With heavy losses on the Western Front in 1916, the British Army became concerned by its reduced number of fighting soldiers. Lieutenant General Sir Henry Lawson suggested to Brigadier General Auckland Geddes, Director of Recruitment at the War Office, that far too many men were doing what he called "soft jobs". After talks with the government it was decided to use women to replace men doing certain administrative jobs in Britain and France. These men could then be sent to fight at the front.
In January 1917, the government announced the establishment of a new voluntary service, the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC). The plan was for these women to serve as clerks, telephonists, waitresses, cooks, and as instructors in the use of gas masks. It was decided that women would not be allowed to hold commissions and so that those in charge were given the ranks of controller and administrator. Helen Gwynne-Vaughan was chosen for the important job as the WAAC's Chief Controller (Overseas).
The WAAC uniform consisted of a small, tight-fitting khaki cap, khaki jackets and skirts. Regulations stated that the skirt had to be no more than twelve inches above the ground. To maintain a high standard of fitness, all members of the WAAC had to do physical exercises every day. This included morris dancing and hockey.
Women in the WAAC were not given full military status. The women enrolled rather than enlisted and were punished for breaches of discipline by civil rather than military courts. Women in the WAAC were divided into officials (officers), forewomen (sergeant), assistant forewomen (corporals) and workers (privates). Between January 1917 and the Armistice over 57,000 women served in the WAAC.
Newspapers in Britain began publishing stories claiming that the WAAC in France were becoming too friendly with the soldiers and large numbers were being sent home because they were pregnant. A senior member of the WAAC, Miss Tennyson Jesse, was asked to carry out an official investigation into these stories. In her report, Tennyson Jesse pointed out that between March 1917 to February 1918, of the 6,000 WAACs in France, only 21 became pregnant. Tennyson Jesse argued that this was a lower-rate than in most British villages. Tennyson Jesse proudly pointed out that of all the women serving in France only 37 had been sent home for incompetence or lack of discipline.
Although not on combat duties, members of the WAAC had to endure shelling from heavy artillery and bombing raids by German aircraft. During one attack in April, 1918, nine WAACs were killed at the Etaples Army Camp. British newspapers claimed that it was another example of a German atrocity but Helen Gwynne-Vaughan was quick to point out at a press conference that as the WAAC were in France as replacements for soldiers, the enemy was quite entitled to try and kill them.
As a mark of Her Majesty's appreciation of the good services rendered by the WAAC both at home and abroad since its inauguration, and especially of the distinction which it earned in France during the recent fighting on the Western Front, Her Majesty has been graciously pleased to assume the position and title of Commandant-in-Chief of the Corps, which in future will bear the name of Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps.
Latham, one of my Subalterns, came back today after a fortnight's rest cure by the seaside. He was full of WAACs, VADs, etc. It seems to me to be on a friendly footing, the male and female army in the back areas. One might almost call it "matey".
One became so used to hearing coarse language and filthy stories that one no longer felt even disconcerted. I came several times upon spectacles which before the war would have upset me very much. They made me realise how little removed from animals men and women are.
Women`s Army Corps (WAC)
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.
WACs stationed within the Manhattan District worked in a variety of positions. The majority of WACs helped with clerical and administrative responsibilities. They worked as cryptographers, lab technicians, nurses, clerks, secretaries, photographers, metallurgists, and handled classified information. The Provisional Engineer Detachment sought out WACs to help with administrative and secretarial work. Jane M. Amenta, for example, worked as the personal secretary to W.B. Parsons in Oak Ridge, and later as the secretary for Edward Teller and Frederic de Hoffman at Los Alamos. Beatrice Sheinberg was awarded with a letter of commendation from J. Robert Oppenheimer for her work with refractory material and recordkeeping.
Clare Whitehead described her journey to becoming a WAC in an interview with journalist S. L. Sanger: “I went into the Army training center in May, 1943. I was in the WAAC at the time. After that they sent us to New York. They wanted us in the Manhattan Engineer District. I learned a little bit there, and then they sent three of us to Tennessee. We worked at Oak Ridge, in classified files, and at the last of October, they talked about sending some of us to Hanford. I wanted that, because it was close to Portland, my home. They said no. But I wouldn't sign up for the regular Army unless they sent me to Hanford. Guess where I ended up? We were the only WACs at Hanford for a while.”
Some women in the WAC worked as scientists and engineers, while others began in clerical and service jobs, but trained and later transitioned to technical and research positions. Norma Gross, Mary Miller, and Myrtle Bachelder worked as chemists in the Los Alamos laboratory. Jane Heydorn also served in the WAC at Los Alamos, where she worked as an electronics technician and helped develop atomic bomb-testing equipment. Elizabeth Wilson served in the Chemistry Division and ran the cyclotron, which was used in many experiments related to the development of the bomb.
Three WACs were assigned to the Corps of Engineers in London. They helped coordinate the flow of information between English and American scientists, working on the Alsos Mission. The Alsos Mission used intelligence to determine how close Nazi Germany was to obtaining an atomic weapon.
