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KathrynAtwood

KathrynAtwood

American Flyboys, A World War, and Sixteen Heroic Women

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.