Stout-hearted women

Valiant Women: the extraordinary American servicewomen who helped win world war 2 By Lena Andrews

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The premise of “Valiant Women: The Extraordinary American Servicewomen Who Helped Win World War II” is clear from its start.

“There is an indisputable line connecting the American victory in World War II to the contributions of women who served in the U.S. military,” says Lena Andrews, “and it is time we acknowledged it.” Her goal is to “correct the record” about the important work of 350,000 females in uniform.

To make her case, Andrews provides a comprehensive history of the war – including how and why women were crucial and necessary players in every branch of service around the world. The reason is simple:

“For the first time in American history, {military} demands could not be met by the male population alone.”

Helping to illuminate “Valiant Women” is a structure that allows the female veterans to speak for themselves. Each of the 25 chapters (28, if you count the prologue, introduction, and epilogue) includes a personal narrative or anecdote.

There are unknowns such as Czslawa “Jessie” Kontrabeki, the daughter of Polish immigrants who served in the Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), and well-knowns such as Oveta Culp Hobby, director of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and later the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare.

Andrews did the archival research you might expect from a Central Intelligence Agency military analyst who worked at the U.S. Institute of Peace and has a PhD in political science, and she talked with veterans and family members.

Not surprising – but poignant nevertheless – a theme of humility pervades her interviews. The women are shocked that somebody cares. “Thank you for even thinking of me,” one tells her.

Why the surprise? During and after their service, the women face indifference and indignation.

For example, in 1995 Dorothy Stratton, who had been director of the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve (SPARS), tells the editor of her local newspaper – which published a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II – that if the published content mentioned that women also served in uniform, “I missed it.”

No longer is Stratton to be missed. Nearly two decades later, the Coast Guard and First Lady Michelle Obama commission a new cutter, the USCGC Stratton, which memorializes Capt. Dorothy.

While Andrews is forthright in noting that the women’s service is often officially credited, she shows how discrimination is the bitter part of valor. She reports the misogyny, racism, sexism, condescension, rudeness, and disdain the female volunteers face from male peers and others who believe only brazen women don’t want to stay home. War, many say, is men’s work.

“When military leaders in the 1940s talked about manpower,” Andrews says, “they actually meant something much narrower:

“White men between 20 and 45 years old.”

One leader, Lt. Gen. Thomas Holcomb, commandant of the Marine Corps, at first thinks women cannot serve “any useful purpose.” Later, “the last, most reluctant holdout” changes his mind because he is running out of male Marines. He needs minds and bodies.

Yet, in what seems counterintuitive, he avoids a clever acronym (like those adopted by other branches) to describe the women. There will be no “WAVES” on his watch. No, the ladies are admitted to the newly formed Marine Corps Women’s Reserve (MCWR). “There was nothing cutesy about the name because there was nothing cutesy about the Corps,” Andrews says.

There is nothing funny about the Civilian Aeronautics Association’s suggesting that militarizing the volunteer, federal Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) is a mistake in 1944.

The CAA is threatened by female pilots’ continued ferry flights in the U.S., and in retaliation casts the aviators “as job-stealing, unqualified seductresses.” The claim gains traction, and the House of Representatives swats the WASP.

Conversely, over in the WAC, “exceptional” women make up nearly a third of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) intelligence agency.

But such success can come with indignity. 

Maj. Charity Adams is the first commander of the first black WAC unit to serve in Europe, the 6888th Central Postal Battalion. Their task might seem insignificant until you remember that deployed troops had no cellphones, no internet. They had only mail, the kind that arrives in a stamped envelope, which is a “lifeline” from and to home for the men fighting abroad. Adams’ team finds a warehouse full of “millions of pieces of paper,” and in three months they clear half a year’s backlog.

Adams also clears a racist misconception. When the Red Cross wants to provide her unit with equipment for a segregated recreational facility, she refuses. “If our girls are not good enough to visit their club, then their equipment is not good enough for use to use.”

Now Adams’ adamancy is public. In April this year, Lt. Col. Charity Adams Earley was posthumously honored with a prominent address when an Army post formerly honoring a Confederate traitor is renamed from Fort Lee to Fort Gregg-Adams.

The recognition reflects a growing reassessment of women’s roles in World War II, and Andrews offers examples and numbers that indicate their work has been underappreciated – including by “feminists that came after them,” an intriguing observation that merits explanation.

The service women “forever changed the place of women in American society,” and Andrews’ ammunition might help protect a place of military respect for those females – and for today’s women service members and veterans, too.

“Valiant Women: The Extraordinary American Servicewomen Who Helped Win World War II” by Lena Andrews, Mariner, 352 pages, $33

Huffman’s book reviews received the Military Reporters and Editors’ 2018 award for commentary. He is the board chair of Student Veterans of America and co-edited “The End of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (Marine Corps University Press, 2012).