Monday, December 26, 2016

Women Heroes of World War II - The Pacific Theater: 15 Stories of Resistance, Rescue, Sabotage, and Survival by Kathryn Atwood

Ever since I started this blog, I've thought a lot about heroes and heroism. In her new book, Women Heroes of World War II - The Pacific Theater, Kathryn Atwood takes as her guiding principle two quotes. One from humanist and women's rights activist Zainab Salbi, which reads "War can teach you so much about evil, and so much about good." The other quote is from diplomat/historian George F. Kennan. who said "Heroism is endurance for one moment more." The 15 women that Atwood has chosen for her second book about woman in WWII are indeed examples of heroes who endured in the midst of and despite so many of the wartime evils they encountered.

Once again, Atwood has included stories about courageous nurses, journalists, a photographer, a missionary, a teenage survivor of a Japanese POW internment camp, and yes, even a 14 year old rape survivor who was forced to become a comfort woman for the occupying Japanese in the Philippines. Their nationalities are as varied as their situations, ranging from American to Dutch, Malayan, Chinese, Filipino, British, and Australian, but each and every one has a story this is as harrowing as it is compelling.

Most people think that World War II began with Germany's invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. I've always thought it to have began in 1937, with the Second Sino-Japanese War and the fall of Nanjing, but Atwood takes the reader back to 1932 China. The Japanese had already invaded Manchuria, and now they set their sites on Shanghai. American reporter Peggy Hull had just arrive in China thinking to write articles about women there, but suddenly she found herself the war correspondent for the NY Daily News instead. Peggy reported on this early fighting between Japan and China despite the danger, but was later ironically refused accreditation as a war correspondent when the fighting intensified, and was forced to report from Hawaii until 1945.

Peggy's story is followed by that of Minnie Vautrin, also an American. When the Japanese invaded Nanjing in 1937, Minnie was working at a woman's college there. The college was turned into a woman's refugee camp, in an attempt to protect them being raped by the Japanese, who were intent on raping every female, in Nanjing, regardless of age. By the end of 1937, the college had become a sanctuary for 10,000 women.

The most difficult story to read is that of Maria Rosa Henson, a 14 year old Filipina who had always lived in near poverty with her mother. After the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, Maria was repeatedly raped by soldiers as she went about collecting desperately needed firewood. When she and her mother finally moved in with a male relative, he talked Maria into joining the Hukbalahap, or Huk, a guerrilla army, working as a courier. One day, she was taken by the Japanese to a garrison, where she was repeatedly beaten and raped until some Huk guerrilla's rescued her. Atwood continues Maria's story, telling about her attempts to make the plight of "comfort women" known and attempts to make the Japanese government acknowledge what was done to Maria and so many other women during WWII.

Some of the experiences included in this volume are difficult to read, case in point is that of Maria, but they all are important and deserve the kind of acknowledgement that Atwood gives the women in her "hero" books. So many could have given up, turned their backs, left it all for someone else to do, but instead these courageous women endured that one moment more.

Atwood has organized Women Heroes of World War II - The Pacific Theater in sections of place: I- China; II- the Philippines; III- Malaya, Singapore, Dutch East Indies; IV- Iwo Jima and Okinawa. I was already familiar with some of the stories she included, like that of American photographer Dickey Chappelle but I still found Atwood's bio of her to be fresh and informative. In fact, I found that to be true of all the stories. They are written with Atwood's characteristic energy, and though they are short, the stories are so succinct that I felt I had actually read much more than I did.  

Be sure to read the Introduction, where Atwood has included some very important background information. There is also a map of the Pacific Theater to help reader unfamiliar with that part of the world. At the end of each woman's story, readers will find Learn More suggestions for further reading, and the Epilogue will take them past the end of WWII and into the Cold War.  Back Matter includes Discussion Questions and Suggestions for Further Study, perfect for high school students studying WWII, an extensive Bibliography and, as with all good researchers, Notes used for each section of the book.

For an excellent overall picture of this part of the world in WWII, pair Women Heroes of World War II - The Pacific Theater with Mary Cronk Farrell's book Pure Grit: How American World War II Nurses Survived Battle and Prison Camp in the Pacific.

I cannot recommend this new book by Kathryn Atwood highly enough.

This book is recommended for readers age 13+
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Chicago Review Press

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