Women in World War II
On Friday, May 25, 2018, The International Museum of World War II opened a new exhibition exploring the role of women in World War II. “Women in WWII: On the Home Fronts and the Battlefronts” highlights women in every major combatant nation and the vital contributions they made on home fronts and battlefronts. This unprecedented exhibition will feature more than 100 artifacts illuminating the diversity of roles women served and illustrating their profound impact on the war effort.
The Museum will also be displaying, for the first time ever, a series of original Ansel Adams photographs that document the role of women as part of the war effort in Massachusetts. In 1942, the government commissioned Adams to document members of the Massachusetts Women’s Defense Corps (MWDC) training for assistance in five main areas: Medical, Transportation, Communications, Canteen, and Air Raid Protection Services. These photographs reflect a departure from Adams’ well-known landscape photographs, revealing high-contrast compositions of corps members reviewing maps, preparing meals, practicing rescue missions, and standing in formation.
“This exhibition brings to light the very important roles women fulfilled during World War II,” said IMWWII founder and director Kenneth W. Rendell. “We are thrilled to have the opportunity to showcase and honor women’s service to the war effort. Women had a duty to protect and sustain the home front for those on the battlefront and to preserve morale for all the citizens of their respective nations. As this exhibition showcases, women volunteered and actively took on whatever roles needed in order to serve their country.”
During the war, women were charged with maintaining the home, caring for children, rationing food and clothing, planting victory gardens, and collecting supplies needed for the war effort. Women also went to work in war production factories and filled other traditionally male jobs in order to free men for military service. Most women did not serve in combat roles—with the exception of the Soviet Union—but they did join auxiliary services in support of the armed forces.
“Women in WWII: On the Home Fronts and the Battlefronts” explores that while women in all countries shared these common wartime experiences, each country’s female population faced unique challenges as well. Some of the key differences among various nations and war efforts highlighted in the exhibition include:
United States: American women served in an incredibly broad range of roles during the War. Although they never were conscripted into service, approximately 350,000 women served in auxiliary roles, both at home and abroad, for the Army Corps, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Navy, Army and Navy Nurse Corps. More than 1,000 women learned to fly all types of planes, sending them from the production lines to bases of departure in the U.S. Other women served on medical evacuation planes and performed advanced medical procedures. Nurses served on the front lines and many consequently lost their lives.
Great Britain: As only one of two countries to draft women very early in the War, Great Britain passed the National Service Act of December 1941 which made women’s conscription legal. More than 640,000 British women served in the variety of auxiliary services including the Women’s Royal Naval Service, Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, and the Auxiliary Territorial Service. Although women might handle massive searchlights to spot enemy aircraft intent on bombing British cities, they were not allowed to actually fire any weapons for fear of the negative psychological impact. In addition, British women were pressured to send their children out of the cities to the safety of the countryside as part of “Operation Pied Piper.”
Germany: The Nazi regime’s Cult of Motherhood, with its emphasis on women’s roles as wives and mothers, began before the War and continued during its early years. All German women were encouraged to have at least four children to populate the growing German Reich. The Cross of Honor of the German Mother (Mutterkreuz) was awarded annually to those German mothers who met certain moral criteria and produced a certain number of children. The Lebensborn program was an SS-initiated state-supported program designed to increase the birth rate of “Aryan” children.
Japan: Similar to Germany, the Japanese government initially emphasized women’s roles as wives and mothers. Building on traditional neighborhood associations, women were called upon to prepared packages for soldiers at the front, sew 1,000-stitch belts for good luck, ration food and clothing, and raise money for war bonds. When Allied firebombing began on the Japanese homeland, women were called upon to do the dangerous work on fire brigades and to fulfill other civil defense roles.
USSR: The USSR was one of two countries that drafted its women during WWII, and it was the only country that put its women into combat. Approximately 800,000 women served in the Red Army with more than half of them in front-line duty units. Women were trained as pilots and snipers and they were taught to use mortars, light and heavy machine guns and automatic rifles. Similar to many other nations, Soviet women also served in medical units and worked in industry, transport, and agriculture to free up enlisted men to fight.