Detailed job descriptions were not provided to the women before enlisting with the WAC. Many who enlisted were motivated by patriotism, or sought employment and travel opportunities. Some women found their first jobs as a WAC.
There were some tensions when WAC detachments were sent to project sites. Some Manhattan Project workers and scientists were not accepting of women serving in the military, and the women did not often have a say in the jobs they were assigned to. Some WACs were disappointed because they hoped to serve overseas. Some struggled with censorship, and resented the fact that letters sent to family members were read and censored.
Today in military history: Congress authorizes Privateers to attack British vessels
Posted On April 02, 2021 01:48:43
On April 3, 1776, Congress authorized Privateers to attack British vessels.
Pop quiz: you’re the Continental Congress, and it’s 1776. There’s a bunch of British ships out there that need sinking, but you’re a young nation and you don’t have the dubloons to build a proper Navy. What do you do? You hire pirates.
Well, technically “Privateers.” What’s the difference between Pirates and Privateers? To the people they were attacking, not much…
In a bill signed by President of the Continental Congress John Hancock, commanders of private ships or vessels of war were given authorization to capture British vessels and cargoes, with the exception of ships carrying new settlers and “friends of the American cause.”
Fun fact: Old manuscripts such as this 18th Century declaration made use of “the long s” — written as ſ — which is a ye olde variation of the lowercase s. You have my permission to pronounce “vessels” as “veffels” as much as it pleases you, but rest assured, our forefathers weren’t lisping in such documents.
Privateers were permitted to, “by Force of Arms, attack, subdue, and take all Ships and other Vessels belonging to the Inhabitants of Great Britain, on the high seas, or between high-water and low-water Marks, except Ships and Vessels bringing Persons who intend to settle and reside in the United Colonies, or bringing Arms, Ammunition or Warlike Stores to the said Colonies, for the Use of such Inhabitants thereof as are Friends to the American Cause, which you shall suffer to pass unmolested, the Commanders thereof permitting a peaceable Search, and giving satisfactory Information of the Contents of the Ladings, and Destinations of the Voyages.”
The privateers would still board and capture ships by force, which happened pretty often. If they captured a ship, any and all booty was split between the privateers and the government that hired them.
The main difference between privateers and run-of-the-mill pirates is that legit privateers had a Letter of Marque and Reprisal, which was an official document stating that they were acting on behalf of the United States.
If captured, pirates were often executed, whereas privateers that held a Letter of Marque were treated as prisoners of war, instead of criminals.
By this time, the Revolutionary War had been waging since fighting broke out at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. Tension would continue to rise until the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 and officially separated from Great Britain.
Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC)
Before World War II, Arkansas was predominately an agricultural state, and jobs for women were very limited. Serving in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) gave Arkansas women a chance to assist in the war efforts and to do jobs they never thought they could do. Women in the WAAC aided the war effort in a variety of roles across the state and nation.
On May 28, 1941, as the United States was preparing for the possibility of becoming involved in World War II, Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts introduced a bill to the U.S. Congress to establish the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps. Rogers used what women had done in the navy and marines in World War I as a model. It took the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the entrance of the United States into World War II to gain support for Rogers’s legislation. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and General George Marshall got behind the bill, and the bill passed on May 14, 1942.
Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby was named the director of the WAAC. The first training center was established at Fort Des Moines, Iowa. The first group of enlistees, consisting of 400 basic trainees and 200 officer trainees, reported to Fort Des Moines on July 20, 1942. Margaret H. Letzig of Little Rock (Pulaski County) was the first Arkansas woman to be accepted for officers’ training in that first group of enlistees. She served as a WAAC officer until 1943, when she was honorably discharged.
The WAACs were employed to free men from their non-combat duties so that they could go to combat zones. The women were not trained to use weapons and were not to serve in the combat front lines. At first, women in the WAAC were not well accepted by many of the general public, and jokes were made about the enlistees. A September 5, 1942, Arkansas Gazette headline read, “Arkansas’s First Private in the ‘Wackies’ to Leave Tomorrow.” The article further stated that Clara “Sis” Hicks of Little Rock and Lonoke (Lonoke County) was the first private from Arkansas to be accepted for basic training. The article continued to say that several Arkansas women were training to be “Wacky” officers.
Basic training for the WAAC was eight weeks long and closely followed the basic training for the male trainees. The program was rigorous with exercises, close-order drills, classes on military subjects, and more. The WAACs had a five-and-a-half-day work week. Saturday afternoons and Sundays were not scheduled for training, but women were often studying for the next exam during this time. After completing basic training, the WAACs either went to duty stations or were sent to specialist training programs.
The second and third WAAC basic training centers were established shortly after the first. By October 1942, a separate recruiting center from the army’s was established in Little Rock for WAACs with WAAC recruiters. The first overseas detachment of WAACs was sent to General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s headquarters in North Africa early in 1943. Betty Jane Eshelman, formerly of Fort Smith (Sebastian County), was one of that first group of WAACs in North Africa.
