They were nurses, soldiers, codebreakers, factory workers, resistance fighters, POWs, victims. We should remember them on Memorial Day.
Women have been warriors throughout history. During the Civil War, they assumed male aliases, wore men’s uniforms and charged into battle on both sides. Harriet Tubman was a spy then and the first woman to lead a battalion into battle.
Marge Piercy’s 1980 novel “Gone to Soldiers” revealed many tasks undertaken by women during World War II. Some ferried planes 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 U.S. servicemen. Major Fannie Griffin McClendon, who joined the Army’s only all-Black, female WWII battalion, the Six Triple Eight, was one of them, helping to boost morale among service members. 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 caught. One, a young musician, played her violin outside a Nazi camp to sooth captured friends. Some were couriers or took food to Jews in hiding. Others blew up German trains and troops.
In her book “Code Girls,” Liza Mundy tells the story of America’s women cryptographers who cracked difficult communication systems. More than 10,000 women were selected for this work. After Pearl Harbor, the military built its intelligence operation by bringing women college graduates in math and science to Washington, D.C., for training. They went on to break codes from merchant ships in the Pacific supplying Japanese troops so the Navy could sink them, and they gave Germans false information about where the Allied landing on D-Day would happen.
Minnie Vautrin was an American missionary in China during the infamous 1937 Rape of Nanking, when an estimated 80,000 women were brutally violated by Japanese soldiers. Minnie saved hundreds of girls and women, facing down bayonets at the college she headed. After helping women find their husbands and sons at the war’s end, she returned home, where she committed suicide in 1941.
So called “comfort women,” most of whom were Korean women and girls, were taken as sexual slaves by the Japanese. The horror was an early use of what we now acknowledge 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 deserve to be memorialized. Among them was Etty Hillesum, often called the mature Anne Frank. Like Anne, she was born in Holland, a Jew and a diarist. She went to Auschwitz because she volunteered to accompany arrested Jews in 1943. She threw a postcard from the train that read “We left the [holding] camp singing.” She died three months later at age 27.
Back in Asia, Japanese invasions accelerated as people struggled to survive. Among them was Helen Colijn, author of “Song of Survival: Women Interned,” which became the film “Paradise Road.” She and other European women trying to get home became prisoners of war on Sumatra. Most of the women died before liberation, including Margaret Dryburgh, who formed the prison choir that kept morale up despite starvation, disease and brutality.
Another group of amazing women prisoners in the Pacific were 99 Army and Navy nurses later known as “the angels of Bataan and Corregidor.” They were the first unit of American women sent into battle and the only group of American women imprisoned by an enemy. They’d helped build and staff hospitals and pioneer triage nursing in a stifling 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.” Sadly, they were not fully recognized by the military until 1986.
The nurses in Vietnam were another “band of angels.” All volunteers, they too were not fully recognized when they came home. One of them, Lily Jean Adams, was 22 when she volunteered. An ICU nurse, she remembered comforting dying soldiers. “They would say ‘don’t leave me,’ and I wouldn’t. I sensed it was just as important as taking care of the living.”
Women in the Gulags of Siberia also struggled to survive as political prisoners during the Soviet Stalinist era post-WWII. Some received 25-year sentences in unbearable conditions. Their stories are told in the book “Dressed for the Dance in the Snow.”
Women war journalists have been equally brave and important. 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 questions and policy disputes, as male journalists did. Theirs were stories of ordinary civilians desperate to survive.
Today, women compose about 20 percent of America’s military. They are graduating in increasing numbers from our military academies. As Frank Moore wrote in 1866, “The story of war will never be fully written or understood if the achievements and contributions of women are unrecognized.”
How right he was.