Women in World War II


Today we are going to look at some of the American women who made a difference during World War II. Women's rights had progressed between the two world wars as well as progress in technology. By World War II women were pilots. Computers were introduced to the mix. And of course there were the nurses and spies. Once again my go to book is Heroism Begins with Her by Winifred Conkling. I will be sharing additional sources as well as books (mostly children's) about each of the amazing women I will share. 

Before we begin on the specific women I am going to share today I want to share a bit about women who there is not as much about or available. First I want to share about Bernice Frankel. You may not have heard of Bernice by that name, but I guarantee you know her by her stage name--Bea Arthur. She enlisted in the Marines Corps Women's Auxiliary in 1943. She worked as a typist and truck driver. She was promoted to staff sergeant and honorably discharged in 1945 after the war ended. Carmen Contreras-Bozak became the first Hispanic woman to serve in the United States Women's Army Corps in 1942. She was born in Puerto Rico. The army was looking for bilingual people to help with encoding, translating and communicating. Carmen was the first of nearly two hundred Puerto Rican women who served during the war. Dr. Margaret Craighill was the first female commissioned officer in the United States Army Medical Corps. She served as the women's consultant to the surgeon general of the army. She was responsible for the for commanding the Women's Health and Welfare Unit. She developed new health screenings for women enlisting. She also traveled to war zones in England, France, Italy, Egypt, Iran, China, and the Philippines as well as other countries and reported on the nurses working under extreme circumstances. She left the Army in 1946 and did work at Winter Veterans Hospital in Topeka, Kansas for a bit. Margaret Bourke-White was the first official female photographer for the United States Army in World War II. In 1941 she was the only foreign photographer present in Moscow when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. She became the first woman allowed to work in combat zones. She traveled with the Army Air Forces. She also went with General George S. Patton to the concentration camp at Buchenwald. 

Jacqueline Cochran

Jacqueline Cochran standing on the wing of her aircraft

Bessie Lee Pittman was born on May 11, 1906 in Pensacola, Florida. She grew up in a poor family and did many menial jobs as a child.  She began using the name Jackie when she was a teenager and at age fourteen married Robert Cochran. The marriage did not last. She married Floyd Odium in 1932 after meeting him on a trip to Miami. She also took her first ride in an airplane around this time and fell in love with flying. She began taking lessons at Roosevelt Airfield on Long Island in New York and got her pilot's license in three weeks. In two years she had her commercial pilot's license. In 1935 she became the first woman to enter the Bendix Trophy Race. In 1937 she placed third and in 1938 she won the competition. Before the United States entered the war Jackie worked with Wings for Britain. She became the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic Ocean while working for them. She volunteered with the British Royal Air Force and worked with the British Air Transport Auxiliary, a group of female pilots that flew noncombat missions. When she returned to the United States in 1943 she discovered the United States had a program for female pilots called Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS). Nancy Love had already been appointed as the trainer. Jackie wanted the position. She lobbied the military to expand the program and hire her as the director. In July 1943 she became the director of the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs). More than 1,000 women served as WASPs during the war. It would not be until 1977 that WASPs would however be given the full military status. She became the first woman civilian to be awarded the Distinguished Service Medal by the U.S. government. In 1948 she was commissioned as a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserves. In 1953 she became the first woman to break the sound barrier. She broke records in speed, altitude, and distance flying. She was promoted to colonel one year before her retirement. She died on August 9, 1980 in her home in California. At the time of her death she held more speed, altitude, distance flying records than any other pilot (male or female) in aviation. Additional Sources: Aviation Hall of Fame Association. "Cocrhan, Jacqueline." Cochran, Jacqueline : National Aviation Hall of Fame. Smithsonian National Museum of Air and Space. "Jacqueline Cochran." Women in Aviation and Space History - Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (

I found some books featuring Jackie.

Charity Adams Earley

"Somewhere in England, Maj. Charity E. Adams...and Capt. Abbie N. Campbell...inspect the first contingent of Negro mem - NARA - 531249

