“Efficiency, Skill, Spirit, and Determination”: American Women in World War II

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Thalia Ertman
March 25, 2019

When describing the members of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) that he worked with during World War II, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, then commander of U.S. forces in Europe, declared, “They have met every test and task assigned to them … their contributions in efficiency, skill, spirit, and determination are immeasurable.”

World War II demanded large-scale national mobilization. In the United States, this meant transformations not only to the military, but also major changes in industry, culture, and expectations of women’s role in society.

During WWII, hundreds of thousands of American women served in all branches of the military, both at home and abroad. Still more women filled jobs on the home front that were previously held by men who were serving overseas. Many of these jobs were in industry, building the supplies necessary to the war effort.

Despite these incredible opportunities, American women faced challenges like overcoming cultural stereotypes against working women. Mothers had difficulty finding adequate childcare during working hours. Women of color also endured discrimination. After the war, women were fired from many factory jobs to make way for the returning men.

Still, women’s involvement in the American war effort irreversibly changed American culture. Women worked outside of the home in significant numbers and their experiences shaped their perceptions of their place in society.

Women were crucial to the Allied victory. Their role in this victory forever changed the history of American women.

Women in the Military

Throughout U.S. involvement in World War II, nearly 350,000 American women served in uniform, both at home and abroad.

These women worked as nurses, drove trucks, repaired airplanes, worked as laboratory technicians, rigged parachutes, served as radio operators, analyzed photographs, test-flew newly repaired planes, trained anti-aircraft artillery gunners, and performed clerical work. The military needed women in these jobs to free up men for combat assignments.

Women’s Army Corps (WAC)

In May 1942, Congress instated the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC). General George Marshall, then Army Chief of Staff, supported introducing a women’s service branch into the Army and he personally supported the legislation that established the WAAC. Marshall was in part influence by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and American women’s groups.

In July 1943, the WAAC became the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), which was recognized as an official part of the U.S. Army. More than 150,000 women served as WACs, working in more than 200 non-combat jobs stateside and serving in North Africa, Europe, and the Pacific.

Women of color also served as WACs during the war. In 1945, the 6888thCentral Postal Directory Battalion, the only all African-American, all female battalion during WWII, worked in England and France to get mail to the troops. They were the first black female battalion to travel overseas and were led by Major Charity Adams Earley, the first African-American woman to be an officer in the WAAC. However, African-American recruitment was limited to ten percent of the WAAC/WAC, matching the demographics of the U.S. population, with a total of 6,520 African-American women enrolled for duty.

In 1942, Carmen Contreras-Bozak became the first Latina to join the WAACs, serving in Algiers under General Eisenhower. She was the first of approximately 200 Puerto Rican women who served in the WAC during WWII.

The WAC also recruited 50 Japanese-American and Chinese-American women trained them as translators. Some worked with captured Japanese documents, extracting information pertaining to military plans, as well as political and economic information that impacted Japan’s ability to conduct the war. Others were assigned jobs helping the U.S. Army interface with their Chinese allies.

In 1943, the WAC also recruited a unit of Chinese-American women to serve with the Army Air Forces as “Air WACs.” The Air WACs served in a variety of jobs, including aerial photo interpretation, air traffic control, and weather forecasting.

By 1945, there were more than 100,000 WACs and 6,000 female officers. 565 WACs in the Pacific Theater won combat decorations.

Navy Women’s Reserves (WAVES)

The U.S. Navy Reserve started recruiting women in 1942. They were better known as the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES). In the Navy, WAVES held the same status as naval reservists and provided service stateside.

Unlike the WACs, who had the support of the Army Chief of Staff, lawmakers and naval personnel did not largely support the idea of women in the Navy. The law that allowed women to serve in the Navy passed in large measure due to the efforts of the Navy’s Women’s Advisory Council, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Margaret Chung, a Chinese-American Navy doctor.

Before the war was over, 84,000 WAVES worked in communications, intelligence, supply, medicine, and administration. WAVES served at 900 stations in the U.S. and the territory of Hawaii. Many female officers entered fields previously held by men, like medicine and engineering.

The WAVES were primarily white, but 72 African-American women eventually served. Susan Ahn Cuddy became the first Asian-American woman to join the U.S. Navy in 1942.

