Highly relevant today, World War II has much to teach us, not only aboutthe profession of arms, but also about military preparedness, global strategy,and combined operations in the coalition war against fascism. During thenext several years, the U.S. Army will participate in the nation's 50thanniversary commemoration of World War II. The commemoration will includethe publication of various materials to help educate Americans about thatwar. The works produced will provide great opportunities to learn aboutand renew pride in an Army that fought so magnificently in what has beencalled "the mighty endeavor."
World War II was waged on land, on sea, and in the air over severaldiverse theaters of operation for approximately six years. The followingessay on the critical support role of the Women's Army Corps supplementsa series of studies on the Army's campaigns of that war.
This brochure was prepared in the U.S. Army Center of Military Historyby Judith A. Bellafaire. I hope this absorbing account of that period willenhance your appreciation of American achievements during World War II.
Rogers remembered the female civilians who had worked overseas withthe Army under contract and as volunteers during World War I as communicationsspecialists and dietitians. Because these women had served the Army withoutbenefit of official status, they had to obtain their own food and quarters,and they received no legal protection or medical care. Upon their returnhome they were not entitled to the disability benefits or pensions availableto U.S. military veterans. Rogers was determined that if women were toserve again with the Army in a wartime theater they would receive the samelegal protection and benefits as their male counterparts.
As public sentiment increasingly favored the creation of some form ofa women's corps, Army leaders decided to work with Rogers to devise andsponsor an organization that would constitute the least threat to the Army'sexisting culture. Although Rogers believed the women's corps should bea part of the Army so that women would receive equal pay, pension, anddisability benefits, the Army did not want to accept women directly intoits ranks.
The final bill represented a compromise between the two sides. The Women'sArmy Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was established to work with the Army,"for the purpose of making available to the national defense the knowledge,skill, and special training of the women of the nation." The Army wouldprovide up to 150,000 "auxiliaries" with food, uniforms, living quarters,pay, and medical care. Women officers would not be allowed to command men.The Director of the WAAC was assigned the rank of major. WAAC first, second,and third officers served as the equivalents of captains and lieutenantsin the Regular Army, but received less pay than their male counterpartsof similar rank. For example, although the duties of a WAAC first officerwere comparable to those of a male captain, she received pay equivalentto that of a male first lieutenant. Enlisted women, referred to as "auxiliaries,"were ranked in descending order from chief leader, a position comparableto master sergeant in the Regular Army, through junior leader, comparableto corporal, and down to auxiliary, comparable to private.
Although the compromise WAAC bill did not prohibit auxiliaries fromserving overseas, it failed to provide them with the overseas pay, governmentlife insurance, veterans medical coverage, and death benefits granted RegularArmy soldiers. If WAACs were captured, they had no protection under existinginternational agreements covering prisoners of war. Rogers' purpose inintroducing the WAAC bill had been to obtain pay, benefits, and protectionfor women working with the military. While she achieved some of her goals,many compromises had been necessary to get the bill onto the floor.
Rogers introduced her bill in Congress in May 1941, but it failed toreceive serious consideration until after the Japanese attack on PearlHarbor in December. General Marshall's active support and congressionaltestimony helped the Rogers bill through Congress. Marshall believed thatthe two-front war in which the United States was engaged would cause aneventual manpower shortage. The Army could ill afford to spend the timeand money necessary to train men in essential service skills such as typingand switchboard operations when highly skilled women were already available.Marshall and others felt that women were inherently suited to certain criticalcommunications jobs which, while repetitious, demanded high levels of manualdexterity. They believed that men tended to become impatient with suchjobs and might make careless mistakes which could be costly during war.
Congressional opposition to the bill centered around southern congressmen.With women in the armed services, one representative asked, "Who will thendo the cooking, the washing, the mending, the humble homey tasks to whichevery woman has devoted herself; who will nurture the children?" Aftera long and acrimonious debate which filled ninety-eight columns in theCongressional Record, the bill finally passed the House 249 to 86.The Senate approved the bill 38 to 27 on 14 May. When President FranklinD. Roosevelt signed the bill into law the next day, he set a recruitmentgoal of 25,000 for the first year. WAAC recruiting topped that goal byNovember, at which point Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson authorized WAACenrollment at 150,000, the original ceiling set by Congress.
The day the bill became law, Stimson appointed Oveta Culp Hobby as Directorof the WAAC. As chief of the Women's Interest Section in the Public RelationsBureau at the War Department, Hobby had helped shepherd the WAAC bill throughCongress. She had impressed both the media and the public when she testifiedin favor of the WAAC bill in January. In the words of the Washington TimesHerald, "Mrs. Hobby has proved that a competent, efficient woman whoworks longer days than the sun does not need to look like the popularidea of a competent, efficient woman."
Prior to her arrival in Washington, Hobby had had ten years' experienceas editor of a Houston newspaper. The wife of former Texas Governor WilliamP. Hobby, Oveta Culp Hobby was well versed in national and local politics.Before her marriage she had spent five years as a parliamentarian of theTexas legislature and had written a book on parliamentary procedure.