By the beginning of 1943, the WAACs were proving that they could do the jobs asked of them, and additional women were recruited. A draft of women was even considered but failed to be approved. Recruitment quotas for WAAC inductees were set for each county in Arkansas, and local civilian procurement committees were organized to help with recruiting.
The fourth WAAC basic training center was opened in March 1943 at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. More basic training space was badly needed, and the only space that the army was able to make available for the fifth WAAC basic training center was three prisoner-of-war (POW) camps at Camps Ruston and Polk in Louisiana, along with Camp Monticello in Drew County, Arkansas. The camps were made available if the women made no changes to the plumbing, the sparse living quarters, and the barbed-wire fences, and if they would leave within thirty days if the camps were needed for prisoners of war.
The first WAACs arrived at Camp Monticello on March 14, 1943. Others continued to arrive in the next few days. On March 23, about 100 WAACs passed in review around the civic center for the citizens of Monticello (Drew County). On April 3, Arkansas A&M College (now the University of Arkansas at Monticello) held a dance for the WAACs. Col. Hobby arrived at Camp Monticello on May 5, 1943, to inspect the camp. By June 1943, the camps were needed for Italian prisoners of war, and the fifth basic training program closed.
In addition to the five basic training centers, several specialist schools were set up around the United States. In February 1943, two administration schools for WAACs were opened at Arkansas Polytechnic College (now Arkansas Tech University) in Russellville (Pope County) and Arkansas State Teachers College (now the University of Central Arkansas) in Conway (Faulkner County). WAACs at the two colleges attended so-called “paper schools” and received training in army forms and office administration. The trainees arrived in contingents of 250 to 300 and stayed at the schools six to eight weeks. During the time the WAACs were at the colleges, they participated in recruiting parades in Little Rock and Fort Smith. Often, male army troops from Camp Joseph T. Robinson and Camp Chaffee (now Fort Chaffee) participated in the parades. Military Police (MPs) of both male soldiers and WAACs accompanied the groups. The female MPs were the only WAACs to receive weapons training. About 850 WAACs received training at Arkansas Polytechnic College and 1,800 at Arkansas State Teachers College during the time the programs were in effect.
Until November 1, 1942, when Congress passed legislation that equalized pay rates, pay was less for women in the same rank and doing the same jobs as the men they replaced. Another bill introduced by Rogers, and signed into law on July 1, 1943, dropped “auxiliary” from the name this made the women part of the U.S. Army, though they continued as a separate division, the Women’s Army Corps (WAC).
On September 9, 1943, the first medical technical school for WACs opened at the Army and Navy General Hospital (now the Hot Springs Rehabilitation Center) in Hot Springs (Garland County). Some of the first 145 WACs were assigned to six-week courses for medical or surgical technicians. Others were assigned to twelve-week courses for dental, laboratory, or x-ray technicians. Later, training in physical or occupational therapy was added to the school’s courses. The school was conducted in the Eastman Annex that was connected by an overhead walkway with the hospital. As the WAC units completed their respective courses, they were sent to duty stations around the United States, and some were sent overseas.
WAAC/WAC units were assigned to several duty stations around Arkansas, including Camp Robinson, Camp Chaffee, the Army and Navy General Hospital, and the Walnut Ridge Flying School. At first, illiterate men were not accepted into the army, but that soon changed in response, some WACs at Camps Robinson and Chaffee began teaching reading and writing to illiterate soldiers training there. At the Army and Navy Hospital, a reconditioning program was started to help patients with the transition to civilian life, and WACs taught high school courses and courses in life skills for the patients at the hospital. Other WACs worked as technicians in the hospital, and some worked in other capacities around the facility.
WACs who were trained in Chemical Warfare Services (CWS) arrived at the Pine Bluff Arsenal in early April 1943. This WAC detachment soon was reported to be suffering from low morale because they felt they were replacing civilians rather than soldiers. The inspectors reported that the WACs should have no reason for low morale as they were doing jobs that were needed for the war effort. The so-called “malcontents” among the WACs there left the arsenal, and morale improved.
The jobs the WACs did at the Pine Bluff Arsenal were typical of the variety of jobs WACs performed. WACs drove, serviced, and cleaned the large army buses that connected the widely separated munitions buildings, transporting civilian shift workers twenty-four hours a day. Other WACs ran the arsenal’s military personnel section. WACs in the quartermaster branch handled stock records, requisitions, inventories, shipping tickets, and reports. One WAC ran the commissary. Other WACs computed field rations, sorted mail, handled publications, ran the motor pool, served as librarians, assisted in the payroll section, inspected the seven facility cafeterias, and ran the officers’ mess. One WAC lieutenant was chief of the chemical production control section and coordinated manufacture and shipping schedules. Only a few jobs for WACs in the CWS were technical ones that concerned the chemical warfare mission of the United States.