Seven WAVE officers and 62 enlisted women died during the war. The Director of the WAVES, Captain Mildred H. McAfee, was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal and about 25 WAVES received decorations.

Marine Corps Women’s Reserve

The U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve formed in July 1942. Like with the Army and the Navy, its purpose was to release men for combat and replace them with women in U.S. shore stations.

Members of the Reserve served across the continental U.S. and on the territory of Hawaii. They worked as clerks, cooks, mechanics, and drivers.

The peak strength of the Reserve was about 19,000 and by the end of WWII, about 85 percent of the enlisted personnel assigned to the Corps’ U.S. headquarters were women.

The Reserve did not accept African-American or Japanese American women during WWII, but did accept Native American women. The first Native American woman to enlist in the U.S. Marines did so in 1943. Her name was Minnie Spotted Wolf.

Colonel Ruth Cheney Streeter, the director of the Reserve, was awarded the Legion of Merit.

Coast Guard Women’s Reserve (SPARS)

The U.S. Coast Guard Women’s Reserve, or the SPARS, was established in November 1942. The SPARS were assigned to every U.S. Coast Guard district except Puerto Rico and served in Hawaii and Alaska as well. They served as storekeepers, clerks, photographers, pharmacists’ mates, cooks, parachute riggers, and drivers.

A select few officers and enlisted personnel were assigned to work with the Long Range Aid to Navigation (LORAN) at monitoring stations in the U.S. using a top-secret radio navigation system developed for ships at sea and long-range aircraft.

Initially only white women were recruited, but in 1945 the first five African-American women joined the SPARS.

More than 11,000 SPARS served during WWII. In their off-duty hours, many SPARS volunteered with other wartime causes, becoming active nurse’s aides, rolling bandages for the Red Cross, visiting service men in convalescent hospitals, and collecting gifts for men overseas.

Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs)

The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) was a civilian women pilots’ organization whose members were U.S. federal civil service employees. WASP was preceded by the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) and the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS), both of which were separately organized in September 1942. In August 1943, they merged to create the WASP organization.

Members of WASP had already obtained their pilots’ license prior to their service. The WASPs had no military standing, but they were the first women to fly American military aircraft.

They ferried planes from factories to military bases, towed targets for live anti-aircraft gun practice, and simulated striking missions, accumulating more than 60 million miles in flight distance over the course of WWII and freeing thousands of male pilots for active duty.

Most WASPs were white women. However, its members also included Hazel Ying Lee and Maggie Gee, both Chinese Americans, Ola Mildred Rexroat a Native American, and two Mexican Americans. While the number of black women applicants for WASP training is unknown, several black pilots made it to the final interview stage, where they were all rejected.

More than 1,000 WASPs served during the war. 38 WASPs lost their lives and one disappeared while on a ferry mission.

In 1977, for their WWII service, the WASPs were granted veteran status and in 2009 they were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

Nurses (U.S. Army and U.S. Navy)

Many women also served as Army and Navy nurses during WWII. More than 60,000 Army nurses and more than 14,000 Navy nurses served in the U.S. and overseas.

Army and Navy nurses also faced dangers that many of the other service women did not because of their proximity to the front lines.

16 Army nurses died as a result of direct enemy fire. 67 Army nurses and 11 Navy nurses were captured by the Japanese in the Philippines in 1942 and were held as prisoners of war for two and a half years. They are sometimes referred to as the “Angels of Bataan” because they continued to serve as nurses despite being POWs.

African-American women served as nurses during the war, but because the armed forces were still segregated, black nurses were only permitted to attend to black soldiers.

The Office of Strategic Services and the Manhattan Project

In addition to serving in various branches of the military, women also worked for other military-adjacent agencies and projects.

The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was the U.S. intelligence organization that preceded the Central Intelligence Agency and its main purpose was to coordinate espionage activities for the U.S. military. Over the course of the war, 4,500 women were employed by the OSS as clerks, operations agents, codebreakers, and undercover agents – 1,500 worked overseas.

Women also worked on the Manhattan Project, the secret Army project tasked with developing the atomic bomb. Thousands of women worked on the project at various levels. Some female scientists conducted key research while others worked in lower level positions at Hanford, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, Chicago, and other sites.