Oveta Culp Hobby was thus the perfect choice for Director of the Women'sArmy Auxiliary Corps. The position needed a woman with a proven recordof achievement. The individual selected had to be politically astute, withan understanding of how things got done in Washington and in the War Department.Most important, the Director of the WAAC had to show a skeptical Americanpublic that a woman could be "a lady" and serve as a member of the armedforces at the same time. This was crucial to the success of the WAAC. Avolunteer force, the WAAC had to appeal to small town and middle-classAmerica to recruit the skilled clerical workers, teachers, stenographers,and telephone operators needed by the Army. The values and sensibilitiesof this middle class were very narrow, as exemplified by the words of CharityAdams, a WAAC officer candidate and later lieutenant colonel: "I made aconscientious effort to obtain every item on the list of suggested suppliesfor training camp except the slacks and shorts. I had never owned either,feeling that I was not the type to wear them." In small town America in1942, ladies did not wear slacks or shorts in public.
Initially, Major Hobby and the WAAC captured the fancy of press andpublic alike. William Hobby was quoted again and again when he joked, "Mywife has so many ideas, some of them have got to be good!" Hobby handledher first press conference with typical aplomb. Although the press concentratedon such frivolous questions as whether WAACs would be allowed to wear makeupand date officers, Hobby diffused most such questions with calm sensibility.Only one statement by the Director caused unfavorable comment. "Any memberof the Corps who becomes pregnant will receive an immediate discharge,"said Hobby. The Times Herald claimed that the birth rate would beadversely affected if corps members were discouraged from having babies."This will hurt us twenty years from now," said the newspaper, "when weget ready to fight the next war." Several newspapers picked up this theme,which briefly caused much debate among columnists across the nation.
Oveta Culp Hobby believed very strongly in the idea behind the Women'sArmy Auxiliary Corps. Every auxiliary who enlisted in the corps would betrained in a noncombatant military job and thus "free a man for combat."In this way American women could make an individual and significant contributionto the war effort. Hobby's sincerity aided her in presenting this conceptto the public. In frequent public speeches, she explained, "The gaps ourwomen will fill are in those noncombatant jobs where women's hands andwomen's hearts fit naturally. WAACs will do the same type of work whichwomen do in civilian life. They will bear the same relation to men of theArmy that they bear to the men of the civilian organizations in which theywork." In Hobby's view, WAACs were to help the Army win the war, just aswomen had always helped men achieve success.
WAAC officers and auxiliaries alike accepted and enlisted under thisphilosophy. A WAAC recruit undergoing training at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia,whose husband was serving in the Pacific, wrote her friend, "The WAAC missionis the same old women's mission, to hold the home front steadfast, andsend men to battle warmed and fed and comforted; to stand by and do dullroutine work while the men are gone."
Applicants had to be U.S. citizens between the ages of 21 and 45 withno dependents, be at least five feet tall, and weigh 100 pounds or more.Over 35,000 women from all over the country applied for less than 1,000anticipated positions.
On 20 July the first officer candidate training class of 440 women starteda six-week course at Fort Des Moines. Interviews conducted by an eagerpress revealed that the average officer candidate was 25 years old, hadattended college, and was working as an office administrator, executivesecretary, or teacher. One out of every five had enlisted because a malemember of her family was in the armed forces and she wanted to help himget home sooner. Several were combat widows of Pearl Harbor and Bataan.One woman enlisted because her son, of fighting age, had been injured inan automobile accident and was unable to serve. Another joined becausethere were no men of fighting age in her family. All of the women professeda desire to aid their country in time of need by "releasing a man for combatduty."
The press was asked to leave Fort Des Moines after the first day soas not to interfere with the training. Although a few reporters were disgruntledbecause they were not allowed to "follow" a candidate through basic officertraining, most left satisfied after having obtained interviews and photographsof WAACs in their new uniforms. Even the titillating question of the colorof WAAC underwear (khaki) was answered for the folks back home. Lettersthe women wrote home were often published in local newspapers.
The forty black women who entered the first WAAC officer candidate classwere placed in a separate platoon. Although they attended classes and messwith the other officer candidates, post facilities such as service clubs,theaters, and beauty shops were segregated. Black officer candidates hadbackgrounds similar to those of white officer candidates. Almost 80 percenthad attended college, and the majority had work experience as teachersand office workers.
In July Army recruiting centers were supplied with applications forvolunteers to enlist in the WAAC as auxiliaries (enlisted women). The response,although not as dramatic as the officer candidate applications, was stillgratifying. Those who had applied unsuccessfully for officer training andwho had stated on their applications that they would be willing to comein as auxiliaries did not have to reapply. Women were told that after theinitial group of officers had been trained, all other officer candidateswould be selected from the ranks of the auxiliaries as the corps grew.The first auxiliary class started its four-week basic training at FortDes Moines on 17 August. The average WAAC auxiliary was slightly youngerthan the officer candidates, with a high school education and less workexperience. These women enlisted for the same reasons as the officer candidates.Many with family members in the armed forces believed that the men wouldcome home sooner if women actively helped win the war and that the mostefficient way a woman could help the war effort was to free a man for combatduty.