Resistance Fighters: In occupied nations, women assumed great risks to conduct covert operations against German occupiers. They helped downed Allied airmen escape to safety using secret or “underground” escape routes. Other women operated contraband radios to transport messages and weapons under the noses of the enemy occupiers for which they could be killed. Sophie Scholl, a German university student and member of the White Rose resistance group, was caught with several fellow members and publicly executed by the Nazis.
Holocaust: German women served as concentration camp guards and nurses alongside Jewish women and children who labored and died in the camps.
The Real and Reel Casablanca; American Troops Enter World War II, landing in North Africa
A special exhibition at The International Museum of World War II in Boston will open to the public November 10, 2017, 75 years to the day when America entered World War II, dispatching its own soldiers to North Africa to join its Allies in fighting the Germans. The Real and Reel Casablanca; American Troops Enter World War II, Landing in North Africa will feature 75 artifacts drawn from the Museum’s extensive collection that provide unmatched insights into the decisions surrounding the invasion at Casablanca, Morocco, and the atmosphere in the U.S. Where in the world was Casablanca?, wondered many anxious Americans. They were about to find out, both the real and the Hollywood versions.
This level of commitment, actual boots on the ground, was as stunning as it was sobering to the entire country. Officially called “Operation Torch,” the invasion was controversial and its consequences were far reaching both on the battle fronts and the home fronts, in America and throughout the world.
Drawing on its collection of more than 500,000 original artifacts, letters and documents, The International Museum of World War II presents the human side of this complex operation. Exhibition highlights include:
- General Dwight Eisenhower’s decoded message to enter the war: PLAY BALL – On November 8, 1942, General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Force, and commander of Operation Torch sent a message to Major General George S. Patton, Commander of the Western Task Force, who was on a command ship off the coast of Casablanca awaiting the coded message to attack. When the decoded message from Eisenhower, “PLAY BALL,” arrived, the American Army entered World War II.
- Patton’s invasion map of Casablanca – The map is heavily annotated and marked up by General Patton who commanded the Western Task Force at Casablanca.
- Patton’s retained copy of his message to the Sultan of Morocco – Patton warns “that if the French armed forces continue to demonstrate the hostility they have already shown, it is my military duty and purpose to attack by air, by sea, and by land, with the utmost violence known to modern war.”
- Ornamental daggers – The Sultan of Morocco presented ornamental daggers to General Patton after the American Troops landed in Casablanca.
- Letters from Eisenhower to his wife – General Eisenhower describes the American invasion in Casablanca and the American defeat against German commander Erwin Rommel at Kasserine Pass.
- Letters from Erwin Rommel, the German commander (called the “Desert Fox”) to his wife – Rommel describes the difficulties he was facing against the American forces.
- German Afrika Corps photo albums – The photo albums show everyday life for the Germans in North Africa.
- Casablanca, the movie artifacts – Coincidentally, the movie Casablanca, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, came out at the same time as the American invasion. It was instantly popular because the real Casablanca was in the news every day. Movie goers thought they were getting an idea of what was going on. Visitors to the Museum can see posters for the movie, a chair from Rick’s Café, and Bogart’s handwritten chess moves for the movie chess game.
- The official Casablanca photograph – Two months after the invasion, in January 1943, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill and their military staffs met in Casablanca to make crucial decisions about the conduct of the war. Their most important decision dictated that there could be only unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan. The large official photograph of the leaders meeting in Casablanca is signed by every one of them.
Also on display are artifacts from the home front, including poet Robert Frost’s ration book. After Pearl Harbor, recruitment stepped up, rationing began, and factories began converting to war-time production. There is evidence of all of this as context for the tenor of the country on November 8, 1942, the day America entered the war.
Operation Torch was one of only two direct orders given by President Roosevelt, overriding his military commanders. After Pearl Harbor, the President, at the urging of Churchill, decided that American forces would focus on defeating Nazi Germany first, and Japan later. How to do this, and in what order, was a matter of great controversy at the time. On view through March 31, 2018, America Enters World War II provides perspective into the atmosphere abroad and at home, and showcases how today we have the advantage of hindsight on the crucial decisions made at the time, a luxury that military commanders, and citizens, never do.
The 75th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor: Why We Still Remember
It chronicles what transpired before, during, and after the attack on Pearl Harbor, with rare insights into what the atmosphere was like in Japan leading up to “the day that will live in infamy.”
