Historical Figures
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28 Female War Heroes You've Never Heard About

Updated September 23, 2021 199.4k views28 items
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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 Many women have served on the front lines, in the resistance, behind the wheel of convoys, in the cockpits of outdated planes, and in hospitals patching up the injured with little more than a standard first aid kit.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. 

  • Photo: Vladimir Nikolayevich Ivanov / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    War role: Russian sniper, major 
    Medals and commendations: Hero of the Soviet Union  

    Lyudmila Pavlichenko was already a celebrated sharpshooter before joining the Soviet Army. She was a student at Kiev University when World War II started and was part of 2,000 female snipers sent to the front. Only 500 survived. Older and more skilled than her fellow snipers, Pavlichenko had 309 confirmed kills, including 36 enemy snipers. Her male counterpart, Ivan Sidorenko, had 500 confirmed kills after six years of combat.  

    After being wounded by mortar fire, she went on a public relations and recruiting tour in the U.S. and Canada, dealing with sexist questions about her weight and skirt length from reporters. She would also become a sniper trainer. After her war time service, Pavlichenko became a historian at Kiev University. She also served on the Soviet Committee of the Veterans of War. 

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  • Photo: Captainorchardly / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0

    Aleda Lutz

    War role: Flight nurse 
    Medals and commendations: Distinguished Flying Cross posthumously, Air Medal (four times), Oak Leaf Cluster, Red Cross Medal, Purple Heart 

    Lutz volunteered with the 803rd Military Air Evacuation Squad. Their missions were to rapidly remove injured soldiers from the front as fresh soldiers came in. She flew 196 evac missions that brought back 3,500 men, logging more hours than any other flight nurse. In December of 1944, the C47 carrying Lutz and injured soldiers from Lyon crashed. The Veterans Administration Hospital in Saginaw, Michigan was renamed in her honor in 1990. 
  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    War role: Princess, spy  
    Medals and commendations: British George Cross (posthumously), French Croix de Guerre with Gold Star, Member of the Order of the British Empire 

    Princess Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan’s father was Indian Sufi master and musician Inayat Khan, and her mother, Ora Ray Baker, was the niece of Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy. Her paternal great great grandfather ruled the Kingdom of Mysore. Although she was born in Russia, Khan held a British passport. She was living in France when Germany invaded. Khan and her family managed to escape to England where she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). She also worked for the British spy agency, SOE, as a wireless operator. The SOE sent her back to France in June of 1943, where she transmitted information back by Morse code. Even as other radio operators were discovered and arrested, Khan was determined to continue her work.  

    She was arrested by the SD (German intelligence) in October of 1943 and aggressively fought back. She refused to give up information under interrogation and sent a coded message to the SOE, which they ignored for some reason. When the Germans discovered her coded messages and notebooks, they used it to lure other British spies to France for arrest. Khan escaped briefly and was held in shackles for ten months after being caught. She was sent to Dachau concentration camp in September of 1944 and immediately executed.
  • Photo: Sergeant Gina Vaile, United States Army / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    War role: National Guard Trooper, sergeant
    Medals and commendations: Silver Star for heroism  

    Sgt. Hester was part of the Kentucky National Guard and the 617th Military Police. In March 2005, she was escorting a supply convoy in an area of Iraq that was supposed to be secure. Around 50 insurgents attacked the convoy with RPGs and light machine guns. Hester sent out the order to charge through the enemy line to a position where they could regroup and fight back. She and Staff Sgt. Timothy Hein attacked an enemy trench and after a half hour of heavy, close-range combat, and killed 27 insurgents.