They were nurses, soldiers, code breakers, factory workers, resistance fighters, prisoners of war, victims. We must remember this on Remembrance Day.
Women have been warriors throughout history. During the Civil War, they took male pseudonyms, wore men’s uniforms, and fought on both sides. Harriet Tubman was then a spy and the first woman to lead a battalion in combat.
Marge Piercy’s 1980 novel “Gone to Soldiers” revealed many tasks undertaken by women during World War II. Some planes transported for the Air Force. Others, symbolized by Rosie the Riveter, worked in factories producing war goods. Women served as intelligence officers in Europe, and others were social workers helping returning soldiers and their families.
Nearly 800 women were sent to European warehouses to sort mail addressed to the US military. Major Fannie Griffin McClendon, who joined the WWII Army’s only all-black female battalion, the Six Triple Eights, was one of them, helping to boost military morale. She was honored at the Library of Congress in 2019 at the age of 99 when she was featured in the documentary “The Six Triple Eight”.
Many French women, courageous resistance fighters, were sent to concentration camps if they were arrested. One, a young musician, played her violin outside a Nazi camp to appease captured friends. Some were couriers or brought food to hidden Jews. Others blew up German trains and troops.
In her book “Code Girls”, Liza Mundy tells the story of American women cryptographers who broke difficult communication systems. More than 10,000 women have been selected for this work. After Pearl Harbor, the military built its intelligence operation by bringing female college math and science graduates to Washington, DC, for training. They then broke the codes of merchant ships in the Pacific supplying Japanese troops so the navy could sink them, and they gave the Germans false information about where the Allied landing would take place on D-Day.
Minnie Vautrin was an American missionary to China during the infamous Nanjing Rape in 1937, when around 80,000 women were brutally raped by Japanese soldiers. Minnie saved hundreds of girls and women from the bayonets of the college she led. After helping women find their husbands and sons after the war ended, she returned home, where she committed suicide in 1941.
The so-called “comfort women,” most of whom were Korean women and girls, were taken as sex slaves by the Japanese. Horror was the first use of what we now recognize as a war crime, and it affected 200,000 women and girls.
In Europe, as Hitler’s “Final Solution” gained momentum, there were many women who deserved to be remembered. Among them was Etty Hillesum, often referred to as the mature Anne Frank. Like Anne, she was born in Holland, Jewish and columnist. She went to Auschwitz because she had volunteered to accompany the Jews arrested in 1943. She threw away a postcard from the train that read: “We left the [holding] camp song. She died three months later at age 27.
Back in Asia, the Japanese invasions accelerated as people struggled to survive. Among them, Helen Colijn, author of “Song of Survival: Women Interned”, which became the movie “Paradise Road”. She and other European women trying to return home became prisoners of war in Sumatra. Most of the women died before release, including Margaret Dryburgh, who formed the prison choir that kept morale high despite starvation, disease and brutality.
Another group of extraordinary prisoners in the Pacific consisted of 99 nurses from the army and navy, later known as the “Angels of Bataan and Corregidor”. They were the first unit of American women sent into combat and the only group of American women imprisoned by an enemy. They had helped build and staff hospitals and pioneered triage nursing in a sweltering jungle. At the end of their three-year incarceration, they survived by eating weeds cooked in cold cream. Their story is told in “We Band of Angels”. Unfortunately, they were not fully recognized by the military until 1986.
Nurses in Vietnam were another “bunch of angels”. Not all of the volunteers, too, were fully recognized when they returned home. One of them, Lily Jean Adams, was 22 when she volunteered. An intensive care nurse, she remembered comforting dying soldiers. “They were saying ‘don’t leave me’, and I wouldn’t. I felt it was just as important as taking care of the living.
The women of the Siberian gulags also struggled to survive as political prisoners during the Soviet Stalinist era after WWII. Some were sentenced to 25 years in unbearable conditions. Their stories are told in the book “Dressed for Dance in the Snow”.
Equally courageous and important were women war journalists. Vera Brittain, Nellie Bly, Margaret Bourke-White and Martha Gellhorn were among them. They wrote about the trauma of war, especially for women and children, rather than tactical issues and political differences, as male journalists did. These were stories of ordinary civilians desperate to survive.
Today, women make up about 20% of the US military. They are more and more graduates of our military academies. As Frank Moore wrote in 1866, “The history of war will never be fully written or understood if the achievements and contributions of women are not recognized.
How right he was.