The WAC program was originally supposed to be discontinued six months after the end of World War II. However, the women proved themselves to be an indispensable part of the military force of the nation, proficient in 239 different army jobs they were trained to perform. The WAC, therefore, continued until 1978, after which time both women and men served together in the U.S. Army.
For additional information:
“Arkansas’s First Private in the ‘Wackies’.” Lonoke County Historical Society Newsletter, Winter 2006–2007, p. 3.
Drew County Archives, Drew County Museum, Monticello, Arkansas.
Droessler, William, “The WAACs Are Coming! Monticello’s Three-Month Affair with the Women’s Auxiliary Corps.” Drew County Historical Journal 14 (1999): 4–9.
Treadwell, Mattie E. United States Army in World War II, Special Studies, The Women’s Army Corps. Washington DC: Department of the Army, 1954.
Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) - History
Women's Army Auxiliary Corps
Before the United States entered World War II, it started preparing for conflict. In preparation for war, Eleanor Roosevelt began advocating for women to have a greater role in the military. Prior to WWII, many were not willing to allow women into the forces. Thousands of women had worked as nurses in the Army, Marines, and Navy nursing corps during WWI, but they had not fought. In May 1941, Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts introduced a bill to create a women’s auxiliary army. However, it took Congress a full year to approve the measure. The bill gave women the option to volunteer for women’s units attached to the military, but women were not drafted. The goal of including women in the military was to fill non-combat roles, which would free up men for combat. Women worked in a wide variety of jobs including cook, secretary, and mechanic.
Col Oveta Culp Hobby (right) with Auxiliary Margaret Peterson and Capt Elizabeth Gilbert
In May 1942, the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) was created and attached to, but not integrated into the Army. Oveta Culp Hobby was appointed director of the WAAC. In 1943, the name changed to the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), when the group was given full military status. Other branches of the military quickly followed suit. The Navy formed the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) in July 1942. The Marine Corps Women’s Reserves was also formed in July 1942, although it would take months before woman were able to join. The Coast Guard created the SPARs in February 1943, which was short for their motto “Semper Paratus”, meaning “Always Ready”. The Air Force, was still part of the army, did not accept women into its ranks. Instead civilian women were employed to fly planes from production plants to bases in the US. These women were not given military status in wartime, but President Jimmy Carter recognized their military status in 1977.
US Naval Cadet Nurse Kay Fukuda
Each of the women’s groups had different entry requirements. The WAVES, for example, only accepted women between 20 and 36 years old, while the WAC allowed women to enlist up to the age of 50. Although women were given new opportunities and filled over 200 different kinds of non-combat roles, there was still segregation and racism in the groups. Initially, the WAC was the only women’s organization that allowed African American women to serve. However, the number of black women given places in the WAC was limited to a 10% quota. This cap was set by the military to reflect the proportion of black civilians to the total US population. Once African American women gained entrance to the WAC, they often faced discrimination. Japanese American women also faced discrimination. They were barred from serving with the WAC until November 1943 and the navy banned them from serving during wartime. Many other ethnic groups also volunteered for the forces including Native American and Chinese American women.
Women, whatever their ethnic background, often had to fight negative portrayals of their involvement in the military. Many people questioned the women’s character and morality. As a result, women were urged by military officials to maintain their “feminine” appearance by wearing makeup and nail polish.
Naval air base, Corpus Christi, Texas
The WAC was the only branch of the women’s military that was allowed to send members overseas. As a result, WACs were involved in every theatre of war. When the war ended in 1945, the continued existence of women in the military was in question. In 1948, Congress passed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, which established women as a permanent part of the military. Today, World War II servicewomen’s contributions to the nation are remembered at the World War II Memorial and The Women in Military Service for America Memorial, both located in Washington, DC.
- How and when was the Women’s Auxilliary Army Corps created?
- What other women’s units were formed in the military during World War II?
- What types of roles did women fill in the services?
- What were the regulations governing African American women’s involvement in the WAC?
- What made the WAC different from the other women’s units serving in the military in WWII?
- How are servicewomen’s wartime efforts remembered today?
Earley, Charity Adams. One Woman’s Army: A Black Officer Remembers the WAC. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1989.
Yellin, Emily. Our Mother’s War: American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2004.
Online Encyclopedia Entry
McEuen, Melissa A. “Women, Gender, and World War II.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History, June 2016. Accessed July 14, 2017. http://americanhistory.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.001.0001/acrefore-9780199329175-e-55
The Women’s War Memorial. “Women’s War Memorial.” Accessed July 25, 2017. https://www.womensmemorial.org/
Moore, Brenda L. Serving Our Country: Japanese American Women in the Military During World War II. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2003.
Putney, Martha S. When the Nation was in Need: Blacks in the Women's Army Corps During World War II. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 1992.
Seventy-Five Years Ago, the Military’s Only All-Black Female Band Battled the War Department and Won
An estimated crowd of 100,000 people clogged the intersections in Chicago’s central business district in May of 1945 for a war bond rally, one of several marking the War Department drive that week. Police had traffic stopped for blocks approaching the stage at State and Madison Streets, and reporters noted sales clerks and customers hanging out of store windows to catch a glimpse of any famous performers or war heroes who might arrive.
