Search

herstorydaily

Category

WWII

Josephine Baker

JosephineBakerTux

Ah, Josephine Baker, icon of the 1920’s. Her name brings to mind her famous banana dance, singing, the breaking down of segregation, and covert WWII missions.

Wait…no? Just the dancing? Hold onto your butts, things are about to get awesome.

Josephine was born Freda Josephine McDonald, an illegitimate black child in St. Louis. Her childhood was rough to say the least. Her parents did the best they did as singers and actors, often bringing her onstage for the finale as an infant. However, her parent’s weren’t successful enough to keep the young Josephine from digging through the trash for food. She worked as a maid, being abused several times, even having her hands burned for putting too much soap in the wash.

As if that wasn’t traumatic enough, Josephine then witnessed the St. Louis racial riots. See, a black man was accused of raping a white girl and, in keeping the the times, white people rallied against black men everywhere. Within a few hours of the beginning of the riot, over 50 black men lay dead. The experience would forever haunt Josephine and mark her morals from then on.

She began performing in vaudeville as the comedic clumsy chorus girl; the girl on the end of the line who, throughout the performance, can’t quite get the steps. Yet in the encore she would reappear dancing better than everyone else. At thirteen she was married for the first time to a Pullman Porter but, as you can imagine, the marriage was unhappy and short-lived. She married again, this time to Willie Baker. Though the marriage was equally unhappy and short lived, she decided to keep his last name, becoming forever known as Josephine Baker.

Though she had many fans in the USA including Earnest Hemingway, Josephine felt she’d achieved all she could in America as a young black woman at that time. In 1925 she left for France which would grow to be the country she loved most. There, she was ‘exotic’, not ‘trashy’. She was celebrated for her risqué dance numbers, appearing on one occasion entirely nude, clad in just a pink flamingo feather. It was also here that she rose to stardom, cultivating not only her dance, but also her lovely soprano voice. She married a frenchman and renounced her American citizenship. When WWII broke out Josephine initially retreated to her chateau. There she met Jaque A., a member of the French resistance. He admired her patriotism and invited her to work in counter espionage. She accepted and wowed all with her courage. She attended parties all over Europe, gathering information on German activities without raising suspicion. In addition to donating her home, vehicles, and money she offered members of the resistance shelter in her band. She smuggled them across boarders, using her fame to her advantage. Secret messages were hidden in her sheet music.

josephine-baker

During the occupation of France, Josephine left for Morocco, stating that she was in poor health. In fact, it was to further aid the French Resistance by running missions to Spain. She pinned notes containing the information inside her underwear, knowing that her fame would likely prevent a strip search. It was at this time she suffered several miscarriages and her internal damage was so severe she was forced to undergo a hysterectomy, which became infected. Many thought she would die.

Throughout her career with the military, she performed for troops. That is, she performed on one condition; her audiences must not be segregated. She had so much pull as a star, that her condition was honored. She was responsible for one of the first integrations of the French military. She also allowed civilians to attend her performances free of charge. Her fan base spanned the races and classes because of this; Josephine’s deeply ingrained sense of equality.

For her efforts in the war, she received the  Croix de guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance. She was even given the honorary title of Lieutenant by General Charles de Gaulle.

After the war she returned to her Chateau, and to the stage. Now predominately a singer, she impressed audiences with her daring performances. Once she appeared as Queen Mary, singing Ave Maria behind a stained glass window. Having pushed the boundaries of society in one way, she figured she could push them in the other. Soon, she was offered a gig at a swanky night club in Miami. She refused, stating she would not perform for a segregated audience. Such was her star power, the nightclub agreed, and the show was a sell out. She went on to tour the United States, always to un segregated audiences.

But it was not to last. One night she and her friends went to have dinner at the Stork Club. She ordered food and a bottle of wine, but when neither came in an hour, she left in a fury. She ran into a reporter, and later filed a complaint on the Stork Club, dropping the reporter’s name as he was a fan of hers, but did nothing to aid her. The reporter turned against her, claiming she was a communist at the hight of the communist witch hunt in the USA. She deported from the country broken hearted.

It was then that Josephine set out to prove once and for all that anyone of any race could get along. She adopted 12 children of various races and embarked on a mission to raise them together, calling them The Rainbow Tribe. But there was a problem. Though Josephine still earned top dollar in her performances, the expenses of this experiments were enormous. She did what she could by performing, but she had no head for money and the debts mounted up. Some of the wealthy donated, which helped to keep her head above water. It was around this time she suffered several strokes and a heart attack. After all of this, she was subjected to another blow. She lost ownership of her chateau. She collapsed on the steps as she said goodbye, and had to be rushed to the hospital. Finally she moved to Monaco, and the Rainbow Tribe grew up, but with a price. To pay for her efforts, Josephine would perform until the day she died. She ended her career with four sell out shows at Carnegie Hall before finally singing of her life on stage in Paris. Her performance was universally praised, but she would lot live to enjoy it. That night, she suffered a stroke and sunk into a coma. She died, and was given a 21 gun salute state funeral.

Advertisements

Lieutenant Pavlichenko

tumblr_inline_nr6f8owHgo1twxtqc_540

Born in the Ukraine in 1916, Lyudmila Pavlichenko always had an affinity for firearms. When she was 14 her family moved to Kiev and she joined an amateur sharpshooter’s club while working in an arsenal factory. She went to college to study history, but in 1941, the Nazi’s started knocking at Russia’s doors, and Lyudmila decided it was time she answered. She signed up for the Red Army and was offered a job as a nurse. She turned it down, stating “I joined the army when women were not yet accepted”. Nonetheless, she managed to snag a slot in infantry and became one of 2,000 female snipers.

