Volunteering For Risk: Black Military Women Overseas during the Wars in Korea and Vietnam

Written by: Judith Bellafaire, Ph.D., Curator
Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation, Inc.

Fifty years ago, the nation’s military services faced a manpower dilemma. In 1947, it was becoming clear to political and military leaders alike that with the expansion of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe, the increasing nuclear capabilities of the Soviet Union, and the rise to power of the Communists in China, the United States was suddenly in the position of having to wage a “Cold War” against the growing power of worldwide Communism. For the first time in history, the United States felt compelled to maintain indefinitely a large peacetime military.

As political and military leaders contemplated instituting a peacetime draft, it occurred to some planners that if volunteer servicewomen, who had filled manpower gaps in the military during World War II, could be used to fill the military’s ever increasing need for office-type work, fewer men would have to be drafted. Cost comparisons revealed that training young male draftees for office work was more expensive than training volunteer females. The main reason for the cost difference was that young men frequently had dependents who required housing, medical care and other allowances. Women who volunteered for military service, however, were not accepted into the military if they had under-age dependents.

Even though top military leaders were advocating legislation allowing women permanent status in the military services, members of Congress were well aware that many Americans firmly believed women did not belong in the military. Congressional debate on this issue was extended and at times acrimonious. In the House of Representatives, which was the more conservative body, many members preferred to limit women to service in the Reserves—to be called up only in the event of an emergency. Legislators were concerned that women officers in the Regular services would eventually be in a position to command men. The specter of women serving in combat also concerned many members of the House.

Because almost everyone accepted the need for a permanent pool of trained military nurses, the Army-Navy Nurse Act was enacted in April 1947. Finally, in June 1948, Congress passed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act. Although the bill established a permanent place for women in the regular Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, it set a two percent ceiling on the number of women in each service.

One month later, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981, mandating an end to racial discrimination and segregation in the armed forces. This did not mean, however, that discriminatory practices ended immediately. Initially, some military leaders were reluctant to implement the President’s order. They believed that the military was not the place for “social experiments,” and worried that unit cohesion would be irreparably harmed if blacks and whites were forced to trust their lives to each other on the battlefield. The Truman administration formed an executive committee to study and make recommendations for a plan to desegregate the services. Six years after the 9981 Executive Order, the Department of Defense announced that segregation had been eliminated in all of the armed services. From that point on, discrimination was not officially tolerated in the US military.

During the Korean War (1950-1953) almost 600 military nurses served in military hospitals established in the Korean Theater. African-American nurses were among this number, including Lieutenant Martha E. Cleveland (later Colonel) and Lieutenant Nancy Greene Peace both of whom were assigned to the 11th Evacuation Hospital, and Lieutenant Evelyn Decker of the 8055 MASH unit. Decker, who had served in several segregated military hospitals before her assignment to Korea, remembers that the hospitals were integrated while she was there.

Other Army nurses, African-Americans included, were assigned to hospitals in Japan and Hawaii and on the west coast of the United States, where they cared for combat soldiers who had been evacuated from the battle theater. Lieutenant Claudia Richardson, assigned to duty at Tripler Army Hospital, Hawaii, was able to visit with her brother, Army Private First Class Vincent Richardson, who had been evacuated from Korea to Tripler.

African-American members of the Women’s Army Corps served at military bases in Japan, Okinawa and the Philippines in direct support of the war. Corporal Arline Haywood Wall was assigned to the Yokohama Engineer Depot helping United Nations soldiers get the supplies they needed to fight. Estella Ehelebe of the US Army Special Services was also assigned to an Army depot in Japan. Ehelebe sometimes wrote letters of condolence to the next of kin of soldiers who had died in Korea.

With the outbreak of the Vietnam War, increasing numbers of women, including African-Americans, volunteered for duty. During the buildup in Vietnam in 1965, Major Monica Crossdale-Palmer served at the 85th Evacuation Hospital at Quin How, Vietnam, where she was awarded an Army Commendation Medal. After her 12-month tour of duty was up, Crossdale-Palmer extended for an additional six months and was transferred to the 17th Field Hospital in Saigon. In March 1967, Major Palmer returned to the United States and was assigned to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington, DC, where she served 18 months in the operating room before she volunteered to return to Vietnam. During her second tour of duty in Vietnam, Major Palmer served as operating room supervisor of the 45th Surgical Hospital at Tay Rinh, seven miles from the Cambodian border.

