Friday, November 9, 2012

The Skinny: The Fairer Sex Goes to War

"Rosie the Riveter" is one of the most recognizable images from the WWII era, symbolizing the essential role of women in industry while their men were away at war. A Google search will get you dozens of images of grease-smeared women with drills, welding torches, and heavy machinery, working long hours to build the implements of war and hold our country together. But, people sometimes forget the women who held it together in the war--the WACs, WAVEs, and other groups of women volunteers who got dirty, in a thousand other ways, so that combat soldiers could actually engage in combat. We tend to think of them in a cute South Pacific, pin-up sort of way (washing that man right out of their hair), but they deserve to be recognized for their contribution to freedom.

 The idea of women as support staff pre-dates World War II. There have been field nurses for much longer than that (remember Florence Nightingale?). In addition to the thousands of nurses who signed up, women volunteers drove ambulances in World War I, a task which may seem low-risk and of no great importance. But think about it--the ambulances had to go where the wounded soldiers were. And the wounded soldiers were on the battlefield. Sometimes, retrieving the wounded meant bullet holes in your ambulance. 

Hello Girls

The Hello Girls, also known as the Signal Corps Women, were sworn into the Army to serve as multilingual telephone operators for essential communications. Sadly, they were demoted after the war, so that they would not qualify for veterans benefits. And we're not even going to delve into the vast numbers of women who managed to actually serve, and die, in combat. (Most military organizations like to pretend that never happened.) In World War II, the demand for military nurses was so high that FDR tried to initiate a draft for females. It stalled, however, and the draft idea disappeared by the end of the war.

In 1942, the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) introduced females into the US Army to serve as support and communications staff at designated sites to monitor for potential attacks on US soil. They were sworn in, trained, and given uniforms like every other soldier. The group started with 6,000 women, and after the initial trial run, the Army requested another 500,000. They didn't get their wish, because certain commanders, including General Eisenhower, were opposed to the idea of women in the military. (He quickly changed his mind, after seeing the results of their service, and became one of the greatest supporters of the group for the last few years of the war.) By 1943, the corps had gained enough of a reputation for the "auxiliary" term to be dropped, leaving them officially designated as the Women's Army Corps. Now, the women were no longer civilians, but active members of the United States military. They were more commonly called WACs, and by 1945, there were over 32,000 of them. The WACs were represented in at least 200 specialty jobs for the military, in every operational zone of the war. There were even 1,100 black women who enlisted and served in segregated units.

Also in 1942, two units of qualified female pilots, enlisting as civilian volunteers, were created. The Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) transported bomber and fighter planes to combat zones. The Women's Flying Training Detachment received additional flight training, so that the women pilots could take over non-combat flying duties for male pilots, thereby freeing up more male pilots for battle. In August of 1943, the two groups were combined to form the Women's Airforce Service Pilots. In addition to plane transport, the WASPs also served as instructors for the Eastern Flying Training Command. The group was disbanded in late 1944, and again, the female pilots would not be able to claim privileges as veterans.

WASP training

1942 was, apparently, an important year for women's service. Mildred McAfee, the first female commissioned  officer in the US Navy, was sworn in as Naval Reserve Lieutenant Commander and put in charge of a new group of women: Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, also known as the WAVES. This was not a novel idea. In fact, the US Navy utilized female civilian volunteers during WWI as well, but this time around, the training was more detailed and the job descriptions more complex. And the numbers were huge--women flocked to volunteer for service, especially since the navy had, oddly enough, traditionally been more supportive of women than certain other branches of the military. Within the first year, there were 27,000 WAVES. Clerical jobs were, of course, the majority (but imagine coordinating millions of soldiers and commanders without people to transfer messages, answer the phones, and organize paperwork). This time around, however, some new duties were added for the enlisted women: aviation, legal, medical, intelligence, scientific research, and technology labs. communications, intelligence, science and technology. By the time the war ended, 2.5% of navy personnel were women, many of them officers.

 The Coast Guard joined suit, forming the SPARs in 1942. These women enlisted in the Coast Guard so that the men could then be dispatched overseas for combat. Many of these were WAVES who agreed to an official discharge from the NAVY. They were restricted to coastal waters of the US, and were forbidden to ever issue an order to a male, but were, essentially, filling many of the regular duties of the US Coast Guard. There were also women in the United Service Organization (USO), the American Red Cross, and the Civil Air Patrol. And, somewhat surprisingly, the United States Marines welcomed women into service. With WACs, WAVES, SPARs, and WASPS, everyone expected a clever acronym from the Marines, who are infamous for their sense of humor (ha!). Instead, the Commandant said in an interview for Life magazine, "They are Marines. They don't have a nickname and they don't need one. They get their basic training in a Marine atmosphere at a Marine post. They inherit the traditions of Marines. They are Marines."
Shooting range practice at SPARS academy

 All told, over 400,000 women served with the US Military during World War II. During the war, many of them won Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars, and other awards for service. Many of them died alongside their male colleagues. Most of them were discharged as soon as the conflict ended, and sent back home to be wives and mothers (like much of the female industrial workforce). Decades later, legislation allowed some of them to receive Veterans status, and the appropriate benefits and privileges. This Veterans Day, as you think of the people who have served, and are serving, our country, consider the women who worked hard to preserve our freedom decades ago, who were underestimated and unrecognized for the majority of their lifetimes.

Elizabeth L. Gardner, WASP

*Information obtained from:;;;;;

No comments:

Post a Comment