My regrets are the people I couldn’t save–Marines, soldiers, my buddies. I still feel their loss. I still ache for my failure to protect them. -Chris Kyle, Navy Seal
Recently, the suggestion that female military personnel be allowed to join American Special Forces has caused much controversy, with both men and women questioning whether or not women can physically and psychologically meet the challenge. My opinion is an unqualified “Yes!” I’d like to introduce you to Lyudmila Pavlichenko.
When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, 24-year old Lyudmila Pavlichenko was in her fourth year of studying history at Kiev University. She was among the first round of volunteers at the recruiting office and requested to join the infantry because she wanted to carry a rifle and fight. The recruitment officer eyed her in amazement. She looked like a model, with well-manicured nails, fashionable clothes and hairstyle. He laughed and asked her if she knew anything about rifles. Little did he know that Lyudmila was a member of DOSAAF, a paramilitary sport organization in the Soviet Union and she was an expert sharpshooter. Even when she showed him her marksmanship certificate, he was reluctant to take her seriously and offered her a position as a field nurse. She refused. “They wouldn’t take girls in the army, so I had to resort to all kinds of tricks to get in,” she recalled. To prove she was as skilled with a rifle as she said she was the Red Army unit held an impromptu audition at a hill they were defending, handing her a rifle and pointing her toward a pair of Romanians who were working with the Germans. When she picked off the two she was accepted and assigned to the Red Army’s 25th Rifle Division. There she became one of 2,000 female snipers in the Red Army, of whom about 500 survived the war. “I knew my task was to shoot human beings. In theory that was fine but I knew that the real thing would be completely different.”
On her first day on the battlefield, she found herself close to the enemy, and paralyzed by fear, she was unable to raise her weapon. A young Soviet soldier set up his position beside her, but before they had a chance to settle in a German bullet took out her comrade. She was shocked into action. “He was such a nice, happy boy,” she recalled.” And he was killed just next to me. After that, nothing could stop me.” Private Pavlichenko fought for about three months near Odessa where she recorded 187 kills. She fought for eight months on the Crimea Peninsula and in 1942, having been promoted to a lieutenant she was cited by the Southern Army Council for killing 257 German soldiers. In her career she had 309 confirmed kills.
As her kill count rose she was given more and more dangerous assignments, including the riskiest of all – countersniping, where she was engaged in duels with enemy snipers. She never lost a duel, notching 36 sniper kills in hunts that could last all day and all night. “That was one of the tensest experiences of my life,” she said, noting the endurance and willpower it took to maintain positions for 15 to 20 hours at a stretch. “Finally,” she said of her Nazi stalker, “he made one move too many.” One duel lasted three days. “That’s three days of waiting perfectly still, in the cold and in the silence, knowing that somewhere out there was a sniper doing the same thing.”
She was wounded on four separate occasions and suffered from shell shock, but remained in action until her position was bombed and she took shrapnel to the face. Pavlichenko and her spotter, Leonid Kutsenko, were caught by Germany artillery and she knew he was not going to make it but with blood streaming down her face she laboriously lugged her comrade back to camp. For her bravery she was awarded the Order of Lenin Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest honor her country awards and equivalent to the U.S. Medal of Honor.
After a time, even the Germans knew of her, blaring messages over their loudspeakers, “Lyudmila Pavlichenko, come over to us. We will give you plenty of chocolate and make you a German officer.” When the bribes didn’t work, they resorted to threats, vowing to tear her into 309 pieces, a phrase that delighted the young sniper. “They even knew my score!” Killing Nazis aroused no complicated emotions in her. “The only feeling I have is the great satisfaction a hunter feels who has killed a beast of prey. Every German who remains alive will kill women, children and old folks. Dead Germans are harmless. Therefore, if I kill a German, I am saving lives.”
In June of 1942, she was only 25 but had been wounded four times in battle. After she was wounded in the face with shrapnel from mortar fire, she was withdrawn from combat and sent to Canada and the U.S. for a publicity visit, becoming the first Soviet citizen to be received by a U.S. President when Franklin Roosevelt welcomed her to the White House. She found a friend in Eleanor Roosevelt and was asked to go on tour with the First Lady to tell Americans her experiences as a woman in combat.
