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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Eleanor Roosevelt: Passionate Spirit, Tenacious Ambition

Hello All,

Today marks the last day of Women’s History Month for the year 2015. To celebrate the end of a most enjoyable month, let’s discover more about one of the most influential woman of the 1940s, Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Not only was she a power-house politically, she was also an impassioned spirit capable of accomplishing anything she set her mind towards.

As many of you already know, Eleanor grew up in a wealthy home in a ritzy area of New York. Her uncle, Former President Theodore Roosevelt, helped the Roosevelt clan reach and maintain celebrity amongst the American public. His work in social reforms undoubtedly influenced Eleanor as she grew older; reinforcing her tendency at doing good works and philanthropy.
Roosevelt family portrait
Born October 11, 1884 in New York City, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt grew up in a lavish life that was struck by tragedy all too soon. At the tender age of eight years old, Eleanor lost her mother and then her father only two years later. Naturally, with such a tragic loss, it would be very easy for a child to revert into themselves; however, boarding school in England helped Eleanor regain her self confidence, setting the groundwork for the woman she would become.

In her early twenties, Eleanor fell in love and married her distant cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the future President of the United States. Together, the pair had six children: Anna, James, Franklin, Elliot, Franklin Jr. and John. The first Franklin died in infancy. Having many children did not slow Eleanor down in the slightest. During the First World War, Eleanor stayed active in the American Red Cross, among many other civic duties.

Eleanor visiting soldiers abroad.
Eleanor’s public service prepared her for one of the biggest trials she and Franklin would face together, his polio disease. Franklin was diagnosed with polio in 1921 and suffered from limited mobility, making everyday tasks difficult, especially for a future president. When Franklin took office in 1933, Eleanor became his eyes and ears throughout the country. She wanted to take charge of the situation dealt to her family and become a leading role in American politics, forever changing the expectations of a First Lady. Her biggest concerns were for family matters and women’s issues, but she spoke fervently about Human Rights in press conferences and in her very own newspaper column, “My Day”; which mainly dealt with the country’s poor and social justice for all. When war broke out across the world for a second time, Eleanor did not hesitate to visit U.S. troops overseas.

Despite Franklin's death in 1945, Eleanor continued to work in public service for another fifteen years. She spent some time, 1945-1953, as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly, as well as participated in the Human Rights Commission.  Her greatest achievement would be when she helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She wrote several autobiographies, including On My Own (1958) and Autobiography (1961) and she later appointed chair of the Commission on the Status of Women by President John F. Kennedy.
Eleanor’s work throughout her life was invaluable for women, then and now. She changed the way women were viewed, not only in politics, but in the work force as well. Eleanor passed away at 78 years old to cancer. Her humanitarian efforts and political fervor has created a long lasting legacy for all women to aspire towards.

Take Care,

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Hanna Reitsch: German Avaitrix and Test Pilot

Hello All,
Hanna Reitsch
To continue with Women’s History Month, I would like to introduce you to Hanna Reitsch, an accomplished German aviatrix and Nazi test pilot during World War II. She was the only female to be awarded the Iron Cross First Class and the Luftwaffe Pilot/Observer Badge in gold with diamonds. It is important to remember that both sides of this horrific conflict suffered greatly and triumphed in different ways, and while Hanna supported the opposing side, her accomplishments surpassed those of the average woman of her day and age.

Hanna was born 29 March 1912 in Hirschberg, Silesia (Now in Poland) to an upper middle-class family. Her father was a doctor and hoped his daughter would follow in his footsteps. Hanna agreed with her father but had her own unique agenda in mind; a flying missionary doctor for Northern African countries. She studied medicine at the Colonial School for Women and began flight training soon after, in 1932, at the School of Gliding. She later enrolled in a German Air Mail flying school for powered aircraft, adding to her skill set immensely. Noticing her talents as a pilot, Hanna’s instructors encouraged her to become a fulltime pilot. She decided to leave medical school in order to pursue a career as a pilot/instructor for a gliding company and was later approached for stunt piloting in the film, “Rivals of the Air”. Her proficiency won her many competition prizes and distinguished medals. 

Candid photo of Hanna in her aircraft
Naturally, when war broke out in Europe for the second time, Hanna’s aptitude for flying made her highly qualified for the Luftwaffe. Reitsch became the first female helicopter pilot and was also one of the few to fly the first fully controllable helicopter, which earned her the Military Flying Medal. Her well mannered demeanor and good looks (particularly an Aryan look) made her a propaganda gem for the Nazi Party, which became her primary claim to fame.