Although the first WAAC officer candidate class started its trainingbefore the enlisted class, the first enlisted WAACs entered training beforetheir future officers graduated. Consequently, the first classes of bothWAAC officer candidates and enlisted personnel were trained by male RegularArmy officers. Col. Donald C. Faith was chosen to command the center. Faith'sbackground as an educator and his interest in the psychology of militaryeducation rendered him well suited for his position.
Eventually and gradually WAAC officers took over the training of therest of the corps. The majority of the newly trained WAAC officers, thefirst of whom finished their training on 29 August, were assigned to FortDes Moines to conduct basic training. As officer classes continued to graduatethroughout the fall of 1942, many were assigned to staff three new WAACtraining centers in Daytona Beach, Florida; Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia; andFort Devens, Massachusetts. Others accompanied WAAC companies sent to U.S.Army field installations across the country. Black officers were assignedto black auxiliary and officer candidate units at Fort Des Moines and FortDevens.
The first auxiliary units and their officers to reach the field wentto Aircraft Warning Service (AWS) units. The U.S. Army Air Forces couldnot rely on volunteer civilians to man stations twenty-four hours a day.
Many AWS volunteers who fit the WAAC enlistment requirements joinedthe WAAC with the understanding that upon graduating from basic trainingthey would be assigned to duty at their local AWS station. By October 1942twenty-seven WAAC companies were active at AWS stations up and down theeastern seaboard. WAACs manned "filter boards," plotting and tracing thepaths of every aircraft in the station area. Some filter boards had asmany as twenty positions, each one filled with a WAAC wearing headphonesand enduring endless boredom while waiting for the rare telephone callsreporting aircraft sightings.
Later graduates were formed into companies and sent to Army Air Forces(AAF), Army Ground Forces (AGF), or Services of Supply (renamed Army ServiceForces [ASF] in 1943) field installations. Initially most auxiliaries workedas file clerks, typists, stenographers, or motor pool drivers, but graduallyeach service discovered an increasing number of positions WAACs were capableof filling.
The AAF was especially anxious to obtain WAACs, and each unit was eagerlyanticipated and very well treated. Eventually the Air Forces obtained 40percent of all WAACs in the Army. Women were assigned as weather observersand forecasters, cryptographers, radio operators and repairmen, sheet metalworkers, parachute riggers, link trainer instructors, bombsight maintenancespecialists, aerial photograph analysts, and control tower operators. Over1,000 WAACs ran the statistical control tabulating machines (the precursorsof modern-day computers) used to keep track of personnel records. By January1945 only 50 percent of AAF WACs held traditional assignments such as fileclerk, typist, and stenographer.
A few AAF WAACs were assigned flying duties. Two WAAC radio operatorsassigned to Mitchel Field, New York, flew as crew members on B-17 trainingflights. WAAC mechanics and photographers also made regular flights. Threewere awarded Air Medals, including one in India for her work in mapping"the Hump," the mountainous air route overflown by pilots ferrying lend-leasesupplies to the Chinese Army. One woman died in the crash of an aerialbroadcasting plane.
Army Service Forces received 40 percent of the WAACs. Some of the womenassigned to the Ordnance Department computed the velocity of bullets, measuredbomb fragments, mixed gunpowder, and loaded shells. Others worked as draftsmen,mechanics, and electricians, and some received training in ordnance engineering.
Many of the 3,600 WAACs assigned to the Transportation Corps (ASF) processedmen for assignment overseas, handling personnel files and issuing weapons.In the words of one WAAC, "Soldiers come in here unarmed and leave witha gun. It gives me a pretty good feeling." WAACs served as boat dispatchersand classification specialists.
Later in the war, women were trained to replace men as radio operatorson U.S. Army hospital ships. The Larkspur, the Charles A. Stafford,and the Blanche F. Sigman each received three enlisted womenand one officer near the end of 1944. This experiment proved successful,and the assignment of female secretaries and clerical workers to hospitalships occurred soon after.
WAACs assigned to the Chemical Warfare Service (ASF) worked both inlaboratories and in the field. Some women were trained as glass blowersand made test tubes for the Army's chemical laboratories. Others fieldtested equipment such as walkie-talkies and surveying and meteorology instruments.
The 250 WAACs assigned to the Quartermaster Corps (ASF) kept track ofstockpiles of supplies scattered in depots across the country. Their dutiesincluded inspection, procurement, stock control, storage, fiscal oversight,and contract termination.
Over 1,200 WAACs assigned to the Signal Corps (ASF) worked as telephoneswitchboard operators, radio operators, telegraph operators, cryptologists,and photograph and map analysts. WAACs assigned as photographers receivedtraining in the principles of developing and printing photographs, repairingcameras, mixing emulsions, and finishing negatives. Women who became mapanalysts learned to assemble, mount, and interpret mosaic maps.
