As of November 2016, 205,000 women were enlisted in the United States Armed Services. Over the course of America’s involvement in World War II, 350,000 American women took part in active duty service in non-combat capacities. As it turns out, America is not leading the world in that area. 800,000 women were part of the Red Army during the what was called in the Soviet Union the Great Patriotic War, with 300,000 serving in active combat roles in repelling the Nazi invasion. With such vast ranks of dedicated sisters in arms around the world to choose from through the ages, it’s not easy narrowing it down to ten who most heroically faced the horrors of war.
10. Leigh Ann Hester
A former shoe salesperson in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2004 Leigh Ann Hester was sent to Iraq to perform weekly convoy escort missions in the 617th Military Police Company. It was written policy by the Pentagon that she and other female soldiers were not to engage in combat with enemy units. Yet such doctrine meant nothing when, on March 20, 2005, her unit was ambushed near Salman Pak by fifty insurgents. The insurgents outnumbered them five to one armed and were armed with AK-47s and rocket launchers.
Instead of trying to get in an offensive formation, Hester led her unit on an attack that got them out of the line of fire and around the enemy’s flank. In the process, she had three confirmed kills of the twenty-seven inflicted on the insurgents. The attack was defeated utterly and all members of the 617th survived. Hester was awarded the Silver Star in 2007, the first time a woman had won any such award since World War II, and finished her enlistment in 2009. In a move she found rather crass, an action figure modeled on her was released on 2011.
9. Katya Budanova
In 1937, Katya Budanova (middle in the above picture) had moved from being an airplane factory worker in Moscow to a flight instructor despite being only 21-years-old. When the Third Reich invaded in June 1941, she answered a call on state radio by Marina Raskova and enlisted in the 586th Fighter Regiment, an all-female unit. It wasn’t until April 1942 that she began to fly combat missions in a Yak 1 fighter, a notoriously unsafe plane so prone to overheating that it had almost failed government quality checks.
It was in September 1942 that she performed the actions that would make her name famous. She was transferred to the 437th fighter regiment, meaning that she was sent to the vitally important air combat happening over Stalingrad. The German 6th Army was in Stalingrad and the Soviet Army was preparing the pincer attacks that would trap them and inflict the defeat that would swing the war in the Allies’ favor, so Soviet control of the air was tantamount. For her part Budanova so distinguished herself that on October 6 she attacked a group of thirteen German planes by herself and shot down her first enemy plane. The next month she shot down three enemy planes, two fighters, and one bomber. As the German army tried to supply the trapped 6th Army with airdrops, she shot down five more planes, greatly assisting in strangling the supply route. On July 19, 1943 she was killed in action during a solo fight with three enemy fighters, taking one down with her.
8. Ursula Graham Bower, Naga Queen
There are few figures who would seem less likely to distinguish themselves in war than an archaeologist born to a wealthy family in Wiltshire, UK in the early 20th Century. Yet even as early as 1937, when the 23-year-old traveled to the Naga Hills in Eastern India as part of an anthropology project, it was clear that the former debutante was no average student. She gained the loyalty of the isolated Naga tribe by providing them with dearly needed medical treatment and food during a famine, convincing more than a few she was the reincarnation of a rebel priestess. When 1942 rolled around and India was threatened by invasion from the Japanese Army that had swept with startling success through Southeast Asia, 150 of them joined a desperate military unit called V Force that Bower took command of simply because there were no male officers in the area that could command their loyalty.
The guerrilla unit’s main purpose was to scout 800 miles of Indian border for any signs of advancing Japanese soldiers. Not only were their weapons hopelessly outdated rifles and elephant guns, but rations were so short that during the first month of traversing mountainous jungle terrain Bower lost 35 pounds before adjusting to the conditions. For two years they waited before the Japanese Army put in an appearance. On March 28, 1944, a column of 50 Japanese soldiers was seen approaching a vital rail depot which supplied the Allied forces in the region. One captured member of V Force’s eyes had been gouged out by the Japanese already, underlying the personal dangers they faced. Bower led the unit to intercept them and, as Time Magazine reported, wiped them out.
On April 4, V Force learned of the approach of 80,000 Japanese soldiers into India in time to get word to a British division stationed in Kohima, allowing the desperately outnumbered 1,500 men to prepare defenses against an assault by 15,000 of the enemy and eventually escape. By June the British army would regroup and drive the Japanese Army back out, but in the meantime Bower continued operations of defending Naga villages from deserters (one time capturing a gang of 30 deserters at once) and rescuing Allied pilots from planes shot down in the jungle. Her unit was disbanded in November 1944, leaving Bower to outlive her astonishing achievement by 45 years. After the war she returned to Britain, but felt that after India, “Home was no longer Home.”
