By Henry Sakaida

Blonde, bold, and brave. Lydia Vladimirovna Litvyak was one of only two female fighter aces in history. She disappeared during aerial combat in August 1943 which only added to her mystique. There is so much misinformation about this photogenic Russian beauty turned fighter ace, it’s difficult to know who she really was and what she really accomplished. The saga of Lydia Litvyak continues to stir our imagination. But behind every legend, there is the truth. And quite often, the truth is far more tantalizing.

Lydia Litvyak

Jr/Lt Litvyak by the cockpit of her Yak-1

The legendary heroine became a casualty of the postwar Western press. Writers and novelists have turned her into something she never was. Historians and Litvyak enthusiasts continue to keep her myth alive through online history forums.

Lydia Litvyak was one of many capable pilots in her squadron. If she had been a male, no one would have noticed. How many enemy planes did she shoot down? The answer varies (5, 11,12, 15), but more the better for her image.

Jr/Lt Litvyak, attached to the 73rd Guards Fighter Regiment, was one of 6 pilots who ran into a formation of German bombers which were escorted by Bf-109 fighters. This combat occurred on 1 August 1943. As their assault commenced, two enemy fighters dived on her and damaged her Yak-1. Her comrade, Jr/Lt Ivan Borisenko, last saw her through a hole in the clouds, being pursued by 8 enemy planes. Her plane was smoking heavily. Borisenko never saw her parachute nor crash. He believed she was killed on that mission.

Lydia Litvyak

Litvyak dyed her hair and fought to keep her curls! She made colorful scarves from parachute scraps, placed white lilies in the cockpit of her fighter, flirted with men, and read movie magazines. Despite the war, she never lost her soft feminine qualities.

Forensic historian Justin Taylan of, and I decided to see if we could determine what had happened to Litvyak on her last mission. She disappeared in the area of Dmitriyevka (Donbass region of Ukraine). We were told that there is a small monument where she crashed. But more importantly, we heard that her remains had been recovered and she was buried in Dmitriyevka! On May 2009, we departed for Ukraine. It was a very long shot, but this gave us a great opportunity to visit the “real Ukraine,” far from the glitz of Kiev, their capital city.

Lydia Litvyak

Soviet Yak-1 fighter. It was lightweight, maneuverable, and hard hitting. The wing was made of wood. In dogfights, it was usually pilot skill and the element of surprise which determined the victor.

Justin and I travelled to a small town of Krasny Luch where School No.1 is named in her honor. This hardscrabble town near the Russian border is definitely not a tourist destination. It was once a great coal mining center. Despite severe economic hardships, the locals were very friendly and extremely hospitable. Apparently, we were the first Americans to visit the town in search for answers. Arrangements were made to go to the purported crash site, compliments of Valentina Vashenko, the curator of School No.1’s war museum. This aged and tireless woman was totally devoted to the memory of Litvyak.

Lydia Litvyak

Valentina Vashenko  by display case holding several of Litvyak’s personal items. The museum is only opened for special events.  She and her husband  lived without heating and suffered ill health. In later years, generous donors paid to have gas connected to her apartment, and provided new windows and lighting for the museum. She passed away in 2015 and is greatly missed.

Lydia Litvyak

Justin Taylan poses with host Valentina Vaschenko by a street sign named after Litvyak. She worked to get a street named after the heroine in Krasny Luch.

Lydia Litvyak

Statue of Lydia Litvyak in front of School No.1 in Krasny Luch. The 15 stars represent her victory claims. It was unveiled in September 1977.

Lydia Litvyak

The monument’s bust of Lydia Litvyak

After a long car ride, we came to a wide area of open fields. We parked the car on the side of the road and walked in. A small monument stood out in the middle of nowhere, indicating the spot where Litvyak supposedly crashed.

Justin and I walked around and surveyed the landscape. Justin has  investigated many WWII aircraft crash sites. Things just didn’t add up. Many questions raced through our minds. If she had parachuted, her plane would have crashed and left an impact crater, or at least a small depression. The area around the monument was not even slightly disturbed. We politely kept our thoughts to ourselves. So what was our conclusion? She didn’t crash at the monument site.

Lydia Litvyak

The monument at Litvyak’s purported crash site. Valentina Vashenko with red flowers on the left.

Lydia Litvyak

Another view of the simple marker.

Lydia Litvyak

Photo of Litvyak’s actual crash site courtesy of Gian Piero Milanetti.

Did Litvyak attempt a landing in her damaged plane while being pursued by enemy fighters? Or would she have bailed out in the clouds to give her pursuers the slip? That seems more logical. I’ve read accounts of WWII American and German pilots doing so.

Our next stop was the village of Dmitriyevka. We stopped at a large monument area. It was a nicely landscaped mass grave site. On a wall, there was a plaque dedicated to the memory of the Soviet heroine. But where was Litvyak’s grave? “She is buried there in a common grave with the others” was the answer. Strange. Really strange.

Lydia Litvyak

The mass grave site in Dmitriyevka where Litvyak’s remains are supposedly buried.

A local veterans group had petitioned the government to posthumously award Litvyak with the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. When she disappeared on her last combat mission, she became ineligible for this honor. This was Stalin’s policy. Those who were captured were considered traitors.

Upon repatriation, they were subjected to brutal NKVD interrogations; thousands were shot or sent to the gulags. Litvyak would have been treated no differently.

