America's Military Women—The Journey Continues
Written by: Judith Bellafaire, Ph.D., Curator
Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation, Inc.
Few people today understand the difficulties faced and personal sacrifices required of servicewomen of past eras who elected to serve their country in a military capacity. Women served when duty assignments and promotion potential were severely limited…when family responsibilities and military careers were not compatible…when women were not entitled to veteran’s benefits men took for granted…when women serving overseas were not provided with legal protection in the event of their capture by the enemy and when women who died in the line of duty were not entitled to military burial.
The Women In Military Service For America Memorial serves as a permanent reminder of women’s contributions to the nation’s defense—past, present and future. Without it, today’s young military women might take for granted the privilege of serving their country on an equal basis with their male peers, and many in society may not realize that women have been serving in defense of America since its beginning, over 220 years ago.
The Women’s Memorial honors the service of America’s women in defense of the nation from the founding of the country to the present and appropriately stands at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery. Open to the public every day of the year except for Christmas, the Memorial houses a sixteen-alcove exhibit gallery; a computer data base from which visitors may access the service records of some 250,000 women veterans registered with the Memorial to date; and a theater where films and documentaries pertaining to the history of women’s military service are shown.
Dedicated to honoring the servicewomen of today as well as throughout history, and to documenting and bringing the “lost stories” of women’s patriotism and sacrifice to light, the Memorial Foundation collects and preserves the stories of the approximately two million women who have served in and with the American military over time. The Memorial Foundation archives are open to the public by appointment, and many artifacts and photographs representing women’s military service are on display in the exhibit gallery at the Memorial.
As you read the following “lost stories” of women’s military service from the American Revolution to the present day, you will clearly see why the Women’s Memorial is needed.
Armies Always Need Nurses
Outside Regular Channels
The Military Establishment Takes Notice
Is There Any Regulation That Says A Yeoman Has To Be A Man?
For The Duration Of The Emergency
The Women’s Armed Services Integration Act
In The Mud Of Korea
Why Can’t We Go To Vietnam?
The All-Volunteer Force
Although women were prevented from enlisting in the Continental Army and local militias during the American Revolution, patriotic women found a variety of ways of helping the American cause. Many women accompanied their soldier husbands to war, frequently making themselves useful in camp serving as cooks, laundresses, seamstresses, and nurses. Unique circumstances allowed a few women to transcend traditional boundaries. Almost everyone remembers the story of Mary Hays McCauley, or “Molly Pitcher,” the brave young woman who took her husband’s place at his cannon during the Battle of Monmouth in 1778. Few people, however, know about Margaret Corbin, who did the same thing a year earlier at the Battle of Fort Washington. Margaret was wounded during the battle and when the Americans surrendered she was taken prisoner by the British and sent home. On July 6, 1779, the Continental Congress granted Corbin the first federal pension given to a woman wounded in battle.
Another “lost heroine” is Tyonajanegen, a member of the Oneida tribe married to an American Army officer of Dutch descent. According to the account of a nineteenth century historian, Lyman Draper, who interviewed eye witnesses to the Battle of Oriskany near Fort Stanwix, Tyonajanegen rode into battle at her husband’s side. During the battle, Tyonajanegen loaded her husband’s gun for him to fire after a wound in the wrist rendered him able to fire but not load the gun.
Few people know that during the War of 1812, women were employed as military nurses, just as they had been during the Revolution. Commodore Decatur’s ship’s log reveals the names Mary Allen and Mary Marshall, entered as nurses, on board the United States, on May 10, 1813. They were still on board when the ship sailed May 24, 1813.
Mary Ann Cole served the American Army as a hospital matron during the siege of Fort Erie from July – October of 1814, during which 1,800 Americans were killed or wounded in action. As the Americans inside the fort tried desperately to hold out against British bombardment, Mary went about her duties caring for those sick in the hospital, preparing their meals, and dispensing medications and keeping medical records for the Regimental Surgeon. As the siege continued, the numbers of wounded increased and the amount of supplies grew short. Finally, in early November, the Americans abandoned the fort.
Historians are not sure how many women entered military service in disguise during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, because only those who were ultimately discovered are recorded. Elizabeth Newcom joined the Missouri Volunteer Infantry in 1847 during the Mexican-American War disguised as “Bill Newcom.” She marched over 600 miles with her unit (Company D) which then went into winter quarters near Pueblo, Colorado. While in winter quarters, “Bill” was discovered to be a female and was “released from duty as a soldier.” She remained with the Army in some unknown capacity, however, until she was officially mustered out in October of 1848. Elizabeth eventually married and five years after the war applied to the Missouri courts to receive the bounty land she had been promised upon enlistment. The US Congress eventually granted Elizabeth her military pay and bounty land.