The exhibition includes the original first message warning all U.S. Navy ships: “AIRRAID ON PEARL HARBOR X THIS IS NO DRILL”; the Honolulu-Star Bulletin account of the attack on December 7th, 1941; Japanese postcards, photographs, and newspaper headlines celebrating the attack; and the first printed declaration of war by Japan on the U.S.
The Reality of the Resistance
The spirit of the Resistance to tyranny is ingrained in many people, but active resistance to occupying forces, whether German, Soviet or Japanese, was dangerous. Their reactions were swift and merciless.
This exhibition explores the many forms resistance took, from owning a radio, printing newsletters and carrying messages, to sabotage and assassination. It features the Museum’s extensive collection of resistance and intelligence artifacts, which is one of the largest in the world. The human stories are woven throughout the exhibition which is organized thematically and geographically. More than 200 pieces are on display.
The popularity of Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See attests to the fascination we have with the lives of those who resisted their occupiers. This exhibition focuses on resistance in France, as well as in many other countries which were occupied by enemy forces.
The Power of Anti-Semitism; The March to the Holocaust, 1919-1939
The original documents and objects on display date from 1919 to 1939. It is an uncomfortable truth that Hitler came to power by building substantial popular support amongst German voters. The exhibition shows some of the unique and commonplace objects that illustrate the nature, breadth and depth of Nazi ideology. They show the extent to which increasingly virulent propaganda saturated German life during these years.
See the story of told through 61 objects at an exhibition titled “Anti-Semitism 1919-1939” at the New-York Historical Society. The stories told by the objects are crucial for understanding Nazism because, rather than focusing on the horror of the Holocaust, and spotlight the hundreds of thousands of individual decisions that made the Holocaust possible in the first place.
Most Secret: Rudolf Hess’s Own Archive
From the wealth of the Museum’s Archives, these documents once belonged to Hess and include artifacts from his mysterious mission to England in 1941. There are more than 300 documents and letters in the Museum’s Archives, many of them in Hess’s clear handwriting.
A year ago, an archive of over 300 pages surfaced in Hamburg, Germany. These were clearly Rudolf Hess’s personal files that he had with him when he was transferred to Nuremberg at the end of the War. The German magazine, Der Spiegel, calling the discovery of papers a “sensational find,” stated: “Ever since that day there has been much puzzlement over what exactly prompted the Third Reich’s third-most powerful man to travel Scotland, what he hoped to achieve on his own authority or had the backing of Adolf Hitler, or had even been ordered by Hitler to fly to Britain. Hess was carrying such a file, stamped in red with ‘Most Secret,’ when he was transferred in October 1945 from British custody to the Trial of Major War Criminals in Nuremberg. Excerpts of the documents found their way into the evidence published by the International Military Tribunal as well as a list of the remaining documents in the file. But since the trial, the whole volume has been missing.”
Hitler Attacks, Churchill Rises
May 10th was the day that Winston Churchill became Prime Minister, a day he describes in his memories as one he had been preparing for all his life. To him, it was destiny. King George VI asked Churchill, that very day, to form a new government. More than ready, Churchill burst forth with energy, insight and understanding of the British people. He had understood the menace of Hitler when no one else did, and now he understood the courage and fortitude of the British working people as no other upper class politician did.
Churchill was immediately thrown into what was shaping up as the Battle for France. He took control of the British military and flew to Paris to bolster French morale and review the military situation. On May 19th, he wrote a “MOST IMMEDIATE” message to French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud. Two days later, Churchill was telling Reynaud how to fight against German tanks. Too soon, the Allied armies were being trapped along the coast surrounding Dunkirk. Flotillas of thousands of ships and of all sizes were evacuating hundreds of thousands of troops to England. All the while, the Luftwaffe was attacking the boats and the troops on the beach, killing thousands. Finally, on the last day before the Germans overran Dunkirk, in another message to Reynaud and French General Maxime Weygand, Churchill writes with irritation: “…You don’t seem to understand at all that the British fighter aviation has been worn to a shred and frightfully mixed up by the need of maintaining standing patrols over Dunkirk without which the evacuation would have been impossible… You have no right to ask us to deprive ourselves of the sole means of continuing the war by casting away in a single battle the already small forces upon which we rely as the sole sure hope of ultimate victory to us both.”
The Director of the Churchill Museum in London considers this one of the finest and most important Churchill letters ever written.
