Military women: History that built a nation

"WAVEs" in an R4D transport plane, Nov. 1944.
"WAVEs" in an R4D transport plane, Nov. 1944.

Military women: History that built a nation

by: Latorial Faison | .
Stripes Korea | .
published: February 26, 2013

Since the beginning of time, women have played pivotal roles in cultures all over the world.  As societies vary, so have the roles of women. Historically, women have served as caregivers, cooks, planters, inventors, mechanics, builders and businessmen. They have even served as leaders in their families and communities.  However, if there is one place where women have transcended the traditional roles of gender to serve as heroically as their male counterparts it is in our nation’s armed forces.

Women Trailblazers in fight for freedom

Women served on battlefields as cooks, laundresses, nurses, water bearers, and saboteurs during the American Revolution and the War of 1812. During the nation’s Civil War over 3,000 women served as volunteer nurses providing care to both Union and Confederate soldiers. Many times, women on both sides of the conflict served disguised as men.

In 1881, the nurse Clara Barton established the American Red Cross. She had worked for ten years to create an organization that would provide peacetime disaster relief and wartime assistance. The Red Cross is still a very prominent organization that serves as an important partner with today’s military.

As a result of thousands of U.S. soldiers affected by typhoid, malaria, and yellow fever during the Spanish-American War of 1898, Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee suggested to the Army’s surgeon general that qualified nurses be contracted to serve the Army. By the war’s end, over 1,500 nurses had been contracted out to Army hospitals in the U.S. and abroad; some lost their lives. As a result, Dr. McGee was appointed as acting assistant surgeon general, the first woman to ever hold that position. She was later commissioned by the Army to write legislation that would create a permanent corps of nurses. This was groundbreaking for women in the military, and in 1901, the Army Nurse Corps was established.

Women have gone on to be trailblazers in our nation’s armed forces where they serve with dignity, respect, honor and a strong sense of duty for their country.  During World War I thousands of women served as nurses; more than 400 died in the line of duty.  In 1920, the Army Reorganization Act granted military nurses the status of officers with “relative rank” from second lieutenant to major but did not grant them full rights and privileges.

During World War II over 100,000 women served in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and over 86,000 as Women Appointed for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES). Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs) were organized and flew as civil service pilots.  Many of these women were captured by the Japanese and held as POWs. Before World War II ended, women had served in a variety of positions to include intelligence, supply, communications, medicine, and administration. 

The idea of women serving spread to other branches of service. In 1942, the Coast Guard created its Women’s Reserve known as SPARS incorporating the “Semper Paratus – Always Ready” motto.  A year later, the Marine Corps established the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, allowing women to serve. As America demobilized, all but a small number of servicewomen were mustered out. The U.S., now a world power, was forced to keep the largest peacetime military in its history as a nation.

Women have a rich history of both struggle and service in America. Breaking ground in new positions, they were not always welcomed or congratulated for their efforts. When wars and conflicts were over, many were forced to go back home or into the low-paying positions they held before serving. It took tremendous courage and dedication to be a trailblazer, and it still does. The next war, the Korean War of the 50s, would call on women, once again, to serve, and women also served in Vietnam – some losing their lives in both conflicts. 

Since these wars, women have gone on to achieve a great number of firsts in our nation’s military. For example, women have graduated from service academies where they once were not accepted. Women have become military chaplains, pilots, crewmembers, military police, and commanders of major military installations. Women have worked hard to achieve fair and equal benefits in the military. Today more combat positions are open to women.

Women have served their countries and even paid the ultimate price, made the ultimate sacrifice by laying down their lives for freedom. In 2004, by year’s end, 19 female soldiers had been killed during the war in Iraq, the most servicewomen to die as a result of hostile action in any war in which the nation participated. In 2005, the first woman in history was awarded the Silver Star for combat action. History was made in 2008 when the U. S. Army promoted a woman to the rank of four-star general.

During Women’s History Month, let’s pay tribute to women in history who have paved the way for the success of the entire nation, women who have served in their families, their communities and in their professions. Women known and unknown have played vital roles in the establishment and continuation of the life we now know. Moreover, let’s salute and pay tribute to those women who have served our nation heroically and unselfishly, those women who have made the ultimate sacrifice and continue daily to pay it forward in the name of freedom.

The Women's Army Corps

Over 150,000 American women served in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) during World War II. Members of the WAC were the first women other than nurses to serve within the ranks of the United States Army.

Both the Army and the American public initially had difficulty accepting the concept of women in uniform. But political and military leaders, faced with fighting a two-front war and supplying men and materiel for that war while continuing to send lend-lease material to the Allies, realized that women could supply much-needed resources in the military and industrial sectors.

Early in 1941 Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts met with General George C. Marshall, the Army’s Chief of Staff, and informed him that she intended to introduce a bill to establish an Army women’s corps, separate and distinct from the existing Army Nurse Corps.

As public sentiment increasingly favored the creation of some form of a women’s corps, Army leaders worked with Rogers to devise and sponsor an organization that would constitute the least threat to the Army’s existing culture.

Although Rogers believed the women’s corps should be a part of the Army so that women would receive equal pay, pension, and disability benefits, the Army did not want to accept women directly into its ranks. The final bill was a compromise. The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was established to work with the Army.

Rogers introduced her bill in Congress in May 1941, but it failed to receive serious consideration until after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the bill into law.

Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson appointed Oveta Culp Hobby as director of the WAAC. Hobby had helped shepherd the WAAC bill through Congress. She had to show a skeptical American public that a woman could be “a lady” and serve as a member of the armed forces at the same time.

This was crucial to appeal to small-town and middle-class America in order to recruit the skilled clerical workers, teachers, stenographers, and telephone operators needed by the Army.