Providing medical aid to soldiers was one of the few socially accepted avenues which women could contribute to their country’s military efforts during the Civil War. Historians estimate that perhaps ten percent of males between 20 and 49 died from injuries or disease during the war, creating an enormous need for medical care. Certain well-known names leap to mind: Clara Barton, Dorthea Dix, Dr. Mary Walker, and Mary Ann Bickerdyke. Additionally, thousands of northern and southern women served the military as “contract nurses” during the war, as attested to in numerous published diaries and memoirs. The details of these gallant women’s service hardly need to be recounted here. The services of other medical women less well known are also of note.
Nuns represented the only source of professionally trained nurses during the Civil War, when schools of nursing did not exist. Of the approximately 5,000 Catholic Sisters in the United States during the war, more than 600 engaged in military nursing. The Sisters of Charity, the largest community of Catholic Sisters, furnished 300 nurses and operated 19 hospitals during the war. The second largest group, the Sisters of Mercy, furnished 100 nurses. The other orders supplied varying numbers of nurses during different periods of local need.
Many nuns saw service aboard hospital boats which plied the Ohio, Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers carrying soldiers to military hospitals in St. Louis, Cincinnati and Louisville, Kentucky. These ships were frequently extremely crowded, and conditions difficult, especially on the lower decks. Some nuns came under fire from opposing forces. Hospital boats were sometimes fired upon, and the hospital near Pensacola Bay where the Sisters of Mercy were nursing Confederate soldiers was shelled by Union forces at Fort Pickens. Catholic Sisters were also nursing in the cities of Galveston, Charleston, Mobile, Memphis and Vicksburg when these cities came under bombardment.
Miss Sally Tompkins of Richmond, Virginia, used her own funds to staff and equip a hospital for Confederate soldiers in 1861. Tompkins served as the supervisor of the hospital, which gained a reputation for having one of the highest recovery rates of Confederate hospitals due to Tompkins’ emphasis on cleanliness and diet. When the Confederate government consolidated private hospitals into larger military hospitals run by commissioned officers, the Army granted Tompkins a special military commission as a captain in the Confederate Army so that she could continue to operate her excellent hospital. Tompkins was the only woman ever to be commissioned in the Confederate Army.
During the Spanish-American War, American military forces lost an unanticipated 4,600 men to diseases such as malaria, yellow fever and typhoid while losing only 400 to battlefield injuries. As the sweep of contagious diseases overwhelmed the Army and Navy Medical Department staffs, the services were forced to hire civilian women to nurse in military hospitals. These nurses were under contract, agreeing to provide nursing care in exchange for compensation which usually included room and board. Eventually, more than 1,500 contract nurses served in Army and Navy general hospitals, aboard the hospital ship Relief, in stateside camps, the Philippine Islands, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii. Immune nurses who had already contracted yellow fever (including 32 black nurses) were assigned to higher-risk hospitals in Cuba. The nurses faced long hours, a miserable climate, poor sanitation, limited supplies, and never-ending cases of illness and wounds. Many succumbed to the same diseases that felled the soldiers. Twenty women contract nurses died in service. When the war ended, nurses were still serving in many of the war’s theaters.
Nurse Rose Heavren, a contract nurse with the Army, wrote in her memoirs that supplies frequently ran short, which made nursing difficult. Although patients were supposed to receive milk every day, it was frequently unavailable. The nurses’ diet reflected the supply shortage: mush for breakfast and boiled cabbage and black coffee for dinner. Rose contracted yellow fever while in service in Havana, Cuba. This did not dim her enthusiasm for military nursing, however. She served overseas with the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I.
The inability of the military medical departments to handle the vast numbers of disease-related casualties during the Spanish-American War and the outstanding professional services of contract nurses such as Rose Heavren led directly to the creation of the Army Nurse Corps in 1901 and the Navy Nurse Corps in 1908. With the creation of these two nursing corps, women became official members of the American military for the first time in history.
