Former WACs remember women's Army
November 12, 2008
<i>The Women's Army Corps was dissestablished in 1978 and the Army is now celebrating the 30th anniversary of integrating women into the regular force.</i>
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Nov. 12, 2008) - Gen. Douglas MacArthur called them 'my best Soldiers,' during World War II, saying that the women serving in the Women's Army Corps worked harder, complained less and were better disciplined then many of his male Soldiers.
Created out of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps in 1943, to enable women to take over more routine service and office jobs and free men for combat roles, the WAC, along with similar female components for other services and nurses, was the only way women could serve their country.
WACs landed in France 38 days after D-Day and WACs served in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars, although women had to remain far behind the front lines. They weren't even full-fledged Soldiers, according to Chief Warrant Officer 5 Jennifer Redfern, a former WAC and now the Criminal Investigative Division's warrant officer career manager and counselor.
"I think that when the Women's Army Corps first started, that was the only way women could serve because society would not allow them to be full-fledged Soldiers of course; being a Soldier wasn't necessarily a long-term commitment ... society in those days expected women to be housekeepers and child rearers. But I think that as we've progressed in our society, it's been pretty much accepted that we can do what everyone else does and still successfully raise children. I think that the Women's Army Corps allowed us to slowly demonstrate our abilities to allow us to serve in the armed services as equals," she said.
While WACs worked long hours alongside their male counterparts, they did so with training that was far different. Several women said they were disappointed at how easy physical training was during the WAC basic course. M. Susan Windsich, who retired as a major, expected to participate in low-crawls and difficult obstacle courses like the men, but found she was only expected to do modified push-ups, run either half a mile or in place and do a modified obstacle course called "run, dodge and jump," which involved running around fences and jumping over a small ditch.
"They would take us on marches in the hills around Fort McClellan, Ala. A five-mile march and at the end of it, we would have grape juice and cookies. It was very, I guess genteel...would be one way to describe it," said Maj. Gen. Mari K. Eder, deputy chief of the Army reserve, who graduated in the second-to-last class of the WAC Officer Orientation Course.
They even had make-up classes and were required to carry lipstick at all times. Eder remembered the small regulation black bag that was almost useless for carrying anything but lipstick.
Retired Maj. Gen. Donna Dacier, recently the commander of the 311th Signal Command and the G-6 (Communications) for U.S. Army Pacific, agreed that the WAC was similar to finishing school, but added that the overall education about the Army's history, customs and courtesies was top-notch.
Nothing, agreed several of the WACs, beat the PT uniform, which consisted of a blouse and shorts, but also a wrap-around skirt that had to be worn over the shorts until WACs made it to the field.
"It was some guy's bright idea...totally inadequate as the type of physical-fitness training Soldiers would have," said Dacier.
The field uniform wasn't much better, with snug pants that buttoned up over the hips. The shirt had to remain untucked. The field boots - they were never referred to as combat boots because that would imply women could go to combat - didn't have any traction on the bottom so the WACs tended to slip and slide when participating in any exercises. According to retired Lt. Col. Isabelle Slifer, a WAC company commander had to show a commanding general the bottom of their boots before their footgear changed.
The class-A equivalent, known as "cords," was heavily starched. Eder remembered traveling to her WAC graduation kneeling backwards on the bus seats, because leaders didn't want the WACs' uniforms to wrinkle.
As the draft ended in 1978, the Army could not sustain an all-volunteer force with solely male recruits, according to Windisch, so women became more important to the Army. Change had been coming throughout the mid-1970s, the WACs said, because they were gradually allowed to participate in things like M-16 training, and attend branch schools with male Soldiers.
Their reception was mixed. As Dacier pointed out, many of their classmates had gone to coeducational universities and were used to being around women. Some of the older Soldiers, however, either resented the women or harassed them.
"I had a good time most of the time," said Windisch. "There were some real idiots - I'm being very nice - and there were some really wonderful people. We all got hit on, back in those days a lot; things that nowadays, everybody would look at the person. For example, we were waiting for a ceremony in the colonel's office, I was a second lieutenant at the time, and I sat down on a chair that was just against the wall and the lieutenant colonel came in and plopped himself down on my lap. He said, 'So honey, do you come here often''"
The disestablishment of the WAC was not without its hiccups. No one knew when they joined that they would eventually serve in the regular Army, and with excitement over the change also came nostalgia, a sense of a great tradition ending. The older WACs, said Dacier, were particularly "irritated" about the end of the WAC because they were losing their power base.
"So it was exciting for us and they really didn't like how enthusiastic we were about being able to take Pallas Athena off and put on our branch insignia," Dacier said, describing how women could fully join different branches once the WAC was disestablished. Previously, women had been detailed to the Signal Corps or the Military Police Corps or other branches without being full members. They had separate companies, barracks, everything.
"When you go through basic training, you get pumped up because that's part of their job, to get you excited about what you're doing. So I was all pumped up about wearing the Goddess of Athena brass. But when working with my male counterparts as an MP, they were wearing crossed pistols and the women were still wearing the Goddess Athena. So the day that we were integrated into the MP Corps ... they had all the three of us step forward in front of the formation and the platoon sergeant and company commander came up and they took our Goddess Athena brass off and put crossed pistols on us. I didn't think it would be any big deal, but it was. I was really excited because now I was a Soldier," said Redfern.
Redfern joined a group of women who were petitioning to be able to remain in the military while pregnant and after having their babies. This was previously unheard of and after they won the fight, Redfern said some people still tried to convince her to put her baby up for adoption. Later, when she decided to get remarried to a fellow Soldier, a noncommissioned officer, she was first told she would have to leave the Army.
Gwendolyn Hendly, who retired from the Army Medical Corps in the 1980s as a staff sergeant, said that even at that time, the personnel specialists were not used to women retiring and she was listed as male on all of her paperwork. "When I retired...the guy told me he had never seen a woman come through before to retire."
For Hendly and the others who persevered, the Army turned out to be tremendously rewarding and somewhat humbling, as now other female Soldiers look to them as examples. Both Eder and Dacier said they only expected to remain in the Army a few years. A female two-star general was unheard-of when they joined.
"I remember going to the dry cleaners and picking up my uniforms with that star on it," said Dacier. "I didn't feel like it was me picking up my own uniform. I felt like I was somebody else who was running an errand ... because it was hard for me to fathom that that name tape that said Dacier and that star were linked together."
"I have been both honored and awed to have been a part of history, even if in a small way," said Eder. "I never thought I would be here at this place and time in my life, and wearing this rank ... I believe you pay it forward and are obligated to help others in the same way." She added that she hoped there wouldn't be any more firsts.
"I was very proud to be a WAC, but I was equally proud to be integrated within the Army itself," said Redfern, summing up many of their attitudes.