To keep up appearances, Hanna ran daily ‘missions’ and partook in various expeditions in the late 1930s. But one of her major tasks was to test pilot all the latest and greatest aircraft in production. She would provide detailed reports on how the aircraft handled and any concerns that may arise for other pilots. Hanna crash landed only once during her time as a test pilot, which put her in the hospital for five months. Despite her injuries, she was still able to give a full detailed report on the aircraft. That particular incident earned her the Iron Cross First Class.

Hanna Reitsch propaganda
As her notoriety grew, her influence with military hierarchy grew alongside it. After visiting the Luftwaffe on the eastern front, post Battle of Stalingrad, Hanna presented Hitler with the idea of suicide flight bombers, known as Operation Suicide. This operation would entail volunteers to fly gliders into enemy targets, essentially acting as gigantic bombs. At first, Hitler believed the situation for Germany did not warrant such an extreme plan; however, by the summer of 1944, the plan was set in motion. Reitsch began test piloting suitable gliders and made several successful flights before training the volunteers. The operation was never employed; by the time training would have been sufficient, the war had taken a terrible turn for Germany. Regardless, the idea that a well mannered woman could enact such an extreme plan suggests her determination for German victory.

When the Russian Red Army began heavy bombardment of Berlin, Hitler invited Reitsch to his Führerbunker. The Red Army was already invading the area when she flew into Berlin. Her low altitude flight training served her well, enabling her to find an alternative escape route, landing close to the bunker. Upon arrival, Hitler gave Hanna a vial of poison, fully prepared to die alongside her leader. However, before such drastic measures were needed, an escape plan was initiated. Using the same improvised airstrip as before, Reitsch was able to successfully take off despite the Red Army’s advances.
Hanna meeting Adolf Hitler
Nevertheless, soon after her escape from Berlin, Hanna was captured by American military intelligence officers and was questioned as to why she had left the Führerbunker on April 28, 1945. Her statement included little detail, only that she was disappointed she could not die alongside the leader of her country. Hanna was particularly inexperienced in regards to Hitler’s ulterior motives for Germany. She refused to believe the atrocities Hitler and Nazi regime committed during the war, believing the rumors to be falsified. When questioned, those around her validated her convictions that the news was indeed fiction. They wanted to keep her in the dark to protect their propaganda agenda. She spent the remainder of the war in captivity. 

Hanna meeting Pres. John F. Kennedy
After war’s end, Hanna settled in Frankfurt and began flying gliders once several of the bans for German citizens were lifted. She continued with flying competitions as before the war, becoming a German champion in 1955. She was able to break the women’s altitude record in 1957 and earned her first diamond of the Gold-C badge. In 1959, she was invited to India to institute a gliding center; then, in 1961 she was invited to the White House by President Kennedy. The celebrity of her career followed her for the rest of her life, but she was determined to follow her heart’s first desire one way or another. In the mid 1960s, Hanna moved to Ghana, establishing the first black African gliding school.

At first, the people of Ghana were apprehensive of Reitsch past, but it quickly became apparent that she was politically naïve and her past opinions no longer rang true. She felt a kindred spirit with the friendships she built in Ghana and had a new respect for other cultures. However, despite building a new life for herself in Africa, Hanna could never fully shake the events of the war, especially while in the Fuhrer’s bunker. She loved Germany with a passion and believed the country had deep regret for the war, but were more upset they had lost. Hanna returned to Frankfurt but unfortunately died shortly after, at 67 years old, in 1979. She would never marry, nor have children to carry on her legacy. It has been rumored Hanna kept the poison Hitler had given her so many years ago and that she finally used it under the pact she and another had made; however, it is more universally believed she died from a heart attack.
Reitsch test piloting.

In the end, Hanna had written four autobiographies and has been portrayed in various films, three of which were produced before her death.

Take Care,

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Winter Lecture Series: Night Witches of the Soviet Union

Hello everyone, 

Join us at the Bedford Area Welcome Center on Thursday, March 26, 2015 at noon for the final winter lunchbox lecture of the season.  This week we will be looking at the 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Union.  Nicknamed the Night Witches by the German soldiers, the 588th was completely women regiment – pilots, navigators, and mechanics – everyone involved in the regiment.  Marina Raskova was responsible for the formation of this regiment and two others.  A famous aviatrix and national icon, Raskova petitioned Stalin for the right for women pilots to form their own unit.  It was a battle for her, but eventually she won and was named commander of the 587th Bomber Regiment.  While on her way to the front, she was killed in a crash.  Raskova was given a state funeral and interred in the Kremlin. 