Former prisoners of war appeared on stage, and the famed flag-raisers of Iwo Jima pushed war bonds to finance the war in the Pacific as a 28-member military band played patriotic music. That group, the women of the 404th Armed Service Forces (ASF) band, were the only all-black female band in U.S. military history.
During the war, all-women military bands rallied hearts—and raised millions in war bonds. The musicians numbered among the Army’s first female personnel, a distinction that branded them as pioneers to some and prostitutes to others. Each company endured societal bias, but only one, the 404th, had to battle racial stigma as well. Seventy-five years ago this year, the 28 musicians forced the War Department’s hand in a victory for civil rights.
In May 1941, citing the need for military personnel, Massachusetts Congresswoman Edith Rogers introduced a bill that would allow women to join the Army in a noncombatant role but with the same rank and status as men. Even though the Army Nurse Corps had existed as a uniformed military “organization” since 1901, the military did not give women equal pay, rank or benefits. Rogers’ legislation was designed to ameliorate that disparity.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall encouraged Rogers to amend the bill. At first opposed to women in the military, he recognized the need for additional personnel in case of emergency, and on December 7, 1941, one arrived with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. “It is important that as quickly as possible we have a declared national policy in this matter,” he later wrote in a statement to Congress. “Women certainly must be employed in the overall effort of this nation.”
A few months later, on May 15, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed H.R. 6293, establishing the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC), but it did not give women the hoped-for military status. In exchange for their non-combatant “essential services”—administrative, clerical, and cooking skills among others—up to 150,000 women would receive pay, food, living quarters and medical care, but not life insurance, medical coverage, death benefits, or the prisoner of war protection covered under international agreements.
More than 30,000 women applied for the first WAAC officer training class of 440 candidates. To qualify, women had to be between 21 and 45 years old, with strong aptitude scores, good references, and professional, skilled experience. Mothers and wives were welcome to apply, as were African-Americans.
For decades, the N.A.A.C.P. had argued for integrating the military. During World War I, segregated units of black soldiers served in largely non-combatant roles in the Army, and as the only armed service branch to admit African-Americans by the start of World War II, the Army insisted upon segregation. “The Army had argued [to the NAACP] it could not undertake a program for such a major social change while it was in the midst of a war,” writes military historian Bettie J. Morden in The Women’s Army Corps, 1945-1948.
The Army told the N.A.A.C.P. that 10.6 percent of WAAC officers and enlisted women would be black (the approximate percentage of African-Americans in the U.S. population at the time). Even as the servicewomen would have segregated housing, service clubs and basic training, the Army said black women would serve “in the same military occupational specialties as white women.” Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council for Negro Women and good friend to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, recruited black women along with the N.A.A.C.P. with the message that military service was a way to serve one’s country and further the fight for equality.
On July 20, 1942, the first group of officer candidates—white and black alike—arrived at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, home of the first WAAC Training Center and Officer Candidate School.
Selection for its geographical location in the center of the country, Fort Des Moines held significance in African-American military history a former cavalry post, it had hosted black infantrymen in 1903, and in 1917, held the first officer training for black men.
Somewhere in England, Maj. Charity Adams Earley and Capt. Abbie N. Campbell inspect the first African-American members of the Women's Army Corps assigned to overseas service. (National Archives, 6888th Central Postal Directory Bn. February 15, 1945. Holt. 111-SC-200791)
Charity Adams Earley, who would become one of only two African-American women to hold the rank of major during World War II, was one of the women who passed through Fort Des Moines’ stone gates on July 20—a muggy, rainy midsummer’s day. The facilities, renovated horse stables, still smelled like animals. Mud covered the grounds, and as they walked among the red brick buildings, the women mingled. In her memoir One Woman’s Army, Earley described the camaraderie that had had built on the way to Iowa:
“Those of us who had traveled from Fort Hayes [Ohio] together had some feeling of closeness because we had started out together on our adventure: race, color, age, finances, social class, all of these had been pushed aside on our trip to Fort Des Moines.”
She would soon become disillusioned. After the candidates’ first meal, they marched to a reception area, where a young, red-haired second lieutenant pointed to one side of the room and ordered, “Will all the colored girls move to this side?”
The group fell silent. Then officers called the white women by name to their quarters. “Why could not the ‘colored girls’ be called by name to go to their quarters rather than be isolated by race?” Earley asked herself.
After protests from Bethune and other civil rights leaders, officer candidate school became integrated for women and men in 1942, serving as the Army’s first integration experiment. Bethune traveled often among the women’s training centers – to Fort Des Moines at first and then to four other WAAC locations that opened in the southern and eastern United States. She toured the properties, spoke with officers and servicewomen, and shared discrimination concerns with Walter White, executive secretary of the N.A.A.C.P., and Roosevelt herself.
