Operation Babylift

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Following on the heels of my post about First Lieutenant Sharon Ann Lane, I wanted to write about the heroism of another group of women at the end of the Vietnam War.

In the spring of 1975, commercial aircraft leaving Saigon were filled to capacity. The military, out of necessity, began offering seats on cargo planes to American civilians in an effort to get them out of the country.

But there was a special group of civilians, not quite Americans—yet. Vietnamese orphans, who had families eagerly waiting to adopt them in the United States.

Orphanages in South Vietnam were suffering gravely from a lack of basic medical supplies and food, and aid workers were scrambling to try to get as many orphans back to the United States as they could. The problem was transportation.

USAID (Unites States Aid to International Development) eventually came through and promised three Medevac flights for the orphans to be sent from a base in the Philippines.

But the day after this promise was made, April 4th, 1975, aid workers were told that one of the world’s largest planes was to be sent instead—the C-5A cargo plane. President Gerald Ford had heard about the plight of the orphans and authorized the use of the giant plane for what was soon termed “Operation Babylift.”

The plane was massive—six stories high. Under normal circumstances, it carried helicopters and tanks. It was not suited to carrying passengers. For this reason, aid workers decided that only children three years of age and older would be sent out on the C-5A, because only they could be properly secured.

Twenty-two infants were sent, however. They were chosen from among the very strongest, and were secured in the seats of the troop compartment of the plane.

Fifteen minutes after take-off, as the plane was approaching its cruising altitude, the back doors blew out. The pilot was skilled enough that, despite a lack of rudder control, he was able to turn the plane around and head back to Saigon. But he was unable to control his rate of descent, and the plane impacted in a rice paddy outside Saigon at 350 mph.

Approximately 130 passengers and crew were killed, including an estimated seventy-three children and thirty-eight women. All of the women who died worked for various U.S. government aid agencies at the time of the flight, with the exception of Laurie Stark, who was a teacher, and Captain Mary Therese Klinker, an Air Force flight nurse assigned to Clark Air Base in the Philippines.

The goal of these women was to get a group of orphans to loving homes in the United States, and they died in service to that goal. They should be remembered for their heroism. And the children should be remembered, too, for the lives they could have lived here in the States, after spending their early years in a country marked by war.

I was three years old in 1975, and I’m adopted. Were I born in another place and in other circumstances, I could very well have been on that plane.

To the women and children of Operation Babylift: we remember.

The Women:

Barbara Adams 
Clara Bayot
Nova Bell
Arleta Bertwell
Helen Blackburn
Ann Bottorff
Celeste Brown
Vivienne Clark
Juanita Creel
Mary Ann Crouch
Dorothy Curtiss
Twila Donelson
Helen Drye
Theresa Drye (a child)
Mary Lyn Eichen
Elizabeth Fugino
Ruthanne Gasper
Beverly Herbert
Penelope Hindman
Vera Hollibaugh
Dorothy Howard
Barbara Kauvulia

Captain Mary Therese Klinker
Barbara Maier
Rebecca Martin
Sara Martini
Martha Middlebrook
Katherine Moore
Marta Moschkin
Marion Polgrean
June Poulton
Joan Pray
Sayonna Randall
Anne Reynolds
Marjorie Snow
Laurie Stark
Barbara Stout
Doris Jean Watkins
Sharon Wesley

Virtual Wall

Operation Babylift Memorial

 

Sharon Ann Lane

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I usually write about ancient women on this blog—women from Classical times—because I’ve always felt like their contribution to history has been forgotten. But I recently came upon the story of another woman, a modern woman, whose story I think has also been forgotten. And I want to share her story with you because I think it deserves to be told.

Sharon Ann Lane. First Lieutenant in the United States Army. A nurse stationed at the 312th Evacuation Hospital, Chu Lai, Vietnam in 1969.

