"The Vietnam War was hardly an all-male event. There were women participating on all sides of this war. Kathryn Atwood has collected the personal stories of a good sample of the women involved and her book is well worth reading for a look at the untold stories of the war."
--Joseph L. Galloway, co-author:
We Were Soldiers Once...And Young
We Are Soldiers Still
Triumph Without Victory: A History of the Persian Gulf War
"It is with a heart full of gratitude that I offer my thanks to Kathryn Atwood for bringing to light these women’s stories from the Vietnam War in her book Courageous Women of the Vietnam War: Medics, Journalists, Survivors, and More (Women of Action). Remembering their courage and resilience in the face of war remains of utmost importance."
--Kim Phuc Phan Thi, author of Fire Road: The Napalm Girl's Journey Through the Horrors of War to Faith, Forgiveness, and Peace
Advance praise for my latest book, Courageous Women of the Vietnam War:
"A moving tribute to the brave and often unacknowledged contribution of women during the Vietnam War, from nurses to surgeons, guerilla fighters to peace activists, journalists to survivors. Atwood honors heroines from all sides of the conflict, highlighting the common courage and humanity of the the women who struggled for survival and compassion in the midst of war. Courageous Women of the Vietnam War is an inspiration!"
--Kate Quinn, award-winning author of The Alice Network
“Kathryn J. Atwood's study of women in the Vietnam War is a welcome addition to the oral history of that fascinating and often tragic era. Atwood provides ample contextualization for younger and general readers while offering new, multiple perspectives on the complicated role of women in war for historians to ponder.”
-Frank Kusch, author of All American Boys: Draft Dodgers in Canada from the Vietnam War and Battleground Chicago: The Police and the 1968 Democratic National Convention
Wonder Woman is a stunning film. And apart from the first Captain America, its plot was one of the few in the super hero genre that I could actually follow, perhaps because the story line wasn’t convoluted and perhaps because I was already familiar with many aspects of the film’s setting. I was enormously impressed by how many things the film got right about that setting including one element of World War I of which we Americans seem to know little: the German occupation of Belgium.
The film might have been just as successful had it focused solely on military elements, had Diana, Princess of Themyscira, charged through no-man’s-land merely to defeat the enemy at hand. But she deflected German bullets during that spectacular scene for a very specific reason: she was determined to rescue oppressed Belgian civilians. For despite her stunning good looks, what made Diana truly beautiful was her empathy: her heart for the downtrodden, the wounded, the helpless. While her strength and indestructible weapons gave her super-human abilities, her heart put me in mind of two real women who also took it upon themselves to help Belgian civilians during World War I.
When the war was just months old, famed American mystery author Mary Roberts Rinehart sailed to England before visiting the tiny sliver of unoccupied Belgium. Although her initial motive had been to seek out adventure, what Mary witnessed during her hospital tours immediately transformed her into an empathetic chronicler of the war’s devastating effects on the Belgians:
Never in all that time did I overcome the sense of unreality, and always I was obsessed with the injustice, the wanton waste and injustice of it all. The baby at La Panne—why should it go through life on stumps instead of legs? The boyish officer—why should he have died? The little 16 year-old soldier…why should he never see again? Why? Why? (1)
Mary also visited the Belgian army’s front-line trenches where at one point she was close enough to the German line to distinguish individual sand bags. But what she considered the tour-de-force of her trip was an hour-long interview of King Albert who Mary described as “a very big…blond young man, very patient, very worn.” (2) She initiated the visit because she wanted to confirm the rumored reports of German atrocities against Belgian civilians during the invasion and occupation.
"It would be unfair," he said, "to condemn the whole Germany army. Some regiments have been most humane, but others have behaved very badly…" Then the king confirmed a story that Mary had heard regarding the Germans using Belgian civilians as human shields as they advanced. “It is quite true,” said the king, when Mary asked him about it. “When the Belgian soldiers fired on the enemy they killed their own people. Again and again innocent civilians of both sexes were sacrificed to protect the invading army during attacks.” (3)
Mary turned the interview into a report and her notes into a book called Kings, Queens and Pawns: An American Woman at the Front, hoping that her pen and fame might save the Belgian people by way of budging American neutrality. It did nothing of the sort; the United States wouldn’t enter the war until 1917 and for very different reasons.