One immediate problem was job placement. After graduation from basic training, enlisted women were supposed to receive assignments in the baking, clerical, driving, or medical fields. But jobs didn’t open as quickly as they could have, and Fort Des Moines became overcrowded. A large part of the problem was the attitude of soldiers and commanding officers who didn’t want to relinquish positions to women, and the problem was magnified for black officers.
In “Blacks in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II: The Experiences of Two Companies,” military historian Martha S. Putney writes that then-Major Harriet M. West, the first black woman to achieve the rank of major in the wartime women’s corps, toured posts “to see if she could persuade field commanders to request black units.” Most of the men, she found, “talked only about laundry units—jobs not on the War Department’s authorized lists for [WAACs.]”
Historian Sandra Bolzenius argues in Glory in Their Spirit: How Four Black Women Took on the Army During World War II that the Army never fully intended to utilize black services. “While the [WAAC] claimed to offer opportunities to all recruits,” she writes, “its leaders focused on those who fit the white, middle-class prototype of feminine respectability.” N.A.A.C.P. correspondence from 1942-1945 are full of letters from frustrated black servicewomen with stories of being passed over for opportunities given to whites.
In July 1943, the Chicago branch of the N.A.A.C.P. telegrammed White of the complaints they received. “Though many of the Negro personnel completed all required training weeks ago, they are kept at Des Moines doing almost nothing. On the other hand, the white personnel is sent out immediately upon completion of required training.”
White forwarded the complaint to Oveta Culp Hobby, the 37-year-old appointed head of the WAACs, who as a southerner and wife of a former Texas governor, was far from the N.A.A.C.P.’s preferred selection for the job. She responded the following week: “Negro WAACs are being shipped to field jobs as fast as their skills and training match the jobs to be filled.”
Stories of stagnant movement affected recruitment of black and white women—as did a slander campaign branding WAACs as organized prostitutes. After investigating the sources of defamatory stories, Army Military Intelligence identified most authors as male military personnel who either feared WAACs or “had trouble getting dates.”
Those women who had begun military duties excelled in their work, and the Army needed more WAACs trained in medical support. To boost recruitment, and to solve administrative problems, on July 1, 1943, FDR signed legislation that turned the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps into the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), giving women military status and rank.
By 1944, then-Maj. Charity Adams had become the African-American training supervisor at Fort Des Moines. One of her favorite parts of the job was nurturing the military’s first and only all-black female band.
“Society in general doesn’t understand the value of the military band for men and women at war,” says Jill Sullivan, a military band historian at Arizona State University, who asserts that military bands bring communities together, serve as entertainment, and rally morale and patriotism. Fort Des Moines started the military’s first all-female band in 1942 to replace a reassigned men’s band, but also, says Sullivan, to honor military tradition during wartime.
“What [the War Department] found out was that the women were a novelty,” says Sullivan. The first WAC band (officially the 400th Army Service Forces Band) became an instant hit and a “showpiece for WAC women.” In addition to giving local concerts, the all-white 400th ASF Band toured across North America on war bond drives, sharing stages with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and actor/officer Ronald Reagan. When the second WAAC center opened up in Daytona Beach, Florida, musicians from Fort Des Moines transferred there to start another band, the 401st. Three other WAAC bands would later form.
Repeatedly, black male officers encouraged black women to try out for the popular WAC band at Fort Des Moines. “Regardless of their experience,” Earley remembered in One Woman’s Army, “whether they were private- and public-school music teachers, teaching and performing majors in college and graduate school, amateur and professional performers, no Negroes who auditioned were found to be qualified to play with the white band.”
Letters from several musicians place blame for discrimination on one man: fort commandant Col. Frank McCoskrie.
“Colonel McCoskrie,” wrote Rachel Mitchell, a French horn player, “said that the two races would never mix as long as he was on the post.”
When Adams realized no black woman would be allowed in the white band, she pushed for the women to have their own. In fall of 1943, McCoskrie approached Sgt. Joan Lamb, director of the 400th, and made it clear that though it was not his wish, he needed her to start an “all-Negro company” in order to quiet complaints of discrimination among black servicewomen and civil rights leaders. The band wouldn’t survive, he said, unless it could play a concert in eight weeks.
Working with Adams, Lamb began interviewing interested black women. Auditions were not possible, as only a few of the women had played an instrument before. According to Sullivan, music education programs didn’t begin in public schools until the 1930s, and that was in white schools mostly. Poor, black schools, especially in the rural South, didn’t even have access to instruments. One woman though, Leonora Hull, had two degrees in music. Another had sung opera professionally, and several had been in choirs. Lamb selected an initial 19 women “on a subjective basis of probable success.”
“What we were doing was an ‘open’ secret, unrecognized but not forbidden,” wrote Adams. “We ordered band equipment and supplies as recreational equipment.”
