By Danielle DeSimone
There are many heroes of World War II. Across all branches of service, our nation’s military went above and beyond the call of duty to serve our country and the world. However, there are also many unsung heroes of the war: the women who served in World War II.
Learn about five heroic women of WWII whose work and service to the nation should make them household names.
1. Jane Kendeigh
On March 6, 1945, at just 22 years old, Ensign Jane Kendeigh – a Navy nurse – landed on Iwo Jima and made history. She was the first U.S. Navy flight nurse to fly an evacuation mission to an active battlefield, and the first to land on a Pacific battlefield.
As a flight nurse, Kendeigh was trained as a nurse and trained in crash procedures, survival, and how to adjust treatments on patients in high altitude.
Kendeigh and her fellow flight nurses would go on to evacuate approximately 2,393 Marines and sailors from Iwo Jima, attending to their patients in the process of transporting them to forward operating hospitals.
Of the 1,176,048 military patients evacuated on these dangerous flights throughout the war, only 46 died en route.
2. Nancy Harkness Love
Nancy Harkness Love was the first female pilot in the Army Air Forces (AAF) and the founder and commander of the WAFS in World War II. Her passion for flying began early: Love earned her pilot’s license at the young age of 16 and although she attended Vassar College, her true goal in life was flying. After college, she worked as a test and commercial pilot alongside her husband, and also competed in National Air Races in her spare time.
Upon the U.S.’ entry into WWII, Love convinced the United States Army Air Forces (the predecessor to today’s Air Force) to create the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS), which she commanded throughout the war.
The squadron was a group of female pilots used to ferry aircraft and supplies from factories to air bases, so more male pilots were available to move to the front. Love trained women that applied to the squadron, which would later combine with the better-known Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPS) in 1943.
After the war, Love was awarded the Air Medal, which recognizes single acts of heroism or achievement while participating in aerial flight, and in 1948 she was appointed lieutenant colonel of the Air Force Reserve. Love continued to fly recreationally and remained a champion of female military veterans, demanding recognition for the efforts of the WASPS, until she passed away in 1976.
3. Susan Ahn Cuddy
For Susan Ahn Cuddy, serving in the military as a woman in World War II was personal. In 1937, her father was killed by the Japanese during a visit to Seoul, in now-South Korea, for speaking out against Japanese occupation and oppression of Korea. Three years later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. Cuddy and her two brothers became determined to join the U.S.’ fight against Japan and all three joined the U.S. military.
Cuddy graduated from San Diego University and applied to join the WAVES program – and was rejected. Despite facing overwhelming discrimination as a woman and as an Asian American living in the United States following Pearl Harbor, Cuddy applied to WAVES again, and she became the first Asian American woman to join the U.S. Navy.
Cuddy became a Link Trainer, instructing aviators in air combat tactics. Later, she would become the first female gunnery officer in the U.S. Navy, teaching naval aviators how to fire a .50-caliber machine gun. She would retire from the Navy as a lieutenant and would go on to work for U.S. Navy Intelligence, the Library of Congress and the National Security Agency (NSA). She passed away in 2015 at the age of 100.
4. Mae Krier
After watching her brother and other young men in her small North Dakota town head off to war following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Krier struck out on her own and moved to Seattle. Once there, she married a Navy sailor, and when he was deployed to the Pacific Theatre, Krier became a Rosie.
“Rosies“ were women in World War II who worked in factories and shipyards to produce munitions, planes, ships, tanks and war supplies. Krier worked on the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and B-29 Superfortress bombers during her two years as a Rosie, from 1943 to the war’s end in 1945. The work was grueling and often dangerous – it required Rosies to operate complicated machinery and work long hours.
Approximately 5 million civilian women worked as Rosies in factories across the United States, freeing up more men to fight and opening new doors for women in the workforce. Aside from being a crucial part of the war effort, Rosie the Riveters became an iconic cultural icon of American women in World War II.
Krier has continued to work as a Rosie in another capacity – by speaking publicly in front of Congress, the Pentagon and across the country about the Rosies’ importance to the nation. At the age of 94, she is currently campaigning for Congress to recognize Rosies with the Congressional Gold Medal, as well as with an established Annual Rosie the Riveter Day.
5. Ruby Bradley
Army Col. Ruby Bradley entered the U.S. Army Nurse Corps (ANC) as a surgical nurse – she would retire as one of the most decorated women in U.S. military history.
Bradley was serving as a hospital administrator at Camp John Hay in the Philippines when she was taken prisoner by the Japanese Army, only three weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. She was eventually interned with other prisoners of war (POWs) at the Santo Tomas Internment Camp in Manila.
While at the camp, Bradley got to work. She immediately began providing medical attention to other prisoners, smuggled food to those who needed it and often went hungry to make sure others didn’t. She lost so much weight that she was able to smuggle outdated medical equipment and supplies into the camp by hiding them under her clothes, without raising suspicion.
Throughout her 37 months in captivity, Bradley worked on 230 major surgeries and delivered 13 babies. By the time the camp was liberated in February 1945, Bradley weighed only 84 pounds – she had given most of her daily rations to the children in the camp. The other POWs called Bradley and her fellow nurses, "Angels in Fatigues.”
After WWII, Bradley continued her career in the Army and earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of California, just four years after the end of the war. She would go on to also serve in the Korean War, eventually being promoted to the rank of colonel before retiring in 1963. Throughout her career she received 34 decorations, medals and awards, including the Bronze Star Medal.
-This story first appeared on USO.org in September 2019. It has been updated for 2021.
More Stories Like This
Rosie the Riveter Delivered Miracles During WWII
The women behind America's war machine during World War II made miraculous contributions to the war effort.
Over 200 Years of Service: The History of Women in the U.S. Military
From the Revolutionary War to today’s fighter pilots, women have proudly served in the U.S. military for over 200 years.
Women of World War II
Women in World War II were symbols of patriotism and provided the sacrifices in supporting the troops during a difficult time in us history.
Welcoming WACs, WAVES and SPARs: Serving the Women of WWII at the USO
Step back in history and learn how the USO supported service women during World War II.
More from the USO
Sep 21, 2021
What is it Like to Be a USO Supporter in Alaska?
Whether staff members are catching a C-17 to fly out to Bethel, Alaska, or taking a two-day journey by land and sea to Cordova, Alaska, the USO Alaska team is ready to support service members and military families, no matter where their journey takes them in the state.
Sep 20, 2021
Meet the USO’s Global Ambassadors and Learn Why They Give More Than Thanks
For decades, actors, musicians, athletes and entertainers have joined the USO in supporting the troops. Now, the USO introduces the new USO Global Ambassadors who will act as a bridge between the civlian and military communities, and help raise awareness for the USO's crucial mission: Wilmer Valderrama and Kellie Pickler.