Sharon was born in 1943 in Ohio. She graduated from high school in Canton in 1961. After high school, she attended the Aultman Hospital School of Nursing, where she graduated in April of 1965. She worked at a civilian hospital before joining the U.S. Army Nurse Corps Reserve in April of 1968.

She received her army training at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, where all army nurses trained in the 1960s, graduating as a second lieutenant in June of 1968. Her first assignment as an army nurse was on a tuberculosis ward at the Army’s Fitzsimons General Hospital in Denver, Colorado.

On April 24th, 1969, she received orders sending her to Vietnam.

Sharon was sent to Chu Lai, the home of two army hospitals in the first half of 1969—the 27th Surgical Hospital and the 312th Evacuation Hospital. Sharon was originally assigned to the Intensive Care Unit of the 312th, but a few days later was moved to the Vietnamese ward. There, she cared for women, children, and the occasional POW. It was not an assignment most staffers wanted, but Sharon repeatedly declined offers of transfers to other wards.

In addition to her twelve-hour shifts on the Vietnamese ward, Sharon spent her off-duty time working with critically injured American soldiers in the Surgical Intensive Care Unit. According to those who served with her, she was “adored and respected” by everyone in the hospital.

Early on the morning of June 8th, 1969, the Viet Cong attacked the 312th with 122mm rockets. Sharon was just finishing up her night shift on the Vietnamese ward, when one rocket struck Ward 4—her ward. Sharon was struck with shrapnel in the chest and throat, and killed instantly.  She was twenty-five years old.

Sharon was the only female American military member killed by enemy action in the Vietnam War.

Although seven other nurses died in Vietnam, their deaths were the result of accidents or illness. Sharon gave her life the way so many of her patients had—at the hands of the enemy.

Following her death, Fitzsimons General Hospital renamed its recovery room in honor of Sharon, and a statue of her was erected in front of Aultman Hospital, where she had been a nursing student. Roads in Denver, Colorado and in Belvoir, Virginia have been named for her.

Approximately five thousand nurses served in-country over the course of the Vietnam War, most living in tough conditions doing a brutal job. They have been dubbed “Angels of Mercy” for their work.

But Sharon truly is an angel, if you believe in that sort of thing. She would be seventy-four today, retired from a long career as a nurse, most likely. But instead, she lost her life at a young age doing hard work for a country that, at the time, had little in the way of gratitude.

Thank you, Sharon. And God bless.

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The Virtual Wall

Army History

Defense Media Network

Livia, Empress of Rome

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Two weeks ago, I sat in Livia’s dining room.

Not her actual dining room, but within the four painted plaster walls that lined her dining room two thousand years ago and now are located at the Museo Palazzo Massimo in Rome.  And as I sat there surrounded by those four walls, I wondered what those walls had heard, what they had seen.  I wondered about the woman who called upon the Imperial painters to create a dining space that gave the illusion to her guests that they were eating al fresco.  I was mesmerized by the paintings; drawn to this woman whose taste was so much like my own.  Who was she?  What was she like?  What did she and her women friends discuss in this room?  Their children?  Their men?  Their joys and their sorrows?

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And so I decided to write about Livia, one of the most famous women in Roman history.  Wife to Augustus, first emperor of Rome, mother to the emperor Tiberius, grandmother to emperor Claudius, and great-grandmother to emperor Caligula.

When she married Augustus (at the time, Octavian), she already had a son (Tiberius), and in the fifty-one years of marriage to Augustus, she had no other children.  Her role, however, was that of counsel to her husband, and she gave him wise political advice and support throughout his reign as emperor.  This was wildly unusual for the times, as women were considered to be outside the sphere of politics for much of the span of Roman history.  For this alone, we should admire Livia.

Livia lived humbly, despite her status as empress.  She was the role model for the Roman “matrona” or matron.  She wore very little jewelry or makeup, often made her own clothing and that of her husband.  Augustus even gave Livia the (then) outlandish right to govern her own finances and dedicated a public statue to her.

