11 Women Warriors of World War II

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

There are more stories of heroism out of World War II than can ever fit in a school textbook, but hundreds of those stories are written down somewhere for those who want to find them. Over 100 million military personnel participated in the war, including many women. Here are the stories of eleven of these brave women. They are from many countries, and they all did their part and more for the Allied effort.

1. Nancy Wake: Guerrilla Fighter

Born in New Zealand and raised in Australia, Nancy Wake was a journalist in New York and London and then married a wealthy Frenchman and was living in Marseille when Germany invaded. Wake immediately went to work for the French resistance, hiding and smuggling men out of France and ferrying contraband supplies and falsified documents. She was once captured and interrogated for days, but gave no secrets away. With the Nazis in hot pursuit, Wake managed to escape to Britain in 1943, and joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a British intelligence agency. After training with weapons and parachutes, she was airdropped back into France—as an official spy and warrior. Wake had no trouble shooting Nazis or blowing up buildings with the French guerrilla fighters known as maquis in the service of the resistance. She once killed an SS sentry with her bare hands. After the war, Nancy Wake was awarded the George Medal from the British, the Medal of Freedom from the U.S., and the Médaille de la Résistance and three Croix de Guerre from France, among other honors. She also found out that her husband had died in 1943 when the Gestapo had tortured him to find out his wife's whereabouts. He refused any cooperation to the point of death.

Wake ran for political office a few times in Australia, and remarried in the 1950s. She published her biography, The White Mouse, in 1988. That was the Gestapo's nickname for her due to her talent for sneaking by them. Nancy Wake died August 7, 2011 at age 98.

2. Elsie Ott: Flight Nurse

Lieutenant Elsie S. Ott was the first woman to receive the U.S. Air Medal. Already a trained nurse, she joined the Army Air Corps in 1941 and was sent to Karachi, India. The Army Air Corps was considering using airplanes to evacuate injured military as they delivered fresh troops. Ott was assigned to the first evacuation flight with only 24 hours notice -and she had never flown before. The plane had no medical equipment beyond first aid kit supplies, the patients had a motley variety of injuries, diseases, and mental illnesses, and there was only one army medic to help her care for the passengers. The plane left India on January 17, 1943 and made several stops, picking up more patients, on its 6-day flight to Washington, D.C. The previous route for such a mission was by ship, and took three months. Ott wrote up a report on that flight, recommending important changes for further evacuation flights. She returned to India a few months later with a new unit, the 803rd Military Air Evacuation Squad, and was promoted to captain in 1946.

3. Natalia Peshkova: Combat Medic

Natalia Peshkova was drafted into the Russian Army straight out of high school at age 17. She was trained with weapons that didn't work and then sent off with a unit so woefully equipped that at one time a horse ate her felt boot as she slept, forcing her to make do with one boot for a month. Peshkova spent three years at the front, accompanying wounded soldiers from the front to hospitals and trying to fight disease and starvation among the troops. She was wounded three times. Once, when the Germans moved into an area the Soviets held, Peshkova was separated from her unit and had to disguise herself. However, she could not discard her weapon because she knew the Soviet Army would execute her for losing it! Yet she made it back to her unit undetected. As the war dragged on, Peshkova was promoted to Sergeant Major and given political education duties further from the front. After the war, she was awarded the Order of the Red Star for bravery.

4. Susan Travers: French Foreign Legionnaire

Englishwoman Susan Travers was a socialite living in France when the war broke out. She trained as a nurse for the French Red Cross and became an ambulance driver. When France fell to the Nazis, she escaped to London via Finland and joined the Free French Forces. In 1941, Travers was sent with the French Foreign Legion as a driver to Syria and then to North Africa. Assigned to drive Colonel Marie-Pierre Koenig, she fell in love with him. In Libya, her unit was besieged by Rommel's Afrika Corps, but Travers refused to be evacuated with the other female personnel. After hiding for 15 days in sand pits, the unit decided to make a break at night. The enemy noticed the escaping convoy when a land mine went off. Driving the lead vehicle with Koenig, Travers took off at breakneck speed under machine gun fire and broke through the enemy lines, leading 2,500 troops to the safety of an Allied encampment hours later. Her car was full of bullet holes. Travers was promoted to General, and served in Italy, Germany, and France during the remainder of the war. She was wounded once during that period driving over a land mine.

