World War II has much to teach newer generations. It was a true era of cooperation, collaboration, and a sincere willingness to win one of the largest and most violent conflicts in human history. During that time, women’s aspirations varied widely; one was to serve in the armed forces. Eventually, women were allowed to contribute a monumental portion to the war's successful outcome.
Reluctant and apprehensive were the reactions of the military when women started to come forward to volunteer. Early in 1941 Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts approached General George C. Marshall, the army chief of staff, to inform him of her intention to introduce a bill that would establish an Army women’s corps. Well aware of the many female civilians who had worked overseas with the Army under contract during World War I, with unfavorable results, Rogers had set out to initiate a new organization of servicewomen that would have benefits for their members.
When the United States entered the war with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it soon became apparent that women could supply the additional human resources so desperately needed in the armed services. Since public sentiment agreed, Army leaders decided to work with Rogers.
With much debate, the Senate approved Rogers' bill, 38 to 27, on May 14, 1942. The Women’s Army 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."
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the bill into law, and set a recruitment goal of 25,000. By that November the enrollment had reached the original ceiling, and the Army then provided 150,000 auxiliaries with food, uniforms, living quarters, pay, and medical care. In spite of all efforts, the War Department was unable to establish equal status regarding rank at that time, because the men found it threatening.
Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson appointed Oveta Culp Hobby as director of the WAAC. Hobby was well versed in national and local politics, with a proven record of achievement. Given the rank of major, Hobby believed that every woman who enlisted in the corps could be trained in a noncombatant military job and thus “free a man for combat.”
Recruitment and training
Major Hobby immediately began to organize WAAC recruitment drives and training centers. Applications for officer training programs were available at all Army recruiting stations. Initial requirements to be met were:
More than 35,000 women from all over the country applied for 1,000 positions available. Reportedly the average officer candidate was 25 years old, had attended college, and was working as an office administrator, secretary or teacher.
The first officer candidate training class of 440 women started its six-week course at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, on July 20, 1942. The first auxiliary classes in the four-week basic training course began on August 17th. Auxiliaries aspiring to officer status could be elevated by virtue of time served, diligence and effort. Both WAAC officer candidates and enlisted personnel were trained by male regular Army officers.
Forty black women who entered the WAAC officer candidate class were placed in a separate platoon. While they attended classes and shared the mess hall with the other officer candidates, they were segregated from the service clubs, beauty shops and theaters. Three new training centers were established in the fall of 1942, located in Daytona Beach, Florida; Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia; and Fort Devens, Massachusetts. Black officers were then assigned to black auxiliary and officer candidate units at Fort Des Moines and Fort Devens, where the black women were accepted for training.
The AWS (Aircraft Warning Service) was the first field of training for the WAAC. By October 1942 27 WAAC companies were active with the AWS stations along the eastern seaboard. Those positions, though vital, were tedious. The WAACs sat many hours, wearing headphones and waiting for a telephone call to report enemy aircraft sightings.
The auxiliary graduates also were formed into companies and sent to field installations of the Army Air Force (AAF), the Army Ground Forces (AGF), and the Services of Supply, renamed Army Service Forces (ASF) in 1943. Their initial job titles included file clerk, typist, stenographer, and motor pool drivers. The armed services gradually discovered numerous other positions that the WAAC were capable of filling.
The AAF eventually obtained 40 percent of all the WAAC graduates, where they were readily accepted and well treated. Their job types included weather observer and forecaster, radio operator and repairman, sheet metal worker, bombsight maintenance specialist, aerial photographer and control tower operator. One thousand WAACs were responsible for running statistical control tabulating machines (precursors of modern-day computers). A few of the WAACs were assigned to flying duties, three of whom were later awarded Air Medals.
The ASF also received 40 percent of the WAAC. They were assigned to the Ordnance Department where they computed the velocity of bullets, mixed gunpowder, measured bomb fragments and loaded shells. Others worked as mechanics, electricians, and draftsmen, where some received training in engineering. Many of the 3,600 WAACs also processed servicemen for their assignments overseas. Approximately 1,200 WAACs held positions as telephone switchboard operators, radio and telegraph operators, map analysts, camera repairmen, emulsion mixers, and negative finishers.
The Army Ground Forces (AGF) were somewhat reluctant to utilize the WAACs. They eventually received 20 percent of all the WAAC assignments. Many high-ranking officers would have preferred to see the woman aid in the country's defense by working in civilian industry jobs. Most of the AGF WAACs worked in training centers where 75 percent performed routine office work.
WAAC members served in North Africa, the Mediterranean, Europe, Southwest Pacific, India, Burma, China, and the Middle East. The overseas assignments were highly coveted, even though the majority of the jobs were clerical and in communications. The first WAAC unit overseas reported on January 27, 1943.
The WAACs were involved in controversy during the war. When they took up residence in cities and towns adjoining military bases, the enlisted soldiers felt threatened. They were comfortable in their stateside jobs and did not necessarily want to be "freed" for combat. Various rumors, spread by civilians, alleged a high rate of illegitimate pregnancy, excessive drinking, and promiscuity among servicewomen. Upon investigation, however, the servicewomen’s conduct proved to be actually better than that of the civilian population.
The Army had received more requests for WAAC service than could be provided. As an unqualified success, the WAACs' diligence finally paid off. Gaining status and recognition for their accomplishments, the WAAC was suddenly being considered to join the regular Army. Congress opened hearings in March 1943. With much controversy and delay, the Women's Army Corps (WAC) bill was finally signed into law on July 3, 1943.
All members were then given a choice to join the Army as a member of the new WAC or return to civilian life. Only 25 percent decided to leave the service. The WAC, now fully confirmed and vindicated, opened new opportunities for women. With the conversion of WAAC to WAC, the ranking system immediately changed as well.
Toward the end of the war, more women signed up to do their part in the Women's Army Corps. Their major contributions during World War II — and beyond — demonstrate without debate women's ability to serve in the military.