More than seven decades ago, our nation was thrust into an all-hands-on-deck moment. We would finally enter World War II, and if we were to defeat the Axis powers running unchecked through Europe and Asia, we would have to do so by pulling together all our resources.
No one quite spelled out, though, who would step forward to fill this void. Legions of men came to the service of their country, and their response is the stuff of monuments. The role of women during that war, however, is a far less recognized part of our nation’s history. According to the National World War II Museum, prior to 1941, there were about 1,000 women serving in the armed forces, mostly working as nurses stationed in the United States. The entry into WWII opened new opportunities for women. And along with that came new societal questions as traditional roles began to shift. By war’s end, nearly 300,000 women had served in the armed forces, both in the United States and overseas.
One of them, Sirkka Holm, a longtime Francestown resident, is sharing some of her war experiences — and the responses she received at home during and after the war — in a new DVD that will help raise money for the George Holmes Bixby Library in her town. Holm’s job may have been dismissed by some at the time as data entry. But she was really documenting all the supplies the soldiers would need in waging the war against the Nazis. And she was doing so in a way that would ensure that intercepted messages didn’t clue the Nazis in on an vital American information. According to a longtime friend, Holm’s work, carried out in war-torn cities, helped pave the way for the June 6, 1944, D-Day landing on the beaches of Normandy.
Holm was among the generation that helped reshape the role women played in American society. They went to work en masse at factories supporting the war effort. They managed to keep together families, both financially and emotionally. And they proved their mettle even in the most tense of war conditions.
Even today, the questions surrounding women in the military are not all answered. Among the chief issues facing the American military is the role of women on the frontlines, an area long viewed as the exclusive territory of male soldiers. But the days of clearly defined front lines have vanished along with the Cold War. Our frontlines can now just as easily be fuel convoys, or peacekeeping missions, or even American bases in hostile countries.
Today there are about 1.4 million Americans serving in active duty in the military, and about 14 percent of those are women. In June, the Pentagon announced plans to open up new opportunities for women, by given them equal access to combat roles, including special operations. But this effort to put women on the frontlines has really been years in the making. Women currently serve a variety of combat-related roles, and according to the Pentagon, more than 150 women have been killed in action since the start of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The battlefield is always changing, as are our views at home. It was through the work of people like Sirkka Holm, and the countless since, that we have now come to depend on the dedication and skills of the women in our armed forces.