Beginning in Oct. 1940, men between 21 and 35 were drafted for military service. The United States declared war on Japan on Dec. 8, 1941, in retaliation for the attack on Pearl Harbor, HI, and on Dec. 11 the United States declared war on Japan’s allies, Germany and Italy. The draft was extended to include men aged 18-38, and in 1942 the upper age limit was extended to age 45. As their husbands, sons and brothers left home, many American women asked, “what about us?” Acting as their spokeswoman, Massachusetts Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers introduced a bill in May 1941 calling for the creation of an all-volunteer women’s corps in the Army.
nitially, members of Congress, the press and the military establishment joked about the notion of women serving in the Army, but as America increasingly realized the demands of a war on two fronts (Japan and Germany), leaders also faced an acute manpower shortage. In May 1942, the House and the Senate approved a bill creating the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) and Oveta Culp Hobby, Chief of the Women’s Interest Section in the Public Relations Bureau at the War Department and a lobbyist for the WAAC bill, became its first director. Although the women who joined considered themselves in the Army, technically they were civilians working with the Army. By the spring of 1943, 60,000 women had volunteered and in July 1943, a new congressional bill transformed the WAAC to the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), giving Army women military status.
The Army opened five WAAC/WAC training centers and in July 1942, the first group of 440 women officer candidates (40 of whom were African-American) and 330 enlisted women began training at Ft. Des Moines, IA. Uniform supply was inadequate but it did not deter training. Except for weapons and tactical training, the women’s courses paralleled those for Army men, as did their training circumstances. One WAC later remembered her basic training:
… Falling out for reveille at 6:00 AM in the dark, below-zero weather in deep snow … the oversized man’s GI overcoat which I wore over a thin fatigue dress … a typical sad sack GI shivering with a coat dragging in the snow. …
One officer wrote:
We went through Officer Candidate School in tennis shoes, foundation garments, seersucker dresses with bloomers and gas masks. Apparently there was a supply mix-up somewhere in the pipe line. The overconcern with underwear by the male planners paid dividends. But they were not pink with lace. They were tannish and awful. Foundation garments, such as even our grandmothers would not have worn, did give us moments of hilarious parading in our barracks after the “study hour.”
In late 1942, WAACs began deploying overseas. Five WAAC officers had a harrowing experience en route to reporting for duty at Allied Headquarters in Algiers, North Africa. The troop ship on which they traveled from England to North Africa was torpedoed by a German U-boat in the North Atlantic. A British destroyer came to the rescue and saved the women officers and other survivors of the burning, sinking ship and delivered them safely to Oran, Algeria. They lost uniforms, cosmetics and personal items and were smeared with oil and grit, but the welcoming party at the port brought oranges, toothbrushes and emergency items. Within a few days they were at work in Allied Headquarters. As the war continued, most overseas assignments were to the European Theater of Operations and over 8,300 served in England, France, Germany and Italy. Others deployed to the Pacific and the Far East.
Women performed their duties like seasoned troopers—even amid unhealthy and uncomfortable conditions. One women stationed in the Philippines explained:
We were warned to keep our sleeves down, wear our wool socks … watch out for wallabies (small rodent-like kangaroos that bumped under our cots at night), tarantulas (dump boots every morning), and snakes. … The tents were hot during the day and cold at night because we were sitting right on the Equator.
GEN Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Allied Commander, was among high-ranking officers praising the women. GEN MacArthur “praised the WACS highly, calling them ‘my best soldiers,’ and alleged that they worked harder than men, complained less and were better disciplined.”
The information in this article is excerpted from “Women’s Army Corps: WAAC and WAC” by Colonel Betty Morden, USA (Ret.). Colonel Morden’s essay appears in In Defense of a Nation: Servicewomen in World War II, edited by Major General Jeanne M. Holm, USAF (Ret.) and Judith Bellafaire, Ph.D., Chief Historian of the Women’s Memorial Foundation (Arlington, Virginia: Vandamere Press, 1998).