Many volunteers, young and old, combed the countryside for years, cataloging any and all aircraft crash sites. They were looking for the wreckage of Litvyak’s Yak fighter and her remains. The assumption was, she was shot down and killed; this was the wrong approach.

Lydia Litvyak

Wall of honor for those who perished in the region during the war.

By 1990, Litvyak’s award was a foregone conclusion. Many people worked hard for decades to make this happen. To deny this honor required an explanation, such as “the forensics can’t confirm her identity” or “according to her NKVD file, she was captured by the Germans.” Who in the Kremlin wanted to put President Gorbachev in such an untenable situation?

Finally, an official report was generated: Lydia Lityak crashed in the vicinity of  Dmitriyevka, the skeletal remains of a small person, presumably female, was found around an aircraft wreckage, and reburied as an unknown. Forensic testing concluded that it was… Litvyak! This expedient report paved the way for President Gorbachev to make Litvyak a national heroine.

Lydia Litvyak

A plaque dedicated to the heroine.

On 9 May 1990, the 45th Anniversary of the Victory over Germany celebration took place in Moscow. On this occasion, Litvyak and another female pilot, Yekaterina Zelenko, were posthumously awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. Zelenko was the first and only female to intentionally ram an enemy aircraft (killed 12 September 1941 in the incident).

During the Soviet era, very few people publicly challenged government statements. After the breakup, dissenting voices started to be heard. Withheld from the public: Litvyak had been captured, and she was heard on German radio in a propaganda broadcast. Her commanding officer, Col Aleksander Gridnev, was alerted by headquarters: “Pay attention! Lydia Litvyak is speaking on German radio!”

Dr. Kazimiera “Jean” Cottam is one of the leading specialists on Lydia Litvyak. Her research and credentials are impeccable and must be respected. She has spent decades researching the role of Soviet women in combat and aviation. She believes that Litvyak was captured, and her arguments are very convincing. Please read her online articles and forum comments; it will open your eyes.

Jean Cottam has been unfairly criticized by armchair historians for her position on Litvyak, and by those invested in the legend. She had discussions with people who had intimate knowledge of Litvyak, and she had access to certain information not available to us. Those who seek the truth will appreciate Dr. Cottam’s work.

Lydia Litvyak

Gian Piero Milanetti, the Italian forensic historian (left) whose quest for the truth shed more light on the Lydia Litvyak mystery.

Gian Piero Milanetti, is an Italian forensic historian, teacher of history, and author of prized songs about Litvyak and other Soviet airwomen. Intrigued  by the mystery, he travelled to Ukraine and visited the area of her last combat several times. Like a bulldog police detective, Gian started his search for the truth with an open mind; he had no idea where this would all lead. He interviewed the residents of Dmitriyevka as well as others, and combed through old Soviet and German war archives. He had discreet conversations as well with former NKVD agents. “There is more evidence!” Gian says. “The official report about Litvyak is absolutely questionable!”

Gian’s book, Soviet Airwomen of the Great Patriotic War (IBN Editore), is available on  He rewrote what actually happened on that fateful day of 1 August 1943 along the river Mius (besides revealing the names of the two German aces who could have claimed her as their victory). The many photographs guide the reader through his critical analysis.

The purported 1969 discovery of Litvyak’s aircraft wreckage and skeletal remains by three kids searching for a snake, is the official Soviet line. The report states that amongst the small set of bones, the children found a silk bra (!!), blonde hair, and a gold tooth! Gian Piero Milanetti was quick to disprove this. The subsequent testing of the remains was a farce. In typical Soviet fashion, the evidence was crafted to support the official finding, and people were expected to accept it without question.

As for the purported crash site which is marked by a monument, Justin’s conclusion proved correct. Litvyak’s plane actually fell to earth elsewhere, but the monument was placed in the field for convenience’s sake. Organized groups of school children frequently visited there. It had to be located where it was visible from the road!

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian people slowly rediscovered Lydia Litvyak, who enjoyed immense popularity in the West. She was beautiful, sexy, strong, and patriotic.

Gian Piero Milanetti had a conversation with one particular former NKVD agent during his research. Lydia Vladimirovna Litvyak did not die on 1 August 1943; she survived the war! And there was more.

Litvyak’s father was purged by Stalin in 1937 and executed. The ace pilot knew what her fate would be if she ever returned home. All of her accomplishments would have been nullified and she would have been treated like a traitor, just like her father. There is strong evidence that after she was liberated from a German POW camp, she fled west and eventually settled in Switzerland.

Efforts to locate Litvyak have failed. Her right to absolute privacy is guaranteed by the Swiss Federal Constitution and fiercely respected by society. Investigative reporters, Paparazzi, and historians would have as much luck in finding Litvyak as they would in identifying the owner of a secret Swiss bank account. If alive today, she would be 95 years old.

For More on Lydia Litvyak Check Out:

In the Sky Above the Front: A Collection of Memoirs of Soviet Airwomen Participants in the Great Patriotic War

Soviet Airwomen of the Great Patriotic War


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  • Bill Getz says:

    Fascinating story that will fill history pages with various theories of what really happened to this brave, young Russian fighter pilot. I doubt the truth will ever be known – although I know better than to use the word “never” – but deservedly the Russian ace has found her niche in history not matter what happened.

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