Women are often forgotten in the pages of history in their military service to America. I wanted to use this Memorial Day as a way to honor the sacrifice given by women who have served in the military from World War I to Vietnam since women were formally allowed to serve during World War I.
Although women were sheltered from direct combat during the earliest days of service, the reality of war goes beyond the direct battlefield. The wars led women to lose their lives in every conflict they participated in. I wanted to highlight the stories of women and remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.
You can hear all their stories on the podcast this week, click here.
World War I was the first war where women were formally allowed to enlist in the armed forces. And though thousands of women joined the military, most women served as nurses. Don’t miss the story of the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operator Unit.
In 1917, the first two women of the US military killed in the line of duty were Army nurses Edith Ayres and Helen Wood. They were killed on May 20, 1917. They were with Base Hospital #12 aboard the USS Mongolia en route to France. The ship’s crew fired the deck guns during a practice drill and one of the guns exploded spewing shell fragments across the deck killing both women.
Over 350,000 women served in the military during WWII. They worked primarily as nurses, secretaries, and telephone operators. This is also when the first women served as pilots through the Women Airforce Service Pilots program. Other women found jobs as chemists and engineers developing weapons of war. This included thousands of women who were recruited to work on the Manhattan Project, which led to the creation of the atomic bomb.
38 Women Airforce Service Pilots gave their lives in service to the US Army Air Corps. You can hear more about their story and their fight to be recognized in my interview with the granddaughter of Elaine Harmond, a WASP, Erin Miller in Episode 49.
Evelyn Genevieve “Sharpie” Sharp
Called “Sharpie” by her friends. The subject of a public television documentary, “Sharpie: Born to Fly.” One of the first female pilots in America. She was, in the late 1930s, the youngest aviatrix in the nation. She learned to fly in her hometown, Ord, Nebraska. And she made her first solo flight at age 15. Getting her private pilot’s license on her 17th birthday. A year later she had a commercial transport pilot’s license and began flying mail between towns in central Nebraska, as well as barnstorming rodeos and country fairs. She taught flying in South Dakota and California.
Then, in 1942, she was one of the first 23 women chosen for the Army Air Corps’ new Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Her military task was to fly newly built military aircraft from West Coast manufacturers to the Eastern US for shipment to war zones. On April 3, 1944, an engine blew up in a new P-38 she was piloting over Pennsylvania. It crashed. She was killed. The airport at Ord, Nebraska is called Sharp Field in her memory. Nebraska’s main newspaper, The Omaha World-Herald, calls her “…one of the most memorable Nebraskans of the past century” (editorial page, September 10, 2000).
Second Lieutenant Ruth M Gardiner (May 20, 1914 – July 27, 1943)
Gardiner was a nurse in the US Army Nurse Corps and was the first American nurse to lose her life in the line of duty during World War II. She was born in Canada and her family moved to the United States when she was 3. She entered the Army Nurse Corps in January of 1943.
Her first assignment was at the 349th Air Evacuation Group, Bowman Field, Kentucky. She served in the Alaskan Theater of Operations with Flight A of the 805th Medical Air Evacuation Transportation Squadron. While on a medical evacuation mission near Naknek, Alaska her plane crashed and she was killed while transporting patients. Gardiner was one of six nurses in Alaska during the Aleutian Island Campaign which assisted medical evacuations from April 1942 to July of 1943. During this time, they evacuated over 2,500 sick and wounded without injury or death to any of their other patients. The covered 3,500,000 air miles on their missions.
There were approximately 120,000 women on active duty during the Korean War. Roughly one-third of them were health care providers. They served in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), Women in the Air Force (WAF), Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service of Navy Women’s Reserves (WAVES), and Women Marines. Those who were medical personnel served in Korea in Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals (MASH units), on board hospital ships, in MEDEVAC aircraft, and in hospitals in Japan, Hawaii, and the USA that were receiving the wounded from Korea.
Eighteen women–16 nurses and two Air Force personnel–lost their lives in the Korean War. It should be noted that three women died as war correspondents: Margaret Bourke-White, Marguerite Higgins, and Sarah Park. Though not in uniform, they were female war correspondents, some of whom went along with male troops to the front lines to cover combat action.
