While men’s names abound in the history books as the heroic figures in war, many female war heroes were involved in active warfare. They quietly served as well, making great strides in field health and the defense of their fellow soldiers. Here is a list of ten such female war heroes who, through their bravery and cleverness, would go on to be the unsung heroes of war.
Female War Heroes:
1. Nancy Wake
During World War II, Nancy Wake was an accomplished secret agent for the French Resistance. Prior to France’s fall at the hands of Germany, Nancy had served her country as an ambulance driver. The Gestapo admired her amazing ability to evade capture, calling her “The White Mouse”. She would lead a band of guerrillas against the Germans, and in one instance, her counter-intelligence led her to defeat 22,000 German soldiers with her 7,000 fighters.
2. Susan Travers
Susan Travers was English born but would enlist with the French Red Cross as a nurse. She would go on to the front lines as an ambulance driver. As if one war wasn’t enough, she would go on to become the personal driver for several doctors across many other platforms, such as in North Africa, Operation Exporter in Syria and Lebanon, Vietnam, and the Indochina conflict.
She would later be promoted to drive a colonel, and during a mission they fell under heavy fire which would tear the roof off their Jeep. Travers calmly fixed the Jeep, still under direct fire, and successfully delivered the colonel to his destination. She is the only female war heroes to have ever served in the French Foreign Legion.
3. Sarah Emma Edmonds
Canadian born Sara Emma Edmonds was one of many women who would disguise themselves as men to serve in the civil or revolutionary wars in the United States. Sarah would cross the border into America to work as a Bible bookseller in Connecticut before the outbreak of the Civil War. Spurred on by a book she read covering Fanny Campbell’s adventures dressed as a man on a pirate boat during the Revolutionary War, Sarah donned a man’s uniform and enlisted in the Union as Franklin Flint Thompson. She was originally an army medic but would go on to the front lines to serve in direct combat.
Sara was a master of disguise, sneaking into Confederate camps as a black man named Cuff or as a black laundress; she would darken her skin using silver nitrate. After she contracted malaria, she feared she would be found out, so she left the military with intentions to return after she healed. Sadly, she would find male persona listed as a deserter and at risk of execution if she were found. She chose to go to Washington DC and serve as a nurse instead. Her fellow soldiers spoke of her bravery even after her identity was revealed.
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4. Cathay Williams
Cathay Williams was a female Buffalo Soldier, the first African-American female to enlist, and the only African American to serve dressed as a man. Having been forcibly enlisted in a servant role, she would be inspired by seeing African American men serving on the front lines. She would don a male uniform, like many other female war heroes at the time, and enlist as William Cathay. She would contract Smallpox during her enlistment, and while she recovered and rejoined her battalion, the illness would take its toll on her.
Cathay was eventually discovered and discharged. After her discharge, she would become a cook at a New Mexico fort for the Union. After many years of service, Cathay found herself crippled by diabetes and neuralgia; she applied for pension benefits from the army and was denied. Her final resting place is a mystery; with no money and no pension benefits, her grave would only have been marked by a wooden cross.
5. Margaret Corbin
During the Revolutionary War, Margaret Corbin was one of many “camp followers,” or women who followed their husbands into battle to serve as cooks, nurses, and launderers. Her husband, John Corbin, was in the artillery and was responsible for firing cannons. Margaret, having watched her husband, was well-versed in firing the cannons; when her husband was killed next to the cannon, she stepped in and continued to fire it.
She was hit by enemy gunfire three times but stood her ground until the British won the skirmish and arrested her and her troop as prisoners of war. Being wounded, Margaret was allowed to go free. Like several other female war heroes, Margaret was disabled due to the wounds she received in war, but in her case, Congress awarded her benefits. Margaret was the first female ever to be awarded a military pension.
6. Maria Bochkareva
Maria Bochkareva was an abused housewife and a woman forced to work in a brothel prior to her stellar military service. After being denied recruitment the first time, Maria applied for permission directly to Tsar Nicholas II and was granted enlistment into the army. In a time when morale was declining in Russia, Maria proposed an all-female battalion that would shame the men into supporting the war effort again. She was granted permission to form her group, although women were still largely banned from army enlistment.
While her First Russian Battalion of Death fought bravely on the Western front, the men were not inspired to do the same. She was injured in the battle, prompting her return to Petrograd to heal. While Maria’s unit faced hostility and was ultimately disbanded, other female battalions would go on to victories for the Russian army. She was captured by Bolsheviks and executed for being an enemy of the working class.
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7. Aleda Lutz
One of the most highly decorated women in the US Army, Aleda Lutz was a flight nurse in World War II. She served for the 802nd Medical Air Evacuation Squad and went deeper behind enemy lines than any other unit. She would go on to evacuate 3500 soldiers through the course of her career, across many battles and in weather that would ground most other pilots. Aleda died in a plane crash on November 1, 1944, making her the first woman to have died in combat during the war.
8. The Night Witches
The Night Witches were regiments of all young, female volunteer aviators, creating a force of female war heroes to be reckoned with. These regiments were responsible for harassing and bombing German troops during World War II. During their span, the Night Witches flew more than 23,000 missions and were the most highly decorated female regiments in the Soviet Union. The squadrons lost 32 members in total. The nickname Night Witches was given to the regiments by the Germans, who likened their stealthy approaches to the sounds of broomsticks.
9. Noor Inayat Khan
Noor Inayat Khan was a member of the British Special Operatives Executive, a specialized spy and counter-intelligence organization. She was the first female to be sent to the French resistance as a wireless operator. Her intelligence and emotional state were called into question all throughout her training, with many instructors recommending against her being sent on any missions. She was seen to be dedicated and willing, however, and undertook one of the most dangerous missions of World War II.
Wireless operators were especially endangered, as they had to remain in one place while sending their messages. Staying too long often resulted in being traced and caught by German forces. Noor was subsequently captured, but according to sources close to her, never gave up any information. She tried to escape twice before succeeding in 1943; she was unfortunately recaptured shortly after and sent to a German concentration camp where, along with other female war heroes, she would be executed.
10. Lori Hill
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Lori Hill put her life on the line to draw enemy fire away from US troops in Iraq. While piloting her helicopter on a routine mission to provide security for a few ground vehicles, Lori learned that US troops were skirmishing nearby. She immediately tried to fly to the site for air support but was intercepted by enemy fire. She managed to dodge the enemy fire and contacted the ground troops, instructing them to find safety while she fired on the enemy.
Lori drew fire to her helicopter until the troops reached safety. Hill was struck in the foot by machine gun fire and lost her hydraulics and the ability to hover, meaning that she would have a hard time landing. She was able to land safely, however, and returned her crew safely to a forward operating airbase.
There are many other female war heroes who deserve to be mentioned; ones who made the ultimate sacrifice, ones who were prisoners of war, those who are celebrated and those who time forgot.