7. Nancy Wake
Unlike Usula Bower, Nancy Wake was born into poverty. Originally from New Zealand, she used up her inheritance money to move to the UK when she was 16. After studying journalism, she moved to Paris, and in 1938 she married Henri Fiocca, a wealthy industrialist. In 1940, after Paris fell, she joined the French Resistance, and almost immediately became a thorn in the Gestapo’s side. By 1943 she had rescued hundreds of downed Allied pilots to safety in Spain and earned the nickname “Die Weisse Maus”(“The White Mouse”).
But she was no saint. At one point she killed a German soldier with her bare hands to escape capture and ordered a member of the resistance she suspected of being a German double agent to be executed without, as she said, it “putting (her) off breakfast.” In April 1944 she was dropped in Auvergne and coordinated attacks by 7,000 soldiers on German strongholds. At one point she had to cycle over 200 miles in about three days to contact Allied command to coordinate a weapons drop after their wireless communications network was destroyed. After the war she would express that she regretted that her efforts did not kill more Germans. “I’m not a very nice person,” was her summation of it. It was a more understandable sentiment when, after the war, she learned that the Gestapo had tortured her husband to death in their hunt for her.
6. Florence Nightingale
Unquestionably the most famous nurse in world history, during the Crimean War she was dispatched to Turkey at the head of a group of 38 female nurses in 1853 to the British-French Allied Army. This was after it had been reported that medical treatment was insufficient, and done as a means of quelling public outcry. After initially being rejected by the rest of the army hospital, the 33-year-old earned their trust by using finds from the London Times to buy needed medical supplies.
Her most significant contribution was to raise sanitation standards and improve food service. She also basically encouraged psychological care, such as writing letters to relatives for the wounded and providing them educational services. She would walk through the hospital at night with a lantern, leading to her being dubbed the “Lady with the Lamp.” Although the official claim that she lowered the mortality rate at her hospital to two percent turned out to be propaganda, there’s little denying that she saved many lives by greatly raising field hospital standards.
After the war ended in 1856 and she returned home, she published Notes on Nursing in 1859, which became used as standard text. She founded the first scientific nursing school in 1860 at St. Thomas’s Hospital in London. She also founded a school for midwives at King’s College Hospital in 1862, revolutionizing access to medical care for the working class and poor.
5. Ruby Bradley
While Florence Nightingale saved many lives, Ruby Bradley did so under much more difficult circumstances. She had the misfortune of serving as a hospital administrator on Luzon Island on December 23, 1941 when she was 37, placing her squarely in the Japanese Army’s way during America’s most disastrous defeat of World War II. After five days of hiding, she was captured by an army that would soon become notorious for their abuses of prisoners of war. Instead of submitting in captivity, she resisted in an amazingly bold manner.
Smuggling invaluable medical equipment and medicine from the camp hospital, Bradley began an improvised hospital of her own. Within three days she was performing major surgeries and delivering babies while having to resort to a tea strainer to deliver anesthetic. She had to continue stealing food and medicine to keep the hospital running for the next three years, during which time she performed more than 230 surgeries and delivered thirteen babies. Supplies were so short that she had to share some of her rations of less than half a cup of rice with local children. The toll of the medical work and the privations of the camp were so severe that by the time she was liberated she’d gone from 110 pounds to a skeletal 86.
In 1950 she faced the horror of war again, when a month into the Korean War she arrived at an evacuation hospital. Early in the war the North Korean army routed the Americans, leaving Bradley in a position where she had to remain behind as planes desperately evacuated her patients while under fire. She was said to be one of the last ones to board a plane, just in time to see a shell destroy her ambulance behind her. For all that, she lived to be 94-years-old.
4. Lyudmila Pavlichenko
Probably the only Soviet sniper the average American could name today would be Vasily Zaitsev of Enemy at the Gates-fame. During the war itself, it was likely to be Lyudmila Pavlichenko – also known as “Lady Death.” In 1942 she was sent to Washington DC as part of an effort by Joseph Stalin to increase American commitment to open a second front in Europe and ease pressure on the Red Army. Being the first Soviet citizen allowed into the White House, she so impressed Eleanor Roosevelt that the First Lady accompanied her on a tour of America. Although initial questions were of an almost comically sexist nature ( e.g., “Do Russian women go into battle wearing makeup?”) over time she won over the American public so that thousands would gather to hear her speak. Woody Guthrie even wrote a song about her.