She was dumbfounded by the questions the U.S. reporters asked her, who criticizing the length of her skirt saying it was too long and made her look fat. The women reporters plagued her with questions about nail polish, how she curled her hair and was she allowed to wear make-up at the front. When faced with these types of question she answered, “There are no rules against it, but who has time to think of her shiny nose when a battle is going on?” No doubt she was thinking that a few months earlier she had been recovering from wounds to her face sustained in the mortar attack. She eventually grew tired of these frivolous questions and said, “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 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.”
She held audiences spellbound with the stories of her youth, the devastating effect of the German invasion of her homeland and her career in combat. She made the case across America for a U.S. commitment to fighting the Nazis and in doing so drove home the point that women were not only capable, but essential to the fight. She stood before large crowds chiding the men to support the second front. “Gentlemen, I am 25 years old and I have killed 309 fascist occupants by now. Don’t you think that you have been hiding behind my back for too long?”
She spoke out about the lack of a color line or segregation in the Red Army, and of gender equality, which she aimed at American women in the crowds. “Now I am looked upon a little as a curiosity, s subject for newspaper headlines, for anecdotes. In the Soviet Union I am looked upon as a citizen, as a fighter, as a soldier for my country.” She also made trips to the UK and accepted donations to pay for three x-ray units for the Red Army. Having attained the rank of major, she never returned to combat but became an instructor and trained Soviet snipers until the end of the war. After the war she completed her degree and began a career as a historian and was active in the Soviet Committee of the Veterans of War.
In 1957, 15 years after she accompanied Eleanor Roosevelt on tour, the former first lady was touring Moscow. Because of the Cold War, a Soviet minder restricted Roosevelt’s agenda and watched her every move. She persisted until she was granted permission to visit her old friend, Lyudmila. She found her living in a two-room apartment in the city, and the two chatted amiably with a “cool formality” for a moment before Pavlichenko made an excuse to pull her guest into the bedroom and shut the door. Out of the minder’s sight she threw her arms around her, half-laughing, half-crying, telling her how happy she was to see her. In whispers the two old friends recounted their travels together.
Lyudmila Pavlichenko was awarded the Gold Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union and was commemorated on two Soviet postage stamps. She was immortalized in a song by American folksinger, Woody Guthrie called “Miss Pavlichenko”:
Miss Pavlichenko’s well known to fame;
Russia’s your country, fighting is your game;
The whole world will love her for a long time to come,
For more than three hundred Nazis fell by your gun.
Pavlichenko was credited with 309 confirmed kills and she is still regarded as the most successful female sniper in history. She is an example of the bravery and skill that women can bring to the battlefield. While the ultimate hope is that there will be no need for men and women to wage war, reality and history shows us that there will always be those who don’t want peace. When the need arises to fight those who oppose freedom, abuse human rights or attacks our country, then our military needs to be the best it can be and that includes equipping the forces with men and women who can meet that challenge. To exclude women from any branch or section of our military is to limit the pool to choose from by half.
Women have always fought, wounded and been killed in wars. Individual women have served in combat in leadership roles such as Queen Bodicea, who led the Britons against Rome; and Joan of Arc who led troops to drive the invading English troops from France. In WWI, Russia used an all-female combat unit. In WWII, hundreds of British and German women served in combat roles as anti-aircraft gunners, snipers and combat fighter pilots. After 1945 all these combat roles were ended in all armies and the women and their contributions largely unrewarded and forgotten. Israel, along with Norway and Eritrea in Africa, have mandatory military service for men and women, and 3% of Israel’s combat units are women. Today all-female Kurdish troops are fighting against the spread of ISIS in Syria. In the U.S. only in 2013 has the ban on women serving in combat been lifted. Army Ranger Battalions and Navy SEAL units plan to integrate women by 2015 and 2016, respectively. On November 21, 2013, the first three women graduated from the U.S. Marine Corps School of Infantry. Let’s give these women who have the dedication and skill a chance to prove themselves. If the successes of women in past conflicts are anything to go by, then we have nothing to worry about.