Heather Cox Richardson
Memorial Day came out of the Decoration Days held after the Civil War. This seems like a logical thing for me, a scholar of nineteenth century America, to write about today.
Instead, though, I’d like to talk about a group of soldiers that often gets forgotten when we remember our troops. I mean the WACs, the more than 150,000 women who served in the U.S. Army during World War II.
The army had an existing Army Nurse Corps, but in 1941, Massachusetts Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers introduced a bill to establish an Army women’s corps, distinct from the Nurse Corps. During WWI, women had worked with the Army overseas, but because they were contract employees they got no housing, food, protection, or benefits. Rogers wanted to be sure that the same did not happen again.
Army leaders objected to permitting women to join the army directly, so officials hammered out a bill that created the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (the WAAC). This group was to work with the Army and receive some of the benefits of military service, but not all. The Army would provide up to 150,000 women with food, housing, uniforms, and pay—although at a lower scale than men. Women could serve overseas, but they would not get overseas pay, life insurance, or veterans medical and death benefits.
Even with these limits in place, the bill went nowhere until Pearl Harbor. Then Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall threw his weight behind it, recognizing that using women to type and run switchboards would free men to fight. “Who will then do the cooking, the washing, the mending, the humble homey tasks to which every woman has devoted herself; who will nurture the children?” wailed one congressman. The need to mobilize for war outweighed the strong cultural objections to the new plan. On May 15, 1942, President Roosevelt signed it into law.
The Army Air Force was especially eager for WAACs to work in weather operations, as cryptographers, radio operators, parachute riggers, and to keep track of personnel records (on the statistical control tabulating machines that led to modern-day computers). Some also flew planes for the AAF.
WAACs also worked for the ground Army, processing men, issuing weapons, tracking supplies, analyzing maps, dispatching boats, servicing equipment, calculating bullet velocity, and operating radios.
So successful were they that five days after the invasion of North Africa, Lt. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower requested five WAAC officers—including two that spoke French—be dispatched to Allied headquarters to become executive secretaries. The ship carrying the women was hit by a torpedo. Pulled out of the water by British destroyers, the women survived and served on Eisenhower’s staff for the rest of the war.
The WAACs had proved so useful that it was a crisis for the Army when recruiting fell off dramatically in 1943. As much as Army officers liked WAACs for freeing men to fight, the men fighting—and their female relatives—resented the women whose service took the men from typewriters and put them on the front lines. Popular images of the WAACs were that they were loose women who cast off traditional roles and joined the service to get men. Suddenly, “nice” girls did not join the WAAC.
Here the Army stepped in to convert the WAAC into part of the regular Army: the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). This would not only undercut the tarnishing of the women who wanted to serve their country, it would enable the Army to offer the same protections to women serving overseas as it did to men. In July, Congress created the WAC. The War Department quickly stepped up recruiting.
Immediately, WACs went to the overseas theaters. 300 WACs with the SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force) translated reports from the French underground and compiled files on the German officers. They kept the situation maps current. Other WACs followed the Army to Normandy and took over the switchboards abandoned by the Germans. In the Southwest Pacific Theater, WACs arrived with standard-issue clothing, including ski pants and heavy coveralls. They developed skin diseases from the heavy clothing—the dreaded “jungle rot”—and malaria because they shed their heavy clothes in desperation, leaving themselves vulnerable to mosquitoes. Women in this theater had to be locked in a barbed wire compound at all times to protect them from the male troops.
Like the men, women demobbed after the war ended. By the end of 1946, only 10,000 women were still in the Army, and they hoped to stay. Earlier that year, Army officials asked Congress to make the WAC permanent. Congress did so in 1948, and the WAC remained part of the Army until 1978, when women were integrated into the regular Army in all branches except combat.
The tens of thousands of women who had served in the Army during WWII braved social ostracism to serve their country. In the process, they proved that women could perform every bit as well as men, even in that bastion of males: the Army.
Those women went back to their homes across America. When they married and had children, they made sure their daughters knew that they could grow up to be anything they wanted.
Happy Memorial Day.