Women Heroes of World War II – the Pacific Theater – a review

Kathryn Atwood has already written two great books about women and war. History In An Hour has reviewed them both – women heroes from the Second World War and from the first. Now, we have a third – Women Heroes of World War II – the Pacific Theater: 15 Stories of Resistance, Rescue, Sabotage, and Survival.

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The books are aimed at the young adult audience but readers of any age will not fail to be moved and horrified in equal measure by the stories contained within these pages. As Kathryn writes in her foreword, she’s tried not to make the stories too graphic but we’re talking about the Rape of Nanking here, young girls forced into being ‘comfort women’, and the much-feared Kempeitai, Japan’s military police. So we approach with caution because what some of these women had to endure is mindboggling. Yes, there are tales of incarceration, torture and rape but this book is not a horror-fest. Instead, what we have is a very sympathetic portrayal of these incredibly brave and resourceful women and what they went through in the name of justice and humanity.

Japan

Atwood begins with a brief overview of Japan’s relationship with the West during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She reminds us that Japan fought on the side of the Allies during the First World War. But post-war Japan was treated dismissively by their European allies – much of it based on racism. She summarises Japan’s development into a fascist, one-party state, and how young Japanese boys were hardened and desensitized by brutal and compulsory military training.

We tend to think of the Second World War as having started on 1 September 1939, the point Germany attacked Poland. But some historians now consider 7 July 1937 to be a more accurate date – the ‘Marco Polo Bridge Incident’ which started the war between Japan and China.

On 7 December 1941, the Japanese attacked several Western strongholds in the Far East, and, most notoriously, the US Navy stationed at Pearl Harbor. Two months later, Japanese forces humiliated the British by taking Singapore. Atwood book covers all these pinch points and several more within the Pacific theatre of war.

Chin up, girls

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Atwood gives us 15 tales of women who, each in their own way, fought against Japanese aggression. Take Vivian Bullwinkel, for example. Vivian was one of 22 Australian nurses who, on 12 February 1942, was forced by Japanese soldiers into the waves off Bangka Island in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). They smiled at each other, aware of what was about to happen. Their matron, Irene Drummond, managed to call out, ‘Chin up, girls. I’m proud of you and I love you all’ before the machine guns opened fire. Vivian, although shot, survived. The only one.

Then we have Wilhelmina ‘Minnie’ Vautrin. Minnie was working in a women’s college in the Chinese city of Nanking when the Japanese invaded in December 1937. The college became a designated refugee camp. Designed for about 300 students, by the end of the year, 10,000 terrified women had squeezed in, desperate for sanctuary from Japanese soldiers intent on raping every female they could find, however young or old. Tortured by what she had witnessed in Nanking, Minnie returned home to Indianapolis where, in May 1941, she took her own life.

Another chapter relates the story of Sybil Kathigasu, a Malayan nurse, who, together with her surgeon husband, helped scores of wounded guerrilla fighters. But she was arrested and interrogated and tortured by the Kempeitai. Sybil survived the war but the injuries sustained at the hands of the Kempeitai were too severe and she died in 1948, aged 48.

Fortunately most of the women from these tales survived the war and lived to an old age. Elizabeth Macdonald, who worked as an undercover agent during the war, died in 2015 having made it passed her 100th birthday.

Atwood, as always, writes well, her admiration for these women evident. She’s not afraid to tackle the horrors they had to endure but manages to do so with great sensitivity, and avoids becoming overly voyeuristic.

These 15 extraordinarily courageous women deserve to be remembered. Kathryn Atwood’s fine book helps ensure that they will be.

Rupert Colley.

Women Heroes of World War II – the Pacific Theater: 15 Stories of Resistance, Rescue, Sabotage, and Survival by Kathryn Atwood, published by Chicago Review Press, is now available.