Charity Adams Earley was born on December 5, 1918 in Kittrell, North Carolina. Her parents were well educated and instilled a love for reading and education in their children. Charity was very intelligent. She began elementary school in second grade. At the end of elementary school her class was tested for early admittance to high school. She and twelve other students passed the test, but her parents did not allow her to move up. She attended Wilburforce University in Ohio and majored in mathematics, Latin, and physics and minored in history. She graduated in 1938 and taught math and physics in a junior high in South Carolina. In 1942 the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC), later known as the Women's Army Corps (WAC), was created. Charity decided to apply to the program. She was accepted and became the first Black woman to be an officer in the WAAC. She was sent for training at Fort Des Moines. She completed training and was commissioned. She worked as a staff training officer, a station control officer, and a commander at Fort Des Moines. In 1943 she was promoted to major making her the highest ranking female officer at the training center. In 1944 she was chosen to be commander of the first WAC Blacks to go overseas. Their mission was to organize and direct mail that had gone undelivered to United States servicemen. Charity estimated that her unit handled 65,000 pieces of mail a day. She was promoted to lieutenant colonel, the highest rank a female officer in WAC could have. She was directly under the colonel and director of the organization, Oveta Culp Hobby (see more about her below). She left WAC in 1946 and went on to get her master's degree. She worked for the Veteran's Administration in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1949 she married Stanley A. Earley, Jr. and moved to Zurich, Switzerland where her husband was training as a doctor. In 1996 the Smithsonian National Postal Museum honored Charity and her unit for their work in World War II. Charity died in 2002. Additional Source: Spring, Kelly. "Charity Earley" National Women's History Museum. 2017.

I only found a couple books featuring Charity and they are not really children's books, but I felt it important to share with you the highest ranking Black woman in the army.

Claire Phillips

Claire Maybelle Snyder was born on December 2, 1907 in Michigan. She moved to Portland, Oregon as a child with her mother, stepfather and sisters. She joined a musical company on tour in the Philippines. While overseas she met and married John Phillips, who was an American soldier. He was captured by the Japanese and died in a prison camp. A soldier convinced Claire to join a spy ring and pass information to the Americans. She agreed so she could avenge her husband's death. She took on the name Dorothy Clara Fuentas and made up a sotry about her past as a Philippine born Italian dancer. Her secret agent name was Agent High Pockets since she tended to use her brassiere to smuggle things. She and another dancer opened a nightclub in Manila known as the Tsubaki Club. It was located near the harbor where the military ships were docked. It catered to the Japanese soldiers. The performers sang Japanese songs and it featured Japanese drinks. Every night Claire would dance for the officers and encourage them to drink. She would flirt with them and try to get information. Sometimes she would have an employee pretend to take a photo of her with an officer. She would ask him for his address so she could send the picture to him and thus find out where the military was headed next. At the end of the evening she would write a report that she and the other spies in her operation discovered and send the report by messenger to General MacArthur. In 1944 one of the messengers was captured and her identity was discovered. She was arrested and taken to a prisoner of war camp. She was tortured there but never gave up any names or information about the spy ring. After nine months the American troops freed her and she was near death due to starvation. She also smuggled medicine, food, money and morale building news to the prisoners of war during the war. On the recommendation of General MacArthur she received the Medal of Freedom in 1951. She wrote her memoir and it was the basis of the movie, I Was an American Spy. She died in 1960 in Portland, Oregon. Additional Source:  Unander, Sig. Oregon Encyclopedia. "Claire Maybelle Phillips." Claire Maybelle Phillips (1907-1960) (

I only found a few books featuring Claire and again they are not really children's books. 

Joy Bright Hancock

USS Lewis Hancock (DD-675) christening by LT Joy Bright Hancock 80-G-81255
Joy Bright Hancock christening the USS Lewis Hancock, the ship named after her late husband

Joy Bright Hancock was born on May 4, 1898 in Wildwood, New Jersey. She served in the Navy for both World War I and World War II. She was among the first wave of women allowed to enlist in the Navy. During World War I she was a Yeoman (F) First Class and served at the New York Shipbuilding Company in New Jersey. By the end of the war she was Chief Yeoman at the U.S. Naval Station in Cape May, New Jersey. After the war she worked as a civilian for the Navy. She married navy pilot Lieutenant Charles Grey Little, but he died in 1921 in an airship accident. In 1924 she married navy pilot, Lieutenant Commander Lewis Hancock, Jr. He also died in an airship accident the following year. At this point she decided to face her fear of air travel and learned how to fly. She earned her pilot license. She also loved learning about how engines worked. She would take them apart and put them back together. In the first year of World War II she was commissioned as a Lieutenant, Women's Reserve, Navy Reserve. By July 1946 she had advanced to the rank of Captain. She testified before the Senate in favor of allowing women to be permanent members of the armed services. The Women's Armed Service Integration Act of 1948 passed and she was one of the eight first women to be sworn into the regular Navy. After the war she served as Director of the Women's Reserves and Assistant Chief of Personnel for Women. She left active duty in 1953. In 1954 she married Vice Admiral Ralph A. Ofstie but he died several years later. She died on August 26, 1980.   Additional Source: Naval History and Heritage Command. "Joy Bright Hancock." Hancock, Joy Bright (

The only books I found are actually by Joy. Again they don't seem to be children's books. 