WAACs within the Army Medical Department (ASF) were used as laboratory, surgical, X-ray, and dental technicians as well as medical secretaries and ward clerks, freeing Army nurses for other duties.
The Army Ground Forces were initially reluctant to request and employWAACs. The AGF eventually received 20 percent of all WAAC assignments.Many high-ranking staff officers would have preferred to see women aidthe defense effort by taking positions in industry. A report prepared bythe Plans Section, AGF, reflected this attitude: "In industry it is necessaryto train personnel in only a single operation on the production line. Militaryduties require a versatility that is acquired only by long experience."As a result, WAACs assigned to Army Ground Forces often felt unwelcomeand complained of the intensive discipline imposed upon them. Most AGFWAACs worked in training centers where 75 percent performed routine officework. Another 10 percent worked in motor pools. AGF WAACs found that chancesfor transfer and promotion were extremely limited, and many women servedthroughout the war at the posts to which they were initially assigned.The stories of Ground Forces WAACs contrasted sharply with those of womenassigned to the Air and Service Forces, who were routinely sent to specialistschools and often transferred between stations.
Women's Army Corps members served worldwide-in North Africa, the Mediterranean,Europe, the Southwest Pacific, China, India, Burma, and the Middle East.Overseas assignments were highly coveted, even though the vast majorityconsisted of the clerical and communications jobs at which women were believedto be most efficient. Only the most highly qualified women received overseasassignments. Some women turned down the chance to attend Officer CandidateSchool in favor of an overseas assignment.
The invasion of North Africa was only five days old when, on 13 November1942, Lt. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower asked that five WAAC officers, twoof whom could speak French, be sent immediately to Allied Force Headquartersto serve as executive secretaries. The ship carrying Third Officers MarthaRogers, Mattie Pinette, Ruth Briggs, Alene Drezmal, and Louise Andersonwas torpedoed en route from Great Britain to Algiers. A British destroyerplucked two of the women from the burning deck of their sinking ship. Theother three escaped in a lifeboat. While adrift on the high seas, theysaved several seamen by pulling them into the boat with them. Picked upby a destroyer, they were delivered to Algiers with no uniforms, clothing,or supplies. The women were greeted by anxious officers with gifts of orangesand toiletries.
These five women served on General Eisenhower's staff successively throughoutthe North African, Mediterranean, and European campaigns. In 1945 Eisenhowerstated, "During the time I have had WACs under my command they have metevery test and task assigned to them . . . their contributions in efficiency,skill, spirit and determination are immeasurable."
The first WAAC unit overseas, the 149th Post Headquarters Company, reportedon 27 January 1943 to General Eisenhower's headquarters in Algiers. Initiallyunit members were housed in the dormitory of a convent school and transportedto and from the headquarters in trucks. They served as postal workers,clerks, typists, and switchboard operators. Nightly bombings and accompanyingantiaircraft fire made sleep difficult for the first few weeks, but mostof the women acclimated fairly quickly. Additional WAAC postal workersjoined them in May. A WAAC signal company arrived in November to take jobsas high-speed radio operators, teletypists, cryptographic code clerks,and tape cutters in radio rooms. Corps members assigned to the Army AirForces arrived in North Africa in November 1943 and January 1944.
One of the most famous WAAC/WAC units to serve in the North Africanand Mediterranean theaters was the 6669th Headquarters Platoon, assignedto Lt. Gen. Mark W. Clark's Fifth Army. This unit became the Army's "experiment"in the use of female units in the field. The 6669th accompanied Fifth Armyheadquarters from Mostaganem, Algeria, across the Mediterranean to Naplesand eventually all the way up the boot of Italy. Unit members remainedfrom six to thirteen miles behind the front lines, moved with the headquartersgroup, and worked in traditional female skills. The unit's table of organizationcalled for 10 telephone operators, 7 clerks, 16 clerk-typists, 10 stenographers,and 1 administrative clerk. Even so, these jobs had a vastly differentflavor from traditional employment in the United States. WAAC telephoneoperators were required to get through extremely complicated communicationsnetworks to reach within minutes the commanding officer of any unit soughtby General Clark. Clerk-typists plotted the locations and movements ofthe troops and requisitioned and tracked the delivery of crucial supplies.Clark and his staff treated the WAACs as valued members of the Fifth Armyteam, and the women responded by submitting to the hardships associatedwith forward troop movements with little complaint.
The WAACs' success in the North African and Mediterranean theaters ledto an increasing number of requests for WAACs from overseas theaters. Beforethe War Department could honor these requests, however, it had to finda solution to a more immediate problem. In early 1943 the number of womenjoining the WAAC dropped drastically due to a sudden backlash of publicopinion against the employment of women in the armed forces.
Unfortunately, a variety of social factors had combined to produce anegative public image of the female soldier. Letters home from enlistedmen contained a great deal of criticism of female soldiers. When the Officeof Censorship ran a sample tabulation, it discovered that 84 percent ofsoldiers' letters mentioning the WAAC were unfavorable.
