WWII: 6 Women Who Undermined The Germans At Every Turn
When it comes to war, we drown in endless stories of heroism. Most of those stories center on his not her-story. That doesn’t mean women didn’t represent.
In the days before Technicolor, women had fewer opportunities to shine. During World War II, they were at home doing men’s work, a la Rosie the Riveter.
Despite what you know, they were also on the front lines or sneaking behind them. Here are just six of those women. Their lives were exciting enough to make feature-length movies. In fact, some of their stories have been made into movies, like that of Irena Sendler.
Irena Sendler (02/15/1910 — 05/12/2008)
Sendler was Polish-born. When Germans invaded Poland, they herded the Jews into ghettos. Then the Germans built walls around those ghettos.
Sendler, wanting to do something, falsified documents to pose as a nurse. That gained her access to the ghetto, where she was able to smuggle out 2,500 children and 500 adults. To get them out mandated falsified documents for everyone she smuggled.
When the Nazi’s captured her, they tortured her for the names of her accomplices. She did not sing a single name.
In one more act of defiance, with the help of a bribed guard, she escaped her captors. She lived until the age 98.
Virginia Hall (04/06/1906 — 07/14/1982)
“The woman with the limp,” the Nazis called her. Hall was an American, who had studied in Europe. She studied language as she was adept at learning new tongues. Originally she wanted to work as a diplomat, but then she lost her foot in a hunting accident in ’33.
Hall found work as an ambulance driver in France, which is what she was doing when the Nazi’s invaded in 1940. She fled to England, where she volunteered to be a spy.
She re-entered France as an American reporter, assisting downed pilots with escape, carrying out acts of sabotage and guerrilla warfare. She did this all while holding down a real job as a journalist for the New York Post.
At one time, the Gestapo considered the woman with the limp the most dangerous spy. She later worked for the Americans, eventually for the CIA, paving the way for other women in intelligence.
Claire Phillips (12/02/1908 — 05/22/1960)
Otherwise known as Dorothy Fuentes or “High Pockets,” per her tendency to stash valuables in her lingerie, Phillips was an American spy. They even made a movie about her, I Was an American Spy.
Phillips had moved back to Manilla, the place where she gave birth to her daughter. This was sometime in the late 30s, possibly early 40s. Her first marriage didn’t last, the one to the father of her child, but then she met an American soldier, Sgt. John V. Phillips. She married him in the jungle in December of 1941.
The Japanese attacked the Philippines in early ’42. They captured and later killed her husband, which prompted her to hide her identity as Fuentes.
After being convinced by an American soldier in hiding, she decided to use her job at the nightclub to coax information out of Japanese soldiers about troop movements. That information she supplied to local guerrillas and the U.S. Navy.
The Japanese eventually caught up with Phillips. They arrested and tortured her. She spent six months in solitary before American forces liberated her.
Nancy Wake (08/30/1912 — 09/07/2011)
Wake served 20 years in her role, working against the German’s. She was a New Zealander but lived in France where she organized the French resistance and planned sabotage operations.
The Germans called her “white mouse” because she could evade capture so well.
In ’39, Wake married a wealthy Frenchman. Six months later the Nazis invaded. Wake started providing assistance to the French resistance, moving messages and food to underground groups.
Because her wealthy husband was French, Germans afforded her free travel, but they were suspicious. When they put a huge price on her head, she fled to England.
Wake trained as a spy then returned to central France with another operative. There, she earned the respect of French guerrillas by drinking them under the table. They grew the resistance troops in that area from 4,000 to 7,000.
That group gave the Germans more trouble than any other area. She once led a raid on a Gestapo HQ, where she attacked and killed a man with her bare hands.
Wake lived to age 99.
Eileen Nearne (03/15/1921 — 08/02/2010)
Nearne kept a seamless cover as a French woman, even though she worked for the British as a spy starting in 1944. Her secret was that she was actually French. This allowed her to hide in plain site.
She spent 1944 as a radio operator and courier for the British. When the Nazis captured and tortured her later that year, Nearne did not break. She gave the Gestapo fake names and addresses.
From there they put her in a camp, where she worked to stay alive. When the Americans closed in on the camp, the Nazis moved the women from the camp. She and two other women escaped.
When the escaped women noticed that the Americans had taken the camp the next day, they returned. The Americans arrested them as spies for the Germans, placing them in with the German prisoners until Nearne was able to convince them that she was a British spy.
Talk about awkward.
Virginia Roush (06/04/1910 — 09/20/1997)
From 1943 to 1945, Roush helped downed pilots escape France. She was an American, married to a Frenchman, living as a housewife. When the Germans marched on Paris, everything changed for Roush.
The local baker enlisted Roush and her husband to help him smuggle two downed American pilots to England. After they helped with that mission, the couple joined a French resistance group known as the Comet Line.
That group’s focus was returning downed allied pilots to their homes. Roush’s job was to quiz the pilots for German fakes. The Nazis knew about the Comet Line. They would send German pilots, educated in the States to pose as American soldiers.
In one plot to move a number of pilots to the south of France, the Germans captured Roush. She survived the camps, but only when liberated in 1945, and put the emphasis on the word survived. The day she got out she weighed 76 pounds.
Roush and her husband’s efforts saved more than 60 airmen.
These are only a few of the stories we know because these subjects survived to tell the tale. What we will never know are the countless stories of heroism by those who didn’t survive.
These stories give credence to the expression that, humans are at our best when life is at its worst.