Susan Ahn Cuddy

Ahn Siblings World War II
Susan Ahn with her Siblings

Susan Ahn was born on January 16, 1915 in Los Angeles, California. Her parents had moved from Korea to the United States in 1902. They were the first married Korean couple to immigrate to the United States. In school Susan played sports such as field hockey and baseball. In college she was in charge of the women's baseball team and played second base. She actually played for the Bing Crosby Croonerettes but had to quit to maintain her amateur status for playing on the college team. She graduated from San Diego University in 1940. In 1942 she enlisted in the Naval Reserve Midshipmen's School at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. She became the first Asian American woman to serve in the navy. She also became the first Korean American woman to serve in the military and the first navy gunnery officer. She taught fighter pilots how to shoot down the enemy aircraft. Some of the men did not like taking orders from a woman and for that matter an Asian American woman, but she put them in their place since she was a superior to them. In April 1947 she married Chief Petty Officer Francis X. Cuddy. He was an Irish American and was a code breaker who spoke Japanese fluently. Their marriage violated the laws of the time that did not allow biracial marriages, but they were never prosecuted. Susan left the navy after the war and spent her career working for the National Security Agency in Washington, DC. Her work helped defend the United States during the cold war with the Soviet Union. In 2003 the State Assembly of California District 28 named Susan the Woman of the Year for her commitment to public service. In 2006 she received the American Courage Award from the Asian American Justice Center in Washington, DC. On June 24, 2015 Susan died in her home in Northridge, California. Additional Source: "Susan Ahn Cuddy - A True Role Model." Susan Ahn Cuddy

I only found one book featuring Susan, it is Willow Tree Shade: The Susan Ahn Cuddy Story by John Cha. 

Oveta Culp Hobby

Hobby Swear In

Oveta Culp was born on January 19, 1905 in Kileen, Texas. Her father was a lawyer and a state legislator. Oveta spent quite a bit of time watching her father in chambers as a teenager. At the age of 21 Oveta worked for the Texas House of Representatives as the expert on rules and procedures. Later she pursued a career in journalism. She worked for the Houston Post and eventually became publisher. In 1931 she married William Hobby, the former governor of Texas and a close friend of her father's. She was 29 and he was 53. When World War II began Oveta was contacted by an army general to help coordinate female volunteers within the military. Her husband encouraged her to serve and she became the director of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps which later became the Women's Army Corps. She oversaw the introduction to women in the armed forces as well as their service overseas. She was promoted to the rank of colonel and received the Distinguished Service Medal. She was the first woman in the army to receive this award. She also received honorary degrees from seventeen colleges and universities. After the war Oveta worked in radio and television. She also returned to the Houston Post. In 1953 she became the first secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare which later became the Department of Heath and Human Services. One of her biggest achievements in this position was the approval of the Salk polio vaccine. She died of a stroke on August 16, 1995. Additional Source: Spring, Kelly. "Oveta Hobby" National Women's History Museum. 2017.

I found a few books featuring Oveta as well as the Time Magazine that she was featured on the cover!

Virginia Hall

Virginia Hall

Virginia Hall was born in 1906 in Baltimore, Maryland to a wealthy family. She was raised to marry into her own privileged circle, but Virginia wanted adventure. She liked to hunt. She briefly attended college at Barnard and Radcliffe but went to Paris and fell in love with France.  She wanted to become a diplomat but got pushback from the State Department. Of the 1,500 U.S. Diplomats only six were female. She did a clerical job in the U.S. Embassy in Turkey. While out hunting birds she shot herself in the foot. Gangrene set in and her leg was amputated below the knee. She had to learn to use a clunky wooden leg. When World War II erupted she volunteered to drive an ambulance in France. When France became too overrun she fled to Britain. She got put in touch with the intelligence division and got limited training. She was among the first British spies sent into Nazi-occupied Germany. She posed as a reporter for the New York Post. In the beginning of the war the Nazis did not think a woman would be a spy so she was able to stay one step ahead of them. She operated in Lyon. She lived at a convent and befriended a brothel owner. She was able to get information from the French prostitutes that they gathered from the German officers. She also organized French resistance fighters. She provided safe houses and intelligence. The Germans began to notice her. Virginia had to keep changing her appearance. The Gestapo's infamous Klaus Barbie who was known as the Butcher of Lyon was after her. He labeled her the enemy's most dangerous spy. The Nazis almost caught her. She escaped to Spain but the escape included walking over 50 miles in heavy snow in the Pyrenees Mountains. It was a treacherous walk and especially for someone with a wooden leg and limp. She was arrested in Spain for not having an entrance stamp in her passport but was released after six weeks and she made her way back to Britain. The Americans were entering the war and did not have many people to spy in France. They needed Virginia. She got tips from makeup artists and had a dentist grind down her beautiful teeth to look like a French milkmaid's teeth. Her second tour in France was even more successful than the first. She called in airdrops for the French resistance. They blew up bridges and sabotaged trains and reclaimed villages before the Allied troops arrived. Her contributions were recognized in private. President Harry Truman wanted to publicly honor her but she declined. She was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. She was the only woman awarded one for service in World War II. She joined the newly formed CIA but found she was doing deskwork and not getting the adventure she craved. She retired in 1966. She died in 1982 in Maryland. Her story was not made public during her life. Sources: Myre, Greg. NPR. "'A Woman of No Importance' Finally Gets Her Due." (18 Apr 2018) 'A Woman Of No Importance': American Spy Virginia Hall Finally Gets Her Due : NPR and Roos, Dave. History. "Word War II's 'Most Dangerous' Allied Spy Was a Woman with a Wooden Leg." (22 Feb 2021) World War II's 'Most Dangerous’ Allied Spy Was a Woman With a Wooden Leg - HISTORY

