Wednesday, March 6, 2013
UNCOVERING THE PAST & SHINING A LIGHT ON THE HEROINES: Writing World War II Women’s Fiction
By Lise Horton
The series of World War II women’s fiction novels I continue to work on have fostered an even deeper appreciation of the era than I already had. As the niece of a Marine medic who landed on Iwo Jima, the great niece of an aunt who served as a nurse in Africa, and as the daughter of a woman who well remembers the home front life of Victory Gardens, food and gas rationing, black outs and civil patrols, it is not a time in our history very far removed from me (having been born in 1955 – a scant 10 years after VJ Day). First hand recollections instilled a feverish desire to know everything I can about the time, the world, how it began, how we rallied, and how the events changed us.
Since I’ve become a writer, it is not surprising that I gravitated to the period. When contemplating my series of novels, I decided that each book would have as its protagonist/heroine, a woman fulfilling a role that women took on in real life. I came to this decision for a specific reason. All through my life, reading WWII histories, I was continually frustrated by the lack of information on women. A mention here or there, very briefly, of nurses, and occasional references to women in the USO. Aside from the Rosie the Riveter coverage, presented mostly as novelty to break up the important stuff, the most frequent mention of women in wartime was coverage of prostitution.
I started searching because one day my Mother mentioned that her chemistry professor at Skidmore in the early 1950’s had been a chemist working on the atomic bomb at the Los Alamos location of the Manhattan Project – along with some of the most famous scientists in the world. That got me determined to find out more about the other women involved.
Mom also regaled me with stories about her youth during the war. She and my grandparents had a hefty Victory garden and we still have a ration book that my grandmother used. My grandfather was a foreman in the Scranton coal mines and, as such, got additional gas rations because he was employed in the war effort. Neighbors volunteered to be members of the civil patrols. All the kids participated in gathering tin, rubber and the ladies donated silk for parachutes, doing without stockings for the duration so that paratroopers and flight crews could be saved. Women at home scrimped, saved, sacrificed and sent care packages that kept their men in touch with home and what – and who – they were fighting for. No matter who they were, the folks at home did their part and have wonderful stories to be told.
Then I read a book by Janet Dailey, Silver Wings and Santiago Blue, which was a novel about the Women Airforce Service Pilots – the WASPS – who’d taken on the daunting task of plane ferry duty, anti-aircraft gunnery target towing, and the sometimes deadly job of test pilots for the various new aircraft being rolled out to beat the Germans and Japanese in the air wars above Europe and the Pacific. Investigating a bit I discovered a wealth of information.
Reading a biography of Ernest Hemingway, I encountered Martha Gelhorn, one of his wives who reported from many locales, including the front lines, during WWII. This discovery led me to uncover the cadre of female reporters and photographers who were right in the thick of things with the men – despite the battle they had to be permitted, and ultimately, accepted in that role.
Yet again, I was reading a book (I’ve been known to do that ….) called Shining Through by Susan Isaacs. The novel concerned a young Jewish woman who decides to help the war effort and ends up working for the US government and the OSS – the clandestine group that would become the CIA. As a German-speaker, she ultimately volunteers to become a spy in Germany, putting her own life in peril. Lo and behold, I discovered that, indeed, numerous intrepid American women were employed by the OSS (including Julia Child), and while most worked at desks or other, safer duties, many actually were trained and went into occupied territories, a number of them losing their lives.
Once I became enmeshed in the history of the female participants in WWII, and called to mind my aunt’s nursing service, that was another role I investigated. Sure enough, the role of the nurse was a vital one, and many perished in their duties working on the front lines. Early in the war when the generals let Guadalcanal surrender, a number of them were left behind caring for wounded prisoners and these nurses were subsequently captured, and spent the remainder of the war in Japanese POW camps such as Santo Tomaso, under horrific conditions – many of them, along with other internees, dying of disease and starvation.
Bette Midler’s film, “For The Boys” tells the story of a character some say was based on real-life singer Martha Raye and her USO tours during WWII. Lots of other women, famous and otherwise, toured with the USO. Marlene Dietrich for example, though German, was a fervent anti-Nazi and was a familiar USO performer. Soldiers recalled a particular instance in which she, clad in her ubiquitous slacks, helped soldiers get a rolled over Jeep back upright, wiping her hands and walking away afterwards.
Attempting to uncover more of the history of New York City during the War I came across “Over There” and “Helluva Town”, non-fiction titles that covered in great detail the City and surrounding areas during that time. Wouldn’t you know it? While I already knew of the most famous of the WWII female – the iconic Rosie the Riveter – when I read of the plot to sabotage the Long Island Grumman aircraft factory by an American Bund group, which was being funded by money coming in from the German Nazi party, a light bulb went off – how about a heroine Rosie who helps to thwart the plot?
An old movie from my (impressionable) youth, “The Yellow Rolls Royce”, a trilogy of romances involving the title auto. In one segment, a widowed American woman is trapped in Yugoslavia when war breaks out. With her car, her money, and her American fortitude, she aids the Yugoslav partisans in their battle against the Russian and German invaders (falling in love with one, natch). In fact, upon researching, there were many women caught behind enemy lines – including the wives and daughters of missionaries in the Far East. Yet another heroine’s story was born!
So. Why were the exploits of these women so casually dealt with in the histories? I guess because most of them were written by men. But in recent years numerous female historians have uncovered these courageous women and have begun telling their stories. And the self-publishing industry has allowed many, many women who participated to relate their own stories. These first-hand accounts are exceptionally valuable because you are getting the flavor of the times, and the people and details you cannot find as easily in current reports about those times.
It’s been a wonderfully educational experience studying all of the material, and learning of more and more roles American women played in the struggle, and victory, during this conflict. And it just goes to show that ideas come from innumerable sources. For me, I’m well on my way thanks to personal histories, film and fiction, and historical sources. All of this information also means that I can, with luck, help illuminate the history of women in wartime by virtue of my fiction.