Many of these soldiers had never seen a WAAC. But they were away fromhome and facing unknown dangers, and many kept up their spirits by imaginingtheir return to the family and community they had left behind. It was importantthat the family and community remain unchanged. Women in the military representedchange.
Enlisted soldiers tended to question the moral values of any woman attractedto military service and passed these beliefs on to their families at home.Many soldiers believed that the WAACs' duties included keeping up moraleand "keeping the men happy." To this end, contraceptives were supposedlyissued to all WAACs, and large numbers of pregnant WAACs were being returnedhome from overseas. It was rumored that 90 percent of the WAACs were prostitutesand that 40 percent of all WAACs were pregnant. According to one story,any soldier seen dating a WAAC would be seized by Army authorities andprovided with medical treatment.
Given this "traditional male folklore," the early WAAC slogan, "Releasea Man for Combat," was an unfortunate choice. Due to supposed sexual overtones,the slogan was changed to "Replace a Man for Combat," but the modificationmade little difference. Concerned soldiers believed that WAACs were notfit company for their sisters and girlfriends, and many forbade their wives,fiancees, and sisters to join the WAAC, some even threatening divorce ordisinheritance. After American servicemen saw WAACs on the job and workedwith them, many changed their minds. But by then the damage had alreadybeen done.
Another source of adverse public opinion regarding the WAAC took rootin cities and towns adjoining military bases. Scurrilous rumors were sometimesstarted by jealous civilian workers who feared that their jobs were endangeredby the arrival of WAACs, or by townspeople annoyed at WAACs who came totown in groups and "took over" favorite restaurants and beauty shops. Thegrowth of many Army posts during this period changed many small communitiesforever, and the presence of women in uniform for the first time typifiedthese changes.
The most significant cause of anti-WAAC feelings originated with themany enlisted soldiers who, comfortable in their stateside jobs, did notnecessarily want to be "freed" for combat. The mothers, wives, sisters,and fiancees of these men were not anxious to see them sent into combateither, and many people believed the WAACs were to blame for this possibility.Such people often found it convenient to believe the worst rumors aboutfemale soldiers and sometimes repeated such gossip to their friends andneighbors.
In general, the American press had reported favorably, if rather frivolously,on the WAAC. Although editors devoted an inordinate amount of space tothe color of WAAC underwear and the dating question, the press was usuallysympathetic to the adjustments made by women to military life and the excitingjob and travel opportunities awaiting those who enlisted.
However, there were exceptions. In the well-known column, "Capitol Stuff,"carried nationwide by the McCormick newspaper chain, columnist John O'Donnellclaimed that a "super-secret War Department policy authorized the issuanceof prophylactics to all WAACs before they were sent overseas." O'Donnellinsisted that WAAC Director Oveta Culp Hobby was fully aware of and inagreement with this policy. The entire charge was, of course, a fabrication,and O'Donnell was forced to retract his allegation.
The damage done to the WAAC by this column, even with the rapid retraction,was incalculable. WAACs and their relatives were outraged and humiliated.The immediate denials issued by President and Mrs. Roosevelt, SecretaryStimson, and Lt. Gen. Brehon B. Somervell of the Army Service Forces mitigatedthe feelings of some but did little to alleviate the shock of many. Theinevitable general public discussion led Congress to summon Director Hobbyto produce statistics on WAAC pregnancies and the frequency of venerealdisease. Upon learning of the exceptionally small percent cited, Congresscommended Major Hobby and the WAAC.
On 3 July 1943, after a delay caused by congressional hearings on theslander issues, the WAC bill was signed into law. All WAACs were givena choice of joining the Army as a member of the WAC or returning to civilianlife. Although the majority decided to enlist, 25 percent decided to leavethe service at the time of conversion.
Women returned home for a variety of reasons. Some were needed at homebecause of family problems; others had taken a dislike to group livingand Army discipline. Some women did not want to wear their uniform whileoff duty, as required of all members of the armed forces. Women electingto leave also complained that they had not been kept busy or that theyhad not felt needed in their jobs. Not surprisingly, the majority of thosewho left had been assigned to the Army Ground Forces, which had been reluctantto accept women in the first place and where the women were often underutilizedand ignored. Some 34 percent of the WAACs allocated to the Army GroundForces decided to leave the service at the time of conversion, comparedto 20 percent of those in the Army Air Forces and 25 percent of those inthe Army Service Forces.
With the conversion of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps to the Women'sArmy Corps, former WAAC first, second, and third officers became captainsand first and second lieutenants, respectively. Director Hobby was officiallypromoted to the rank of colonel; WAC service command and theater staffdirectors were promoted to lieutenant colonels. Company commanders becamecaptains or majors depending upon the size of their command and their timein service. Enlisted women were ranked as master sergeant through corporaland private, the same as their male counterparts.