The 588th Night Bomber Regiment was activated in the summer of 1942 and was honored in 1943 by building designated a “Guards” regiment, officially changing its name to the 46th Taman Guards Bomber Regiment. Initially comprised of two squadrons, a third squadron plus a training squadron was later added. Their mission was to destroy tactical targets located close to the front lines, such as fuel depots, ammunition dumps, ground troops, support vehicles, bridges, and enemy headquarters.  Members of the regiment were also used on occasion to fly supplies and ammunition to Soviet front-line troops. 

During the course of the war, women accounted for more than 12 perfect of the Soviet Union fighter aviation strength.  They were moved around to different regiments, even flying beside male pilots, who trusted the veteran women pilots as they flew as they flew as trusted wing-men on a number of missions.  One of those women was Lilya Litvyak was a pilot in the 586th Fighter Regiment.  Known as the White Rose of Stalingrad, Litvyak was the first woman pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft, first female pilot to earn the title of fighter ace, and the holder of the record for the greatest number of fills by a female fighter pilot.  

Litvyak flew her first combat flights in the summer of 1942 before being assigned to the 437th, an all male fighter unit, for the Battle of Stalingrad.  On 13 September 1942, she scored her first two kills, just three days after beginning the defense of Stalingrad.  Her second kill was a dogfight with Bf 109 G-2 piloted by Staff Sergeant Erwin Maier, an 11-victory ace, three-time recipient of the Iron Cross.  Maier parachuted from his aircraft, was captured by Soviet troops, and asked to see the Russian ace who had out flown him.  When he was taken in front of Litvyak, he thought he was being made the butt of a Soviet joke and was not until Litvyak described each movement of the dogfight that he knew he had been beaten by a woman pilot.  

Litvyak was killed in action on 1 August 1943during the Battle of Kursk.  She never returned from her fourth sortie of the day and it was discovered that she was killed during a dogfight with a pair of Messerschmidt 109s.  At her death, she had achieved the rank Senior Lieutenant and was an ace in the Soviet Air Force with at least 12 solo and 4 shared kills over a total of 66 combat missions.  
To learn more about Raskova, Litvyak and more of these incredible women, remember to join us Thursday, March 26, 2015!  We hope to see you there! 

Until next time, 


Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Untold Story: Women in the Italian Resistance, WWII

Hello All,

Members of the Italian Resistance
Today, it is hard to imagine the Fascist and Nazi regimes of Italy and Germany were able to captivate such a large population as they did before and during World War II. It is much easier for us to believe people were adamantly against the evils of such regimes, which was the case in Italy. The Italian resistance was born in 1943, when Benito Mussolini was finally eradicated from power by the Fascist Grand Council. At that time, almost half the resistance members were female, 105,000 out of 250,000 total, with 4,600 being arrested, 2,750 deported to German Concentration Camps, and 623 murdered by Italian fascists or Germans.  

The politics of Italy from the 1920s to the 1940s were tumultuous to say the least. Two very different forms of government were vying for control and power; the Italian monarchy led by Marshal Pietro Badoglio, who consequently fled southern Italy, while Mussolini was reinstated as a puppet figure for the Italian Social Republic, who also had an alliance with Adolf Hitler. As a result of the turmoil between the parties, an Action Party formed from the camaraderie of the Communists, Socialists, and Christian Democrats. These particular sects of people began small resistance units, as time wore on, the small groups joined together under the National Committee for the Liberation of Northern Italy.

Italian Resistance partisans after the liberation of Florance
Once Mussolini was eradicated, a ‘crisis of conscience’ occurred through the masses that affected women just as potently as the men. Very soon after Mussolini’s demise, the Women’s Defense Groups began in Milan to coincide with the National Committee of the Liberation of Northern Italy. A major piece of women’s’ contributions to the cause were grassroots mobilization, as well as the legitimization of women’s roles in politics, particularly through the efforts of the Union of Italian Catholic Women and the Union of Italian Women.

The Western European world had never seen such a large involvement of women in a resistance movement such as this before, it was extremely unique, especially considering the traditional roles of Italian women. In Italy, women were expected, and often lived up to such expectations, to be nurture’s of good and the foundation of the family. These admirable qualities undoubtedly enhanced women’s participation in the resistance movement. Their involvement was not only a means to fight Fascism that was crippling their country, but also a means to gain independence for women in general, breaking the traditional and religious stereotypes of the time. However, preserving family values and traditions was at the utmost importance to those women and it would only been natural for them to take up arms against those who would threaten the safety of their families.