McCoskrie’s eight-week clock would not begin until the instruments arrived. While they waited, the women learned to read music by singing together. Sergeant Lamb made Hull a co-teacher, and asked the all-white band (which became known as WAC Band #1 with the all-black band known as WAC Band #2) if any members could help instruct. Ten volunteered. Several mornings every week, Lamb and the white musicians would walk to the black barracks and give private lessons. From lunchtime into the night, the black musicians would rehearse their music whenever they could.
On December 2, 1943, the all-African-American band played a concert for McCoskrie and other officers and exceeded expectations. “He was outraged!” wrote Rachel Mitchell in a letter. “I think we enraged the Colonel because he gave the officers and the band impossible duties and time to complete them.” As the band continued, Lt. Thelma Brown, a black officer, became its conductor.
As they honed their musical skills, the band performed in parades and concerts, often stepping in for the all-white band when it was on a war bond drive. They played as a swing band at the black service club, where white musicians would sneak in to hear them play jazz, and incorporated dancing and singing into stage performances. Adams saw to it that word of the first all-black female band spread. Bethune visited, as did opera star Marian Anderson. Adams accompanied the women on tours throughout Iowa and the Midwest. Once or twice a day, they set up bandstands and attracted interracial audiences.
“They made us feel like celebrities,” wrote Clementine Skinner, a trumpet and French horn player. “Many of the young girls sought our autographs as if we were famous individuals.” Mitchell said the “soul-moving” experience of playing with the band “had us more determined to make people see us.” And more people did—at concerts for churches, hospitals and community organizations.
On July 15, 1944, the band had its most high-profile appearance yet: the opening parade of the 34th N.A.A.C.P. conference in Chicago. On South Parkway (now Martin Luther King Drive), in front of thousands of onlookers and fans, the members of the military’s first all-black female band marched, stopping to play on a bandstand at State and Madison Streets (one year before the Seventh War Bond drive).
But they wouldn’t play for their conductor, Lt. Thelma Brown, again.
Prior to the band’s departure for Chicago, McCoskrie told Brown that the War Department was not going to continue funding the personnel for two bands. He ordered her to tell her women of the band’s deactivation. Risking insubordination, Brown told McCoskrie that he could inform them when they got back.
“She refused since this was to be our finest appearance,” wrote Mitchell. “She would not burst our bubble.”
On July 21, 1944, fresh from their exhilarating rallies in Chicago, the band faced McCoskrie, who shared the news with them. They were to turn in their instruments and their music immediately, and they would be stripped of their band merits.
The reaction in the black community was immediate.
“Our officers urged us to fight for our existence,” Leonora Hull recalled, “and told us that this could best be done by asking our friends and relatives to write letters of protest to powerful persons.”
The women wrote nearly 100 letters to their families, communities and civic leaders. They wrote to the black press, to Bethune, to Hobby, to White at the N.A.A.C.P. and to the Roosevelts themselves. Concerned that the protests could lead to a court martial if the women were found to be complaining on the job, Skinner took a trolley, and not a military shuttle, to mail the letters from town instead of the base post. Headlines across the country picked up the news. “Negroes throughout the nation have been asked to join in protest to President Roosevelt in an effort to have the recently inactivated Negro WAC band re-organized,” reported the Atlanta Daily World.
N.A.A.C.P. records indicate that White and others pointed out “that deactivating the band would be a serious blow to the morale of Negro WACs which is already low because of failure to assign colored WAC officers to duties comparable to their rank and training.” In a letter to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, White wrote, “We submit that original refusal to permit Negro WACs to play in the regular Fort Des Moines band was undemocratic and unwise.” The N.A.A.C.P. requested that the musicians be absorbed into the 400th Army band.
The Army reversed its decision, a little over a month later. On September 1, 1944, WAC Band #2 became the 404th Army Service Forces WAC band. The musicians, however, didn’t have instruments. Theirs had been taken away, with some ending up in the hands of the players of the 400th. It would take several weeks for new instruments to arrive, and in the meantime, the women had to serve their country somehow. Hull and others had to retake basic training classes and complete “excessive amounts of unchallenging KP and guard duties.” Although the only thing they could do together was sing, the musicians continued to meet. Their instruments came in October, and furious practice began anew. By then, they had learned that Brown would not continue as conductor.
“She feared our progress might suffer from the powers that be trying to get back at her for all her efforts to get us back together,” explained Mitchell in a letter.
The following May, the 404th traveled again to Chicago for the Seventh War Bond Drive. They were only supposed to perform in the opening day parade, but the reception was so effusive that organizers contacted Washington and asked if band could stay for the rest of the week. Together, the 404th collected monies throughout the city’s black neighborhoods and performed at high schools, in the Savoy Ballroom, on the platform at State and Madison Streets, and at Soldier Field, sharing a stage with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Collectively, the Seventh War Bond tour raised over $26 billion across the nation in six weeks for the U.S. Treasury.