After the war, Travers applied to become a an official member of the French Foreign Legion. She did not specify her sex on the application, and it was accepted -rubber-stamped by an officer who knew and admired her. Travers was the only woman ever to serve with the Legion as an official member, and was posted to Vietnam during the First Indo-China War. Some of her awards were the Légion d'honneur, Croix de Guerre and Médaille Militaire. Travers waited until the year 2000, when she was 91 years old, to publish her autobiography Tomorrow to Be Brave: A Memoir of the Only Woman Ever to Serve in the French Foreign Legion. By then, both her husband (whom she met after World War II) and Colonel Koenig (who was a married man during the war) had passed away.

5. Reba Whittle: POW Nurse

Lt. Reba Whittle was the only U.S. female soldier to be imprisoned as a POW in the European theater of war. Whittle was a flight nurse with the 813th Medical Air Evacuation Squadron, and had logged over 500 hours. On a flight from England to France to pick up casualties in September of 1944, her plane went off course and was shot down over Aachen, Germany. The few survivors were taken prisoner. The Germans did not know what to do with Whittle, as she was their first female military POW -at least on the Western Front. In the East, many female Russian soldiers were interned as POWs and used for forced labor. Whittle, who was initially rejected by the Army Air Corps in 1941 for being underweight, was allowed to minister to the wounded in camp. A Swiss legation that negotiated POW transfers, mostly of wounded prisoners, discovered her in custody and began to arrange her release. Whittle was escorted by the German Red Cross away from the camp along with 109 male POWS on January 25th, 1945.

Whittle's status as a POW was undocumented by the U.S. military. She was awarded the Air Medal and a Purple Heart, and promoted to lieutenant, but was denied disability or POW retirement benefits. Her injuries kept her from flying, so she worked in an Army hospital in California until she left the service in 1946. Whittle applied for, and was denied, POW status and back pay for ten years. She finally accepted a cash settlement in 1955. While nurses who were imprisoned in Asia had received hero's receptions upon their release, Whittle's story was kept quiet by the Army and barely noticed by the media in the celebrations of the war's end. Whittle died of breast cancer in 1981. Her POW status was officially conferred by the military in 1983.

6. Eileen Nearne: British Spy

Eileen Nearne joined the Special Operations Executive in Britain as a radio operator. Two of her siblings also served the SOE. Only 23 years old, Nearne was dropped by parachute into occupied France to relay messages from the French resistance and to arrange weapons drops. She talked her way out of trouble several times, but was eventually arrested by the Nazis, tortured, and sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp. Yet Nearne stuck to her cover story. She was transferred to a labor camp and escaped during yet another transfer. Once again, Nearne talked her way out of trouble when confronted by the Gestapo and hid in a church until the area was liberated by the Americans.

After the war, Nearne was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French and was made a a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) by King George VI. She suffered some psychological problems and lived a quiet life with her sister Jacqueline (also a British spy during the war) until Jacqueline's death in 1982. When Eileen Nearne died in 2010, her body was not discovered for several days, and her wartime exploits were only revealed after a search of her apartment uncovered her war medals. Nearne was then given a hero's funeral.

7. Ruby Bradley: POW Nurse

Colonel Ruby Bradley was a career Army nurse well before the war began. She was a hospital administrator on Luzon Island in the Philippines when the U.S. was attacked at Pearl Harbor. Bradley hid in the hills with a doctor and another nurse when the Japanese overran the island. Turned over by locals, they were taken back to their former base, which had been turned into a prison camp. They once again went to work aiding the sick and injured, though with fewer supplies and hardly any equipment. Bradley spent over three years as a POW, performing surgery, delivering babies, smuggling supplies, and comforting the dying in the camps. When she was finally liberated by U.S. troops in 1945, she weighed a mere 84 pounds, down from her normal 110 pounds. You can read Bradley's own account of her imprisonment.