When the United States first entered World War I in 1917, the conflict was already several years old and the Allies (Great Britain, France and Russia) were stretched to the limit of their ability. It was vital that the US mobilize men and arms as rapidly as possible. The military services experienced manpower shortages in their attempt to expand rapidly, send men overseas and administer both processes. The Secretary of the Navy proposed a novel solution to these difficulties when he asked his subordinates, “Is there any regulation that says a yeoman has to be a man?” Much to the Navy’s surprise, the answer was “No,” and for the first time in history, the Navy and the Marine Corps called on US women to fill the gap by enlisting for stateside duty so that sailors could be released for sea duty. The services enlisted skilled stenographers and typists for administrative work in military offices, gave them the title of “Yeoman (F)” and paid them the same rate male yeomen received. Approximately 11,880 women were accepted into the Navy and 305 into the Marine Corps.
The military also discovered that women’s skills were needed overseas as well as on the home front. The Army Signal Corps, working with AT&T, recruited and trained for military duty overseas 230 bilingual telephone operators. Dubbed “Hello Girls,” the women were assigned to switchboards in France and routed messages between headquarters and the front lines. In addition, the Army Quartermaster Corps sent approximately fifty skilled stenographers to France to work in supply offices.
Members of the Army and Navy Nurse Corps, meanwhile, faced significant dangers in both overseas and home front service. Nurses assigned to locations near the front lines sometimes came under enemy fire. Army nurse Helen McClelland, serving with Base Hospital # 10, was sent to Casualty Clearing Station # 61, close to the front lines near St. Sixtes Convent in Belgium. Casualty clearing stations received soldiers directly from the front, and during “drives” and “pushes” staff worked for as long as 24 hour shifts without rest. German aircraft bombed Casualty Clearing Station # 61, around 10:15 one evening, wounding Miss McClelland’s tentmate. The nurses’ tent was 25 feet from where the bombs struck and McClelland says she saw the flash with her eyes closed, and that flying shrapnel tore their tent to shreds. The station was bombed every night for the next week.
Over 400 Army, Navy and Red Cross nurses stationed overseas and in military hospitals in the United States died in the line of duty during World War I. The majority of these women died from an especially virulent form of influenza. An epidemic swept across the US and Europe, concentrating on port towns, military posts, and other crowded communities during 1918 and 1919. Referred to as “Spanish Influenza” during the time, the disease proved to be so deadly (a frequent complication was pneumonia) that churches, libraries, theaters and other gathering places were ordered closed, and communities passed ordinances against public sneezing, coughing, and spitting. Today’s historians and scientists believe that it was a particularly virulent strain of “Swine Flu” which killed 21 million people around the world.
When the war ended, Congress took steps to close the loopholes that had allowed women to serve in its ranks. The Army and Navy Nurse Corps were reduced to their pre-war sizes. No one would have predicted that only twenty years later women would be called upon to answer an even greater military emergency.
When the United States was propelled into World War II by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, it faced the necessity of fighting a two-front war (Atlantic and Pacific) as well as becoming the “Arsenal of Democracy,” supplying armies on two fronts as well as the armies of our allies in the form of Lend-Lease supplies. When military and industrial demands clashed, it became obvious that the shortage of manpower demanded the use of woman power once again, but on an even larger scale than previously. During World War II, all four services—Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard, formed special women’s components “for the duration of the emergency and six months.”
When the Japanese attacked US territories across the Pacific in December 1941, Army and Navy nurses were taken prisoner of war. Five Navy nurses were captured when the island of Guam fell to Japanese forces. They were transferred to a prison camp in Japan and held for five months. Eleven Navy nurses captured in the Philippines endured 37 months as prisoners of the Japanese at Los Banos prison camp, and 66 Army nurses were imprisoned for 33 months at Santo Tomas prison camp in the Philippines.
Women in the Army and Navy Nurse Corps and the Women’s Army Corps served overseas in every remote geographic location to which American troops were assigned. In many cases, this meant that the women were exposed to significant danger from enemy bombs, torpedoes, and rockets. A V-1 rocket hit the WAC barracks in Bushy Park outside of London, causing a great deal of damage but no loss of life since the women were all at work. WACs en route to North Africa were torpedoed and spent one night in a lifeboat before being rescued by a British destroyer. Hospitals where Army nurses were stationed were bombed at Anzio, North Africa, New Guinea, and in the China-Burma-India Theater; and the hospital ship Comfort was hit by a Japanese suicide bomber, killing six nurses as well as staff and patients.
