Tag Archives: women’s history

Women’s History Month: Sergeant Joan Mortimer, MM

When I was in college, attempting to be my own editor on my own college papers and not notably succeeding, my country was in the pioneering days of women expanding their roles in the military outside the nursing field. Many went through very difficult times cutting and widening that path, including some I know well and respect. One thing they had going for them was that the path was at least trodden and visible, thanks to true stories of predecessors like Sergeant Joan Mortimer of the WAAF.

A political organizer from London, Joan Mortimer was twenty-seven when she joined the relatively new Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in early 1939. The war clouds were plain on the horizon, and war indeed broke out for Britain in September 1939. After the Nazi forces mauled the Benelux countries and France, it was the turn of the United Kingdom. The goal was to break the island’s resistance through a sustained air campaign, periodically inviting the British and their allies to just give up. They rejected this offer, of course, answering by force of arms–and thus developed the Battle of Britain.

RAF Biggin Hill was a frontline outpost of the air war over the UK. Located in what are now London’s southern outskirts, the base was an early responder to any incursion into UK airspace. That made it imperative for the Luftwaffe to pound it at every opportunity. Assignment there was hazardous duty, and on 1 September 1940 Sergeant Mortimer was among three WAAF enlisted women on communications duty when a major airbase strike came in. Along with Corporal Elspeth Henderson and Sergeant Helen Turner in the HQ, she maintained vital communications from her post at the switchboard (in the armory, surrounded by high explosives one might well hope avoided a direct hit). But that was not all.

Henderson and Turner remained at their posts doing their duties when a bomb struck and set ablaze the headquarters building. Only when the fire reached their room, and under direct orders, did they leave their work. The bombs sometimes didn’t explode upon landing, but that didn’t make them safe. As for Mortimer, she realized that no one had yet red-flagged the unexploded bombs on the runway, and that the base’s fighter complement would be at greater risk as it attempted to land and re-equip. Pilots could usually spot craters, but dud ordnance sometimes not so much. With the Luftwaffe still making runs on the airfield, Sergeant Mortimer ran out to mark the danger spots in disregard for her own life and safety.

No one can tell me that’s not a warrior.

The three women each received the Military Medal, which only six British women earned throughout the war. Sergeant Joan Mortimer’s citation described her actions thus: “This airwoman displayed exceptional courage and coolness which had a great moral effect on all those with whom she came in contact.” Boy howdy it must have. His Majesty the King himself had the privilege of decorating her.

Let her country, and its then and later wartime allies such as my own country, take a moment to remember Sergeant Joan Mortimer, MM, and her fellow airwomen whose valor earned the respect of those who served with them.

I’m late for Women’s History Month

But I’m not punting on it, because this is important, and also because I want something to write about other than a damn real estate deal. Here are some women you might like to know about, not all American, but all important:

Drsa. Maria Montessori (1870-1952): you recognize the name. What you probably don’t know: she was Italy’s first female doctor, basically because she refused to stop petitioning to get into med school, and then refused to be sicked out by efforts to scare her away by making her do her anatomy stuff by herself at night with the cadavers, and then when shunted off to a problem kids’ asylum, refused to quit. Instead, she found that many of the children were quite teachable and salvageable, and developed a method of education that enabled them to learn and grow into mainstreamable people. And after spending her life on this work, she gave it away as a gift to humanity.

2LT Ellen Ainworth, ANC (1919-1944): working in a field hospital at the Anzio/Nettuno beachhead, the facility came under German artillery fire. Lt. Ainsworth was badly wounded, but ignored her condition to supervise the relocation of the patients under fire. She died of those wounds six days later, having given her life that others might survive. The Silver Star and Purple Heart were rare for women in WWII US service, but they now seem terribly inadequate for Lt. Ainsworth’s demonstrated valor.

Plkv. Marina Mikhailovna Raskova, Soviet Air Force (1912-1943): a pioneer aviatrix sometimes called ‘the Russian Amelia Earhart,’ Raskova persuaded Premier Stalin to constitute several all-female air regiments: the 586th Fighter Regiment, the 46th Guards Night Bomber Regiment, and the 125 Guards Bomber Regiment. The night bombers, flying obsolete biplanes, became known as the ‘duty sergeant’ and as the ‘night witches’ for their harassment bombing missions, but all performed very well in combat. She had been decorated a Heroine of the Soviet Union in 1938, and proved its validity during the war until her death in a crash landing near Saratov in 1943.

Abigail Adams (1744-1818): one of the brightest First Ladies in US history (a role that, be it noted, is enshrined in no law and conveys not one dime of compensation). Ms. Adams, our second First Lady was the first First Lady to make strong political representations to her elected husband on behalf of women’s rights. She did not make a lot of headway, but she refused to shut up about it. All things considered, like most Presidential spouses, she was probably brighter than her husband (himself not a fool, unlike some of the cretins we elect) and might have made a better President.

