, Litviak described a dream she had] The river was seething, to swim across was impossible; [Solomatin] stood on the other bank and called me, he called so, simply to tears, and he said, ‘After all, Batya managed to get me for himself, he couldn’t manage without me.’ And again Alyosha called me and asked: 'Lilka, aren’t you coming?' And I told him, ‘If they let me ...’ But I know that I can’t swim across this river anyway. And I woke up. And now it’s terrible for me to endure, and I confide, mamochka, that I valued this friendship only in the moment of his death. If he had remained alive, then it seems this friendship would have become exceptionally beautiful and strong. You see, he was a fellow not to my taste, but his persistence and his love for me compelled me to love him, and now ... it seems to me that I will never again meet such a person."
Eremin, Boris Nikolaevich. Interview by author, tape recording, 10 May 1993, Moscow, Russia (Committee of War Veterans).
Nagradnoi list (Lidiia Vladimirovna Litviak). 25 May 1989. TsAMO. Komitet veteranov Velikoi Otechestvennoi voiny, f. 33, op. 686044, d. 4, l. 279.
———. 8 May 1993.
Pasportnikova, Inna Vladimirovna. Interview by author, tape recordings, 8 May 1993, Zhukovsky, Russia (Pasportnikova's apartment) and 15 May 1993, Sredniaia Akhtuba airfield, Russia (near Volgograd).
________, Moi komandir, author's collection, manuscript, 1989.