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11 Women Warriors of World War II

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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. You can read an expanded version of her story, plus the diary she kept during her captivity, in this document.

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.

Also see the followup to this article: 8 Female Fighters of World War II

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6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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WWI Centennial: Battle of Mărăști

By summer 1917 the outlook for the Allies on the Eastern Front was grim at best, as Russia descended into chaos and a combined Austro-German counterattack routed demoralized troops on the Galician front following the failure of the Kerensky Offensive, while everywhere the once-great Russian Army was rapidly hollowed by mutiny and mass desertions.

Against this gloomy backdrop, late July brought a rare and unexpected bright spot on the Romanian front, where the Romanian Second Army (rested, reorganized and resupplied after the disaster of 1916) mounted a surprise offensive along with the Russian Fourth and Ninth Armies against the junction of the German Ninth Army and Austro-Hungarian First Army, and scored an impressive tactical victory at the Battle of Mărăști, from July 22 to August 1, 1917. However the larger planned offensive failed to materialize, and Romania’s isolated success couldn’t shore up the crumbling Eastern Front amid Russia’s collapse.

Map of Europe July 22 1917
Erik Sass

The Allied success at Mărăști was due to a number of factors, most notably the careful artillery preparation, which saw two days of heavy bombardment of Austro-German positions beginning on July 22, guided by aerial spotters. The Austro-German forces were also deployed on hilly terrain in the foothills of the Vrancea Mountains, meaning their trenches were discontinuous, separated in many places by rough terrain, although they tried to compensate for this with heavily fortified strongholds. Pockets of forest and sheltered gorges also allowed the Romanians to advance in between the zigzagging enemy trenches undetected; on the other hand, the hills and tree cover also made it difficult to move up artillery once the advance began (a task made even more difficult by torrential rain, the familiar companion of the First World War). 

After two days of fierce, concentrated bombardment, on July 24 at 4 a.m. the Romanians and Russian infantry went over the top, with the Romanians advancing along a 30-kilometer-long stretch of front behind a “creeping barrage” of the type recently adopted by the French and British on the Western Front. With three divisions from the Russian Fourth Army supporting them on the southern flank, 56 Romanian battalions advanced up to 19 kilometers in some places – a major breakthrough by the standards of trench warfare. Engineers followed close behind to create roads bypassing the most inaccessible terrain, but unsurprisingly it still proved difficult to move heavy guns as the new roads quickly turned to mud in the rain.

On July 25 the Romanians began to consolidate their gains, spelling the end of major offensive operations during the battle, although smaller actions continued until August 1. The decision was prompted by events elsewhere on the Eastern Front (above, Romanian civilians look at enemy guns captured during the battle). The Battle of Mărăști was supposed to be part of a larger pincer movement by Romanian and Russian forces, including an attack by the Romanian First Army and Russian Sixth Army to the southeast, which were supposed to outflank the German Ninth Army from the southeast. However the disastrous defeat of Russian forces further north in Galicia and Bukovina, widespread insubordination in the Russian Army, and political turmoil in the Russian rear all combined to derail the Allied plan, forcing them to go on the defensive.

The victory at Mărăști was not fruitless: along with an even bigger defensive victory atMărășești two weeks later, Mărăști seriously complicated the Central Powers’ strategy for the remainder of the year, which called for knocking Romania and Russia out of the war before returning to the Western Front to finish off France. 

But the big picture was bad and getting worse, as hundreds of thousands of Russian troops deserted or refused to fight, effectively paralyzing the Allied war effort along most of the Eastern Front, while in Galicia the Austro-German advance continued. Florence Farmborough, a British nurse serving with a Red Cross unit in the Russian Army, described a typical day during the Russian retreat in her diary entry on July 25, 1917 (and noted the growing hostility of ordinary Russian soldiers towards the foreign nurses, representatives of the Western Allies, whom the Russians accused of leaving them in the lurch):

And then there came again that peremptory voice we dreaded. It roused us as no other could ever do, for it was the voice of Retreat. ‘Wake up! Get up at once! No time to lose!’ We started up, seized what we could and helped the orderlies collect the equipment. We were told it was a proruiv [breakthrough] on the right flank of our Front and that the enemy was pouring through the gap. The Sister-on-duty began to weep… Troops were passing quickly by in the darkness; whole regiments were there. We were given a lantern and told to stand by the gate and await transport. Some soldiers entered the yard swearing; we hoped they would not see us. But they did, and soon they were shouting ugly things about us. I too felt like weeping, but we had to keep a straight face and pretend that we had not heard… The soldiers who had always been our patient, grateful men, seemed to have turned against us. Now for the first time we realised that our soldiers might become our enemies and were capable of doing us harm.

This was not an isolated occurrence, but rather one small incident in a rising tide of insubordination and sheer chaos. Later Farmborough noted another encounter:

More soldiers went by in the darkness. There were no officers with them, they too were deserters. Curing and shouting they made their way along the highroad. We were frightened and crouched low against the fence so that they could not see us, and we dared not speak lest they should hear… The night was very dark and the confusion great. Wheels creaked and scrunched; frightened horses slid forwards by leaps and bounds; cart grated against cart; whips twanged and swished; and agitated voices shouted and cursed in one and the same breath... All around us were fires; even in front of us buildings were blazing. My driver said that some of the soldiers thought that they were already surrounded by the enemy.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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