When Augustus died in AD 14, he bequeathed one-third of his estate to Livia, and he also adopted her into the Julian family dynasty, giving her the honorific title of Augusta.  All of these things meant that Livia was able to maintain her power after her husband’s death, and as the mother of the new emperor, Tiberius, she still maintained a position of importance in the empire in any case.

There are tales from ancient sources that tell of tensions between Livia and her son Tiberius during his years as emperor.  It is even said that Tiberius’ retirement to the island of Capri was an attempt to get away from his mother.  At Livia’s death in AD 29, Tiberius refused to return to Rome and vetoed all the honorifics the Senate wished to bestow upon Livia.  However, thirteen years later, during the reign of Livia’s grandson Claudius, all of her honors were restored and her deification was completed.

Women spoke her name during their sacred oaths, her statue was erected beside her husband’s at the Temple of Augustus, and races were held in her honor.  Her ashes remained beside her husband’s in his temple until the Sack of Rome in AD 410, when they, like his, were scattered.

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Painted wall from Livia’s dining room, Palazzo Massimo, Rome, Italy.  Author’s photo.

 

Read More: Empress of Rome: The Life of Livia by Matthew Dennison.

Book Review: “Field of Mars” by David Rollins

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I was recently told by a literary agent that ancient Roman settings were “a very tough sell” in the publishing world.  Perhaps said agent should read David Rollins’ Field of Mars and reconsider her opinion.

If you want to be thrust backward full-force into the drama, order, chaos, smells, tastes, and sensations of the Roman Republic, then this is the novel for you.  This reader (and writer) of historical fiction has fallen in love with the genre all over again thanks to Rollins’ masterful work.

The premise is irresistible: In the far west of China today, there are men and women who have blond or red hair and blue or green eyes.  How did this happen?  The author connects this modern mystery to an ancient one — the disappearance of 10,000 Roman legionaries after a devastating defeat at the hands of the Parthians in May of 53 BC.

I hesitate to even give away the slightest bit of the story lest I ruin it for you, but it must be said that Rollins captures the details of Roman city life and Roman legionary life exquisitely.  From the very start of the novel, when a white bull is being sacrificed in the streets of Rome for the god Mithras, the reader is hooked.  Having written a similar scene  myself, I know how difficult it is to convey a scene which is unheard of in modern times, and thus impossible to observe and write down details of in order to use in one’s own novel.  But Rollins paints the scene perfectly — it’s as if the reader is in the streets with the narrator, seeing every detail of the sacrifice, every smell, every sound, every ripple of the hot Roman air through the surging crowd.

And then there are the battle scenes, of which there are two major ones.  Rollins obviously has an expert’s grasp on the armament and stratagems of the Roman army, and he uses his knowledge to great affect in the great battle between the Romans (under Proconsul Crassus) and the Parthians.  The author isn’t shy about the ravages of war, providing the reader with a realistic look at what life in the midst of battle would have been like for a legionary.  But he does not go over the top with graphic violence, as lesser authors might do.  He finds a realistic middle ground and sticks to it.

The characters are varied and well-fleshed out, each with their own motivations and story arcs.  We are sad, even, when a Parthian character dies, because Rollins has us so invested in his story.

The women in the novel hold the traditional roles of women in an ancient history tale, which is unfortunate.  They are a witch and a prostitute, both of whom seem to exist only to serve the male main characters.  But if you can will yourself to ignore these imperfections in the storyline and characterizations and forgive the author for falling into this traditional trap, you will be able to enjoy the novel.  It is, after all, difficult to create more positive roles for women when you are writing about such a male-dominated topic as a Roman legion.

This is a story about Rome, but it is also a story about the world beyond Rome, and about the weakness of Rome — about Rome’s arrogance.  And yet the characters are so real, one can separate the Roman legionaries from their leaders — from Crassus, from Pompey, from Caesar — and see the legionaries for what they probably were:  simple men doing a difficult job serving their country.