But wait -there's more! After the war, Bradley stayed with the Army and earned her bachelor's degree. In 1950 she went to Korea as the 8th Army's chief nurse, working at the front lines. During one medical evacuation just ahead of the enemy, she loaded all the wounded soldiers and was the last person to jump aboard the plane, just as her ambulance exploded from the shelling. Bradley remained in Korea through the entire conflict. Bradley's 34 medals and citations included two Legions of Merit and two Bronze Stars from the Army, which also promoted her to Colonel. She was also awarded the International Red Cross' highest honor, the Florence Nightingale Medal. Bradley retired from the Army in 1963, but continued to work as a supervising nurse in West Virginia for 17 years. When she died in 2002 (at age 94), she was buried with honors at Arlington Cemetery.

8. Krystyna Skarbek: Polish Spy

Krystyna Skarbek (later Christine Granville) was the daughter of a Polish Count and the granddaughter of a wealthy Jewish banker. Skarbek's second husband was a diplomat, and they were together in Ethiopia when World War II broke out. Skarbek signed up with Britain's Section D to return to Poland through Hungary and facilitate communications with the Allies. Impressed with the "flaming Polish patriot," the British intelligence service accepted her plan. Beginning in 1939, Skarbek worked to organize Polish resistance groups and smuggle Polish pilots out of the occupied nation. She was arrested by the Gestapo in 1941, but faked a case of TB by biting her tongue until it bled. They let her go after hours of interrogation. Skarbek and her partner Andrzej Kowerski went to the British embassy and received new identities as Christine Granville and Andrew Kennedy. They were smuggled out of Poland through Yugoslavia to Turkey, where they were welcomed by the British.

In Cairo in 1944, Granville and Kennedy founded themselves persona non grata because the Polish group they had been working with, the Musketeers, had been compromised by German spies. Granville could not be sent back to Poland, and instead trained as a radio operator and paratrooper. After D-Day she was dropped into France, but her assigned resistance area was overrun with Germans, so she escaped, hiking 70 miles to safety. She then worked in the Alps to turn Axis fighters. Granville's success rate was almost supernatural and she took extraordinary risks to pull off further capers. The most famous was when she outed herself as a spy to French officials working for the Gestapo, and arranged a prisoner release by threats and promises of money. Granville and the prisoners made it out alive, which secured her reputation as a legendary spy.

After the war, Granville was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the George Medal, and was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE). However, Granville was at loose ends without the adrenaline rush of her wartime exploits. She did not return to Poland, as it was under Russian authority, but lived in Britain, Africa, and then Australia. Granville was murdered in 1952 by Dennis Muldowney, a stalker who had become obsessed with her. There was a rumor that Granville carried on a one-year affair with Ian Fleming, but there is no evidence to support it. However, she is considered to be the inspiration for at least two of his Bond girls.

9. Lyudmila Pavlichenko: Russian Sniper

Unlike many of the young girl snipers of the Soviet Army, Lyudmila Pavlichenko was an accomplished sharpshooter before joining the military. She was older than the others as well, and was in her fourth year of study at Kiev University when war broke out. The Russian Army sent around 2,000 trained female snipers to the front during the war; only around 500 survived. Pavlichenko had by far the greatest war record of them all, with 309 confirmed kills, including 36 enemy snipers. And that was accomplished by 1942! Pavlichenko was wounded by a mortar and pulled from the front. Because of her record, she was sent on a public relations tour to Canada and the United States to drum up support for the war effort and make an impression on the Allies. She was never sent back to the front, but served during the remainder of the war as a sniper trainer. Pavlichenko earned the title Hero of the Soviet Union. After the war, she completed her university degree and became a historian and served on the the Soviet Committee of the Veterans of War.

10. Aleda Lutz: Flight Nurse

1st Lt. Aleda E. Lutz volunteered with the unit inaugurated by Elsie Ott (see #2), the 803rd Military Air Evacuation Squad, designed to carry wounded soldiers quickly away from the war front. Lutz flew 196 missions to evacuate more than 3,500 men. No other flight nurse logged as many hours as Lutz. She would have stretched that record of 814 hours out further, but in December of 1944, her C47 hospital plane picked up wounded soldiers from Lyon, Italy, and then crashed. There were no survivors. Lutz was the first woman ever awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, conferred posthumously. This was in addition to the Air Medal (earned four times), the Oak Leaf Cluster, the Red Cross Medal, and the Purple Heart. In 1990, the Veterans Administration Hospital in Saginaw, Michigan was named in her honor.