Major Marie L. Rogers, Army Nurse Corps, received the Bronze Star from President Johnson in a White House ceremony in December 1967. Major Rogers, an 18 year veteran, rendered distinguished service in connection with group operations against a hostile force in Vietnam between October 1966 and September 1967. She was the operating room supervisor in the 24th Evacuation Hospital in Long Binh. Roger’s Vietnam assignment was her second experience serving in a combat theater having previously served in Korea.

Captain Elizabeth Allen, Army Nurse Corps, was sent to Vietnam in 1967. She treated acute battle injuries in intensive care units in Army hospitals at Pleiku and Ku Chi. Allen was at Ku Chi during the Tet Offensive in early 1968, when the hospital was fired on virtually every night. In order to better protect their patients, medical personnel lowered them from their beds onto empty ammunition boxes.

In 1968, Olivia Theriot, US Air Force Nurse, was stationed at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines as a flight nurse with the 902nd Aeromed Evacuation Squad. She flew in and out of Saigon, moving the wounded between Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan. On one assignment, Theriot flew into the demilitarized zone (DMZ) to evacuate personnel from a US Navy ship that had been struck.

Army Nurse Diane M. Lindsay went to Vietnam in April 1969 and was assigned to the 95th Evacuation Hospital where her heroic actions earned her the Soldier’s Medal for Heroism. She convinced a confused soldier to hand over a grenade. (He had already pulled the pin.) Lindsay had help from a male officer in physically restraining the “berserk” soldier. Lindsay was the first black nurse to receive the award, and was promoted to captain.

Black members of the Women’s Army Corps also served in Vietnam. Chief Warrant Officer Doris Allen recalled, “As a senior intelligence analyst in Vietnam, I was recognized for having been responsible through production of one specific intelligence report, for saving the lives of ‘at least’ 101 US Marines fighting in Quang Tri Province.”

During the Tet Offensive in 1968, Staff Sergeant Edith Efferson was stationed at Long Binh as a supply sergeant. At Long Binh, approximately 27 miles northeast of Saigon, the ammunition depot was a primary target of the enemy. WACs on duty in the orderly room hit the floor frequently during the months of January and February to avoid the shattering glass, flying gravel, and other debris kicked up by the explosions. Staff Sergeant Efferson’s calm demeanor throughout this difficult period helped the younger women in the office deal with their own concerns. WAC Director Colonel Elizabeth Hoisington later congratulated Efferson, her commanding officer, and the rest of the women at Long Binh for keeping cool heads throughout the Tet Offensive.

Specialist Grendel Alice Howard arrived in Vietnam in January 1968 during the Tet Offensive. She was assigned to First Logistical Command Headquarters at Long Binh as the administrative assistant to the Non-Commissioned Officer In Charge. One aspect of her job involved traveling to subordinate units, interviewing soldiers, and writing stories about them for publication. By the end of Howard’s extended 34-month tour, she had been promoted to Sergeant First Class. She went on to become a Sergeant Major and was awarded the Bronze Star with the Oak Leaf Cluster and the Army Commendation Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster.

The Vietnam War coincided with a strong movement for racial equality in the United States. Some African-Americans believed that they were being drafted in disproportionate numbers. Opposition to the Vietnam War also led to criticism of the draft. As the war ended, the decision was made to end the draft and to institute a “Volunteer Army.” For a volunteer army to work, women of all races would be needed in larger numbers. Public Law 90-130, passed in 1967, made it possible to increase the number of women in the military services beyond the previously imposed two percent ceiling. As the number of women in the military increased, so did the numbers of jobs open to women. Women were allowed to join the National Guard and admitted to ROTC programs. In 1976, women were allowed to attend the service academies. Black women shared equally in these gains. As the barriers have come down one by one, American women have moved inexorably toward full equality in the military services.

Many of the individual stories above come directly from the Register of the Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation. The Foundation is committed to preserving the individual and collective stories of all women who have served in the US military. The Memorial, at the gateway to Arlington National Cemetery, includes a computerized Register containing the photos and individual experiences of 250,000 military women. By registering, military women of all races will ensure that their contributions to the defense of their nation will become a permanent part of history. Please call the Women’s Memorial at 703-533-1155 or 800-222-2294 to obtain information about registering yourself, a friend, or a family member.