She was given a Tokarev SVT-40 semi-automatic rifle, a more difficult to handle version of the more popular Mosin–Nagant, but she made good use of it. In her first few months of war, she made 187 kills. Coincidentally, the California Penal Code for Murders is 187, and it’s ironic that to ‘187 them,’ is slang in many places for ‘to kill them’. But Lyudmila didn’t stop at 187. She killed a total of 309 nazis during WWII, including 36 nazi snipers.

Just one year after her rein of terror began, she was seriously wounded by mortar fire. While recovering, it was decided that she would withdraw from combat. She was becoming a pretty big deal, you see, and in WWII one needed to keep good public relations with allied countries. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt invited her to tour the United States, and Lyudmila happily agreed.

Lyudmila did indeed tour, but found some of the press’s questions odd*. One reporter asked, if women could wear makeup while fighting. Just months ago Lyudmila had been on these front lines, watching her sisters in arms die. She answered “There is no rule against it,” Pavlichenko said, “but who has time to think of her shiny nose when a battle is going on?”

Many other reporters seemed much less interested in Lyudmila’s heroics than they were with her style and appearance. She was often asked why she appeared in her uniform, instead of something more fashionable. She is quoted: “I am amazed at the kind of questions put to me by the women press correspondents in Washington. Don’t they know there is a war? They asked me silly questions such as do I use powder and rouge and nail polish and do I curl my hair? One reporter even criticized the length of the skirt of my uniform, saying that in America women wear shorter skirts and besides my uniform made me look fat…This made me angry. I wear my uniform with honor. It has the Order of Lenin on it. It has been covered with blood in battle. It is plain to see that with American women what is important is whether they wear silk underwear under their uniforms. What the uniform stands for, they have yet to learn.”

In 1943, she was awarded the Gold Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union, but she’d had enough of war. She returned to the university of Kiev and began her career as a historian. Yet her history beaconed her an in 1945 she was recruited as a research assistant of the Chief HQ of the Soviet Navy. She was later a member of the Soviet Committee of the Veterans of War

She died in 1978, and though she doesn’t have any block buster movies about her life, her image has appeared on postage stamps.

*I must interject here. I’m a military woman myself, and I’m often asked these sorts of questions. Before I met my husband, I dated as you do. Often, when I told my prospective suitor that I was in the military, he would get a gleam in his eye, talk about how ‘sexy’ that was, and ask if we had ‘female specific’ clothing. On one such occasion a suitor picked me up from work. I’d been outside all day, and was tired and sweaty. He looked at me in disgusted and couldn’t quite believe that yes, I had done hard work outside and no, I could not show cleavage in my uniform. It’s been half a century, and this is still annoying. 

The Night Witches

pilots_walking_ed_feature

There’s a saying which goes ‘Give a woman a single cell and she’ll give you a baby. Give a woman flour and she’ll give you bread, etc’. What happens when World War 2 is raging and you give 80 women the shittiest biplanes you have? They gave us the Night Witches.

In 1941 the German army was dangerously close to Moscow and Marina Raskova, already an accomplished military pilot, was asked to create a female only aviation regiment. She created the 588th regiment, and from the mechanics to the pilots, everyone was female. Their purpose was to conduct ‘harassment’ attacks, bombing German factories and pissing them off in general. There were a few problems, however. Though women were allowed to be pilots, they did not have access to the same equipment as the male pilots, and the women of the 588th had to make do with Polikarpov Po-2s. These biplanes made of wood and canvas, out of date since the first world war and mainly used for crop dusting. Even worse, these were not planes designed for carrying much. They could only hold six bombs. That its, they could only hold six bombs if the pilot and her co-pilot didn’t wear parachutes.
This didn’t deter the enlistees, most of them in their late teens or early twenties. Training began in Engels, just north of Stalingrad, and on June 8th, 1942, they flew their first mission. Their target: the headquarter of a German division. Though one plane was lost in the attacked, the pilot and co-pilot assumed dead, the raid was successful. Nadezhda Popova, who enrolled in an aviation school at just fifteen, recalls that it was a miracle the Night Witches hadn’t suffered more casualties. After the war, said she looked at the night sky sometimes and remembers her harrowing missions, asking aloud “Nadezhda, how did you do it?”
They did it through death defying arial acts. Their biplanes were far too noisy for stealth missions, so the Night Witches had to stall their engines midair to coast down to their targets. When the Germans tried to shoot them down, they would use their slow stalling speeds to their advantage. They could slow their planes far more than their enemies could, forcing the Germans to fly past them, turn around, and try to take another shot, only to be met with the same tactic. That wasn’t the only trick they thad, though. They could fly their planes so low to the ground, they would be concealed by hedge rows and trees. Their wood and canvass planes made them almost impossible to detect by heat seekers and radar. In fact, only the noise of the wind flying through the canvas of their planes alerted the Germans to their presence, but by then it would be too late. It was this noise, likened to the sound of broomsticks sweeping a wood floor, that gave the 588th regiment their nickname. Nachthexen, in German, translated into English as ‘Night Witches’.
By the end of the war the Night Witches had flown over 23,000 missions and dropped over 3,000 tons of bombs.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