It was all well-deserved. In the first year of the invasion, the 24-year-old Pavlinchenko had refused to be assigned work as a nurse, since she’d been training with a rifle for years. She grimly first tasted death when she had to kill two Romanian non-combatants to demonstrate her abilities to the 25th Rifle Division. Her first major battle was near Odessa, and while she was initially gripped with fear, the death of a friend nearby compelled her to kill two scouts. As the Wehrmacht pushed the Red Army back to Sevastopol, she quickly demonstrated that she was so capable that she was assigned to kill enemy snipers. By the time she was pulled from the battlefield, she’d shot 36 of them from a total of 309 enemy casualties. Over time, the Germans heard about her and began broadcasting propaganda asking her to defect, promising her plenty of chocolate. When that didn’t work, they switched to broadcasts that threatened to cut her into as many pieces as the number of soldiers she’d killed, independently confirming her body count. All this did not come easily to her: she was wounded four times in action as suffered from shell shock.
After the war, having reached the rank of major, Pavlinchenko finished her education at the University of Kiev and became a historian. In 1957 Eleanor Roosevelt went on a tour of the Soviet Union and asked to meet her again. When the two reunited, they threw protocol out the window and gave each other a big hug after she took the first lady into her bedroom, away from their supervisors.
3. Trung Sisters
Millenia before the eyes of the world turned to Vietnam, a pair of sisters named Trung Trac and Trung Nhi dared to defy the mightiest nation in Asia. In 39 AD (so no, that’s not a photo of them above – it’s a parade honoring them), Trung Trac’s husband was assassinated by the Han Dynasty on suspicion he was taking part in a mission to liberate Vietnam from China. In response, Trung Trac took command of his and other local chiefs armies, her sister Nhi joining them. Over the next year, she conquered 65 Chinese strongholds, creating an independent Vietnamese state.
It lasted for three years, until the Chinese army defeated their army at what is now Hanoi. The sisters committed suicide by drowning. Yet their legacy of standing up in the face of insuperable odds survived so that centuries later, when Vietnam achieved more lasting independence, buildings and streets were named in their honor.
2. Nadezhda Durova
While women seeing combat in the Red Army was fairly common during World War II, it was basically unheard of during the Napoleonic Era. Born in 1783, Nadezhda Durova abandoned her noble Siberian home to fight in the Csar’s Army not because of any heightened sense of patriotism or to strike a blow for feminism, but just because the societal expectations of being a woman and Siberian winters were intolerable. Joining a passing regiment of Cossacks in 1807, she quickly demonstrated bravery that crossed over into recklessness, so much so that her commanding officer and her uncle wrote to Czar Alexander asking that she be sent home, as her combat experience was sure to kill her.
When Alexander had an audience with her, she begged him to send her back to the front. She thus took part in resisting Napoleon’s infamous 1812 Russian invasion and was one of the Cossacks that chased him back, distinguishing herself particularly at the 1813 Battle of Smolensk. Despite risking death in a way that her commanding officers found particularly worrying, she survived the war and lived to be 86-years-old.
1. Lydia Litvyak
Even before the Second World War began, Litvyak was a wunderkind. She’d begun flight lessons when she was 14, and by the time she was 19 she was a flight instructor who’d trained 45 pilots. It was also at that time that Germany invaded, and like Katya Budanova she answered the call of Marina Raskova and joined the Red Air Force. (In fact, in the photo of Budanova in our earlier entry, that’s Lydia on the left.) Also like Budanova, she was assigned to fight over Stalingrad in 1942. There, she outdid her friendly rival by being the first female pilot to shoot down an enemy combatant, getting two on September 13.
The single most celebrated event of her career was when she shot down German flying ace Erwin Meier (himself with 11 kills). Meier was taken prisoner, and shortly after met Litvyak in person. He refused to believe the young woman had shot him down until she detailed the steps of the dog fight. In total, she scored between 12 and 14 kills at the Battle of Stalingrad.
Litvyak most tragically paralleled Katya Budanova in that she did not long survive her greatest achievement, either. On August 1, 1943, she was killed in action near the city of Orel while attacking a group of fighters. As it happened, it was rumored that she was taken prisoner, a condition which required that she not be given the honor Hero of the Soviet Union. It wasn’t until 1979 that an expedition found what was claimed to be her remains, and not until 1990 that Mikhail Gorbachev gave her the posthumous honor.
Dustin Koski can be followed on Twitter.