Here from the beginning: women’s history at APG

By Maya GreenMarch 5, 2024

Two women in uniform holding guns
During World War II, members of the Women ’s Army Corps were assigned to the Army Service Forces, the Army Ground Forces, and the Army Air Forces. 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. And in December, the first group of WACs arrived in Cairo, Egypt. (Photo Credit: Courtesy photo) VIEW ORIGINAL

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. — Women’s History Month, celebrated annually in March, recognizes, honors, and commemorates the contributions and achievements of women nationally. During WHM, the Army amplifies the stories of women Soldiers and civilians of every race, class, and ethnicity who have fought to strengthen the nation’s defense. This celebration is important because not all contributions and achievements have been recorded or properly recognized. Showcasing these historic moments illustrates the nation’s progress towards liberty, equity, and a more perfect union.

APG is one of the Army’s oldest installations, created on Oct. 16, 1917, as a response to the nation’s need for defense during World War I. More than 35,000 women served in the military during WWI. To free up applicable male Soldiers for fighting, women were offered the opportunity to fill non-combat positions vacated by men. Women served in an extensive range of roles, such as Army Civilians, nurses, Women Ordnance Workers, and eventually in the Women’s Army Corps (formerly Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps) during World War II.

Congress approved the WAAC on May 14, 1942. WAACs did not have a military status until July 1, 1943, transitioning to WACs, when Congress allowed women to be enlisted and appointed into the Army, officially allowing them to be a part of the Armed Forces. WACs replaced Soldiers in clerical and other non-combat-related positions. They worked as draftsmen, mechanics, and electricians, with some receiving ordnance engineering training. Some women even rigged parachutes, served as translators, cooks, weather forecasters, and aircraft control tower operators.

Three people in uniform shake hands
Command Sgt. Maj. Mildred C. Kelly, former command sergeant major of Aberdeen Proving Ground, during her promotion to sergeant major. She was the first woman to hold the highest enlisted position at a major Army installation with a predominantly male population. (Photo Credit: Sheila Lewis) VIEW ORIGINAL

The first group of WACs came to APG on May 12, 1943. Some women assigned to the Women’s Ordnance Corps (formerly the Ordnance Department) computed the velocity of bullets, measured bomb fragments, mixed gunpowder, and loaded shells. WACs assigned to the Chemical Warfare Service worked in labs and the field. Some women were trained as glassblowers and made test tubes for the Army’s chemical laboratories. Others field-tested equipment such as walkie-talkies and surveying and meteorological instruments. WACS also served as nurses, drove trucks, tested weapons, repaired and maintained tanks, and ferried bombers and other aircraft across the country and overseas. APG-South boasted a water treatment facility that was the first plant to be entirely run by women. During WWII, women accounted for half of the workforce at APG.

After WWII, activity at the installation lessened, but women continued to make their mark. University of Pennsylvania teamed up with APG to develop the world’s first Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer with the help of female mathematicians Grace Hopper and Winifred Jonas. Dr. Ethel B. Hackley, a research chemist at APG, developed new methods for analyzing and detecting enzymes. These trailblazers led the way for women to begin entering highly specialized fields in STEM. From technicians, nurses, scientists, to mathematicians, and computer programmers women were at the forefront of STEM advances.

Women also made their mark in leadership roles. Command Sgt. Maj. Mildred C. Kelly, former CSM of APG, was the first woman to hold the highest enlisted position at a major Army installation in 1974. APG had its first female garrison commander in 1996, Col. Roslyn M. Glantz.

We as a nation have come a long way since 1973, when the U.S. military integrated, and all women-only branches were eliminated. Just in 2016, all military occupations and positions were made available to women. It was the first time in military history that if women qualified and met the standards, they could contribute to the DoD mission without barriers. The fight for gender equality is far from over, so be sure this Women’s History Month to share the stories of those who have been silenced or pushed aside. History is a foundation to grow from, not regress back to, and the Army is dedicated to ensuring equality for all. At APG, women make significant contributions every day. Their service to the Army, whether as Soldiers, civilians, or contractors, will leave a positive impact on the local community and on the nation.