Women war heroes prove that bravery and endurance are not reserved for male military personnel. Many women have served on the front lines, in the resistance, behind the wheel of convoys, in the cockpits of outdated planes, and in hospitals patching up the injured with little more than a standard first aid kit. Women and the war effort have always - and will always - go hand-in-hand.
The Night Witches of the Soviet Union took old clunker crop dusters and confounded the German air force. Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester found herself in the middle of an orchestrated attack in Iraq and turned the firepower back on the insurgents. The White Rose of Stalingrad took down numerous enemy aircraft and flew into legendary status.
Female war heroes also include the Dahomey Amazons, wives of the king who shocked their enemies with fierceness and audacity. Or the Vietnamese warriors of legend like the Trung Sisters.
The role of women in wars hasn’t always been clear or easy. Cathay Williams changed her appearance and fought in the Union Army as a man until her gender was discovered. But for a while, she fought in the Civil War along with other formerly enslaved people. Then there's the Polish spy who may have inspired two of Ian Fleming's Bond girls.
As we look at women in military history, there are myriad ways they serve. Women at home were working in factories making products for the war effort, but there were brave women who saw war up close. Some were able to share their experiences and become historians, teachers, instructors, colonels, and generals. Others faced poverty and lack of recognition for their war efforts.
There are millions who have served. This list of women war heroes sheds a little light on a few.
War role: Polish spy
Medals and commendations: Croix de Guerre, George Medal, Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE)
Skarbeck, who would later change her name to Christine Granville, was a wealthy woman of Jewish heritage. She and her second husband were in Ethiopia when World War II began. She signed up with Britain’s Section D and went to Poland via Hungary to launch her resistance work. Her main role was to pass communications between allies. Skarbeck became known as the “flaming Polish patriot.” Under the guidance of the British, she organized Polish resistance groups and smuggled Polish pilots out of the country.
The Gestapo arrested Skarbeck in 1941, but she was released when she faked having TB by biting her tongue so hard it bled. She and partner Andrzej Kowerski changed their names to Christine Granville and Andrew Kennedy to escape detection. The pair were smuggled out of Poland to Turkey through Yugoslavia. Skarbeck, then Granville, wouldn’t return to Poland because her operative group had been compromised.
After being trained as a radio operator and paratrooper, she dropped into France on D-Day only to find that her resistance area had been infiltrated by the Germans. She hiked 70 miles to escape. Then Skarbeck turned Axis fighters in the Alps. She outed herself to the French who were working for the Gestapo and then orchestrated prisoner releases.She survived the war and was rumored to be the inspiration for two of Ian Fleming’s Bond girls. Despite having survived the Gestapo, imprisonment, and many other dangers, Skarbeck’s life came to a violent end when she was murdered by a stalker, Dennis Muldowney, in 1952.
War role: King’s Royal Guard and Army
The Dahomey Amazons were a large group (4,000 to 6,000) of female warriors who made up about one third of the overall Dohamey military. They were commonly known as Mino or “our mothers” and were the royal bodyguards of the kings of Dahomey, currently the Republic of Benin. The Mino were mostly recruited from among the king’s wives.
Their training was intense and fierce, and the Mino were known to fight with incredible bravery and “audacity.” Due to the profits from the slave trade, they were also armed with Danish flintrocks and Winchester repeaters, which would come in handy when they took on the French army. In a bold move, King Behanzin started a war with France in 1890. Despite being a formidable force, the French lost several major battles against the Mino early on.
The last known member of the Dahomey Amazons died in 1979.
War roles: Support troop, private, and cook
Pvt. Cathay Williams was a freed slave who served in the Union Army. Williams was liberated by the 8th Indiana Regiment in 1861 and then drafted into the Union Army’s support troops. She served with the 8th Indiana through the march across Arkansas, Louisiana, and Georgia. After the war, Williams worked at the Jefferson Barracks, north of St. Louis.
After a year, she changed her appearance and joined Company A of the 38th U.S. Infantry Regiment as William Cathay. Only a close friend and a cousin knew Williams was a woman. Her gender was discovered years later after an illness in New Mexico.
She returned to civilian service as an army cook. Her story remained untold until a reporter for the St. Louis Daily Times found her in 1876. As Williams aged, she sought war benefits but was denied. She was buried in a pauper’s grave.
War role: POW nurse, colonel
Medals and commendations: 34 medals and citations, including two Legions of Merit, two Bronze Stars, International Red Cross’ Florence Nightingale Medal
As a career Army nurse prior to World War II, Colonel Ruby Bradley served as the hospital administrator in Luzon in the Philippines. When the Japanese invaded, she and a doctor and fellow nurse hid in the hills. Eventually, they were turned in by locals and taken to the base, now a prison camp. Bradley and her staff spent three years treating fellow POWs, delivering babies, and performing surgery. They also smuggled supplies to keep the POWs healthy, although Bradley herself weighed a mere 84 pounds when the Americans liberated the camp in 1945.
After the war, Bradley served as the 8th Army’s chief nurse on the front lines of the Korean war in 1950. She managed to evacuate all of the wounded soldiers in her care under heavy fire. She was the last to jump aboard the plane just as her ambulance was shelled. She was promoted to Colonel. She retired in 1963, but worked as a supervising nurse in West Virginia for 17 years. She received a hero’s funeral with full honors in 2002 at Arlington National Cemetery. She was 94.