'Pioneer' for women in military shares story
March 11, 2010
- Former Women's Auxiliary Corps servicemember overcomes limitations based on race, gender
- Woman retells history of service in WAC
FORT BENNING, Ga. -- "It was one of the coldest Decembers on record for Cincinnati in 1943. Money was tight, we were at war, and I was needed at home," said Dorothy Hunter Davis, one of the first African-American women to enlist in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps.
She had just finished her freshman year at Wilberforce University when she applied for a position in the secretarial pool at The Kroger Company headquarters.
It's a story her daughter, Army Community Service marketing manager Carmen Davis, has heard more than once.
"She took the examination for the secretarial pool, and she got a 100," Carmen said. "The test giver at the time came out and said, 'Well, Miss Hunter you did excellent on the test ... however, you may want to look for a job elsewhere because you will be the only colored girl here.' And she was crushed, absolutely devastated."
Leaving the building to catch a streetcar home, Dorothy passed the window of a local post office, and everything changed for her.
"They had a poster of a woman in a uniform inviting women to join the military service - 'We need you.' And my mother said she stopped and dried her eyes, and she walked in," Carmen said.
Hunter signed up on the spot, passing the written exam and agreeing to come back the next day for a physical assessment.
"When she got back home, she says, 'Guess what - I've joined the Army.' My grandmother fainted," Carmen said. "However, they supported her."
Three days before Christmas, Dorothy was on a train bound for Fort Des Moines, Iowa, where she donned her military uniform - initially a man's oversized coat, since the Army didn't have female uniforms at that point.
Dorothy, who turns 91 next month, remembers the impulsive decision outside the post office that led to her career of service. She felt a sense of patriotism, she said.
"We were at war and I wanted to be supportive and serve my country in some way," said Dorothy, who now resides at Mallard Cove Senior Living Community in Cincinnati. "By becoming a member of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, I thought I was doing that."
Although Dorothy faced racial discrimination - like other African-Americans, she was required to sleep in separate barracks - she felt that wartime was a time to set aside cultural and racial differences and stand in favor of America, she said.
"Segregation was very prevalent, but segregation did not supersede our service and the job we had to do," Dorothy said. "They didn't say anything about segregation when they tested me and gave me the physical. They said, 'You are in the Army now.'"
At Fort Bragg, N.C., Dorothy met and married now retired Master Sgt. Walter "Duke" Davis, then a private first class. Dorothy rose through the ranks and later joined the Civil Service, working at both Veterans Affairs and the Pentagon.
"My mom always felt she could do anything she put her mind to," Carmen said. "She was forward thinking. She had backbone, which she still has to this day. One thing she instilled in me is that you can do anything you want to do if you put your mind to it."
Although members of the WAC, which officially became the Women's Army Corps in July 1943, were often relegated to clerical or culinary positions, many held more hands-on roles, from lab technicians to mechanics.
"They were not put through the rigors the modern day female Soldier is put through, but they learned the Army ways - Army rules, regulations, protocol," Carmen said. "They taught them how to march ... how to use a gas mask. You'd have to go into a building, be able to get your mask on, get out of the building. (My mom) said that was something else."
"She had a lot of adventure in her. She said one of the most enjoyable times of her life was her military service. When she traveled in her uniform through the segregated South, she said she never sat in the back of the bus; she never sat in the colored section on the train. She did not let gender or color ever stand in her way."
When she wore her uniform, she felt just short of superwoman, Dorothy said.
"It gave me a sense of pride and accomplishment and it remains a prideful experience to this day," she said. "I felt myself as a pioneer of women in military service."