Although the idea of women in the Army other than the Army Nurse Corps was not completely abandoned following World War I, it was not until the threat of world war loomed again that renewed interest was given to this issue.
In May 1941, the Honorable Edith Nourse Rogers, Congresswoman from Massachusetts, introduced a bill for the creation of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). Spurred on by the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, Congress approved the creation of the WAAC on May 14, 1942. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the bill into law on May 15, and on May 16 Oveta Culp Hobby was sworn in as the first Director.
Hobby was a nearly unanimous choice of the War Department because of her work in the department’s Bureau of Public Relations. The WAAC was established “for the purpose of making available to the national defense the knowledge, skill, and special training of women of the nation.” The WAAC adopted Pallas Athene, Greek goddess of victory and womanly virtue – wise in peace and in the arts of war – as its symbol. Pallas Athene and the traditional “U.S.” were worn as lapel insignia. Cap insignia was an eagle, adapted from the design of the Army eagle. The WAAC eagle, later familiarly known as “the Buzzard”, was also imprinted on the plastic buttons of the uniform.
Upon arrival at Le Havre, France, from the U.S. WAC reinforcements board U.S. Army Trucks that will carry them to camp in a nearby area. August 7, 1945 (National Archives).
The first WAAC Training Center opened at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, under the command of Col. Don C. Faith, and the arrival of the first women and their subsequent training brought considerable public interest. The first women arrived at Fort Des Moines on July 20, 1942.
Among them were 125 enlisted women and 440 officer candidates (40 of which were black) who had been selected to attend the WAAC Officer Candidate School (OCS). After OCS, black officers and white officers were segregated. The issuance of uniforms was the main initial interest for the trainees and the public alike. Almost all the saleswomen and fitters in Des Moines were mobilized at the clothing warehouse to assist the WAAC with the new uniform. The first winter service uniform was a dark olive-drab wool with matching service cap (the “Hobby Hat”), and the first summer service uniform was the same style made of heavy cotton khaki.
Women from ages 21 to 45 could enlist, however, training for women was limited. Training at Fort Des Moines involved primarily drill and ceremonies, military customs and courtesies, map reading, company administration, supply and mess management. WAAC proved to be good Soldiers, mastering training with ease.
After training, unless she remained at the training center to replace a male member of the cadre, the WAAC officer or enlisted person was assigned to a 150-woman table of organization (TO) company. Such units had spaces only for clerks, typists, drivers, cooks and unit cadre.
Stateside, the basic rate of pay for enlisted women and men was the same, $21.00 per month. However, women could not receive overseas pay, they were ineligible for government life insurance and if they were killed, their parents could not collect the death gratuity. If they became sick or were wounded, they would be entitled to veteran’s hospitalization.
By the end of September 1942, the first WAAC Training Center at Fort Des Moines was training to capacity. The need for additional training space prompted the establishment of four additional training centers over the next few months.
In the beginning, the WAAC exceeded all its recruiting goals, but by June 1943 recruiting efforts had fallen. Higher paying jobs in civilian industry, unequal benefits with men, and attitudes within the Army itself – which had existed as an overwhelmingly male institution from the beginning – were factors. A War Department investigation of male Soldiers’ treatment of their female counterparts confirmed some negative attitudes.
In January 1943, Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers introduced identical bills in both houses of Congress to permit the enlistment and commissioning of women in the Army of the United States (AUS, or reserve forces, as opposed to regular enlistments in the U.S. Army).
On July 1, 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law legislation which changed the name of the corps to the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and made it part of the AUS. On July 5, 1943, Oveta Culp Hobby was administered the oath as the first Director of WAC, with the rank of colonel, AUS.
The U.S. Army is, and always has been, a reflection of American society and values. American society was racially segregated in the 1940s, so too was the Army – and the WAC. That fact did not prevent minority women from serving their country.
Photographs and letters can help tell the stories of black WACs who served in such units as the 6888th Postal Battalion, and on segregated posts such as Fort Huachuca, Ariz., Fort Riley, Kan. and elsewhere. There were also Japanese-American WACs, many of whom joined the Army even though their parents were confined to relocation camps in the West. A battalion of Puerto Rican WACs served together at the New York Port of Embarkation. Other Hispanic and Native American WACs also served with distinction.
WAC reinforcements arriving from the United States disembark from an LCT on Le Havre beach, France. July 22, 1945. (National Archives)
During World War II, members of the WAC were assigned to the Army Air Forces (AAF), Army Ground Forces (AGF) and the Army Service Forces (ASF). At first, job opportunities were limited, but soon a wide array of positions were available to women.
The AAF gave women new and less conventional assignments: Air WACs were assigned as weather forecasters, weather observers, electrical specialists, sheet metal workers, link trainer instructors, control tower specialists, airplane mechanics, photo-laboratory technicians and photo interpreters.
AGF WACs were assigned to Armor and Cavalry Schools and worked as radio mechanics. They took care of records and requisitions involving radio equipment, repaired and installed radios in tanks, bantams and other vehicles – both in camps and in bivouac areas. They also training men in field artillery and code sending and receiving. At the Parachute School, Fort Benning, Ga., over 100 women were utilized in parachute rigging.
The ASF, which comprised the nine service commands, the Military District of Washington and the Technical Services, offered a large number and wide variety of jobs. The Signal Corps used women as telephone operators, radio operators, teletype operators, cryptographers, cryptanalysts, and photographic experts.
The Technical Service employed WACs under their Transportation Corps, which used women to assist in processing troops and mail. Women served as medical and surgical technicians or in other capacities within the Medical Department. The Adjutant General’s Corps, Chemical Warfare Service, Quartermaster Corps, Finance Department, Provost Marshal and Corps of Chaplains all used WACs for administrative services.
One of the most important projects WAC units were assigned to was the atomic bomb project “Manhattan District.”
The 1st WAC Separate Battalion arrived in England, part of the European Theater of Operations, in July 1943 led by Lt. Col. Mary A. Hallaren. In the fall and early winter of 1943, WAC units were sent into other theaters around the world. In October, they deployed to the Southeast Asia Command with headquarters in New Delhi, India. In November, WAC units moved from North Africa into Italy, following the Allied invasion of that country. In December, the first group of WACs arrived in Cario, Egypt.
In 1944, as Allied Forces took the initiative both in Europe and the Far East, WAC units moved into support areas behind the combat troops. January 1944 marked the arrival of the first WAC in the Pacific Theater of Operations, into New Caledonia. In May 1944, the first contingent assigned to the Southwest Pacific arrived in Sydney, Australia. Landing crafts (LSTs) put WACs ashore on the Normandy beachhead in July 1944. At the same time, others began assuming duties in the China-Burma-India Theater. The women of the Corps went where they were needed – to Oro Bay, to Hollandia, to Casablanca, to Chunking, and to Manila.
Early on the morning of May 7, 1945, German Col. Gen. Alfred Jodl of the German High Command signed the terms of an unconditional surrender in Reims, France, and V-E Day was proclaimed for May 8. After the war, WAACs had no legal re-employment rights, no peacetime component or even an inactive reserve. Without these rights, jobs for women would be scarce in peacetime. For this reason, Col. Hobby favored disbanding the WAC as soon as the war ended. Congress provided re-employment rights for WAACs and WACs on Aug. 9, 1946.
In World War II, 160 members of the WAC died from various non-combat causes. More than 639 medals were awarded to members of the WAC to include the Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Soldier’s Medal, Bronze Star, Air Medal, and the Purple Heart. Three Presidential Citations were received as a result of service in the European Theater of Operations.