Women Heroes of World War II: The Pacific Theater by Kathyrn J. Atwood

The 75th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor is December 7th and if you buy or borrow only one book to read about WWII for yourself or the young people in your life, let it be this one. Through covering the action of these 15 women, Atwood provides an excellent introduction to the reasons for the war and many of the themes, conditions, and major battles of the war years in the Pacific. She doesn’t shy away from the atrocities of the war, yet presents the material in a way that’s suitable for  ages 14 & up.

Last year I reviewed Atwood’s Women Heroes of World War I and was thrilled when asked if I’d like a review copy of her latest, Women Heroes of World War II: The Pacific Theater.

This is Atwood’s second book on Women Heroes of WWII. The first came out in 2011 and focused on the European Theater. Turning her attention this time to the Pacific Theater, Atwood has written another excellent biographical/historical work that introduces readers to the 15 women featured within as well as to the major battles and themes of the war and situates it in its historical context. Her introduction provides context for Japanese aggression beginning with Matthew Perry’s expedition that forced the opening of Japan’s borders to the West in 1854, to World War I and its fallout, to the rise of fascist Japan and its quest to conquer neighboring countries.

As you can see in the map below, by 1942 Japan had conquered many lands (the darker areas). The red circle marks the Hawaii Islands and Pearl Harbor.

This map also helps readers place the women featured in this book. These woman (and girls) were reporters, nurses, missionaries, entertainers, and civilians who took action to defend and help their peers, loved ones, and countries, either through support and/or sabotaged of the enemy. From this book it is clear that women were pro-active participants in the war effort. How many more unknown women heroes were there? There are also, of course, many unknown male heroes whose stories will never be told, but since women rarely get their due in history books, especially on the topic of war, Atwood’s work is vitally important and a significant contribution to the fields of military history, biography, and history in general.

The book is organized into four sections:

Part I: China
1. Peggy Hull: In a War Zone — American, reporter in China in 1932.
2. Minnie Vautrin: American Hero at the Nanking Massacre — American, college president.
3. Gladys Aylward: “All China Is a Battlefield” — British, later Chinese citizen, missionary.

Part II: The US and Philippines
4. Elizabeth MacDonald: Pear Harbor Reporter and OSS Agent — American, OSS agent.
5. Denny Williams: American Nurse Under Fire — American. former US Army Nurse living in Manila.
6. Margaret Utinsky: The Miss U Network — American, Red Cross Nurse & Canteen Operator.
7. Yay Panlilio: Guerrilla Warrior –American father/ Filipino Mother, undercover agent for US Army Intelligence.
8. Claire Phillips: Manila Agent — American. entertainer ran spy network as “High Pockets.”
9. Maria Rosa Henson: Guerrilla Courier and Rape Survivor — Filipina, 14 year old rape survivor/sexual slave (aka Japanese “comfort woman”).

Part III: Malaya, Singapore, Dutch East Indies
10. Sybil Kathigasu: “This Was War” — Malayan, nurse and midwife, provided medical assistance to guerilla fighters on penalty of death.
11. Elizabeth Choy: “Justice Will Triumph” — Ethnic Chinese from Borneo, living in Singapore, volunteered as nurse, POW, later first woman to serve on Singapore’s Legislative Council.
12. Vivian Bullwinkel: Sole Survivor — Australian, Army Nurse, sole survivor of 22 nurses who were slaughtered on Banka Island.
13. Helen Colijn: Rising Above — Dutch, teenage POW internment camp survivor.

Part IV: Iwo Jima and Okinawa
14. Jane Kendeigh: Navy Flight Nurse — American, first nurse to land on Okinawa, April 7, 1945 (the battle raged from April 1 – June 22)
15. Dickey Chapelle: “As Far Forward as You’ll Let Me” — American, photographer at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Survived WWII, died from wounds in Vietnam on November 4, 1965 while on patrol with the Marines. She was the first female American corresponded to be killed in action.

Each chapter offers context about the subject’s personal life and situates her within the larger geopolitical setting. Atwood’s writing is clear and energetic. Each woman’s story reads like a mini-action adventure with historical facts and anecdotes seamlessly woven through. There are 20 black and white photos and occasional text boxes explore related events such as the Burma Railway, Kamikazes, and Executive Order #9066 (The order that forced more than 100,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps).

Like the Introduction, the Epilogue concisely wraps up the end of the war, the recovery from the war, and explains the roots of the Cold War. Atwood includes a section of Discussion Questions and Suggestions for Further Study to get readers thinking and students talking. One of the questions that interested me is the difference between German civilian and Japanese civilian attitudes toward the war: “Every German student must learn about Hitler and Nazism while Japanese students learn very little about their nation’s role in the war. Why?”

Vivian Bullwinkel (source)

Of all the stories in this book, Vivian Bullwinkel’s is one that haunts me. She was an Australian Army Nurse who, after surviving a ship bombing and sinking, was marched back into the water at Banka Island along with 22 of her fellow nurses and gunned down by Japanese soldiers. She was left for dead and woke up hours later, having floated back to land. Before the bullets started to fly, the group’s leader, Irene Drummond, said, “Chin up girls, I’m proud of you and I love you all.” What courage in the face of certain death. Bullwinkel went on to survive in the jungle and as a POW for three years before the war’s end. She died in 2000 at the age of 84.


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