This is a marvelous book.  Highly recommended.  My only wish is that the author would continue on and write a sequel, as I am dying to know the rest of the story!

Buy it on Amazon (Kindle Edition)

Kittur Rani Chennamma

Kittur Rani

Many of those of us who grew up in the United States studied the British East India Company in school, but what we learned was only part of the story. The truth, for the Indian people, was that the East India Company represented an oppressive force, colonialism, and the taking of freedom.

The first Indian to begin an armed rebellion against the British East India Company was Kittur Rani Chennamma. A woman.

Rani Chennamma was born in the small village of Kakati on October 23, 1778. From a young age she was trained in horseback riding, sword fighting, and archery. She rose to be Queen of Kittur in Karnataka, southern India, and married Raja Mallasarja.

Rani Chennamma and the Raja had one son, who died in 1824. Following the death of her son, Rani Chennamma adopted a son named Shivalingappa, and named him heir to her throne.

The British East India Company refused to acknowledge Shivalingappa’s legitimacy as Rani Chennamma’s heir and exiled him, using a policy stating their complete authority over all things political in India, but Chennamma defied the order. She sent a letter of protest to the British leadership in Bombay, requesting a reinstatement of her adopted son, but she was refused, leaving her without an heir.

In response to Rani Chennamma’s perceived rebellion against the East India Company, the British attempted to confiscate the treasure and jewels of Kittur, which we can value today at around 1.5 million rupees. The British attacked Kittur with a force of 20,000 men and 400 guns.

At the start of the war, in October 1824, Rani Chennamma’s forces prevailed and the British took heavy losses. One of their leaders, John Thackeray, was killed and two British officers were taken as hostages.

A deal was made, and Rani Chennamma released the hostages under a truce with the British that stated that the war would end. But the British continued the war with even more soldiers. Chennamma fought fiercely, but was captured and taken prisoner.   She was brought to the fort at Bailhongal, where she died after five years of captivity on February 21, 1829.

Rani Chennamma grew to become a legend in India. During the freedom movement, her resistance to the British became the subject of plays, folk songs, and stories.

A prestigious girls’ school was founded in honor of her, with a mission statement that includes the goal to “impart sound learning for girls…in a social context where the cause of women was totally neglected.”

On September 11, 2007, a statue of Kittur Rani Chennamma was erected at the Parliamentary Building in New Delhi. The statue was unveiled by Pratibha Patil, the first woman President of India.

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Sources:

Hindu Janajagruti Samiti

Hindu History

DigPlanet.com

Queen Nzingha

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The slave trade.  European kidnapping and murder of millions of Africans over hundreds of years.  But one woman fought to save her people from such a fate.

Queen Nzingha of Ndongo.

She was a member of the Mbundu, an ancient ethnic group that lived in modern-day Angola. The Mbundu were made up of clans descended from bloodlines traced through the mother’s side of the family.

Nzingha was born in 1582. Her father was Ndambi Kiluanji, the ngola, or king, of the Ndongo tribe and territories. Her mother was Kiluanji, one of several of the king’s wives.

Nzingha grew up to be a great athlete and highly intelligent. The only problem is that she was a female and that her mother Kiluanji had been brought to the king as a slave, and therefore did not have royal blood. In a matrilineal society, one’s mother’s history mattered, and for Nzingha, her mother’s past as a slave was a hindrance to her chances to rule. But nevertheless, she was educated in the fields of hunting and archery and in the skills of diplomacy and trade.

The Portuguese slave traders tried to destroy the Mbundu culture. In the 1400s, Portuguese traders set up ports along the African coast, such as Luanda, a city meant solely as a center of the slave trade. The Portuguese goal for centuries was to capture Mbundu people to sell and ship off to the New World. Starting in the 15th century, the Portuguese set out to capture and enslave as many Mbundu people as they could. Some Mbundu tribes made deals and alliances with the Portuguese, but Nzingha’s father Kiluanji refused to make such a bargain. He wanted to protect his people. And because of this, the Portuguese advanced into Ndongo territory. Thousands of the Ndongo people were captured, and Kiluanji led his people into war with the foreigners.

