The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 and the U.S. entry into the war underscored the need for women who could perform routine noncombat work and thereby free men for combat duties. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall encouraged a resistant Congress to pass a bill creating the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) in May 1942.
Oveta Culp Hobby, head of the Women's Interest Section in the War Department's Bureau of Public Relations, became the WAAC commanding officer. Assigned the rank of major, she oversaw the enlistment of qualified applicants. Recruitment posters for the WAAC featured a uniformed woman standing in front of an American flag and above the statement "This Is My War Too!" The WAAC was open to women who were 21 to 45 years of age and without dependents and who met minimum height and weight requirements. Marital status was not a factor. Applicants went to army recruitment stations, where interviewers evaluated their abilities and skills. The women also took aptitude tests and had to pass physical examinations.
Every applicant wrote an essay to explain her motivation to join the corps. Many sought service for patriotic reasons and to help bring the war to an earlier end because they had a boyfriend, a spouse, or another relative in service. Economic incentives motivated many; they enjoyed having employment and professional opportunities unavailable to them in peacetime. Some considered wartime service as a valuable work experience that would be helpful in acquiring jobs in the future. The potential for adventure lured many.
Initial WAAC officer candidates trained at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, and were commissioned in September 1942. The officers then trained the first 12,200 enlistees for the 150,000 WAAC positions authorized by Congress. Instructors taught the enlistees basic military skills, such as map reading and defense against air attack, as well as military customs and protocol. Women also practiced first-aid techniques and drilled to acquire discipline and physical fitness. WAACs perfected administrative procedures for assignments to supply and company positions.
At first, WAACs were deployed to assignments such as translation and folding parachutes. Although many WAACs served in nursing or clerical roles, some utilized mechanical skills for radio operation and motor pool duties. Later WAACs were trained at specialist schools and sent to assignments where their skills were needed. Some attended officer candidate school. Officials often assigned WAACs to U.S. military bases where they could perform routine tasks so that male soldiers could be sent overseas more quickly. WAACs were assigned to such specialty units as the Transportation Corps, Chemical Warfare Service, Signal Corps, Army Medical Department (where they served on land and in hospital ships), Army Ground Forces, and Corps of Engineers (where some worked on the manhattan Project).
Some WAACs were sent overseas. The 149th Post Headquarters Company, assigned to Lieutenant General Dwight D. Eisenhower at Algiers, was the first to go, in January 1943. Women also served with Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark's Fifth Army in Africa and Italy, often near the front lines.
WAACs encountered varying attitudes. Many male officers and soldiers accepted their presence, but some men disliked them and attempted to make their service difficult and force them to quit. WAACs occasionally faced unfair disciplinary actions or endured verbal abuse and hostility. Such treatment, health concerns, fear, disillusionment with military service, or family pressure led some WAACs to ask to be discharged. Others deserted. Military officials could not court-martial these women because the WAACs did not have full military status.
In July 1943, legislation reorganized the WAAC into the Women's Army Corps (WAC), granting women the same military status as male troops. WAACs who wanted to transfer to the WAC as soldiers were expected to meet more demanding standards, including more thorough medical examinations. Each also had to secure the recommendation of her commander. Approximately 75 percent of the WAACs transferred. Hobby held the highest WAC rank, that of colonel.
Soon after the establishment of the WAC, the U.S. Eighth Air Force asked for the services of a WAC battalion. The first WACs assigned there went to London in July 1943. Notable WAC service included providing assistance to the 1944 Normandy Invasion. WACs plotted bomber positions, collected intelligence, censored soldiers' mail, and served as cryptographers. Only women considered sufficiently mature and stable were selected to serve in Europe.
Most commanders recognized the competence and efficiency of the WACs. Ultimately, the army requested as many as 600,000 women in the corps. That demand was never met because many women preferred higher-paying jobs on the home front or joined rival military auxiliaries. Overall, approximately 150,000 served in the corps. WACs were stationed in the United States, in Europe, in North Africa, in the Middle East, in the China-India-Burma Theater, and in the southwest Pacific. Many were awarded Purple Hearts for wounds they received from bombings and artillery fire. Others received Air Medals, Bronze Stars, and other citations.
Although it consisted primarily of whites (94 percent), the corps also represented the diverse population of the United States. Some 4,000 African Americans as well as Hispanic, Asian, and Native American women served in the corps. As with other military units at that time, African American units were segregated, but Hobby sought improvements such as the integration of black officers and equitable salaries for WACs.
An estimated 2,000 WACs chose to enlist after World War II. Most of the women, however, were honorably discharged at the end of the conflict. Hobby retired in July 1945, and Lieutenant Colonel Westray B. Boyce became WAC director. The public reception given to returning WACs was generally apathetic and unappreciative: men, not women, were regarded as war heroes. Because of their military status, WAC veterans were, like their male colleagues, eligible for such benefits as the GI Bill, but they often had to fight legally to receive health care from the Veterans Administration. The WAC enabled women to seek careers in the postwar military, although many initially encountered difficulties in achieving ranks and pay equivalent to their service achievements. In 1948, the Women's Armed Services Integration Act incorporated the WAC as a corps within the U.S. Army. Thirty years later, the separate corps came to an end and female soldiers joined the army directly instead of the WAC. The Army Women's Museum, located at Fort Lee, Virginia, preserves artifacts and materials documenting the WAC's history. Elizabeth D. Schafer
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Elizabeth D. Schafer