Women at War

Women At War

By Robert Presnar, Education Director

Let the generations know that women in uniform also guaranteed  their freedom. That our resolve was just as great as the brave men who  stood among us and with victory our hearts were just as full and beat just as fast-that  the tears fell just as hard for those we left behind.

— Anne Sosh Brehm, 1st Lieutenant, US Army Nurse Corps, World War II


First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt advocated for the creation of a female branch of the military from the outset of World War II.  She was not alone in her stance having a powerful ally in General Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander of U.S. forces in Europe. Eisenhower agreed that the establishment of such a branch would be critical to the war effort.

President Roosevelt signed the bill creating the Women’s Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) on May 15, 1942. It would subsequently lose the “Auxiliary” in title and gain active-duty status on July 1, 1943. The first director was Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby. After meeting and exceeding the original 25,000 recruitment goal, authorized enlistment expanded to 150,000. These women were initially trained to serve in three distinct roles that included switchboard operators, mechanics, and bakers. 

This would later expand to postal clerks, drivers, stenographers, and clerk-typists. Although female recruits could not avoid segregation in the Army, they did join the ranks of the WACS. In fact, African American women totaled 5.1 per cent of the corps’ numbers. 

The Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Services (WAVES) became a unit of the U.S. Naval Reserve on July 30, 1942. Mildred McAfee, the former president of Wellesley College, became the first director of the WAVES and the first female commissioned officer of the Navy. 

The initial graduating class included 644 women with a yeomen-equivalent rank. Mary Katherine Evans of New Castle was the first woman from Lawrence County to enroll at the age of 20.  These women went into secretarial and clerical jobs after an intensive 12-week training program. Potential WAVES jobs expanded to include military intelligence, cryptography, and parachute rigging. Women of the WAVES found employment in aviation, medicine, science, technology, and communications. One-third of all members of the WAVES were assigned to Naval aviation duties. 

Captain Mildred McAfee

The WAVES had strict restrictions. The women were not eligible for combat duty. They were not permitted to serve on naval vessels. They were not permitted to serve overseas, but, instead, were stationed in Hawaii and Alaska. African American recruits were barred until late 1944. 

In October 1943, the Navy changed its policies to include equal pay and rank. The women were thus under the same regulations and requirements as men when it came to promotions. The change was a huge recruitment incentive. Within one year, 27,000 additional women joined the WAVES. By the end of the war, over 100,000 women would wear the WAVES uniform. 

When the war broke out, there was an immediate shortage of pilots. Two of the most accomplished female aviators of the time, Nancy Love and Jacqueline Cochran, were centerstage in the creation of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron and the Women’s Flying Training Detachment. These entities were created to take the pressure off the shortages, providing non-military, female pilots for non-combat missions.  Both groups would become the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS) in 1943.

The first job was to deliver much needed trainer aircraft to flight schools in the South. There were originally twenty-eight experienced female pilots who volunteered for these missions. From November 1942 – December 1944, 1,074 additional women joined the ranks. They were trained in Houston, and then Sweetwater, Texas. 

During the war, WASPS flew just about every type of plane on missions that included ferrying, towing gunnery targets, transporting equipment and personnel, and flight-testing aircraft. 

Air Force Commanding General “Hap” Arnold championed the WASPS. He sought official military designation for the WASPS in June 1944, but was initially rejected by Congress. That designation would not come for another 33 years. 

As the dust of war cleared, it was apparent that women were just as patriotic and dedicated to military victory as their male comrades. In 1948, President Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act. This act recognized women as full members of the armed forces and gave them access to the same benefits as their male counterparts.

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