Nzingha’s brother Mbandi rose to power at the death of their father and proved to be a useless king. With the Ndongo now essentially leaderless, the Portuguese attacked the Mbundu’s main city of Kabasa and burned it to the ground. Nzingha fled to the mountains with her people and organized an army to fight back.

In 1624, 42-year-old Nzingha led her people back to take control of their homeland. Nzingha was declared Ngola Kiluanji — leader of the Mbundu of Ndongo. The Mbundu had never had a female in charge of their government, but Nzingha proved more than capable.

For forty years, Nzingha led her people into battles against the Portuguese from the slopes of the mountainous Matamba region. Her sisters were captured during a battle, but with the help of slaves in the port of Luanda, they escaped from slavery.

Nzingha was never able to return to the ruins of Kabasa, and many remember her as the “Queen of Matamba,” because she ruled from the Matamba mountains and countryside, never from the Ndongo territory.

When she died in 1663 at age 82, her sister Mukambu took over leadership of the Mbundu people. Nzingha was laid to rest in leopard skins and with her bow over her shoulder and arrows in her hand.

Her death created a vacuum of leadership, and opened the door for the massive Portuguese slave trade in the region of modern-day Angola.  But for forty years, she and her people fought back — fought back against oppression and kidnapping and the terrors of the slave trade.  She should be remembered for her efforts, for the lives she saved, and for the hope she gave to her people.

Sources:

Nubian Queens Society

Nzingha, Queen of Ndongo

Antonia Minor

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In honor of my recent trip to Rome, I’d like to profile an ancient Roman woman whose sculpture I found tucked away in a hallway at the Palazzo Massimo museum. It’s a museum not heralded much in my guidebook, just one line, and I was intrigued by the description of a “museum of Ancient Roman Art.”

I found her statue in a long, brightly-lit hall lined with the marble busts of many women – women of influence in Rome.  Daughters, sisters, nieces, wives, mothers, aunts, and grandmothers. But she struck me as separate from the others. Separate because she was all seven of these things – a woman who played a significant role in the lives of some of the most influential men in Roman history. A daughter, a sister, a niece, a wife, a mother, an aunt, and a grandmother to emperors and generals.

Her name was Antonia Minor. She was born on January 31, 36 BC, the youngest daughter of Marc Antony and Octavia, and the sister of Octavian – the man who would become Augustus, first emperor of Rome.

Her parents’ marriage had been a political one, meant to link her brother Octavian with Marc Antony during a time known as the Second Triumvirate following the murder of Julius Caesar.

Marc Antony had been a close confidante and military commander under Julius Caesar. Following the dictator’s murder, Marc Antony and seventeen-year-old Octavian – Caesar’s named heir and adopted son — split Rome’s provinces in half between them in an alliance called the Second Triumvirate. Octavian ruled the west and Antony ruled the east while a third man, Lepidus, ruled Roman Africa. Within a year, Antony had defeated Caesar’s assassins Brutus and Antonius at the Battle of Phillipi.

But in the end, the Second Triumvirate alliance was doomed to fail. The Roman Republic was on its last legs and empire loomed.

As any fan of the great epic Hollywood films knows, Marc Antony ended up with Cleopatra, the Greek queen of Egypt. The Roman Senate grew nervous at this new alliance between Antony and Cleopatra, and forced Antony to return to Rome and marry Octavia, sister of Octavian, in a political move meant to strengthen the Triumvirate. Antony did as he was ordered, and Antonia Minor was the second daughter of this union.

Eventually, Marc Antony and Octavian went to war with one another, rivals for control of Rome. Octavian and his forces marched on Egypt, and both Cleopatra and Marc Antony committed suicide.

