World War II brought about major changes for women. For the first time many women worked outside the home for the Woman’s Land Army and at defense factories. Women moved beyond their role as wife and mother, becoming more independent. Also, women of racial minorities made progress in society. Some women took the next steps to independence and racial equality by joining the newly formed branches of the military for women.
The military branches were opened up to women in 1942. These new branches included Women Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACs) later called the Women Army Corps (WACs), Women’s Air Force Service Pilots (WASPS), Women Accepted for Voluntary Service (WAVES: Navy), U.S. Coast Guard Women’s Reserve (SPARS), U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, and Army and Navy Nurse Corps. Women faced varying levels of discrimination in the military depending on their race.
Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACs): Women’s Army Corps (WACs)
Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACs) was established on May 15, 1942 by President Roosevelt’s executive order 9163. In his speech, he stated “I do hereby establish a Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps for non-combatant service in the Army of the United States for the purpose of further making available to the national defense the knowledge, skill and special training of the women of this nation (1).” These women were doing men’s jobs, freeing them for fighting overseas. Many women of various races joined the WAACs (WACs), and had different experiences depending on their race and where they were located. Native American women were among the women to join the WAACs (WACs). Similar to the situation at the factories: wanting to prove themselves as true Americans, many signed up to join the WAACs (WACs). This was true for Margie Williams. She said “it is with much pride that the Indian women dons the uniform of her country to aid in settling the turmoil. As in battles before, the Redman is proving to his White brother that he can make an outstanding contribution, both on the home front and behind the firing lines. With the same pride and devotion, the Indian woman is proving herself to be one of Uncle Sam’s priceless daughters (5).” African American women were also in the WAACs (WACs). These women were often in segregated units, and often given undesirable assignments. Charity Adams Earley stated they received jobs that were menial and unskilled. Six African American women were court-martialed, because they would not do custodial assignments (7). Japanese American women were not accepted into the WAACs (WACs) at first, this had to do with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Later, the Japanese American women were accepted. These women were not racially segregated, but integrated in the different units. Miwako Rosenthal said “she did not experience racial discrimination while in basic training. She felt that she was accepted by Caucasian Wacs… ‘I think I was more privileged being Japanese American than being white because I was the only one. I wasn’t discriminated against because I was the only one (9).’” Grace Kutaka (Japanese American) recalled her experience “I always think I’m a lucky girl to have the opportunity to join the Wacs. You learn a lot of things, and you learn to conserve too. I know what some people think of us, but I’m proud of myself and the uniform (9).”
Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs)
Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs) was another branch of the military that women could serve in. Jacqueline Cochran and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt crafted the idea for the WASPs. Cochran “saw qualified women pilots as an untapped resource that could be a great help in domestic, non-warfare jobs, and be a way to free more male pilots for combat (3).” Women proved that they could handle these jobs, they were able to do more than people expected of them. Women also “flew tracking and searchlight missions, towed gliders and targets, flew radio-controlled target planes, and delivered weapons, cargo, and personnel… Many more tested rocket-propelled planes, piloted jet- propelled planes and worked with radar-controlled targets (3).” Betty Tackaberry Blake joined the WASPs in 1943, and was a part of the first graduating class of the WASPs’ school. She said this about her experience “we were the guinea pig class… We were the experiment because they didn’t think we’d be able to do it. They watched us like hawks to see if we were going to make it (13).” Betty proved them wrong, she flew 35 different aircrafts on various ferrying missions (13). Violet Cowden was another woman to join the WASPs. She already had her pilot license before the war, so she could help in the war effort, doing what she loved (1). WASPs also had many women of different races in the program. Maggie Gee was one of two Chinese American women to be accepted into the WASPs. She was proud of herself, not only for getting in, but also that she went to school for aviation (16).
Women Accepted for Voluntary Service (WAVES: Navy)
Women Accepted for Voluntary Service (WAVES) was the Navy branch of the military for women. Similar to the principles to those of the WAACS (WACs) and WASPs, women that enlisted in the WAVES, did jobs that men did, freeing the men for fighting overseas. Idilia Johnson gained confidence by working at Ohio Crankshaft (defense factory), then she quit her job, and enlisted in the WAVES. Her job was working for Overseas Follow-Up: tracking shipments for overseas (12). WAVES had racial minorities enlist also. Susan Ahn Cuddy was a Korean American, that enlisted in the WAVES. “We were always told how lucky we were to be born in a free country, said Cuddy. The Navy was good to me… I never had a problem serving and that’s Why I love America (13).” Rose Ashley was a Native American that joined the WAVES. She felt more confident in her “own abilities,” because of her experience with the WAVES (5).
U.S. Coast Guard Women’s Reserve (SPARS)
U.S. Coast Guard Women’s Reserve (SPARS) was another branch of the military that women could enlist in. The WAVES was the parent organization of the SPARS (6). “The nickname SPARS originated from the coast guard’s motto ‘Semper Paratus’ and its translation ‘Always Ready’ (1).” SPARS women performed bookkeeping, stenographic, and clerical tasks. “About 20 percent of SPARs immediately took over home front jobs and within two months 80 percent of men’s jobs were being handled by women. This was disturbing for the thousands of men who now faced going to sea, and some SPARs recalled being resented and despised by the men and their parents. The overall attitude towards women gradually improved as they demonstrated their value (6).” Olivia Hooker an African American enlisted in the SPARS, after being rejected by the Navy. She was probably rejected because she was African American. “One of only five African American women to enlist as a SPAR, she said she never felt discouraged because she was black (13).”
U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve
Women could enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, as another branch of the military for women. Like other branches of the military for women, women performed traditional men’s jobs. Some of these jobs included “photographers, parachute riggers, cooks, control tower operators- even auto mechanics (13).” Marjorie Tredway enlisted in April 1943, just two months after the Marines were open to women. She wanted to show her patriotism, that’s why she joined the Marines. Marjorie was a secretary in civilian life, but she did not want to do that in the Marines. After boot camp, she went to parachute material school, and learned how to be a pararigger (13).
Army and Navy Nurse Corps
Women who had training as nurses or doctors could join the Army or Navy Nurse Corps. Like the other branches of military for women, racial minorities were present in the Army and Navy Nurse Corps. Marcella LeBeau was a Native American, that enlisted in the Army Nurse Corps. She cared for patients, and she stocked and gave out narcotics (5). She “credits this responsibility for helping her gain a better sense of herself and what she wanted to do with her life (5).” Mary Yamada was a Japanese American that joined the Army Nurse Corps. She was not accepted at first, because of her racial background, and the process of getting accepted was long. Finally, Mary was accepted into the Army Nurse Corps, she was stationed at Fort Dix, as an instructor (9). Jane Kendeigh enlisted into the Navy Nurse Corps. Some of her assignments included missions to Iwo Jima and Okinawa. She said ‘“our rewards are wan smiles, a slow nod of appreciation, a gesture, a word- accolades far greater, more heartwarming than any medal (13).”’
Women made great strides in the military towards independence and steps to racial equality.
Click here to learn about women’s postwar experience.