The conversion of the WAAC to the Women's Army Corps and the "image"controversy of 1943 combined to cause a crisis in WAC recruiting. In desperation,some WAC recruiters lowered the standards for acceptance into the corps,and a few even resorted to subterfuge to obtain the necessary numbers ofrecruits. In two southern states, recruiters haunted train and bus stations,waiting for women who came to send off husbands and fiancées towar. An Army recruiter would rush up after the soldier had departed andask the unhappy woman if she wanted to do something to bring her man backsooner. When she answered "yes," the officer asked her to sign a paper.Many of the women thought they were signing a petition. Several days later,these women received notices to report for induction. They arrived at thetraining centers confused and angry, and many never adjusted to life inthe WAC.
The War Department and the WAC leadership recognized the immediate need to step up the recruiting campaign to prevent these occurrences and to increase the number of enrollees who sincerely wanted to aid the war effort. The result was the All-States Campaign and the Job-Station Campaign. In the first, General Marshall asked state governors to assign committees of prominent citizens the task of recruiting statewide companies for the WAC, which would carry their state flags and wear their own state armbands while in training. In theory, state pride would encourage the committees to work diligently to fill their quotas. The Job-Station Campaign allowed recruiters to promise prospective enlistees their choice of duty and assignment location after they completed basic training. Both campaigns were successful, although they caused WAC administrators and training camp officials significant problems dealing with understrength and oversized state companies and with women who could dictate the terms of their assignments after they had completed basic training. Although WAC enlistments never reached the high levels attained early in the war, recruitment maintained a steady pace from the fall of 1943 through early 1945, allowing the War Department to respond to overseas theaters' requests with additional WAC companies.
The WAC Overseas
A detachment of 300 WACs served with the Supreme Headquarters, AlliedExpeditionary Force (SHAEF). Originally stationed in Bushey Park, London,these WACs accompanied SHAEF to France and eventually to Germany. As stenographers,typists, translators, legal secretaries, cryptographers, telegraph andteletype operators, radiographers, and general clerks, these women assistedin the planning of D-day and all subsequent operations up to the defeatof Germany. WACs handled highly classified material, worked long hourswith few days off, and were exposed to a significant amount of danger.
WAC stenographer Ruth Blanton, assigned to the G-2 (Intelligence) Sectionof SHAEF, held a typical assignment. Blanton's work consisted of recordingand translating reports from the French underground. These reports werereceived from short-wave radio, decoded, and made available to those responsiblefor planning the invasion of France. The information detailed the numberand location of bridges and railroad facilities sabotaged; the movementsand strength of the German troops occupying France; and the activitiesof German officers. SHAEF staff members compiled files on individual Germanofficers containing information on their education, family, hobbies, andlength of service. Each morning Blanton typed the briefing reports theintelligence officers presented to the General Staff. During the afternoonshe helped to bring the situation map up to date. This map covered oneend of the G-2 office and showed Europe, Asia, and Africa. Battle lineswere shown by map buttons listing the units engaged in each section andthe enemy units opposing.
SHAEF WACs worked around the clock throughout the planning period forD-day. Plans were changed daily, and WACs typed both the critical changesand the alternate plans and routed them through the Allied command.
During this period the SHAEF compound located in Bushey Park near Kingstonon the Thames River came under hostile fire. On 23 February 1944, an incendiarybomb struck the WAC area at Bushey Park, causing substantial damage tothe WAC billets, mess hall, and company offices. As soon as the "all clear"sounded, WACs went to work putting out fires and soon had the area orderlyand under control.
After D-day, 6 June 1944, German V-1 and V-2 missiles hit Bushey Parkand London in increasing numbers. There was little defense against eitherthe V-l, a pilotless aircraft traveling 400 miles an hour and falling tothe ground when out of fuel, or the V-2 ballistic missile. On 3 July aV-l "buzz bomb" fell on the quarters of American soldiers and WACs in London.WACs administered first aid to injured soldiers, drove jeeploads of soldiersto the hospitals, and operated a mess in their own damaged building forcivilian relief workers. The attacks stopped only after Allied ground forcescleared the German launch sites off the Cherbourg Peninsula.
On 14 July 1944, exactly one year after the first contingent of WACslanded in England and thirty-eight days after D-day, the first forty-nineWACs to arrive in France landed in Normandy. Assigned to the Forward Echelon,Communications Zone, they immediately took over switchboards recently vacatedby the Germans and worked in tents, cellars, prefabricated huts, and switchboardtrailers.
In February 1945 a battalion of black WACs received its long awaitedoverseas assignment. Organized as the 6888th Central Postal Battalion andcommanded by Maj. (later Lt. Col.) Charity Adams, these 800 women werestationed in Birmingham, England, for three months, moved to Rouen, France,and finally settled in Paris. The battalion was responsible for the redirectionof mail to all U.S. personnel in the European Theater of Operations (includingArmy, Navy, Marine Corps, civilians, and Red Cross workers), a total ofover seven million people. When mail could not be delivered to the addresson the face of the envelope, it was sent to the Postal Directory to beredirected. The 6888th kept an updated information card on each personin the theater. Some personnel at the front moved frequently, often requiringseveral information updates per month. The WACs worked three eight-hourshifts seven days a week to clear out the tremendous backlog of Christmasmail.
Each shift averaged 65,000 pieces of mail. Although the women's workloadwas heavy, their spirits were high because they realized how importanttheir work was in keeping up morale at the front.