11. Noor Inayat Khan: Spy Princess

Princess Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan had a particularly distinguished background. Her father was Indian Sufi master and musician Inayat Khan; her mother was American Ora Ray Baker, the niece of Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy, and her paternal great-great-grandfather was the ruler of Kingdom of Mysore. Noor was born in Russia; her younger siblings were born in England. She held a British passport, but lived in France when Germany invaded. The family was able to escape to England ahead of the Germans, and Noor Khan joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). The British intelligence agency SOE took her as a wireless operator and sent her to France in June of 1943. There, she transmitted information out of France by Morse code. She refused to quit, even as other radio operators were arrested. Khan was arrested in October by the German intelligence agency (SD) and fought them so fiercely that she was classified as "an extremely dangerous prisoner." A month of interrogation yielded no information about Khan's SOE activities, and she even sent a coded message about her compromised position (which the SOE ignored). However, the Germans found her notebooks, which gave them enough information to send false messages and lure more British spies to France and arrest. In November, Khan escaped briefly, but was caught and then kept in shackles for ten months. In September of 1944, Khan was transferred to Dachau, where she was immediately executed along with three other female SOE agents.

Khan was posthumously awarded the British George Cross, the French Croix de Guerre with Gold Star, and was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE). The strange part of her story was that Khan was a Sufi Muslim pacifist of Indian origin. She opposed the British rule of India, and if it weren't for the Nazi invasion of Europe, might had fought against the British instead of for them.

Sequoyah: The Man Who Saved the Cherokee Language

Henry Inman, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
Henry Inman, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Sequoyah was fascinated by books and letters, enchanted by the way people could divine meaning from ink-stained scribbles on a written page. Born in the 1760s in what is now Tennessee and trained as a silversmith and blacksmith, the Cherokee man never learned how to read or write in English, but he always knew that literacy and power were intertwined.

During most of Sequoyah's lifetime, the Cherokee language was entirely oral. According to the Manataka American Indian Council, a written language may have existed centuries earlier, but the script was supposedly lost as the tribe journeyed east across the continent. Sometime around 1809, Sequoyah began working on a new system to put the Cherokee language back on the page. He believed that, by inventing an alphabet, the Cherokee could share and save the stories that made their way of life unique.

At first, some Cherokee disliked Sequoyah’s idea. White people were encroaching further on their land and culture, and they were resistant to anything that resembled assimilation. Some skeptics saw Sequoyah’s attempts to create a written language as just another example of the tribe becoming more like the oncoming white settlers—in other words, another example of the tribe losing a grip on its culture and autonomy.

Sequoyah, however, saw it differently: Rather than destroy his culture, he saw the written word as a way to save it. According to Britannica, he became convinced that the secret of white people's growing power was directly tied to their use of written language, which he believed was far more effective than collective memories or word-of-mouth. In the words of Sequoyah, "The white man is no magician." If they could do it, so could he.

Sequoyah became further convinced of this in 1813, after he helped the U.S Army fight the Creek War in Georgia. For months, he watched soldiers send letters to their families and saw war officers deliver important commands in written form. He found the capability to communicate across space and time profoundly important.

Sequoyah's first attempt to develop a written language, however, was relatively crude by comparison. He tried to invent a logographic system, designing a unique character for every word, but quickly realized he was creating too much unnecessary work for himself. (According to historian April Summit's book, Sequoyah and the Invention of the Cherokee Alphabet, his wife may have attempted to burn an early version of his alphabet, calling it witchcraft.) So Sequoyah started anew, this time constructing his language from letters he found in the Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic alphabets, as well as with some Arabic numerals.

Sequoyah became more reclusive and obsessive, spending hour upon hour working on his alphabet. According to the official website of the Cherokee Nation, people outside his family began whispering that he was meddling with sorcery. By 1821, Sequoyah was too busy to pay the gossip any mind: He was teaching his six-year-old daughter, Ayokeh, how to use the system.

As one story goes, Sequoyah was eventually charged with witchcraft and brought to trial before a town chief, who tested Sequoyah’s claims by separating him and his daughter and asking them to communicate through their so-called writing system. By the trial’s end, everybody involved was convinced that Sequoyah was telling the truth—the symbols truly were a distillation of Cherokee speech. Rather than punish Sequoyah, the officials asked him a question: Can you teach us how to read?