But Mary, like Diana, was an empathetic outsider. Gabriel Petit, on the other hand, was a Belgian. Born into a broken, blighted home, Gabriel was on her own at the age of 15 and at 20 survived a suicide attempt. However, just before the German invasion in August, 1914, her life was starting an upward turn; she was taken under the kind wings of an elderly couple in Brussels and became engaged to a Belgian soldier.
When the war began, Gabriel’s surrogate father died and her fiancé was wounded. All her hard-won happiness threatened, Gabriel took action: she immediately joined the Red Cross and collected funds for the Belgian Army, both door to door and in public places, writing to her fiancé: “Considering I have a lot of nerve, I do a very good business.” (4)
But when Brussels was overcome and occupied, Gabriel left Belgium to find her fiancé who had escaped to France with his regiment. During this trip, Gabrielle discovered a vocation far more powerful than fundraising: she was recruited by a British Intelligence officer. After two weeks training in London, she returned to Belgium as a spy.
It was while working for the British--taking note of German troop movements and bridge widths, distributing underground newspapers to boost morale, and helping her fellow Belgians escape--that the passionate young woman discovered her true love:
My country! I did not think enough of it, I almost ignored it. I did not see that I loved her. But since they torment her, the monsters, I see her everywhere. I breathe her in the streets of the city, in the shadow of our palace…she lives in me, I live in her. I will die for her singing. (5)
Although Gabriel didn’t die singing, legend does have her shouting: after six months of successful espionage work against the Germans, she was caught, tried, and executed by German firing squad. Her defiant behavior during the final weeks of her life became a unifying national symbol for a devastated and divided post-war Belgium (and a symbol of resistance for that nation when it was once again occupied by the Germans during the Second World War.)
Unlike Wonder Woman, Mary Roberts Rinehart and Gabriel Petit did not possess indestructible weapons and super-human strength. But like the inspiring heroine of the recent film, they both had great hearts and courageous compassion which propelled them to do everything in their power to make a difference in the lives of the oppressed Belgian civilians of World War I.
1. Kings, Queens and Pawns: An American Woman at the Front, 49.
2. Women Heroes of World War I: 16 Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies, and Medics, 193.
3. Women Heroes of World War I: 16 Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies, and Medics, 193.
4. Women Heroes of World War I: 16 Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies, and Medics, 55.
5. Women Heroes of World War I: 16 Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies, and Medics, 58.
“Heroism is endurance for one moment more.”
--George F. Kennan
Back in 2010, I told an acquaintance that I had just finished a Word War II collective biography, due out the following year. She immediately began enthusing about a WWII book she’d been reading and asked if I'd also read it. I hadn’t and the way she described it—a WWII flyboy who becomes lost at sea before being nearly tortured to death in a Japanese POW camp—didn’t particularly pique my interest.
My personal images and interest in WWII—as well as the book I was working on--all focused on the European conflict. My Army Air Corps dad and his three brothers had all flown in the European Theater and while I was in high school The Hiding Place: The Triumphant True Story of Corrie Ten Boom had come to theaters. So the two basic images implanted in my mind regarding WWII—tall, dashing, Dutch-American flyboys and a middle-aged Dutch woman who defied the Nazis by hiding Jews—had, apart from Pearl Harbor, made me consider WWII as a primarily European conflict and had compartmentalized the war in my brain under the category of courage, not necessarily endurance.
Louie Zamperini, on the other hand, the subject of my friend’s favorite read, had gained hero status in the Pacific Theater by what he’d endured: a sadistic Japanese officer named named Mutsuhiro Wantabe became determined to break him. Zamperini shouldn’t have survived. He did.
When I decided to write a book focusing on the Pacific War, reading Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption became one way in which I immersed myself in the general topic. Like so many others before me, I became mesmerized by the story and Laura Hillenbrand’s masterful storytelling. And in the process of reading the book, along with the memoirs and biographies of the women featured in what would become Women Heroes of World War II—the Pacific Theater: 15 Stories of Resistance, Rescue, Sabotage, and Survival, I came to understand that endurance was precisely what the Pacific War had been for millions of people; not only for American troops fighting an enemy who refused to surrender, but for the civilians unfortunate enough to find themselves in Japanese-controlled territory.
Trying to promote their “Asia for Asians” mantra, the Japanese invaders/occupiers rounded up all Allied civilians into camps. While a far cry from the Nazi-run concentration camps, these Japanese internment camps were places of disease, starvation, and yes, endurance.