In general, WACs in the European theater, like those in the North Africanand Mediterranean theaters, held a limited range of job assignments: 35percent worked as stenographers and typists, 26 percent were clerks, and22 percent were in communications work. Only 8 percent were assigned jobsconsidered unusual for women: mechanics, draftsmen, interpreters, and weatherobservers. Some WACs were so anxious to serve overseas that they were willingto give up promotions and more interesting work assignments for the privilege.By V-E Day there were 7,600 WACs throughout the European theater stationedacross England, France, and the German cities of Berlin, Frankfurt, Wiesbaden,and Heidelberg.
In the Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA), the need for WACs became acuteby mid-1944. WACs were stationed at Hollandia and Oro Bay, New Guinea,and at Leyte and Manila in the Philippines. Women who served in this theaterfaced numerous difficulties, only a few of which were inherent to the geographicarea.
Because the Southwest Pacific Area Command was one of the last theatersto request and receive WACs, skilled office workers were scarce. Consequentlythe theater was sent numerous drivers and mechanics, many of whom wereretrained on the spot as clerks and typists. Eventually 70 percent of the5,500 WACs who served in the theater worked in administrative and officepositions, 12 percent were in communications, 9 percent worked in stockroomsand supply depots, and 7 percent were assigned to motor transport pools.
The women learned that office work far behind the front lines was frequentlycrucial to the success of men in the field. T4g. Patricia Gibson was oneof those who could see a direct relationship between her assignment andthe war effort. Gibson prepared the loading requisitions for several vesselsinvolved in successful amphibious landings against the Japanese at Morotaiand Leyte. T. Sgt. Ethel Cahill was responsible for receiving and coordinatingrequests from the field forces for both personnel and equipment. Her carefullykept personnel records enabled her to promptly deploy properly trainedand equipped personnel to combat forces as needed. WACs assigned to supplydepots kept records which allowed them to send troops in the field theproper types and amounts of ammunition, motorized vehicles, and gasoline.
Many WAC officers worked as mail censors and became very skilled atthis sensitive work. "Women seem to have an uncanny knack for discoveringthe tricky codes soldiers devise for telling their wives where they are,"claimed the WAC officer's supervisor, reflecting the prevalent belief thatmen and women had different abilities. Censors on the job over a year becamesusceptible to depression because of the endless bitter complaints andreiterated obscenities in the majority of letters home. Supervisors suggestedthat women were "more sensitive than men by nature" and should not be giventhis type of work in the future.
Clothing requisitions posed severe problems in the SWPA. The WACs arrivedin winter uniforms complete with ski pants and earmuffs (both of whichwould have been welcomed by the women in France) and heavy twill coverallsissued while en route. The coveralls proved too hot for the climate andmany women developed skin diseases. The theater commander insisted thewomen wear trousers as protection against malaria-carrying mosquitoes,but the khaki trousers worn by the troops were scarce. Heat and humiditykept clothing wet from perspiration, and due to supply problems most womendid not have enough clothing and shoes to allow laundered apparel the chanceto dry before being worn again.
WACs in the SWPA had a highly restricted lifestyle. Fearing incidentsbetween the women and the large number of male troops in the area, someof whom had not seen an American woman for eighteen months, the theaterheadquarters directed that WACs (as well as Army nurses) be locked withinbarbed-wire compounds at all times, except when escorted by armed guardsto work or to some approved recreation. No leaves or passes were allowed.The women chafed under these restrictions, believing they were being treatedlike children or criminals. Male soldiers complained frequently in theirletters home that WACs were not successfully "releasing men for combat"in the Southwest Pacific because it took so many GIs to guard them. TheWACs in their turn resented the guards, believing them unnecessary andinsulting.
After the WACs had been in the SWPA for approximately nine months, thenumber of evacuations for health reasons jumped from 98 per thousand to267 per thousand, which was significantly higher than that for men. Thehigh rate of WAC illness was directly related to the theater's supply problems.Among the leading causes of illness was dermatitis, a skin disease aggravatedby heat, humidity, and the heavy winter clothing the WACs wore in the theater.The malaria rate for women was disproportionately high because WACs lackedthe lightweight, yet protective clothing issued to the men and often failedto properly wear their heavier uniforms. Pneumonia and bronchitis wereaggravated by a shortage of dry footgear.
Tropical custom imposed a lengthy working day on the WACs, with timeoff in the middle of the day to eat and rest. Many worked through the day,believing it was too hot during those hours to do either. Those who skippedmeals often became run down.
Many women lost a significant amount of weight during their year's stayin the Pacific. Although the WACs performed well in the Southwest Pacificunder daunting conditions, they did so at considerable personal cost. Regardlessof the high incidence of illness, WAC morale remained high.
In July 1944, 400 WACs arrived in the China-Burma-India theater to servewith the Army Air Forces. Theater commander Lt. Gen. Joseph W. Stilwellhad successfully blocked the employment of WACs in his theater prior tothis time. He finally allowed Army Air Forces commander Maj. Gen. GeorgeE. Stratemeyer to obtain a contingent of WACs on the condition that theywould serve only with his units. WACs assigned to these areas served asstenographers, typists, file clerks, and telephone and telegraph operators.
