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Women at war: Backstage heroines in D-Day's 75th anniversary

Written by John Leicester, The Associated Press | Jun 8, 2019 7:42 AM
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FILE - In this Sept. 22, 1942 file photo, aviator Nancy Harkness Love, director of the Women's Auxiliary Ferry Squadron (WAFS), and Col. Robert H. Baker, commanding officer, inspect the first contingent of women pilots in the WAFS at the New Castle Army Air Base, Del. Women didn't get much of a mention in the 75th anniversary commemorations of D-Day that focused largely on the fighting exploits of men, yet without women Adolf Hitler wouldn't have been defeated. Legions of women built weapons of war that men fought and killed with. By keeping production lines humming of planes, tanks and other material, they freed up men sent into combat on World War II fronts. (AP Photo, File)

(Omaha Beach, France) -- Women didn't get much of a mention in the 75th anniversary commemorations of D-Day that focused largely on the fighting exploits of men, yet without them Adolf Hitler wouldn't have been defeated.

Legions of women built weapons of war that men fought and killed with. By ensuring production of planes, tanks and other material, they freed up men sent into combat on all the fronts of World War II.

Women fought, and died, too. French resistance fighter Lucie Aubrac was pregnant when she sprang her husband, Raymond, from Nazi captivity in October 1943. Across France, many schools are named after Aubrac, who died in 2007, aged 94.

Women nursed the wounded and comforted the traumatized.

"If I had to do it over ... just like the boys, I'd serve again," war nurse Leila Morrison, now 96, said as she came back this week to Normandy, where she served in the 118th Evacuation Hospital after nearly 160,000 men landed in Nazi-occupied France on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

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United States World War II veteran Leila Morrison, from Colorado, poses at Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, France, Monday, June 3, 2019. In ever dwindling numbers, and perhaps for the last time, D-Day vets are answering the call to return to Normandy for the 75th anniversary of the June 6, 1944 landings. (AP Photo/Rafael Yaghobzadeh)

"It changed my life completely, my outlook in every direction, and I am so thankful for it," Morrison told The Associated Press in an interview. "I was just 22 years old, just out of school and never been through anything like this. And it was a real wakeup realization and it stayed with me ever since, every day."

In short, women were vital cogs in the Allied and Soviet war machines that eventually overpowered those of Germany and Japan. Women were also on the front lines of horror and suffering, with countless numbers subjected to mass rapes by advancing soldiers who often carried love-letters and keep-sakes from sweethearts waiting back home, millions of whom became widows.

The success of the massive air- and seaborne D-Day invasion, commemorated across Normandy this week , was the culmination of a monumental Allied war effort that, from the outset, needed the muscles, intelligence, bravery, fortitude, patience, discretion and self-sacrifice of women, who juggled wartime service with child-care, too, while men fought to free foreign lands.

In the aftermath of the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that precipitated the United States' entry into the war, U.S. government fliers told women: "You are needed ... NOW."

"We must depend upon you -- upon womanpower," exhorted a recruitment flier distributed in Mobile, Alabama, in February 1942. "Every housewife should ask herself and answer this question: 'Can I be of greater service in my home or in a war plant?'"

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FILE - this Jan. 8, 1943 file photo shows an appeal for more women workers to enter the war factories of Britain, in London. Women didn't get much of a mention in the 75th anniversary commemorations of D-Day that focused largely on the fighting exploits of men, yet without women Adolf Hitler wouldn't have been defeated. Legions of women built weapons of war that men fought and killed with. By keeping production lines humming of planes, tanks and other material, they freed up men sent into combat on World War II fronts. (AP Photo, File)

Jean Harman, then 17 and already taking flying classes when Japan sprang its surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet, didn't hesitate to offer up her skills to the WASPs, the pioneering Women Airforce Service Pilots whose array of noncombat flight missions released male pilots for battle.

"World War II was a righteous war. We were scared to death that Germany was going to win, take over Europe and then come after us," Harman, now 94, said in an AP phone interview from her home in California. "I don't know anybody who didn't try to do something patriotic during the war."

The toughest aspect of being a WASP was "being accepted," she said. "The men were not universally accepting of us flying."

The success of D-Day and the Allied victory in the attritional Battle of Normandy that followed spelled the beginning of the end for the WASPs. On Oct. 1, 1944, the U.S. army wrote to the 1,074 women graduates of the WASP training program that they were being disbanded.

"When we needed you, you came through," Air Force Gen. Henry Arnold wrote . "But now the war situation has changed and the time has come when your volunteered services are no longer needed."

"We were just dumped," Harman said. "One day we were employed, the next day we were not. We had to pay our own way to wherever we were going next. We had no severance pay. It was just, 'That's it girls.'"

On their first job, in October 1942, they ferried 65-horsepower light Piper 'Cub' planes from the Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, factory to Mitchel Field on Long Island.

From there, women went on to pilot almost every type of wartime plane, including the massive B-29 Superfortress, used in August 1945 to drop atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, precipitating Japan's surrender and the end of the war, and swift P-51 Mustang fighters that safeguarded heavy bombers on raids to Berlin and back.

Women ferried over 50% of the combat aircraft within the United States , flying from 126 bases. Planes that dropped paratroopers on D-Day, bombed German defenses and strafed Panzer units may well have been flown first by women from factories on their way to the front, where men were at the controls.

"We didn't have the means to fight that war when we started. We had to scramble for everything we could to get men, ships, ammunition, etc., to the front to fight," said Sarah Byrn Rickman, author of "The Originals," about the women fliers. "The women stepped in and filled a gap that made this possible."

"Without the women, could we have won the war? Probably, a whole lot longer," she added. "But who knows? Their role was vital."

Thirty-eight of the women were killed in wartime service. But long considered civilians, not members of the military, they weren't entitled to the pay and benefits men got. Only in 1977, after a long fight, did they get veteran status, followed in 2010 with the Congressional Gold Medal , the highest civilian honor given by Congress.

Out of a job, Harman married a naval officer. He got flight training; she invested herself in rearing a family.

"We had babies for the next five years and that was it, you know, that part of my life was over," she said. "With four kids, we didn't have the money or that for me to do any flying later, just for fun."
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Associated Press writer Raf Casert contributed from Blay, Normandy.

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