One fascinating way in which a group of imprisoned British and European civilians and Australian army nurses sought to maintain at least the health of their spirits was by something called the vocal orchestra. Two brilliant musically-inclined inmates initiated a choir whose repertoire consisted of orchestral pieces such as the Largo from Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Recreated in the film Paradise Road, the vocal orchestra was a brilliant antidote to the despair pervading the camp.
But the body needs food, and medicine as well, especially when living in a tropical environment. Since the prisoners had little of either, the vocal orchestra literally died out long before the war’s end. But its impact was beautifully captured in the memoir of Helen Colijn, one of the women featured in Women Heroes of World War II—the Pacific Theater: 15 Stories of Resistance, Rescue, Sabotage, and Survival.
Three women featured in my book perhaps fit more precisely into the Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption category because they, like Zamperini, endured intentional physical torture. Elizabeth Choy, Sybil Kathigasu, and Claire Phillips all suffered at the hands of the Kempetai, the Japanese military police, who, like the German Gestapo, were tasked with weeding out resistance activities.
Elizabeth Choy found herself in their hands inadvertently after she had unknowingly passed radio parts to Allied prisoners in Singapore. The Japanese were convinced she was part of a larger plot so to obtain the desired confession, they tortured her nearly to death. Deeply religious, she refused to lie, even to save her life.
Sybil Kathigasu, on the other hand, was an active member of the Malayan resistance: she provided medical care to local guerilla fighters. She was caught and taken into Kempeitai custody where one officer named Eko Yoshimura took a special interest in breaking her. He nearly destroyed Kathigasu's body but her will remained intact and she never divulged the information Yoshimura sought.
Claire Phillips, an American member of the Manila resistance, charmed and chatted up Japanese officers in her nightclub, gleaning precious tidbits of intel, then used her earnings to sneak food to starving American POWs. She was caught, interrogated, tortured, and starved by the Kempeitai for nearly nine months without betraying anyone.
There was often a long-term cost for defying Imperial Japan. When I finished Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption , I understood that the book’s title was a bit of a misnomer. Yes, Zamperini survived Wantabe’s beatings. But years after the war, the Japanese officer was still in his head, tormenting his dreams so much that the American hero, now a full-fledged alcoholic, was convinced that the only road to peace was through an airplane ticket to Japan so he could kill Wantabe.
Conversion to Christianity saved Zamperini from his dark, downward spiral but not all American Pacific War POWs fared as well: they suffered far more PTS, alcoholism, premature death, suicide, and divorce in comparison with their counterparts released from German camps.
I found a similar trend among the women whose stories I encountered while writing my book. Sybil Kathigasu died three years after the war from complications arising from her beatings. Claire Phillips died in 1960 from alcoholism-related meningitis.
Even women who hadn't been imprisoned during the war were powerfully and negatively impacted by it. Yay Panlilio, part of an anti-Japanese Filipino guerilla force, claimed post-war that the conflict had completely worn down her body, mind, and emotions. Gladys Aylward's health remained precarious for years after she'd personally escorted Chinese war orphans to safety during a long, dangerous trek. Minnie Vautrin, an American who exhausted herself trying to protect women during the horrific Nanking Massacre, eventually committed suicide.
All war creates suffering in the moment and in the aftermath. The Pacific War seemed to be a conflict in which this was intensely true for reasons I’m still sorting out. But whatever the reason, the people who stood up to Japanese fascism deserve respect and remembrance just as much as those who defied the Nazis.
Louie Zamperini once dismissed his war hero status, claiming that mere survival does not make one a hero. Millions of his fans--myself included--profoundly disagree. Surviving the Pacific War was more than enough to earn the designation.
Video on SOE special agent Pearl Witherington, narrated by me.
I had the opportunity this week to come face-to-face with a slice of my target audience: teenagers. They heard the heroic story of French teen Emilienne Moreau before viewing a sizeable number of archival photos depicting German, French, British, Italian, and American women at work on the home front, in munitions factories, in the medical services, and in auxiliary military roles.
They also learned the surprising connection between the Russian Women's Battalion of Death and American suffragists: how the existence of the world-famous Russian battalion refuted the American "Bullets for Ballots" anti-suffragist slogan.