Women served as leak detectors, machine operators, technicians, researchers, inspectors, janitors, teachers, welders, cauldron girls, secretaries, babysitters, typists, maids, and retail clerks, among other jobs. Women’s Army Corps (WAC) service members were also stationed at several Manhattan Project sites.

Women on the Home Front

In addition to serving in the military, women also contributed to the war effort on the home front.

Before WWII about a quarter of American women worked outside of the home. Prior to the war, women’s paid labor was largely restricted to “traditionally female” professions, like typing or sewing, and most women were expected to leave the labor force once they had children, if not as soon as they were married.

The war changed that, giving women new opportunities to work as a part of the war effort.

WWII led many women to take jobs in defense plants and factories around the country. These jobs provided unprecedented opportunities to move into occupations previously thought of as exclusive to men.

The aircraft industry saw the greatest increase in female workers. By 1943, 310,000 women worked in the U.S. aircraft industry, representing 65 percent of the industry’s total workforce, compared to just one percent in the pre-war years.

The munitions industry also relied heavily on women workers and the “Rosie the Riveter” propaganda campaign was a major recruiting tool. Based in a small part on real-life munitions workers, Rosie became one of the most successful recruitment tools in American history and the most iconic image of working women during WWII.

WWII changed the type of work women did and the volume at which they did it. The gap in the labor force created by departing men meant more opportunities for women.

Between 1940-1945, five million women entered the workforce, increasing the female percentage of the U.S. workforce from 27 percent to nearly 37 percent. By 1945, nearly one fourth of all married women worked outside the home.

While women made visible contributions to the defense industry, many women also took over other factory or office jobs that had been previously held by men. Although they often earned more money than ever before, it was still far less than men received for doing the same jobs. Still, many women achieved a new sense of financial self-reliance.

There were also several challenges that women faced in their new roles in the American workforce.

Mothers who worked struggled to find childcare during working hours. Eleanor Roosevelt urged her husband President Roosevelt to approve the first U.S. government childcare facilities under the Community Facilities Act of 1942. Eventually seven centers serving 105,000 children were built. The First Lady also urged industry leaders to build model childcare facilities for their workers. Still, these efforts did not meet the full need for childcare for working mothers.

Many also faced cultural resistance to women going to work in such male-dominated environments. To reassure men that the demands of war would not make women too masculine, some factories gave female employees lessons in how to apply makeup. Furthermore, cosmetics were never rationed during the war, as keeping American women looking their best was believed to be important for morale.

African-American women struggled to find jobs in the defense industry and often found that white women were unwilling to work beside them with they did. Although factory work allowed black women to escape labor as domestic servants for a time and earn better wages, most were fired after the war and forced to resume work as maids and cooks.

Women were also tasked with running their households during wartime, as most of their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons were off serving overseas. Women became proficient cooks and housekeepers, managed the finances, learned to fix cars, and worked to earn money. They were also responsible for managing the ration booklets given to each household and organizing donations of scrap metal.

Aftermath and Lasting Influence

After the war, social commentators worried that when men returned from military service there would be no jobs available to them and admonished women to return to their “rightful place” in the home as soon as victory was won.

Although as many as 75 percent of women reported that they wanted to continue working after WWII, women were laid off in large numbers at the end of the war. However, women’s participation in the workforce bounced back relatively quickly. By 1950, about 32 percent of women were working outside the home and about half of those were married.

By 1948, women were finally recognized as a permanent part of the U.S. armed forces with the passage of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act. However, female veterans encountered roadblocks when they tried to take advantage of benefit programs for veterans, like the G.I. Bill.

Still, women’s undeniable role in the Allied victory during WWII forever changed both society’s views of women and women’s own perception of themselves and their skills. Dellie Hahne, an educator who worked as a nurse’s aide for the Red Cross during WWII has a quote that sums up the difference women’s WWII experience made in history:

“I think a lot of women said, screw that noise. ‘Cause they had a taste of freedom, they had a taste of making their own money, a taste of spending their own money, making their own decisions. I think the beginning of the women’s movement has its seeds right there in World War II.”