German Enigma Code Machines
Capturing Enigma machines has been the main plot of several movies, but the role of Alan Turing, the intuitive and mathematical genius credited with inventing the modern computer, in breaking the German code was brought to life and to the attending of the general public thanks to the recently released (and Academy Award nominated) movie, The Imitation Game.
In our own form of The Imitation Game, we are opening a special exhibition of the most comprehensive collection of Enigma code machines on display in the United States, outside of the National Security Agency. Eight different Enigma code machines are in the exhibition, including one of three known Enigmas with a printer, one of five known Siemens ten-rotor code machines made for the German High Command, a U-Boat four-rotor Enigma, and an Army three-rotor Enigma that was blown apart by retreating forces— one of the reasons they are so rare.
The King’s Speech
Even before the Academy Award winning movie, The King’s Speech, nearly everyone knew what those three words referred to. Seventy-five years ago, on September 3, 1939, King George VI told the British nation that what they all dreaded had happened; barely 20 years after the official end of the Great War (there was no need to number it) England was at war again with Germany. The nation that had lost an entire generation of young men had believed Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s proclamation of “Peace in our Time” when he returned from Munich only a year earlier.
The King’s speech had to not only tell the English people that they were at war again with Germany, it had to also instill confidence in the nation. First, it had to be delivered on the radio live (there was no pre-recording at the time) by a confident King who suffered from terrible stammering. Regardless of what personal understanding people might have had, they needed, the nation needed, an unwavering leader in the months before Churchill became Prime Minister; King George VI had to be that person.
This three page carbon typescript has notation in pencil, “Intermediate draft of the King’s speech on the outbreak of war. I did the first draft, a good bit of which remains – but spoiled by translation into long sentences. Spoken stuff should be short winded. H[arold] V[ale] R[hodes].” (Rhodes played an important role in setting up the Ministry of Information in 1939.)
The 75th Anniversary of the Start of World War II
Germany’s attack on Poland brought the inevitability that England and France had not wanted to face — the reality of a rearmed and united Germany. Political leaders had tried to ignore Hitler’s words and actions as another war was unthinkable. War was not unthinkable to Hitler and other Nazi leaders; it was the chance to vindicate German honor and seek revenge against France, Germany’s arch enemy and architect of the hated Versailles Treaty.
In these three critical documents, never exhibited in the Museum before, Britain’s realization that war was imminent is seen in the draft of the King’s Speech (August 25, 1939) and in the cipher message to British forces (September 1, 1939.) The outbreak of the greatest cataclysm in the history of the world is seen in the Admiralty’s order (September 3, 1939) in only six word: ”Commence hostilities at once with Germany.”
D-Day: The 70th Anniversary of the Invasion of Europe
The Museum’s archives contain the most comprehensive collection of British and American plans for the invasion. Many of these will be on display, along with a selection of original photographs taken on D-Day, together with reconnaissance photos from water-level and by aircraft.
The Museum’s completely original Higgins Boat LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel), one of less than ten known to have survived, will be on view, during the special exhibition.
Throughout America, there will be many news stories about the heroes of D-Day, but every surviving soldier will all say the same thing — they weren’t heroes; the heroes are in the famed American cemetery at Omaha Beach. No exhibit, no news stories can ever give a sense of all the good in the world that depended on the success of the D-Day invasion of Europe. It was a day that saved the world from evil.
The Failed Artist
The Museum is opening a special exhibition February 1st, 2014, based on Robert Edsel’s ground-breaking books on the Monuments Men. Edsel began a recent lecture at Boston’s Museum of Fine Art, with slides of paintings by Hitler, and comments that Hitler’s rejection by the Vienna Art Academic blocked his artistic career and set him adrift.
Our exhibition opens with the contents of Hitler’s artist studio in his Munich apartment— watercolor paints, paint brushes, sketch books, drafting tools, and a number of watercolors — an eerie window into the very personal world of Adolf Hitler. The contents of his apartment were left to his long-time housekeeper, Anny Brunner-Winter, in his will. After the War, the Bavarian government confiscated everything and, after protracted court proceedings, she prevailed and they came to us intact. Hitler’s apartment building at 16 Prinzgrasse, like much of Munich, was not damaged by bombs and is, today, a special police headquarters.