One such WAC detachment graduates from training at the First WAC Training Center in Fort Des Moines, Iowa. 25 April 1944. Gift of Jane Dickman Schlaht, 2011.124
On 20 July 1942, 70 years ago today, the first group of the newly minted Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps arrived at Fort Des Moines in Iowa to begin their training. They studied management, administration, cartography, military protocol, and other disciplines that would enable them to serve aptly and efficiently. Thousands of women would go on to enlist and serve their country in what would become the fully incorporated Women’s Army Corps, freeing up men for duty overseas.
“I do hereby establish a Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps for non-combatant service with the Army of the United States for the purpose of further making available to the national defense the knowledge, skill, and special training of the women of this Nation; and do hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of War, as a first step in the organization of such Corps, to establish units thereof, of such character as he may determine to be necessary to meet the requirements of the Army, with the number of such units not to exceed 100 and the total enrollment not to exceed 25,000.” — President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9163
Enrollment would far exceed that 25,000 limit first laid out by President Roosevelt in his Executive Order establishing the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps on this day 70 years ago. By war’s end, more than 140,000 women would have served their country as a member of what would become the Women’s Army Corps, or more commonly known as the WAC.
In May 1941 Massachusetts Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers proposed a bill for the establishment of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, a non-combat organization meant to take over jobs that would allow for more men to serve in overseas combat roles. Initially unpopular, the bill was finally passed a year later when President Roosevelt signed it into law on 15 May 1942. The following day, Oveta Culp Hobby was sworn in as director. For her service in this capacity, Hobby would become the first female to be awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, the Army’s third highest honor for exceptional service.
Once established, tens of thousands of women applied for more positions than existed. The first WAAC training center was established at Fort Des Moines, Iowa and training began in July 1942. Women between the ages of 21 and 45 were eligible to enlist. Following training, companies of 150 women each were created.
African American, Japanese American, Native American, and Hispanic women were encouraged to join the Corps, but were generally separated into segregated units just as the regular Army was. Such units included the all Puerto Rican contingent assigned to the Port of Embarkation in New York City, and the all black 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion.
Service in the WAC may not have brought women into combat, but it could be a dangerous job nonetheless. More than 150 WACs died in service, largely from disease but also from plane crashes, ships being sunk, and other misfortunes. Despite the risks, these women were not given all the same benefits as their male counterparts. Although receiving the same pay as men serving stateside, members of the WAAC were not eligible for overseas pay; and although they were entitled to veteran’s hospitalization if wounded or sick while in service, they did not receive government life insurance.
On 1 July 1943, Roosevelt approved Congresswoman Rogers’ new bill that proposed the full incorporation of WAAC into the army. Thus the WAAC became the Women’s Army Corps, and their benefits were made to match that of their male counterparts. The women of the WAC served with the Army Ground Forces, the Army Service Forces, and the Army Air Forces, both stateside and in nearly every theater of war. Their job titles included cook, typist, electrician, driver, mechanic, radio operator, and just about every other support role you can think of. Many were assigned to the Manhattan Project.
Tens of thousands of women served their nation in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II, living the motto “It’s our war too!” The success of the WAC—and later the female auxiliaries of the other branches such as the WAVES, SPARS, and US Marine Corps Women’s Reserve—changed the prevailing prewar attitude that women didn’t belong in the military. The WAC served in both Korea and Vietnam, and was disbanded in 1978.
Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and warfare,was the symbol of the WAC. This is an officer’s lapel pin. Gift of David Mears, 2011.181
The WAC Service Medal, created in July 1943, also features the profile of Athena. Gift of Laurie M. Hope, 2011.410
Collections Highlight: T/4 Mary Pritchard
Portrait of WAC Technical Sgt. Pritchard, Gift of Mary Pritchard Gershuny, 2002.339
Mary Pritchard enlisted in the WAAC on 16 April 1943. She had been working as a civilian with the Merchant Marine in Washington, D. C. After training, she was sent to the Charleston Port of Embarkation for a year. After a year of stateside service, Pritchard shipped out to serve under the US Army Forces in the Far East in Hollandia, Netherlands East Indies, arriving just days before the invasion of Leyte Gulf in October 1944. There, Pritchard worked in radar and communications with “Section 22,” a group with top secret clearance.