Women seized the opportunity to make a major contribution to the national war effort. By the end of the war their contributions were widely heralded.

– Judith Bellafaire

Women in the Marine Corps

In 1918, the Secretary of Navy allowed women to enroll for clerical duty in the Marine Corps. Officially, Opha Mae Johnson is credited as the first woman Marine. Johnson enrolled for service on August 13, 1918; during that year some 300 women first entered the Marine Corps to take over stateside clerical duties from battle-ready Marines who were needed overseas.

The Marine Corps Women’s Reserve was established in February 1943. June 12th, 1948, Congress passed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act and made women a permanent part of the regular Marine Corps.

In 1942, General Thomas Holcomb, Commandant, approved the formation of the United States Marine Corps Women’s Reserve (USMCWR). Mrs. Ruth Cheney Streeter of Morristown, NJ, was commissioned a major in the USMCWR and sworn in as the first Director of the Women’s Reserve on 29 Jan 1943. She achieved the grade of colonel prior to resigning her commission in 6 1945.

In 1950, the Women Reserves were mobilized for the Korean War and 2,787 women served proudly.

By the height of the Vietnam War, there were about 2,700 women Marines served both stateside and overseas. By 1975, the Corps approved the assignment of women to all occupational fields except infantry, artillery, armor and pilot/air crew. Over 1,000 women Marines were deployed in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990-1991.

In 2009, an all-female Marine team conducted its first Mission in Southern Afghanistan; in 2011 Brig. General. Loretta E. Reynolds is the first female Marine commander of the Corps’ iconic training ground for recruits at Parris Island. Last year, the first female Marines took Combat Leadership Test.

Today, women serve in 93 percent of all occupational fields and 62 percent of all billets. Women constitute 6.2 percent of the Corps end strength and are an integral part of the Marine Corps.

They are integrated into nearly all Military Occupational Specialties in the Marine Corps. They serve in every country and proudly carry on the traditions of those first trailblazers as they continue to open doors for future Marines to follow.

– Source: Women in the Marines Association

Women pilots in World War II

Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS/WASP)

In September 1942, the Army Air Force (AAF) created the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) and appointed Nancy H. Love its commander. Love recruited highly skilled and experienced female pilots who were sent on noncombat missions ferrying planes between factories and AAF installations.

While WAFS was being organized, the Army Air Force appointed Jacqueline Cochran as Director of Women’s Flying Training. Cochran’s school, which eventually moved to Avenger Field in Sweetwater, TX, trained 232 women before it ceased operations. Eventually, over 1000 women completed flight training.

As the ranks of women pilots serving the AAF swelled, the value of their contribution began to be recognized, and the Air Force took steps to militarize them. As a first step the Air Force renamed their unit from WAFS to Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).

Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC)

Women served with distinction in the AAF, replacing men who could then be reassigned to combat and other vital duties. The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was created in May 1942. Top priority for assignment of WAACs was to serve at Aircraft Warning Service (AWS) stations.

In the spring of 1943, WAACs became the Women’s Army Corps (WAC); almost one-half of their peak strength served with the AAF, with many being assigned to clerical and administrative duties, while others worked as topographers, medical specialists, chemists, and even aircraft mechanics.

Some commanders were reluctant to accept women into their units, but by mid-1943 the demand for them far exceeded the numbers available.

– Department of Defense

Women in the U.S. Navy

The Navy Nurse Corps was established by Congress in 1908, but at that time no provision was made for rank or rating comparable to the Navy’s male personnel. While they have never held actual rank, the Navy nurses have since been accorded privileges similar to those of officers.

Under a congressional enactment approved by President Roosevelt on July 3, 1942, members of the Navy Nurse Corps were granted relative rank. This means that while they are not actually commissioned officers, they hold rank corresponding to that of officers in the Naval service.
Yeomen (F)

During March, 1917, as the United States was reaching her final decision to enter the World War, the Navy’s need for clerical assistance was far greater than had been anticipated. Shore stations, whose activities had been increased by the preparation for war, were asking for assistance. Women were enlisted as “Yomen (F)” in the Naval Reserves.

“The Bureau authorizes the enrollment of women in the Naval Coast Defense Reserve in the ratings of yeomen, electrician (radio) or in such other ratings as the Commandant may consider essential to the district organizations,” according to a March 19, 1917 Navy Department letter to all naval commands.

Immediately after the United States went to war against the Central Powers the enrollment of women was taken up on a large scale in order to release enlisted men for active service at sea. As a result a total of 11,275 Yeomen (F) were in service at the time the armistice was signed.

The Yeomen (F) also served as translators, draftsmen, fingerprint-experts, camouflage designers and recruiting agents. Five enlisted in the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, and served with hospital units in France. One served in connection with the operations of the office of Naval Intelligence in Puerto Rico. About 300 female enlisted personnel of the Marine Corps were on duty during the war.

Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES)

After a 23-year absence, women returned to general Navy service in 1942, when Mildred McAfee was sworn in as a Naval Reserve Lieutenant Commander, the first female commissioned officer in U.S. Navy history, and the first Director of the WAVES, or “Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service.”

Now, the Navy was preparing to accept not just a large number of enlisted women, as it had done during World War I, but female Commissioned Officers to supervise them. Within a year 27,000 women wore the WAVES uniform. These women served in a far wider range of occupations than had the Yeomen (F).

While secretarial and clerical jobs took an expected large portion, thousands of WAVES also served in the aviation community, Judge Advocate General Corps, medical professions, communications, intelligence, science and technology. By the war’s end, there were over 8,000 female officers and nearly 80,000 enlisted WAVES.

– Naval History Heritage Command

Tags: News
Related Content: No related content is available