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Women in Wars

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Women have always played an important role in wars. For the most part, their roles have been limited to staying at home, keeping things going. However, some women have broken barriers and have had key roles in positions normally considered a manís part.

Pre Revolutionary Days

During King Philip's War in 1675, women leaders of Native American tribes helped the colonists defend their settlements. One was Awashonka, squaw sachem of the Saconnet in Rhode Island.

In 1697, Abnaki Indians who were fighting for Canada captured a Massachusetts settler named Hannah Duston. After an arduous hundred-mile trek, Hannah decided that she was not going to be tortured or killed in Canada. With the help of a young boy who had been captured earlier, and Mary Neff, who had been captured with her, she stole the Indians tomahawks and in a daring nighttime attack the three prisoners managed to kill ten of their captors. They stole a canoe, scuttled the rest, and escaped taking with them the scalps of their victims as proof of their story. The first monument, commemorating the fame of a woman, to be erected in the United States was one to Hannah Duston, dedicated on June 1, 1861, in her hometown of Haverhill.

The Revolutionary War

Many women had a part in the Revolutionary War, not only working the farms and homes their husbands left behind to protect, but also in actual combat situations. Deborah Sampson was only one of these women.

There is the little known story of Rachel and Grace Martin who disguised themselves as men and assailed a British courier and his guards. They took his important dispatches, which they speedily forwarded to General Greene. Then they released the two officers who didn't even know that they were women.

Then there is Anna Warner, wife of Captain Elijah Bailey, who earned the title of "The Heroine of Groton" because of her fearless efforts to aid the wounded on the occasion of the terrible massacre at Fort Griswald in Connecticut. Anna Bailey went from house to house collecting material for bandages for the soldiers. Incidentally she denied ever having used the coarse and profane expressions ever attributed to her.

In 1776 Margaret Corbin stepped up to the artillery during the attack on Fort Washington when her husband fell by her side and unhesitatingly took his place and performed his duties. In July of 1779 the Congress awarded her a pension for her heroism - and a suit of clothes. In the 1920s the Daughters of the American Revolution had her remains moved from an obscure grave and re-interred with other soldiers behind the Old Cadet Chapel at West Point where they also erected a monument to her. Near the place of the battle, in Fort Tryon Park in New York City, a bronze plaque commemorates Margaret Corbin "the first American woman to take a soldier's part in the War for Liberty". Some historians contend that Margaret Corbin, not Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley - who came along two years later - may have been the origin of the "Molly Pitcher" legend.

Angelica Vrooman, during the heat of battle, sat calmly in a tent with a bullet mould, some lead and an iron spoon, molding bullets for the rangers.

Mary Hagidorn, upon hearing the order by a Captain Hager, for the women and children to retire to the long cellar, said: "Captain, I shall not go to that cellar should the enemy come. I will take a spear which I can use as well as any man and help defend the fort." The captain seeing her determination answered, "then take a spear, and be ready at the pickets to repel an attack." She cheerfully obeyed and held the spear at the pickets till hurrahs for the American flag burst on her ear and told that all was safe.

The War of 1812

The USS CONSTITUTION met and defeated HMS GUERRIERE, the first in a grand succession of victories in the War of 1812. It was during this ferocious battle that the seamen, astonished at the way the British cannonballs were bouncing off the Constitution's hull, cried out - "Her sides are made of iron!" Thus, her nickname, "Old Ironsides." What was not known at the time was the fact that a U.S. Marine, serving aboard Old Ironsides, as George Baker, was actually Lucy Brewer. Eventually the Marine Corps reluctantly acknowledged that Lucy Brewer was in fact the very first woman marine. It would be over one hundred years before the Marine Corps seriously began to recruit women - August 1918 - to be specific.

The Civil War

Many stories have been written about unique Civil War women, including Sarah Emma Edmonds, alias Franklin Thompson. In Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, 1865, Historians have verified that Emma Edmonds, as Franklin Thompson, did serve in the units she mentioned at the times she said.

Another fairly well known story is that of Jennie Hodgers who served and fought for three years as Albert Cashier. Her identity wasn't revealed until 1913.

The trials and tribulations of Lt Harry T. Buford, Confederate Officer, later found to be Madam Loreta Velazquez, have also been recorded. And historical records verify the fact that over sixty women were either wounded or killed at various battles during the Civil War.