Dolley Madison (1768-1849): yes, my spelling is correct. Ms. Madison, née Payne, had tremendous influence on both the role of First Lady and on international politics. She served as First Lady for eight years, and as Jefferson’s White House Hostess (he was a widower) for eight more, then mentored two more First Ladies. Her charm went far to smooth snooty European diplomats’ ruffled feathers in a White House that was still rather bumptious at the time, ceremony not being an early American strong suit. During the War of 1812, as the DC militia broke and fled, Dolley saved national art treasures from the White House. It is difficult to overestimate her impact on her times, considering the many situations and lives she touched for the better.

Prof. Lise Meitner (1878-1968): born in Austria and very fortunate to escape the Third Reich, she had been the first woman in Germany to become a full professor of physics. Her work on nuclear fission most likely merited inclusion in a Nobel Prize award. She regretted staying in Germany as late as 1938, and was a harsh critic of those who stayed to help work on the Adolfmatomic bomb, which fortunately never came to fruition.

Strsgt. Roza Georgiyevna Shanina (1924-1945): one of many women who served as snipers in the Soviet Army during World War II, Shanina was among the deadliest with fifty-nine confirmed kills. Ordered back from the front lines late in the war, Shanina ignored the order and remained in direct action, often with the mission of picking off German snipers. She gave her life sheltering a wounded artilleryman with her own body. The USSR had dozens like Shanina and Raskova, including combat medics who would crawl into free-fire zones, load wounded men on their backs, and low-crawl them to safety and medical assistance.

Queen Margaret (of Anjou) (1430-1482): wife of Henry VI, King of England. Henry had mental problems, but his Angevin bride did not. She handled most of the duties of rulership during Henry’s periodic incapacity, and during the Wars of the Roses, at times even generaled the Lancastrian forces against the Yorkists. Unfortunately for Margaret, the Yorkists eventually vanquished her side. She died in France a few years after her ransoming by her cousin Louis XI of France, but she remains one of the lesser-known women who have influenced history.

Anne Margrethe Strømsheim (1914-2008): née Bang, she joined in the defense of Hegra Fortress during the German invasion of Norway. The Norwegian campaign was a particularly long and obstinate one given the relative strengths involved, and Hegra was the last part of southern Norway to haul down the national flag. She provided nursing assistance to the wounded, and most likely fired a few shots herself, becoming a heroine of the Norwegian resistance. Decorated several times for her service, after the war she became an advocate for blind children and disabled Norwegian veterans.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (1938-present): is president of Liberia, making her Africa’s first elected female head of state. African women have a very rough go of it in many countries, and President Sirleaf has received the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to advance the welfare of Liberian women. Buffs, Badgers, and Crimson take pride: she has degrees from the University of Colorado, the University of Wisconsin, and Harvard. Liberia has had a number of unsavory regimes over the years (one of which exiled her), and Pres. Sirleaf has worked for reconciliation in order to leave that past as far behind as possible.

AVM (Ret.) Julie Hammer (1955-present): entered the Royal Australian Air Force in 1977 as a junior officer. She went on to become the first Australian woman to hold an operational command, the first to hold the rank of Air Vice Marshal (equivalent to a major general in the USAF), and the first to command the Australian Defense Force Academy. She is a member of the Order of Australia.

SgA Oshrat Bachar (1979-present): for all we hear about women in the Israeli Defense Forces, none were appointed to battalion-level combat command until 2014. Her rank, sgan-aluf, equates to a lieutenant colonel in the US Army. A career intelligence officer, she currently commands an intelligence battalion of the IDF monitoring the Sinai.

LTC Jackie Cochran, USAFR (1906-1980): the American woman pilot whose memory is a bit overshadowed by Amelia Earhart, but she deserves her own display. Cochran’s most notable endeavor was perhaps the drive to convince wartime U.S. leadership of the value of using women pilots to ferry aircraft across the country and over the ocean for delivery to combat units. Over one thousand women eventually received their wings and made this important contribution to the war, As the Space Age came on, Cochran was a driving force behind the space program you probably never heard of: the Mercury 13. In short, the logic was that women might make excellent astronauts; they had proven their value as pilots, and in an environment where mass and air/water/food consumption were of supreme concern, it might be better to employ women. As Vice President, Lyndon B. Johnson spiked the program, which was rough on the candidates who had passed every test, had their bodies sampled beyond belief, and even endured the Vomit Comet (weightless environment testing system). Although it must be admitted that her ego got in the way when it came to the Mercury 13, the fact remains that she invested lifelong effort to show just what American women could accomplish. We are better for her deeds.

Lozen (c.1840-1890): a Chiricahua Apache warrior and seeress, she was a key advisor to her brother Bidu-ya (generally known as Victorio). He credited her as both a tough fighter and a clever strategist. When U.S. troops attacked the band near the Rio Grande, Lozen’s courage inspired the non-combatant women and children to ford the river and follow her to safety. (Naturally, she then went back to the fighting.) She also fought alongside Goyaałé (you know him as Geronimo), and held out with some of the last Apaches resisting reservation confinement. She died sometime after 1887 of tuberculosis while still a prisoner of war.