Janibell Smith, an Army nurse in New Guinea, wrote her mother a letter about the frequent air raids her unit was experiencing. Last night we had the worst air raid yet. It began around 9:00 pm when the sirens blew their warning. Every light was hastily extinguished—and then it began. The deafening reports of bombs, the artillery, the ack ack, coming from all directions, right over our heads—on one side of us, a sudden flaming fire, the terrific sound of explosives—and then an enemy aircraft taking a sudden nose dive from the sky and zooming over us so closely that it brushed the tops of trees, so closely in fact that you could almost have shot down the pilot had you an M-1 handy. Can you picture this happening again and again and again throughout the night? You run and stumble and fall in the darkness—sometimes you make the foxhole, mostly you just fling yourself flat in the sand and dust, wherever you happened to be. Next comes the sound of the ambulance siren—and you must forget everything except your helmet and your work.
Thirteen Army nurses on a medical evacuation flight to Bari, Italy, crashed in the Albanian mountains far behind enemy lines in 1944. They and the plane’s crew walked 800 miles across the mountains to freedom. The Germans, meanwhile, were aware of the plane crash and were searching for the Americans, placing “wanted” posters on trees. Although the group was inadvertently split up, all the nurses eventually reached the coast and freedom.
At Anzio, Italy, six Army nurses died from two separate German bombardments. Nurse Deloris Buckley was one of several nurses wounded in these attacks. In an interview conducted during her recuperation, she stated that she did not remember being hit, but remembered coming to to find herself lying on the floor with a shrapnel wound in the leg. She saw other personnel nearby who needed help, so she clamped off the bleeding veins and arteries in her leg and attempted to render assistance to others.
After the war, America came to the reluctant conclusion that in its new position as a world power, a strong military establishment needed to be maintained, even in times of peace. The services discovered that using trained women volunteers meant that less men had to be drafted, and came to the conclusion that a small nucleus of women should be maintained permanently.
The Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948, signed into law by President Harry Truman on June 12, 1948, gave women permanent status in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps. No longer would special women’s “components,” be formed during military emergencies for the duration only. Women in all the services were members of the Regular Armed Forces and the Reserves, subject to military authority and regulations and entitled to veterans benefits.
The act placed a two percent ceiling on the number of women in each of the services, restricted promotions to one full colonel or Navy captain as Chief of the Nurse Corps and/or Service Director, and limited the number of female officers who could serve as lieutenant colonels or Navy commanders. The law also granted the service Secretaries authority to discharge women without specified cause and restricted women from flying aircraft engaged in combat and from being assigned to ships engaged in combat.
The Korean War began in June 1950. The Army, Air Force and Navy Nurse Corps responded to the need for nurses in Korea immediately; however, several tragedies occurred as nurses attempted to reach the Korean Theater. Army Major Genevieve Smith died in a plane crash en route to her assignment as Chief Nurse in the Korean Theater. Navy nurses also suffered setbacks in their attempts to get to their duty assignments in Korea. The hospital ship USS Benevolence was ordered to Korea in August 1950, but was rammed by another ship and sank on her trial run off the coast of California. Fifteen nurses assigned to the ship were on board for the test run. The ship sank within half an hour—there was no time to launch enough life boats or send an SOS. The nurses ended up tied together and hanging onto wooden rafters to keep afloat. The water was cold, it was night time, and very foggy. Eventually an Army tug picked up the nurses. Of the fifteen nurses involved, only one died, from shock.
Then on September 19, 1950, eleven Navy nurses on their way to an assignment at the US Naval Hospital in Yokosuka, Japan, died when their plane crashed taking off from a stopover at Kwajelein Island.
During the course of the war, 540 Army nurses, 50 Navy Nurses and less than 50 Air Force Nurses served in Korea. Seventy percent of the Army nurses in Korea served in the new and experimental Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) units. These units followed the combat troops and moved frequently. One nurse remembered “Near Pusan around the 8th of October our convoy was attacked, and the nurses spent the remainder of the night in a ditch under blackout conditions, speaking only in whispers. At daylight we got out of the ditch and began nursing the wounded alongside the road where the convoy had been stopped. We set up a first aid station and gave blood, operated as necessary, and treated soldiers for shock.”
Large numbers of women, nurses and members of the Women’s Army Corps, were stationed in Japan during the Korean War, and more than 120,000 servicewomen served stateside. Many enlisted reservists were involuntarily recalled to active duty for the duration of the emergency, a first for women service members.