Once accepted by the Cherokee, Sequoyah’s 86 character alphabet—which is technically called a syllabary—was widely studied. Within just a few years, thousands of people would learn how to read and write, with many Cherokee communities becoming more literate than the surrounding white populations. It wasn’t long before the Cherokee language began appearing in books and newspapers: First published in 1828, The Cherokee Phoenix was the first Native American newspaper printed in the United States.

Sam Houston, the eventual governor of Texas, admired Sequoyah's achievement and reportedly told him, “Your invention of the alphabet is worth more to your people than two bags full of gold in the hands of every Cherokee." Today, while the Cherokee language is now considered endangered by UNESCO, Sequoyah's system remains a landmark innovation—and a source of hope for the future.

You can visit Sequoyah’s one-room log cabin, which still stands in Sallisaw, Oklahoma. Not only listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it has also been designated a Literary Landmark.

Newly Uncovered Galileo Letter Details How He Tried to Avoid the Inquisition

Galileo Before The Papal Tribunal by Robert Henry. Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Galileo Before The Papal Tribunal by Robert Henry. Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Galileo Galilei was one of the Roman Catholic Inquisition’s most famous targets. As a result of his outspoken support for the theory that all the planets, Earth included, revolve around the Sun, the Catholic Church charged him with heresy and he spent the last years of his life under house arrest. Galileo was well aware that he was on the Church’s hit list, and a newly discovered letter shows that at one point, he tried to tone down his ideas to avoid persecution, according to Nature and Ars Technica.

The letter in question, written in 1613, solves a long-held mystery for Galileo scholars. It was found in the library of the Royal Society, where it has been for at least 250 years.

Galileo’s beef with the Catholic Church came about because of his support for heliocentrism—the idea that the solar system centers around the Sun—as advocated in Nicolaus Copernicus’s book De Revolutionibus. Galileo’s scientific writings clearly endorsed Copernicus’s theory of the world, including in personal correspondence that was widely disseminated, and in some cases, he directly questioned the scientific merit of Biblical passages.

In 1613, Galileo wrote to a friend and former student named Benedetto Castelli who was then teaching mathematics at the University of Pisa. The letter was a long treatise on Galileo’s thoughts on Copernicus’s ideas and religion, arguing that science and astronomy should not be overpowered by religious doctrin . (He would later expand this into his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina.) As with many of Galileo’s writings at the time, the letter was copied and disseminated widely, and eventually, a friar named Niccolò Lorini forwarded it to the Inquisition in Rome in 1615.

This is where things get tricky. Galileo claimed that the version of the letter Lorini sent was doctored to be more inflammatory. He sent a less controversial version of the letter to a friend, saying that it was the original document and should be forwarded to the Vatican, essentially to clear his name. But scholars have never been able to be totally sure if he was telling the truth about the letter being doctored.

This newly discovered letter suggests that he was lying, and that he himself was looking to tone down his rhetoric to appease the Catholic Church and keep authorities from quashing the spread of heliocentric ideas. The original copy found in the Royal Society archives shows changes to the wording in what appears to be Galileo’s handwriting. The seven-page letter, signed “G.G.,” includes changes like swapping the word “false” for the more slippery “look different from the truth,” changing “concealing” to “veiling,” and other edits that seek to tone down the rhetoric that inflamed Church leaders. The wording and handwriting corresponds to similar writing by Galileo at the time. Based on this finding, it seems that Galileo did seek to make his ideas more palatable to the Catholic Church in the hopes of escaping persecution by the Inquisition.

Discovered on a research trip by science historian Salvatore Ricciardo of Italy's University of Bergamo, the letter may have been overlooked in the Royal Society archives because it was cataloged as being dated October 21, 1613 rather than the date it actually bears, December 21, 1613. However, it’s unclear how it came to the Royal Society in the first place. The document is the subject of a forthcoming article by Ricciardo and his colleagues in the Royal Society journal Notes and Records, according to Nature.

The minor changes Galileo made did not successfully hold off the Church’s crackdown on heliocentrism. In 1616, the Inquisition ordered Galileo to stop teaching or defending the theory, and several of his books were subsequently banned. He would stand trial again almost two decades later, in 1633, on suspicion of holding heretical thoughts. He was found guilty and sentenced to house arrest, where he remained until his death in 1642.

[h/t Ars Technica]

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