One month after V-E Day, 8 May 1945, WAC Director Oveta Culp Hobby resignedfrom the corps for personal reasons. Colonel Hobby's dedicated and skillfuladministration was the primary force behind the wartime success of theorganization from its formation and overall philosophy through its rapidgrowth, the conversion from the WAAC to the WAC, and its accomplishmentsoverseas. Hobby recommended as her successor Lt. Col. Westray Battle Boyce,Deputy Director of the WAC and former Staff Director of the North AfricanTheater. Colonel Boyce was appointed WAC Director in July 1945 and oversawthe demobilization of the WAC after V-J Day in August 1945.
The Army acknowledged the contributions of the Women's Army Corps duringWorld War II by granting numerous individual corps members various awards.WAC Director Oveta Culp Hobby received the Distinguished Service Medal.Sixty-two WACs received the Legion of Merit, awarded for exceptionallymeritorious conduct in the performance of duty. These awards went to WACDeputy Director Lt. Col. Westray B. Boyce and the WAC staff directors ofevery theater of operations in which WACs were employed, as well as enlistedwomen such as Sgt. Maxine J. Rohkar, who received her award for "devotionto duty in administering classified documents pertaining to operationsat Salerno and Anzio," and Sgt. Lettie F. Ewing, who "initiated and putinto motion new methods of processing quartermaster requisitions."
Three WACs received the Air Medal, including Sgt. Henrietta Williams,assigned to an aerial reconnaissance mapping team in the China-Burma-Indiatheater. Ten women received the Soldier's Medal for heroic actions (notinvolving combat). One such incident occurred at Port Moresby, New Guinea,when an oil stove in the women's barracks caught fire and three WACs broughtthe fire under control by smothering it, sustaining severe burns in theprocess. Sixteen women received the Purple Heart, awarded during WorldWar II to soldiers injured due to enemy action. The majority of the WACsreceived their injuries from exploding V-l bombs while stationed in London.The Bronze Star was awarded to 565 women for meritorious service overseas.A total of 657 WACs received medals and citations at the end of the war.
Much of the Women's Army Corps was demobilized along with the rest ofthe Army starting immediately after V-E Day in Europe. Not all the womenwere allowed to return home immediately, however. In order to accomplishits occupation mission, the Army granted its commanders the authority toretain some specialists, including WACs, in place as long as they wereneeded. Within six months the Army bowed to public and political pressureand sent most of its soldiers home. On 31 December 1946, WAC strength wasunder 10,000, the majority of whom held stateside duty and who hoped tobe allowed to stay in the Army.
Earlier in 1946, the Army asked Congress for the authority to establish the Women's Army Corps as a permanent part of the Regular Army. This is the greatest single indication of the success of the wartime WAC. The Army acknowledged a need for the skills society believed women could provide. Although the bill was delayed in Congress for two years by political conservatives, it finally became law on 12 June 1948. With the passage of this bill, the Women's Army Corps became a separate corps of the Regular Army. It remained part of the U.S. Army organization until 1978, when its existence as a separate corps was abolished and women were fully assimilated into all but the combat branches of the Army.
The concept of women in uniform was difficult for American society ofthe 1940s to accept. In a 1939 Army staff study which addressed the probabilitythat women would serve in some capacity with the Army, a male officer wrotethat "women's probable jobs would include those of hostess, librarians,canteen clerks, cooks and waitresses, chauffeurs, messengers, and strollingminstrels." No mention was made in this report of the highly skilled officejobs which the majority of WACs eventually held, because such positionsoften carried with them significant responsibility and many people doubtedthat women were capable of handling such jobs.
Although women in key leadership roles both within and outside the governmentrealized that American women were indeed capable of contributing substantiallyto the war effort, even they accepted the prevailing stereotypes whichportrayed women as best suited for tasks which demanded precision, repetition,and attention to detail. These factors, coupled with the post-Depressionfear that women in uniform might take jobs from civilians, limited theinitial range of employment for the first wave of women in the Army.
Traditional restrictions on female employment in American society werebroken during World War II by the critical labor shortage faced by allsectors of the economy. As "Rosie the Riveter" demonstrated her capabilitiesin previously male-dominated civilian industries, women in the Army brokethe stereotypes which restricted them, moving into positions well outsideof traditional roles. Overcoming slander and conservative reaction by manyAmericans, a phenomenon shared by their British and Canadian sisters inuniform, American women persisted in their service and significantly contributedto the war effort. The 1943 transition from auxiliary status to the Women'sArmy Corps was de facto recognition of their valuable service.
The Women's Army Corps was successful because its mission, to aid theUnited States in time of war, was part of a larger national effort thatrequired selfless sacrifice from all Americans. The war effort initiatedvast economic and social changes, and indelibly altered the role of womenin American society.
Last updated 17 February 2005