For her part, Antonia never knew her father, as he had left his family for Egypt and Cleopatra when Antonia was still a toddler. Antonia was raised by her mother Octavia and her uncle Octavian, the eventual emperor Augustus. Antonia was just one of a collection of important children brought up within Octavian’s oversight — the children of family, friends, and enemies alike. Growing up in such an influential sphere, Antonia likely learned the political ways of Rome from an early age.

Octavian, once he became the emperor of Rome and took the name Caesar Augustus, began working on the consolidation of the influence of his extended family and worked to strengthen his family’s dynasty by means of marriage alliances.

Augustus’s second wife Livia – herself an influential woman — brought two sons into her marriage with the emperor. Her second son was Nero Claudius Drusus, referred to simply as Drusus, and Augustus chose him as the husband for Antonia Minor.

By all accounts, this arranged marriage was a successful one. Antonia followed her husband on his military campaigns and was so loved by his soldiers that they called her “Mother of the Legions.”

Antonia and Drusus had three children who lived to adulthood — Germanicus, Livilla, and the eventual emperor Claudius. Antonia was also grandmother to the emperor Caligula.

Antonia’s husband Drusus was killed while campaigning in Germania in 9 AD, and was given great honors in death, honors which were also bestowed upon Antonia.

Left the widow of a great hero, Antonia did not shrink from public life, but remained a significant presence at court. She continued to impart broad influence within the imperial family.

As she was only twenty-seven when Drusus died, a new marriage and therefore an additional opportunity for a political alliance for Augustus was possible through her possible marriage. And although Augustus is said to have encouraged this, Antonia never remarried. In remaining an unmarried widow, Antonia embodied the Roman ideal a univira, a chaste woman who had only one husband throughout her life. It was an ideal not often realized, and made her a unique figure within the imperial family and Roman society.

The Senate honored her and offered her the title Augusta, a title given to only one other woman previously – her much beloved aunt Livia, wife of Augustus.

When Livia died, Antonia became the senior woman in the imperial household and inherited the highly respected role of queen mother.

Like her uncle Augustus, she gathered around her the children of dead relatives and raised a household of other people’s offspring, influencing them in the ways of Augustus’s dynastic court.

Antonia inherited a great deal of property and money from both her father and husband, and she managed it on her own, working with men on terms of equality as an independent businesswoman, rare for a Roman woman of the times.

Her son Germanicus died young, and Antonia’s unwavering loyalty to her deceased husband Drusus was noted in her son’s death decree:

“Antonia, mother of Germanicus Caesar, who, having experienced a single marriage . . . has shown by the integrity of her character that she was worthy of such close kinship with the deified Augustus.”

Her most important action regarding political matters was in 31 AD when she informed the emperor Tiberius of a conspiracy against him. She sent a letter of warning to the emperor, who was in self-imposed isolation on the island of Capri. Tiberius quickly removed the conspirator from power, and had him killed. Antonia’s daughter Livilla had become involved in the conspiracy, as well. Some sources say that Tiberius was willing to spare Livilla, but that Antonia had her killed in order to be loyal to the dynasty. The dynasty was above all things for Antonia, even above the fate of her own daughter.

At the age of 73, Antonia Minor committed a final act in honor of the dynasty. When her grandson, the emperor Caligula, refused her advice and acted in a way that brought dishonor to the family, Antonia committed suicide as an act of protest.

After Antonia’s death, Caligula made her a priestess of the cult of Augustus and gave her the privileges of the Vestal Virgins. When her son Claudius became emperor in AD 41, he also gave her the name of Augusta (which the Senate had already conferred), added a ceremonial carriage in her honor at the Circus Maximus, and established a series of games to honor her birth. Antonia was also remembered by means of scores of inscriptions, coins, portraits, and statues throughout the Roman Empire.