Approximately 7,500 American military women served in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. The majority were military nurses assigned to military hospitals, air evacuation units, hospital ships, and field units. Some were wounded and the eight women who died are memorialized on the wall at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Although the military was reluctant to send non-nursing women into the Vietnam Theater, many servicewomen made it clear to their chains of command that they were very willing to deploy to Vietnam if they could obtain permission to go and if positions were available for them to fill.
The Army finally sent a detachment of WACs to Vietnam in 1966. These 100 women worked at the US Army Vietnam Headquarters first in Tan Son Nhut and later at Long Binh as clerk typists and administration workers. Within a couple of years, the detachment had grown to 140, with women working in communications, personnel, finance, data processing, and intelligence. The Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps eventually sent small numbers of women to Vietnam on individual assignments as needed. There were always more volunteers than positions available.
The numbers of enlisted women and women officers increased slowly through the 1970s. By 1980, over 170,000 women were on active duty, making up 8.5 percent of the US Armed Forces. The proportion of military jobs open to women slowly increased as well, although less rapidly. Women became eligible for Army and Navy ROTC programs. Servicewomen were trained for “nontraditional” positions; becoming among other things construction equipment operators, air and harbor traffic controllers, veterinary animal specialists, aerospace medical specialists, military police, chaplains, and helicopter pilots. The Coast Guard began assigning women as crew members on all its ships in 1978.
In some instances, the services opened positions to women only to have second thoughts and close those same positions within a few years. For example, in 1979, the Marine Corps began assigning women to guard US embassies around the world. Three years later, they decided to stop assigning women to those positions. Army women became eligible for assignment to the Old Guard Regiment performing ceremonial functions such as guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns in 1978. In 1982, the Army excluded women from the Old Guard once again. After a decade of indecision and revision pertaining to what jobs women could be assigned, the latter part of the 1980s saw more positions opened to women. Women were barred only from those positions which had a high probability of involving direct combat in the event of war.
In 1983, 170 military women deployed to Grenada in Operation Urgent Fury. In 1989, 770 women deployed in Operation Just Cause to Panama, where, yet again, “combat” was not easily defined in a war zone. Three female Army helicopter pilots came under heavy enemy fire and Army Captain Linda Bray, commander of the 988th Military Police Company, directed her soldiers in a firefight against Panamanian Defense Forces from her command post a half a mile away. As the 1990s military deployments were soon to demonstrate, having a non-combat MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) did not guarantee that an individual would not find herself in a combat area or exposed to danger in the course of performing her assigned duties.
In the largest single deployment of women in US military history, with widespread public support, 41,000 military women made up seven percent of the US Armed Forces in the Persian Gulf. Women served as aircraft pilots carrying troops and supplies; deployed on reconnaissance missions; served aboard hospital ships, in mobile medical units and in field hospitals; crewed planes and helicopters; directed artillery, drove trucks, ran prisoner-of-war facilities; served in port security units, in military police units, and as perimeter guards; and performed a myriad of
communications, intelligence, supply and administrative jobs necessary for military success in the Persian Gulf. Major General Jeanne M. Holm, USAF (Ret.) wrote, “During the operation, American military women did just about everything on land, at sea, and in the air except engage in the actual fighting, and even there the line was often blurred—it was obvious from the beginning that the front lines were not what they used to be and noncombat units regularly took casualties. In the Gulf War there were no fixed positions or clear lines in the sand—Iraqi long-range artillery and especially the surface-to-surface missiles were unisex weapons that did not distinguish between combat and support troops.” Five women were killed in action and two were prisoners of war.
The Persian Gulf War demonstrated to the American public the capabilities of the country’s servicewomen. Several years after the war, Congress lifted the ban on women serving as crew members on combat aircraft and combat vessels. In 1994, the Army began assigning women to the Old Guard Regiment once again.
To date, only some 250,000 of the approximately two million women who have served in and with the US military have been registered at the Memorial. In order for the Memorial to tell the full and complete story of women’s outstanding military service, more women have to be registered.
In keeping with this special month, the Women In Military Service for America Memorial Foundation is asking descendants, family, friends, relatives and all servicewomen (active duty, Guard and Reserves) to register women’s service experiences with the Foundation. The experiences of women serving today are of particular interest. Records can be updated at any time. Efforts to locate and register all military women will continue. Please call 1-800-4-SALUTE for more information.