Over 150,000 American women served in the Women's Army Corps (WAC) during WWII. 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. However, 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 the additional resources so desperately needed in the military and industrial sectors. Given the opportunity to make a major contribution to the national war effort, women seized it. By the end of the war their contributions would be widely heralded.
President Roosevelt on 15 May 1941 signed into law a bill proposed by Oveta Culp Hobby to establish the Army women's corps. Applicants had to be US citizens between the ages of 21 and 45 with no dependents, be at least five feet tall, and weigh 100 pounds or more. Over 35,000 women from all over the country applied for fewer than 1,000 anticipated positions. The recruitment goal of 25,000 was topped by November of that year resulting in Secretary of War Stimson's authorization to increase WAAC [Women's Army Auxiliary Corps] enrollment to 150,000.
Oveta Culp Hobby believed very strongly in the idea behind the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps. Every auxiliary who enlistd in the corps would be trained in a noncombatant military job and thus "free a man for combat." In this way American women could make an individual and significant contribution to the war effort.
Eventually and gradually WAAC officers took over the training of the rest of the corps. The majority of the newly trained WAAC officers were assigned to Fort Des Moines to conduct basic training. As officer classes continued to graduate through the fall of 1942, many were assigned to staff three new WAAC training centers in Daytona Beach, Fla; Fort Oglethorpe, GA; and Fort Devens, MA. Others accompanied WAAC companies sent to US Army field installations across the country. Black officers were assigned to black auxiliary and officer candidate units at Fort Des Moines and Fort Devens. Although they attended classes and mess with the other officer candidates, post facilities such as service clubs, theaters, and beauty shops were segregated. Black officer candidates had backgrounds similar to those of white officer candidates. Almost 80 percent had attended college, and the majority had work experience as teachers and office workers.
WAACs were sent to the Aircraft Warning Service to man the stations which tracked the paths of every aircraft in the station area; to Army Air Forces (AAF), Army Ground Forces (AGF) and Services of Supply (renamed Army Service Forces [ASF] in 1943) field installations. Initially WAACs worked as file clerks, typists, stenographers, or motor pool drivers, but gradually each service discovered an increasing number of positions WAAcs were capable of filling. Eventually the Air Forces obtained 40% of all WAACs in the Army. Women were assigned as weather observers and forecasters, cryptographers, radio operators and repairmen, sheet metal workers, parachute riggers, link trainer instructors, bombsight maintenance specialists, aerial photograph analysts, and control tower operators. Over 1,000 WAACs ran the statistical control tabulating machines (precursors to modern day computers) used to keep track of personnel records. By January 1945 only 50% of AAF WAACs held traditional assignments such as file clerk, typist, and stenographer.
The realms into which women travelled included flying as radio operators, crew members, mechanics and photographers. Some were assigned to the Ordnance Department to compute the velocity of bullets, measured bomb fragments, mixed gunpowder, and loaded shells. Others worked as draftsmen, electricians, and some received training in ordnance engineering.
Of those 3,600 assigned to the Transportation Corps processed men for assignment overseas, handling personnnel files and issuing weapons. Later in the war, women replaced men as radio operators on hospital ships. WAACs assigned to the Chemical Warfare Service worked both in labs and in the field. Some were trained as glassblowers and made test tubes for the Army's chemical labs. Others field tested equipment such as walkie-talkies and surveying and meteorology instruments.
The 250 WAACs assigned to the Quartermaster Corps kept track of stockpiles of supplies scattered in depots across the country. Over 1,200 WAACs assigned to the Signal Corps worked as telephone operators, cryptologists, and photograph and map analysts. WAAcs within the Army Medical Department were used as lab, surgical, X-ray, and dental technicians as well as medical secretaries and ward clerks, freeing Army nurses for other duties.
Questions and Activities
- Briefly describe the main functions of this branch of the military.
- Explain why women were so pivotal in these capacities.