Famous & Important Women in World War II

Instructor: Jennifer Keefe

Jennifer Keefe has taught college-level Humanities and has a Master's in Liberal Studies.

When you think of World War II you probably think about men like Franklin Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler. But in fact, there were a number of women who made significant contributions that ultimately resulted in victory for the Allies. Read about some of these incredible individuals, and then take a short quiz.

Women in World War II

World War II was the second of two major worldwide conflicts to take place during the first half of the 20th century. The Second World War, which lasted from 1938 to 1945, started as a result of unresolved issues after the First World War. World War II was different, however, because the conflict encompassed both Europe and Asia. It was also different from the First World War in that women played an integral role - for both the Allied and Axis powers.

In America, a bill passed by Congress in 1942 created the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). Women trained at five training centers around the country to help with the war effort from behind the front lines. In 1943, another bill disbanded the WAAC and created the Women's Army Corps (WAC), which allowed women to join the U.S. Army and to be trained in a variety of roles from combat nurses to spies.

We're going to look briefly at five important women on the side of the Allies; however, there were countless other women who made a major impact on the Allies' World War II victory. Many were not given full credit for their actions, and the stories behind the actions of some others were never even documented.

Nancy Wake

We usually think about the men and military leaders who made the Allies' victory possible during World War II, but the WAC allowed women to make significant contributions to the victory as well. For example, Nancy Wake, a native New Zealander living in France when the Germans invaded, transported war supplies and helped people get out of occupied France. She was even captured by the Nazis, but never revealed any secrets after her capture. She was a guerrilla fighter who killed Nazis with her bare hands, blew up buildings, and was considered a hero by the French until her death in 2011.

Guerrilla Fighter Nancy Wake
Nancy Wake WWII Hero

Ruby Bradley

An American female war hero was U.S. Army Colonel Ruby Bradley. Bradley was an Army nurse stationed in the Philippines when the Japanese attacked the U.S. military base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in 1941. Bradley and two others hid while the Japanese invaded, but were turned over to the Japanese by some native Hawaiians. They went back to their military hospital as prisoners of war (POWs) where they remained for three years helping sick and injured soldiers. During this time they also smuggled supplies out to the Americans. Bradley died in 2002.

Army Nurse Col. Ruby Bradley
Ruby Bradley WWII Hero

Lt. Reba Whittle

POW nurse Lt. Reba Whittle held the distinction of being the only American woman to be held as a prisoner of war on the European side of the World War II conflict. Whittle was on a plane sent into France to pick up injured soldiers in 1944 when the flight went off course and was shot down in Germany.

After she was captured by the Germans, they didn't know what to do with her, so they allowed her to minister to wounded POWs until a Swiss group that worked to get wounded prisoners transferred found out about her and arranged for her release. The U.S. Army denied her POW status for a long time and refused to give her the pay awarded to POWs, although she got a cash settlement from the military in 1955. She died in 1981, two years before her POW status was finally confirmed by the U.S. military.

Lt. Annie Fox

Lt. Annie Fox became the first woman to receive the coveted Purple Heart distinction from the U.S. Army. Fox was an Army nurse who was in charge at the hospital nearest to the airfield at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941, the day the Japanese attacked. She saved countless lives as wounded soldiers flocked to the hospital for treatment after the attack. Unfortunately, her Purple Heart was downgraded to a Bronze Star in 1944 when the U.S. Army changed the requirements for a Purple Heart to include that the recipient had to actually have been injured.

Pearl Harbor Nurse Lt. Annie Fox
Lt. Annie Fox WWII Hero

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