REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. — At 18 years old, Diane Barker was planning her future, but her family didn’t have enough money to send her to college. She knew three things for certain: she wanted to travel, she was good at troubleshooting calculators and she knew she definitely didn’t want to work at Drug Fair, a local drugstore.
“I just knew that if I didn’t do something to get some education or skill that I would wind up doing nothing and hanging around the house,” Barker said. “So, I wanted more.”
Thus, in an easy, quick decision, Barker signed up for early enlistment and entered the Women’s Army Corps on Nov. 16, 1976. In store for her was something beyond WAC, though.
On July 1, 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation that would eventually create WAC. The women Soldiers took on positions, such as weather forecasters, radio mechanics, cryptographers, control tower specialists and medical technicians.
Like other WAC Soldiers, Barker’s class trained at Fort McClellan in Anniston, Alabama. Her mother taught her to shoot with a .22 rifle when she was young. Training was lots of fun and she aced marksmanship with an M16 rifle, Barker said. She ended up qualifying as an expert.
Even though she enlisted with WAC, she never served with the corps. In fact, the day she graduated from training in January 1977, she and her class became enlisted members of the U.S. Army. They were the last WAC class to graduate from Fort McClellan.
“We graduated with our Pallas Athene [the symbol of WAC]. Right after graduation, they told us to take off our Pallas Athene, and we put on the U.S. [Army] brass insignia,” Barker said. “Then, they told us that we were no longer Women’s Army Corps, that we were then enlisted members of the military service in the Army.”
WAC was officially disbanded in 1978 when President Jimmy Carter signed Public Law 95-485, integrating women into the Army.
“It’s part of history,” Barker said recalling the moment she found out she was part of the last WAC class. “I was very proud because I do think that men and women should be treated equally. I think it had more prestige for us to be enlisted members. I felt like that’s the way it should go.”
WAC was most prominent in World War II. When men physically fought in battlefields across Europe, behind the scenes were women in the WAC disseminating, translating, analyzing and purveying vital information that helped successfully run the operation.
After World War II, Army leaders supported the integration of WAC within its ranks. The Women’s Armed Service Integration Act, introduced by U.S. Rep. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine and passed in June 1948, permitted women to serve as members of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force, but they were still a separate entity. Members of WAC went on to serve throughout the occupation era, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
Barker began her nearly five years of military service repairing and maintaining cable TV systems. Then she maintained and repaired teletypes, a telecommunications device resembling a typewriter that sent and received telephonic signals.
She reenlisted after her initial three-year commitment, but she had to receive a compassionate reassignment to Maryland to be close to her mother, who was sick. At Fort Detrick, Maryland, she was Soldier of the Month twice at the East Coast Telecommunications Center, as well as post Soldier of the Month.
She finally received orders to go to her dream assignment in South Korea, but she had to leave the Army before her commitment ended because of her mother’s illness.
“The doctor advised me, ‘If you go, you’re going to say goodbye to your mom before you go,’” Barker said.
After leaving the Army, she found a job at company that made surveillance equipment. The skills she acquired in this job and in the Army shaped her career in telecommunications.
Barker currently works as a command wireless account manager and telecommunications specialist at the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command. She has worked in this position 16 years. She looks back fondly on her experience with the Army as a Soldier and now as a civilian.
“I am proud to have served our country. I feel like, now, I still serve. I loved the camaraderie,” Barker said. “I love it.”
Author’s note: Before WAC existed, the female component of the U.S. Army was known as the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. U.S. Rep Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts introduced the bill in May 1941. Rogers said that American women should receive all the rights and benefits provided to Soldiers if they choose to serve in support of the Army.
WAAC was created on May 15, 1941, with Oveta Culp Hobby established as its first director. The corps was developed “for the purpose of making available to the national defense the knowledge, skill, and special training of women of the nation." Rogers also introduced the bill to change WAAC to WAC.