In Ancient Rome women were excluded from holding official positions, but many women were there, wielding power behind the scenes. Antonia held traditional roles — daughter, sister, niece, wife, mother, aunt, and grandmother. But she fulfilled these roles in relation to some of Rome’s most powerful men – great emperors and military leaders.

And through her position, she became in her own way one of the most powerful women in Roman history.

 

Sources:

Unusual Historicals

Encyclopedia.com

RomanEmperors.org

History.com

Amina: Queen of the Zazzau Kingdom

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Queen Amina is legendary in Nigeria. She is famed among the Hausa people for her military victories and her great leadership.

She was born in 1533, the eldest daughter of Queen Bakwa Turunku, the woman who established the Zazzau Kingdom in 1536. Queen Amina’s reign is often dated to about 1549, when she took over the kingdom after the death of her mother and the disastrous reign of her brother.

The medieval kingdom of Zazzau was located in the region now known as the Kaduna State in the north-central region of Nigeria. Zazzua was a Hausa city-state that dominated the trans-Saharan trade following the collapse of the Songhai Empire. Its wealth was due to the trade of key commodities such as imported metals, leather goods, kola, cloth, horses, and salt.

Known as a great military strategist and cavalrywoman, Queen Amina fought many successful wars that expanded her Hausa kingdom, the southern-most in West Africa. Her first military expedition took place three months after she came to power and she continued fighting until her death thirty-four years later. During her reign, she expanded the Zazzua Kingdom to its greatest extent.

Her goal in fighting was to control the trade routes in her region. She established a network of trade that linked the earthen walls that surrounded the Hausa cities that lay within her territory. Some of these walls still exist, and are, even today, called “Amina’s walls.”

Because her people were talented metal workers – and because the Kingdom traded in a great deal of imported metal — Amina introduced metal armor, including helmets and chain mail, to her army.

History tells us that Amina refused to marry and never had any children. Legend also says that she died during a military campaign at Atagara near Bida in Nigeria.

She is remembered today as “Amina, Yar Bakwa ta san rana,” meaning “Amina, daughter of Nikatau, a woman as capable as a man.”

Queen Amina of Zaria African stamp

Nubian Queens Society

Black History Heroes

History and Women

Tomoe Gozen: Female Samurai

Tomoe

When we think of the samurai, we invariably think of the brave warriors of Japan’s feudal era. Male warriors. But there was another class of warriors. A class of women. Samurai warriors in their own right.

Perhaps the most famous of these women was Tomoe Gozen. Born around the year 1157 at a time when the samurai ruled Japan. Under the Shogun, the warrior dynasties were Japan’s aristocracy.

Samurai were trained soldiers – highly trained soldiers. They were prepared to die for family and clan.

The wives of the samurai were taught the art of war and could often be found defending the household while their men were away fighting. Others followed their husbands into battle. These women were educated and highly literate. They were instructed not just in the art of war, but in writing, painting, the time-honored tea ceremony, and the managing of estate and servants. They assisted their husband in running the household and in teaching the children. And often, they carried a dagger up their sleeve.

The part these female warriors – known as onna bugeisha – played in society was primarily defensive. Defense of home and family while their husbands were away. They were expected to be able to protect themselves, their homes, and their families in the event of an attack by the enemy.

But Tomoe was different. She played an offensive role as a samurai, not defensive.

Her “master” was Minamoto Yoshinaka – either her husband or the man to which she was an attendant. He sent her into battle as his first captain. Tomoe was strong with a bow and with a sword, fighting with a man’s katana sword and the naginata, a long, curved blade mounted on a pole.

It was also said that she could tame any horse, and was a skilled horsewoman who could ride with ease over any terrain.

She is introduced thusly in The Tale of the Heike: “She was a fearless rider whom neither the fiercest horse nor the roughest ground could dismay, and so dexterously did she handle sword and bow that she was a match for a thousand warriors, and fit to meet either god or devil.”

