THOMPSON: Women bravely served their countries in the Second World War | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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THOMPSON: Women bravely served their countries in the Second World War



More than 1,300 movies tell stories of the Second World War. Some are factual accounts, most blend fact and fiction or are “based on a true story”. Some plots, frankly, never happened.

Not many aspects of WWII are overlooked by the thousands of writers, producers and directors who deliver stories to the Silver Screen. Even so, the war was so all-encompassing…consuming so much of the Earth’s land and sea and its people and virtually every aspect of life for more than five years, not one movie - or even 1,300 - could possibly tell everything.

That’s why moviemakers so often conflate or build composite stories. At least moviegoers - especially those who don’t read much - learn a little history…and are almost always entertained…or provoked to think.

There are some great movies, The Longest Day, Schindler’s List, Dunkirk, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great Escape, Stalag 17, Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan, Casablanca, Das Boot, The Diary of Anne Frank and Sophie’s Choice, just to name a dozen.

Hollywood’s treatments of heroes on land, sea and in the air are too numerous to name…and feature every rank, every race and gender. The truth is…millions of people played roles in saving the world from Nazi Germany and Japan.

Many risked their lives every day…in harrowing combat. Others kept the home fires burning with what might otherwise be seen as tedious jobs. Of course, attitudes were different then…nearly everyone pulled together…everyone sacrificed…willingly.

Officially, women were banned from serving in combat…whether Canadian, American, British or Soviet. There were a few exceptions, of course, where women fought and were killed. Nowhere was that more obvious than the women spies who worked for the Allies…often living and undermining Axis operations behind enemy lines.

Women often fought to get into the fight, going up against rigid male and military biases.

Julia McWilliams - a 30-year-old American from California tried to join the Army in 1942 - but  at six-foot, two-inches - was told “you’re too tall”.

Julia didn’t give up. She joined the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.) - America’s intelligence service and forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) - starting as a secretary, but soon rising in responsibility when her male bosses saw her drive and creativity in inspiring others. Among other things, she helped develop a repellent that kept sharks from accidentally triggering submerged bombs.

After the war, she joined her husband - Paul Child - in U.S. diplomatic postings in Paris, Marseille, Bonn and Oslo, before forever changing the culinary world as Julia Child. There were a lot more women - some famous, some not - who served as spies.

Early on, the Nazis underestimated the women - American, British, French, Polish, Bulgarian, among other nationalities - who often lived and worked in enemy territory as spies. Espionage was among the most challenging of jobs during the war. Of the 39 women in the British Special Operation Executive (S.O.E.) during WW II, 13 died…often captured, tortured and executed by Nazis.

Iconic dancer, singer and actress Josephine Baker criss-crossed Nazi lines carrying scores of secret messages written in invisible ink on the backs of her sheet music. She was awarded the French Legion of Honor by the French government after the war ended.

German-born actress Marlene Dietrich became a U.S. citizen after defying Hitler’s orders to return to her native land…and entertained Allied troops near the front lines throughout the war. Also, she recorded songs and propaganda broadcasts to Nazi troops to lower morale and promote defections. She was awarded the American Medal of Freedom - the highest civilian recognition - by President Franklin D. Roosevelt after the war.

Of course, not all the women were famous. American Virginia Hall, for example, might have been the most unlikely of heroes. She fought anti-semitism and discrimination against women and those physically challenged just to become an O.S.S. field agent.

Virginia created a network of spies - mostly women - and helped organize, arm and guide  French commandos behind enemy lines. She once scouted potential combat drop zones while herding cows under her cover as a French dairy farmer. She lost a leg below the knee as a teenager in a hunting accident and had a wooden leg, which she once used to bludgeon a Nazi captor to escape.

After returning to England to learn Morse code, she re-entered Nazi-held France and sent hundreds of messages over wireless radio to officials in London. Her intelligence reports, coordination of parachute drops, and planning sabotage missions and ambushes of Nazi troops hastened the war’s end. She was the only female civilian awarded the military’s Distinguished Service Cross, and became the C.I.A.’s first female operations officer after the war.

Noor Inayat Khan was an East Indian radio operator with the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. In 1943, she was recruited by the S.O.E., and working under Virginia Hall, became the first female wireless operator sent to occupied France. Her efforts enabled 30 Allied airmen to escape from Nazi prisons. A year later, she was arrested by the Gestapo, tortured, imprisoned and eventually executed. She was awarded Britain’s George Cross, the highest civilian honour, in 1949.

These women not only bravely served their countries in the Second World War, often paying the ultimate price, they were pioneers…paving the way for women today who serve in full combat roles in every branch of service in American, Canadian and British armed forces.

There were plenty of heroes in WWII…men and women. Those who stayed in Canada and kept things going weren’t in combat…but they were heroes nonetheless. More than 50,000 Canadian women served in the military as nurses, clerks, photographers and telegraph operators.

More than 1.2 million Canadian women held permanent jobs outside their homes during WWII…that’s when Canada’s total population was just 11 million. Civilian women in Canada served in critical line positions in munitions and aircraft plants, and as pilots ferrying new aircraft to airfields…often raising children alone.

I should single out one more woman by name…Elsie MacGill. She was the first Canadian woman to earn both an electrical engineering degree and master’s degree in aeronautical engineering…all by the age of 24. In 1938, she was chief aeronautical engineer of Canadian Car & Foundry (Can Car), and at age 35, headed the Canadian production of Hawker Hurricane fighter planes for Canadian pilots in WW II.

Consider the times…and how hard it must have been to be a woman like MacGill…indeed, to be a woman, period. A glance at history tells us that women were every much the heroes in WWII…and most had to fight just to help fight.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.

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