I found some books about Virginia including kids' books! One of them is coming out in September of this year as well. There is also apparently a movie, A Call to Spy. There is also this YouTube video.

Grace Murray Hopper

Grace Hopper and UNIVAC

Grace Brewster Murray was born on December 9, 1906 in New York City. She attended private schools and her family vacationed in the summers in New Hampshire. She graduated from Vassar College in 1928 with degrees in mathematics and physics. She went on to get her master's degree in mathematics from Yale University in 1930. She married New York University professor Vincent Foster Hopper in 1930. They divorced in 1945. In 1930 she taught at Vassar while pursuing her doctorate at Yale under the guidance of Howard Engstrom. In 1934 she received her Ph.D. in mathematics and mathematical physics. She studied mathematics under Richard Courant for one year while she was on sabbatical from Vassar. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the United States entering the war, Grace decided to join the war efforts. She tried to enlist in the navy but was turned away for being too old at the age of 34. She took a leave of absence from Vassar and joined the WAVES. She had to get a waiver to join because she was 15 pounds underweight. The Navy overlooked her age and weight when they realized what she could do in the development of computers for use in the military. Hopper trained and graduated from the Naval Reserve Shipman's School at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. She was sworn in as lieutenant, junior grade, and was assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard University. There she became the third programmer of the Mark I, the world's first large-scale computer. She wrote the user manual for Mark I and helped develop Mark II and Mark III. In 1945 she and her colleagues encountered a problem. They took apart the Mark II and discovered a moth in it. She is the first one to use the term bug as a computer problem and the term debugging a computer. She stayed in that position until 1949. She turned down the position as a full professor at Vassar to remain as the programmer. In 1949 she helped develop the first commercial computer known as UNIVAC. She suggested that the team develop a language that used English words. Her team told her that computers did not know English. She knew if it was programmed properly it could and went to work. In 1952 she completed a compiler which could translate one computer program into another. It became the foundation of the computer program COBAL. In 1966 she retired from the Naval Reserve. The next year the navy recalled her to active duty because the computer programmers needed her help standardizing communication between different computer languages. She was promoted to captain in 1973 and commodore in 1983. The rank of commodore was renamed to rear admiral in 1985. When she retired in 1986 she was almost 80 years old and was the oldest active duty commissioned officer in the navy.  Her work in computer science earned her the nickname Amazing Grace. She was awarded the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the National Medal of Technology, and forty honorary degrees from universities around the world. President Barrack Obama posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016. A supercomputer and a guided missile destroyer were named in her honor. She died on January 1, 1992 in Arlington, Virginia. Additional Source: YaleNews. "Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1992): A Legacy of Innovation and Service." (10 Feb 2017) Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1992): A legacy of innovation and service | YaleNews

There are many children's books about this amazing woman. Here are a few to check out and use to teach your kids about her.

This concludes our series of Women in Wars. Of course there are more stories from each of the wars we covered as well as the wars after them. Heroism Begins with Her has chapters on women in the Korean War, Vietnam War, and modern military. There are also Kathryn J. Atwood's series of women in different wars including the Vietnam War which is a young adult series. And of course over time women have gained more rights and are allowed to be more active in the military and even go into combat, so there are even more women heroes as time goes on. Be sure to check out our introduction, Revolutionary War, Civil War, and World War I posts as well.