Women in the Resistance
The occupations women performed for the movements were vital to the resistance survival. They took care of the food, clothing, and medical supplies, typically from the comfort of their own kitchens. However, their most important role was collecting information and communication. These women were the perfect candidates for clandestine communications and operations. They were the least suspect by the ‘establishment’ and they would be able to get close to unsuspecting men discussing their political agendas and plans. However, these women were not only talented as messengers, but as fighters as well. They were mostly tasked with sabotage, minor strike attacks, and serve as auxiliary to the Brigades.

Partisans celebrating victory
Through their hard work, sacrifice, and determination, these brave Italian resistance fighting women were able to make headway in equal opportunity for themselves after war’s end, and the first order of business was granting them the vote. By 1948, Italy was declared a democratic republic, which guaranteed equality for all, no matter their sex, religion, race, or opinion.

Take Care,

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Unrecognized Honor: Irish Involvement in World War II

Hello All,
Southern Ireland

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! What a beautiful day to celebrate our Irish heritage and ancestry, or even if you are not of Irish decent, a lovely day to pretend you’re Irish because, let’s face it, everyone wants to be Irish!

As you may already know, Ireland and Britain have had a substantially rocky past for the better part of the shared history. The circumstances were no different during World War II. Northern Ireland felt a strong connection with England, while Southern Ireland wished to be freed from its tyranny. When the time came for Great Britain to take up arms against the Axis Powers, Southern Ireland chose neutrality instead. Since a large portion of Ireland was decidedly neutral, we forget those who did volunteer for Great Britain to protect their homes. Not only did Northern Ireland fight, but many Southern Irish men and women risked their lives to volunteer for the cause.

Women stand in line outside Slough Training Center, UK, 1941
For many Irish men and women, the choice to stay neutral was a wise decision for the country overall; however, for a host of reasons, including nationalism and patriotism, many made the decision to volunteer, fully expecting their country would remain neutral. Both men and women volunteered with pride for their country but were never properly recognized for their efforts. Until recently, their story has gone untold for too many decades.

Just before 1940, it was extremely difficult for an individual under the age of twenty-two to leave the state, unless the circumstances were just cause for passage. With that law in place, an astounding 200,000 citizens applied for passports to emigrate to England, out of a population of 2,968,000. That means at least eight percent of the population felt called to serve in some way during World War II. If one takes out those not eligible to leave the state, including the elder and the very young, that percentage rises to at least fifteen percent of the eligible population. This clearly shows that despite tensions between Ireland and Britain, the people were no less concerned for the safety of their government and homes against the Nazi regime than any other country in Europe or abroad.

With the large influx of Irish workers into England, skepticism would be understandable by government leaders, particularly Prime Minister Churchill. However, even Churchill understood the importance of labor during hard times and a British Liaison Office was established to maintain agreements made by the two countries. Despite initial tensions, the Irish were glad to be working in England. They were able to earn higher wages, ease the pangs of unemployment in the home country, and feel accomplished knowing their work was for a just cause. Not only that, by allowing an easy flow of labor between the two states, England received the labor intensive help they desired and Ireland was able to experience an increase in revenue for the country.
Royal Air Force soldiers in Belfast, Northern Ireland

The Irish not only desired to work, they also desired to fight. Whether they were following a family tradition of service, or looking for adventure, many Irish men enlisted into the British Armed Forces. An estimated 200 men were enlisting weekly by 1944. However, official government records state that only 771 travel permits were issued between 1943 and 1945. This suggests the difficulties men had in enlisting without receiving flak from the IRA, or other groups adamantly opposed to Irish support of British Forces. In some cases, men were harassed or threatened if they expressed interest in enlisting, but that fact did not deter them in the least.

Soldiers from the Irish Defense Force join the British Legion
The government also wanted to keep the number of enlistees quiet so not to agitate desertion rates for both sides. Despite restrictions, little could be done to prevent men from joining the fight in Europe. By the end of the war, approximately 55,000 Irishmen, from the North and South, were part of the English Army. Of that total, about 7,000 of those volunteers were women. As more information on the topic comes to light, researchers have concluded there may in fact be an additional 20,000 members added to the final total due to the lack of proper documentation. However, these numbers do not include those who served for the Navy or Merchant Marines, with those numbers included, the total would amount to 150,000 strong. Regardless of the numbers, the sheer quantity of men and women who made the conscious decision to put aside their differences between states for the greater good of the world is astounding and admirable.
Group of young Irish soldiers, WWII
Regardless of their sacrifice, the government ignored their service, prohibiting a Remembrance Day and subsequently ignoring any appeal for a just outcome by the public. It would take another fifty years before full recognition of Irish involvement in World War II would be honored. Of the 150,000 who served, an estimated 10,000 lost their lives for the greater good and their sacrifice needed to be honored.

I hope you all enjoy the holiday.

Take Care,