Their teacher asked them what they found the most interesting and here's what some of them had to say:
- "I found it very interesting that women inspired each other from World War I to World War II. It was also very interesting learning about the women because I never hear about women heroes" - Emma
- "I found the story of Emilienne Moreau and how France and Britain use her story for their own benefit most interesting. I think it should be a requirement to include important female heroes in textbooks." -Leah
- "I thought it was interesting that a teenage girl in France was a school teacher that was able to also be a hero. I am only three years younger than she was at the time!" - Sophie
- "Emilienne Moreau's story was really interesting because it showed how governments twisted stories of heroes in their favor." -Lilly
and on the same topic -- "...it was amazing how brave and selfless she was."
- "The Russian women's battalion of Death because of the huge impact they made (This was a response shared by many students)
- "I found the books interesting and would like to read one one day." - Maggie
- "What I found interesting is how much World War I helped women get more jobs." - Derrick
- "I liked hearing all the courageous stories about women fighting in the war." - Lincoln
- "So many woman were helpful to the war effort and broke so many barriers that were thought to be indestructible." - Eva
- "What I found most interesting was how so many women helped out in the war, whether it was being a nurse or a factory worker or a number of other things."
- "I liked when she listed all the things women did when the men were at war because I found it interesting to learn about what they did back then."
- "Emilienne Moreau and her story was inspiring and very interesting and courageous."
- "How all of the women were somehow connected. Some women joined [WWII] because they were inspired by [WWI] women, or they read memoirs, and were motivated."
- "Feminine power even though they couldn't vote yet."
- "The amount of jobs that opened up - especially that women participated in the Army and Navy, and some [in the US Navy] got paid as much as men. This is very surprising because women didn't work as much, it was less common, so the fact that they got equal pay is surprising. Even today we have issues with gender equality and pay."
- "I found all of the stories in the war effort very interesting because that is something we don't see in our textbooks. We only read about male heroes in World War I, but women played a big role."
Seventy years ago this past June the armies of the Allies landed on the beaches of Normandy to put an end to what had begun, in a sense, 30 Junes earlier on the streets of Sarajevo when Franz Ferdinand lost his life to an assassin's bullet.
The connections between the two world wars are myriad but one that most Americans never consider is this: both conflicts were fought with courage if not heroism. Americans make an immediate association between the concept of hero and the Second World War thanks, in part, to a continuous stream of related television and film productions featuring our Greatest Generation. But the First World War? Most of us know too little about it to make that connection.
And heroism requires a cause. World War II clearly had it. World War I did not, at least initially. The nationalism and related territorial claims that stirred Europe to war in 1914 hardly constituted a good vs. evil situation.
However, something occurred early on to give the war something of that sense. On August 3, 1914, the German government requested a peaceful passage through Belgium into France. Germany's army was large and battle-ready. Belgium's was neither. Yet the Belgians refused and defended their border. The surprised Germans reacted, in some instances, with savagery. Belgium, eventually beaten and occupied became internationally known as "Brave Little Belgium." The Germans were called "The Huns." As in Attila the.
Clearly, not all German fighting men were barbarians. And the armies of the Central Powers certainly showed courage in battle; one only has to consider their enormous casualty numbers to appreciate this. Yet their cause, associated as it was with Germany's, would never seem to be as fully right to Americans as that of the Allies, who the United States finally joined in 1917.
Hoping to make a clear distinction between American and European military motivations, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson stated the United States would join the war to "make the world safe for democracy." And if the United States had an all-American reason for going to war, their involvement in the European conflict produced an exceptional all-American hero.
Alvin York, born and raised in Tennessee, was an expert marksman who gained fame -- and a significant number of medals -- during one stunning incident on the Western Front: while a group of machine-gunning Germans was decimating his battalion, York single-handedly sniped off more than 20 before the rest surrendered. He then escorted 132 German prisoners to Allied headquarters.
An entire generation of American boys, inspired by York's heroics, took up his mantle when they came of age and fought Fascism from Normandy to Iwo Jima.
But there were other World War I mantles, European ones, that affected World War II Americans. During the Second World War young Belgian Andrée de Jongh created and operated an escape route that rescued hundreds of downed American (and British) airmen from occupied Europe. Her inspiration to fight Nazi Germany? Edith Cavell and Gabrielle Petit, two World War I heroines executed by the Germans in Brussels, de Jongh's hometown.
British WWII agent Pearl Witherington saved countless American lives after D-Day when her resistance network in Central France disrupted German communication and transportation, significantly slowing sections of the German rush to the Normandy coast. Part of Witherington's inspiration for becoming involved in resistance work had come from reading a biography of French World War I heroine Louise de Bettignies who had run a brilliantly successful espionage network for British Intelligence in German-occupied France.