Perhaps the most poignant story about women in the Civil War is one told in the book Women in War, 1866, by Frank Moore. In 1863, at age 19, a woman known only as Emily, ran away from home and joined the drum corps of a Michigan Regiment. The regiment was sent to Tennessee and during the struggle for Chatanooga, a mini ball pierced the side of the young soldier. Her wound was fatal and her sex was disclosed. At first she refused to disclose her real name but as she lay dying she consented to dictate a telegram to her father in Brooklyn. "Forgive your dying daughter. I have but a few moments to live. My native soil drinks my blood. I expected to deliver my country but the fates would not have it so. I am content to die. Pray forgive me...... Emily." She was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

President Andrew Johnson awarded Dr. Mary Walker, a surgeon in the Civil War, the nationís highest honor. The citation reads, in part, "Whereas it appears from official reports that Dr. Mary E. Walker, a graduate of medicine, has rendered valuable service to the government, and her efforts have been earnest and untiring in a variety of ways, and that she was assigned to duty and served as an assistant surgeon in charge of female prisoners at Louisville, KY under the recommendation of Major-Generals Sherman and Thomas, and faithfully served as contract surgeon in the service of the United States, and has devoted herself with much patriotic zeal to the sick and wounded soldiers, both in the field and hospitals, to the detriment of her own health, and has endured hardships as a prisoner of war four months in a southern prison while acting as contract surgeon." Dr. Walker was an early suffragette, one of the earliest women physicians, a champion for more comfortable clothing for women and a pioneer for women in many areas that we take for granted today.

World War One

In 1901 and 1908 the establishment of the Army and Navy Nurse Corps opened the door for women in the military but ever so slightly. It wasn't until the United States got involved in World War One that some parts of the government got serious about using womanpower. As the Army stumbled around bureaucratic red tape trying to figure out how to enlist women the Navy simply ignored the War Department dissenters and quickly recruited women. Nearly 13,000 women enlisted in the Navy and the Marine Corps on the same status as men and wore a uniform blouse with insignia. These were the first women in the U.S to be officially admitted to full military rank and status. Nurses who served were in Belgium, Italy, and England and on troop trains and transport ships. Army and Navy Nurse Corps women served valiantly throughout the war, many received decorations for their service. At least three Army nurses were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nations' second highest military honor. Several received the Distinguished Service Medal, our highest non-combat award, and over twenty were awarded the French Croix de Guerre. Nurses were wounded, and several died overseas and are buried in military cemeteries far from home. Thirty thousand women served their country in the Army and Navy Nurse Corps, the Navy as Yeoman (F), the Marines, and the Coast Guard in WWI.

World War Two

While Hitler was skulking around Europe pretending to save Germany the erstwhile military minds in Washington were stonewalling womenís organizations, patriotic pressures, and anyone who had the temerity to suggest that women should be in the military. The politicians, in typical gerrymandering fashion, made flimsy promises of considering an auxiliary of sorts while quietly hoping it would all go away and secretly trying to figure out how to stop it. Fortunately Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers and Eleanor Roosevelt thought otherwise.

Congresswoman Rogers introduced a bill on May 28th, 1941, to establish a Women's Army Auxiliary Corps for service with the Army of the United States. By virtue of its being an auxiliary corps there was no hint of full military status for women.

Military nurses were very much involved in the turmoil at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, working under tremendous pressure during the aftermath of the morning's raids. The Japanese attack left 2,235 servicemen and 68 civilians dead. Eighty-two Army nurses were serving at three Army Medical Facilities in Hawaii that infamous December morning. Army and Navy nurses working side-by-side with civilian nurses and doctors treated hundreds of casualties, suffering from burns and shock. Nurses at Schofield Hospital and Hickam Field faced similar overwhelming numbers of wounded personnel. The Chief Nurse at Hickam Field, 1st Lt. Annie G. Fox, was the first of many Army nurses to receive a Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.

Women continued to serve overseas through 1945 and at one point there were over 2000 WACs serving in North Africa alone. From there women were sent to Italy to serve with the 5th Army and these women moved all over Italy during the Italian campaign handling the communications; they earned commendations, bronze stars and the respect of their fellow soldiers as they sloughed through mud, lived in tents, dived into foxholes and dugouts during the Anzio air raids. During the battle on Anzio, the German bombing and strafing of the tented hospital area killed six Army Nurses. Four Army Nurses among the survivors were awarded Silver Stars for extraordinary courage under fire. In all, more than 200 Army Nurses lost their lives during World War II.

The Vietnam Conflict

After one of the most futile conflicts in the history of war, scorned by flag burners and shunned by citizens, G.I's returned to find respect for our troops hitting an all time low. The reaction of the American people to our military was despicable. It has taken years for many servicemen and women to get over it - and some have not.

What is truly unconscionable in the annals of American military history is the fact that little or no data exists on the women who served and, yes, were injured or killed, in Southeast Asia during the Viet Nam era.

Accurate records on how many women were there, what decorations they earned, where they served - and most important - what after effects they have suffered - and continue to suffer - are nonexistent.

S.Olsen