News of the Japanese surrender in 1945 foretold the end of the band, and the 404th was deactivated along with the WAC program in December 1945. During the three years of the WAC program existed during World War II, approximately 6500 African American women served. At the end of 1944, 855 black servicewomen followed Major Adams overseas in the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, the only all-black Women’s Army Corps unit to serve overseas. Stationed in Birmingham, England, the battalion was tasked with organizing a warehouse of stockpiled mail from America to servicemen abroad. Within months, they redirected correspondence to more than 7 million soldiers.
In 1948, President Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces, and General Eisenhower persuaded Congress to pass the Women’s Armed Service Integration Act, which reestablished the Women’s Army Corps as a permanent part of the Army. The military also reactivated the 400th ASF band as the 14th WAC Band, the legacy of the five World War II WAC bands, one of which helped lead the way on racial desegregation.
About Carrie Hagen
Carrie Hagen is a writer based in Philadelphia. She is the author of We Is Got Him: The Kidnapping that Changed America, and is currently writing a book about the Vigilance Committee.
Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) - HistoryWACs pose by the tail guns of a 401st BG B-17 at an 8th Air Force base in England in January 1944. (Courtesy photo)
Even before the attack on Pearl Harbor, some military and Congressional leaders had considered creating a Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, which would provide women to fill office and clerical jobs in the Army, thus freeing up men for combat roles.
When after the Japanese attack Congress re-considered its stance on women in the military, it was more accommodating. Still, however, an acrimonious debate resulted in a compromise bill signed on May 14, 1942, which created a WAAC but did not grant its members military status.
In June, Oveta Culp Hobby, whom Army Chief of Staff Gen. Catlett Marshall had selected, put on the first WAAC uniform and became its first leader.
By November, the WAAC had already surpassed its initial recruiting goal of 25,000 women, and Secretary of War Henry L Stimson ordered the program expanded to the maximum size Congress had set: 150,000.
This number was difficult to reach, however, because of Director Hobby’s insistence on high recruiting standards, competition with the Navy’s program for women, and a general skepticism and even hostility many WAACs encountered from men within and outside the Army.
Air WACs in WWII with new 15th AF shoulder sleeve insignia. (Courtesy photo)
The program nevertheless continued to be a military success, and in the spring of 1943, the Army asked Congress to allow the conversion of the WAAC into the Regular Army. This change would equalize an array of benefits and protections that the WAACs, as auxiliaries, currently lacked. After much debate, Congress approved, and on July 3, 1943, the WAAC became the Women’s Army Corps, or WAC. Some WAACs did not want to continue as part of the Regular Army, and around 25 percent of them decided to leave the service.
Many women still continued to find the WAC an appealing career, especially when assigned to the AAF, where they were known informally as Air WACs. Most of the first recruits were assigned office duties, or worked to operate listening posts for the Aircraft and Warning Service, which monitored US borders for possible enemy attacks. At its peak in 1945, the Air WACs boasted over 32,000 women in more than 200 enlisted and 60 officer occupational specialties.
Eventually, 40 percent of all WACs went into the AAF, where they worked in an increasing variety of roles. By January 1945, only 50 percent of AAF WACs worked in the assignments traditionally seen as appropriate for women, such as stenography, typing, and filing. Instead, Air WACs served increasingly as weather observers, cryptographers, radio operators, aerial photograph analyzers, control tower operators, parachute riggers, maintenance specialists, and sheet metal workers . About 1,100 black women served in segregated units, as did smaller numbers of Japanese-American (50) and Puerto Rican (200) women. More than 7,000 Air WACs served overseas in every theater of operations, and three WACs received the Air Medal.
WACs learning to type, 1945. (Courtesy photo)
At the end of the war, V-J Day on Sept. 2, 1945, the WAC as a whole had 90,779 members.
Though many women and men in the Army looked forward to their demobilization, many other women also hoped that they could continue after the war. Some Army officers, such as Lt Gen Ira C. Eaker, then the Deputy Commander of the Army Air Forces, recommended WAC retention based on their good performance during the conflict, while other officers and public figures feared that retaining women in the military would weaken the nation’s moral fiber. In the end, both men and women rapidly demobilized, leaving WAC strength on Dec. 31, 1946, at less than 10,000.
Following the war, most Air WACs were discharged, and no WACs were transferred to the Air Force when it became a separate service in 1947. About 2,000 enlisted personnel and 177 officers continued to work in Air Force units, although they remained in the Army.
WACs at Bolling Field use a theodolite to obtain data on upper air flow of a balloon. (Courtesy photo)
After two years of debate and delay, Congress finally established an enduring place for women in the military with the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of June 1948. This bill created the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and Women in the Air Force (WAF), a corps of 300 officers and 4,000 enlisted women, none of whom could serve as pilots despite women’s past performance in the cockpit.
The Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC) was the corps to which all women in the British Army belonged from 1949 to 1992. The corps was formed on 1st February 1949. For the first time women in the Army became subject to all sections of the Army Act. The Corps Charter stated that it was ‘to provide replacements for officers and men in such employment as may be specified by the Army Council from time to time’. By 1992 women were serving in over 40 different trades in 20 different Arms and Corps.