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Tomoe was especially skilled at gathering intelligence from enemy forces, and was sent on many dangerous scout missions. And she did not fight from behind. Her place was always on the front line, ready to face the enemy first.

The Heike Monogatari says of Tomoe: “Whenever a battle was imminent, Yoshinaka sent her out as his first captain, equipped with strong armor, an oversized sword, and a might bow; and she preformed more deeds of valor than any of his other warriors.”

At the Battle of Awazu, the forces of Yoshinaka faced off against those of Minamoto Yoritomo. The battle did not go well for Yoshinaka. His army of three hundred was reduced to just five surviving warriors. Tomoe was among them.

History becomes cloudy on the topic of what happened to Tomoe next. Her master Yoshinaka had been killed, and some say Tomoe eventually died as well. However, others say she was taken captive and later married a rival warrior named Wada Yoshimori. Others say Tomoe gave up a life of fighting, took a vow of chastity, and became a Buddhist nun.

Interestingly, Tomoe’s story may not be a unique one. DNA testing has been completed recently from bones found at archaeological digs at samurai battlegrounds. In one case, at the site of the Battle of Senbon Matsubaru, there appears to be a large female presence among the warriors. Of the 105 bodies tested, 35 were female. Similar results have been found at other sites in Japan. And since none of these other sites were the location of a siege situation – where women would have been protecting their home and family – the conclusion may be reached that women in feudal Japan fought in armies, although their participation was rarely recorded.

 

Again they galloped through enemy bands- here four or five hundred, there two or three hundred, or a hundred and forty or fifty, or a hundred- until only five of them were left. Even then, Tomoe remained alive.

– from the Heike Monogatari

 

Sources

Samurai Archives

Lady of Legacy: Tomoe Gozen

Ancient Origins

MilitaryHistory.org

 

Telesilla of Argos: Warrior Poet

Amazon Warriors [20x16]

What follows may — or may not — be true. But the story is compelling, and I think it deserves to be told.

Telesilla of Argos was a woman known in her day as being a great lyric poet. In fact, she was listed in Antipater’s roll of earthly muses in the 5th century BC.

But she is remembered more for her role as a warrior. Legend says that in either 494 or 493 BC, King Cleomenes I of Sparta came to invade the city of Argos. After luring the male warriors of the city out to a pine grove, he slaughtered them, leaving the city populated only by women, slaves, the very young, and the very old.

Cleomenes marched on the city, and Telesilla took action. She gathered ornamental shields and swords from temples in the city, raided the city armory for whatever equipment was left over, and provided the women of the city with arms.

According to Plutarch in his On the Bravery of Women, “With Telesilla as general, [the women] took up arms and made their defense by manning the walls around the city, and the enemy was amazed.”

King Cleomenes saw that he was facing a tricky situation. He could fight against the women and defeat them, which would bring him dishonor in slaughtering women. Or, if they defeated him, Sparta would have been bested by a group of untrained women, also leading to dishonor.

Pausanius wrote: “The women stood their ground and fought with the greatest determination, until the Spartans, reflecting that the slaughter of an army of women would be an equivocal victory, and defeat at their hands would be dishonor as well as disaster, laid down their arms.”

The Spartan king withdrew, and Argos was saved.

In memory of Telesilla’s achievement, her statue was built in the temple of Aphrodite at Argos. The Greek war-god Ares was worshipped thereafter in Argos as a patron deity of women.

As I said at the start, this story may or may not be true. And modern historians still debate over its authenticity. But as the tale was repeated by many ancient sources, it is considered to be plausible by many scholars.

Clement of Alexandria, who lived from approximately 150 to 215 AD, preserved a poem detailing Telesilla’s heroism. Telesilla’s reputation for courage was such that, almost 700 years after the events in Argos, she continued to be remembered by the people of the ancient world.

 

Sources

Ancient History Encyclopedia

A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology

HellenicaWorld.com

Women’s Life in Greece and Rome