Genevieve Marion Smith (April 25, 1905 – July 27, 1950)
Genevieve Marion Smith was born on April 25, 1905, in Epworth, Iowa. She graduated from St. Joseph Mercy Hospital School of Nursing in Dubuque, Iowa, on August 15, 1925, and joined the Army in 1928. After World War II she spent two years in Germany. In October 1948, she was transferred to the Philippines. She was later transferred to Japan, where she was serving as the chief nurse of the 155th Station Hospital in Yokohama, Japan when she was selected by General Douglas MacArthur to be the chief nurse for Korea.
Although the former World War II Army nurse was due to retire in January 1951 after 22 years of military service, she accepted the position and sealed her destiny on a fatal air flight to Korea. On July 27, 1950, a three-man aircrew, twenty-two male passengers and one female–Genevieve Smith, left Haneda, Japan for a flight to Pusan, Korea in a C-47D.
Less than a half-hour later the plane veered to the right and flipped onto its back. The tail section broke off and the plane crashed into the ocean. There was only one survivor–saved because he was sucked out of the airplane and was able to pull his parachute ripcord before he lost consciousness. He was picked up out of the water by a Japanese fishing boat eight hours later. All others on the aircraft were lost at sea.
Lieutenant Wilma Ledbetter (April 27, 1912 – August 25, 1950)
Wilma Ledbetter was born on April 27, 1912, in Chillicothe, Texas. Prior to becoming a Navy Nurse, she worked as a general nurse from 1939 to 1942. She reported for a physical examination to join the Navy Nurse Corps on March 4, 1943, in Norman, Oklahoma, where it was found that Wilma was physically qualified for appointment in the USNR Nurse Corps. She served in the Navy from July 1943 until November 1945. Ledbetter proceeded to active duty in January of 1945. In 1948, she received a permanent appointment to the rank of Lieutenant in the Navy. She once again went off active duty, and when the Korean War broke out, she rejoined the Nurse Corps. She was assigned the USS Benevolence.
On a foggy August 25, 1950, the hospital ship USS Benevolence (AH-13) was rammed by the commercial freighter, SS Mary Luckenbach about four miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Less than an hour later, the Benevolence had capsized with only a part of its hull and its big red cross showing above water. Twenty-three persons on the ship were dead and hundreds more were struggling to stay afloat and alive in freezing cold water. One Navy nurse, Lt. Wilma Ledbetter, lost her life in the tragedy.
Approximately 11,000 women served in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Almost all of them were nurses. They arrived in Vietnam as early as 1956. During Vietnam, 5 Navy nurses were awarded Purple Hearts after a Viet Cong bombing in Saigon. It was in Vietnam that the first female naval line officer, Commander Elizabeth Barret, held command during a combat zone. During the war, eight women gave their life. One of those eight American military nurses who died while serving in Vietnam was Sharon Lane. She was the only American nurse killed as a direct result of hostile fire. My guest retired Brig Gen Wilma Vaught served in Vietnam and you can hear her full interview in Episode 65.
First Lieutenant Sharon Ann Lane (July 7, 1943 – June 8, 1969)
Lane grew up in Ohio and graduated with a degree in nursing in 1965. Lane worked in a hospital for two years before going back to school for business. She made it three quarters at Canton Business College before deciding to join the US Army Nurse Corps in 1968. Lane arrived in Vietnam on April 29, 1969, and was initially assigned to the intensive care unit. A few days later was transferred to the Vietnamese Ward (Ward 4).
Although challenging, she never asked to be transferred. Working 5 days a week for 12 hours and on her off days, she worked to care for the most critically injured American soldiers. On the morning of June 8, 1969, the 312 Evacuation Hospital was struck by a salvo of 122mm rockets fired by the Viet Cong. One rocket struck in between Wards 4A and B, killing two people and wounding another twenty-seven. 1st Lt Lane died instantly of fragmentation wounds to the chest. She was one month shy of her 26th birthday.
This blog post was written in memory of Luc Gruenther.