World War I might seem morally ambiguous from a distance but this does not mean that we should underappreciate the dedication and courage of its participants. If the war wasn't overflowing with heroic principles, it did create exceptional heroes, some of whom would directly impact the next generation, men and women whose war would be painted in much clearer moral shades.
On a November evening in 2010 I was dropping off the corrected proofs for my first book, Women Heroes of World War II, when I was asked about writing a prequel, a Women Heroes of World War I. Lisa Reardon, my editor at the Chicago Review Press, lives only a few miles away and is always full of great ideas. But I thought she was kidding. At least I was going to react that way because my exhaustion level was much to high to allow the slightest consideration of a second contract.
When I'd regained some energy and Lisa mentioned the WWI idea again, I gave it a few serious moments before rejecting it. The only female heroism to come out of that war (or so I thought) was related to nursing; photos of smiling young women in those ankle-length uniforms immediately came to mind. I knew that the war had produced a devastating number of casualties which must have required a proportionally large number of medical professionals. But I didn't want to write an entire book on them.
If I was going to take another plunge, I had a general idea of what it might look like. Or what she might look like. The only idea with enough power to tempt me into signing another contract would be writing the biography of a late 19th century/early 20th century woman, someone who, according to the styles of her day, wore her hair up and her skirts down. But that's where her conformity ended: she had been one of those individuals who hadn't walked lockstep with the rest of her generation. No, she'd done something admirably out of step but her efforts had been, sadly, buried beneath the rubble of time. I would help remedy that situation by bringing her story to light in my new biography.
But no one in particular came to my attention and I found myself very busy during the publication year of Women Heroes of World WarII: learning the ropes of book marketing while editing the memoirs of WWII SOE agent Pearl Witherington Cornioley, a plum but time-consuming project.
It was Christmas of that year, 2011, when I suddenly decided to take another look at World War I. One of our sons gave my husband a DVD called Flyboys, a somewhat recent film regarding some young Americans who volunteered to fly fighter planes for the French Lafayette Escadrille before the U.S. had entered the Great War. While watching the film I suddenly realized that my perception of World War I -- a rather uninteresting black-and-white prelude to the more attention-worthy Second World War -- had been severely myopic. I'd never seen a modern film on the subject before and so for me Flyboys brought the era out of the realm of B&W photos (or stylized silent B&W films like Wings) and made me realize, once again, that though we might view history in B&W or as existing only on the pages of dusty books, the past was once someone's living, breathing present, filled with convictions and difficult choices. Filled with life. In color. Flyboys made me want to attain a deeper understanding of the war and explore it in terms of what interests me most -- the involvement of women.
One Sunday night, shortly after I'd begun poking around in some collective biographies, I turned on the TV to find Matthew Crawley in the trenches. I'd somehow missed the entire first season of Downton Abbey so my first encounter with the series was that stunning replica of the Western Front. The episode converted me into a Downton fan (although, in my opinion, the show's never been as compelling as when it was tied to the war). It also further fueled my determination to uncover the Great War's heroines.
I eventually discovered a fascinating variety of heroic women to include in my book. They were lockstep with their generation only in that they supported their nation's cause; their choices were not dictated by those around them but by their own consciences. I discovered Belgian and French resisters who refused to accept the German occupation. I found women whose patriotism drove them into the ranks of fighting men in Serbia, Romania, and Russia. And of course there were medics -- a doctor, an ambulance driver, a radiographer, and yes, a nurse -- who worked to save lives in Serbia, Italy, and France. Finally, I discovered two American writers who, against all warnings and common sense, put themselves in harms' way so that they could see and report what was happening on the Belgian Front and in wartime Germany. All but the soldiers wore their hair up and their skirts down and their stories were played out against a remarkable backdrop: an entire world had mobilized its women for the war effort yet few governments had given them the right to vote.
I wrote narrative chapters on sixteen of these women whose stories had been buried beneath the rubble of time -- specifically, the rubble of WWII, whose heroines they'd directly inspired before they were forgotten by nearly everyone else. Some of that amnesia was clearly a deliberate desire to forget a war of horrific casualties. But these women are too heroic to be forgotten any longer. And if I once viewed their generation's defining moment -- a cataclysm that thrust the world violently from the 19th century into the 20th -- in fuzzy hues of black and white, it will forever be for me crystal clear and in color.
BBC video on Pearl Witherington, narrated by me, the editor of her English-language memoirs.