Book Review: Women Heroes of World War II - The Pacific Theater

Women Heroes of World War II - The Pacific Theater
Published By: Chicago Review Press
Publication Date: October 1, 2016
Page Count: 272
Source: ARC Kindly Provided by Publisher
Young Adult - Nonfiction, History

Women Heroes of World War II – the Pacific Theater is a collection for young adults of brief sketches of the wartime contributions of fifteen extraordinary women. They include reporters, spies, nurses, guerillas, photographers, and survivors. I chose to review this book because most of the contributions of women to history were conspicuously absent from my history textbooks as I was growing up. I can’t say for certain, but I expect this is still largely the case, and Atwood’s book Women Heroes of World War II – the Pacific Theater definitely helps fill that gap. 

Reading the accounts of these fifteen women was by turns thrilling, horrifying, and ultimately uplifting. In the first section, covering the Japanese invasion of China, Atwood writes about Minnie Vautrin who risked her own safety to protect women and girls during the Nanking Massacre (in which 300,000 civilians and unarmed POWs were murdered and tens of thousands of women were raped). The second part of the book covers heroes in the U.S. and the Philippines. Two of the women, Margaret Utinsky and Claire Phillips, ran an underground network in support of the Philippine resistance. Yay Panlilio, a journalist in Manila, actually joined a guerilla group! In the section of the book covering Malaya, Singapore and the Dutch East Indies, the reader learns about Elizabeth Choy who helped smuggle food and other items into a nearby prison camp, and a teenager who survived extreme deprivation in another Japanese prison camp. In the final segment of Women Heroes of World War II – the Pacific Theater, Atwood tells the story of Jane Kendeigh who, after caring for injured soldiers at Iwo Jima, was the first navy flight nurse to land in Okinawa. 

Women Heroes of World War II – the Pacific Theater is a wonderful little book. Atwood has a great cross section of women both from different countries and from different time periods and parts of the Pacific Theater. I also loved seeing their photographs. On the negative side, Atwood only covered what the women were doing during WWII, and I wanted a little more background. I’m not sure if there is enough surviving documentation, but I would have really liked to learn more about each of the women’s lives before the war. Finally, I also struggled a bit with the dissonance between the level of the writing and the subject matter. The narratives are at an upper middle grade level, though some of the subject matter (particularly, as noted by the author, the Nanking Massacre, “comfort women,” and the cruelty of the Japanese Kempeitai) was much more mature. Those small things aside, the women featured in this book are amazing examples of courage and the will to endure, this volume is a worthy addition to any nonfiction collection, and I look forward to reading more of Ms. Atwood’s books about women in times of war.

After glamorous American singer Claire Phillips opened her own night club in Manila, using the proceeds to secretly feed starving American POWs, she also began working as a spy, chatting up Japanese military men and passing their secrets along to local guerilla resistance fighters. 

Australian Army nurse Vivian Bullwinkel, stationed in Singapore then shipwrecked in the Dutch East Indies, became the sole survivor of a horrible massacre by Japanese soldiers. She hid for days, tending to a seriously wounded British soldier while wounded herself. Humanitarian Elizabeth Choy lived the rest of her life hating only war, not her tormentors, after enduring six months of starvation and torture by the Japanese military police.

In these pages, readers will meet these and other courageous women and girls who risked their lives through their involvement in the Pacific Theater of Operations during World War II. Fifteen suspense-filled stories unfold across China, Japan, Mayala, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, and the Philippines, providing an inspiring reminder of women and girls’ refusal to sit on the sidelines around the world and throughout history. 

These women — whose stories span from 1932 through 1945, the last year of the war, when U.S. Marines landed on Iwo Jima — served in dangerous roles as spies, medics, journalists, resisters, and saboteurs. Nine of the women were American; seven were captured and imprisoned by the Japanese, enduring brutal conditions. 

Author Kathryn J. Atwood provides appropriate context and framing for teens 14 and up to grapple with these harsh realities of war. Discussion questions and a guide for further study assist readers and educators in learning about this important and often neglected period of history.