Just a month later, her unit moved to the Philippines where their office was in a bowling alley. In a memoir, Pritchard recalled the uniform shortage that was typical of the WAC experience, wearing basically any uniform they could find including men’s fatigues. In Manila, Pritchard and her unit worked towards the organization of Operation Olympic–the planned invasion of mainland Japan. The dropping of the atomic bombs precluded that operation, and Pritchard was sent home, discharged in October 1945. Having so enjoyed her service with the WAC, Pritchard took a job with the Department of the Army and worked in Tokyo from 1946 until 1949.
Pritchard and her Radar and Radio Countermeasures Unit in front of their office building in Hollandia, Dutch East Indies
Seventy-seven women of the United States Army & Navy Nurse Corps were among the tens of thousands of prisoners taken when the Philippines were surrendered in spring 1942. Not only were they were the first large group of American women to face combat conditions, but they were also the first to be taken prisoners of war. The interned nurses continued to tend to the sick and wounded within the Santo Tomas and Los Baños prison camps.
When the Japanese attacked the Philippines in December 1941, the nurses were stationed in hospitals in and around the capital city of Manila. Eleven Navy nurses were captured there in early January 1942, when Manila fell. The Army nurses, however, had relocated southward to Bataan to tend to wounded soldiers just behind the fields of battle. Conditions were deplorable; supplies were dwindling and the makeshift hospitals were outdoors, increasing the already rampant spread of diseases like dengue fever and malaria.
Gen. “Skinny” Wainwright had instructed the nurses to pack up and move to Corregidor before General King surrendered Bataan on 9 April 1942. There, the open-air hospitals of Bataan were replaced by the dark, dank, and cramped Malinta Tunnel of Corregidor. A thousand hospital beds were set up in the underground bomb shelter and supply storehouse built by the US Army Corps of Engineers the decade before. For the most part, the nurses were ordered to remain inside the tunnel for their own safety, as the Japanese were bombing the area.
This New Testament was given to US Army nurse 2nd Lt. Edith Corns by Army Chaplain Perry O. Wilcox on 16 April 1942, while both were stationed on Corregidor. Shortly thereafter, the island was surrendered. Corns spent the remainder of the war in the Santo Tomas prison camp until it was liberated by an intrepid raid in February 1945 during the Battle of Manila. She was able to hold onto the New Testament for comfort throughout her imprisonment. Gift of Mike Noonan, 2001.346.001
When Corregidor finally fell nearly a month after Bataan, the Army nurses were taken prisoner along with the soldiers. They were sent to Santo Tomas prison camp in July, joining the Navy nurses who had already been interned there for six months. A year later the Navy nurses, led by Lt. Laura Cobb, volunteered for transfer to Los Baños, where they continued to work as a nursing unit treating civilian internees under impossible circumstances. They were liberated by the famous Los Baños Raid on 23 February 1945, after more than three years of harsh imprisonment.
The Army nurses, however, remained at Santo Tomas for the remainder of the war, mirroring the actions of the Navy nurses. Under the guidance of veteran nurse Capt. Maude Davison, the women at Santo Tomas were expected to complete shifts, and when doing so, wear the khaki uniforms they had made for themselves rather than the men’s coveralls they had gotten accustomed to in Bataan. The importance to survival of maintaining one’s appearance and “normal” activities inside internment camps is a known phenomenon. Knowingly or not, Davison gave the nurses under her command a purpose for which to fight to survive. The Army nurses were liberated on 3 February 1945.
Army nurses are all smiles upon their release from Santo Tomas, February 1945
In celebration of Women’s History Month, The National WWII Museum is focusing on milestones in women’s contributions to the war effort. For black women in particular, the war was fought for “Double V” — victory over the enemy overseas, and victory over prejudice at home. On this day in 1945, Phyllis Mae Dailey was inducted into the United States Navy Nurse Corps. Dailey (second from right in the photograph above) was the first African American sworn in as a Navy nurse on 8 March 1945, following changes in Navy recruitment and admittance procedures that had previously excluded black women from joining the Nurse Corps.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was a well known proponent for the change, and had also put pressure on the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), and SPARS (the women’s component of the Coast Guard) — all subsets of the Navy — to do the same. The SPARS would finally be integrated in October 1944, and the WAVES in December 1944. As a matter of reference, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (later fully incorporated and called the Women’s Army Corps) accepted African Americans beginning in January 1941, but capped the number who could serve to around 10% of the corps.
Under pressure from several directions, the Navy ended exclusion based on race in January 1945. Due to the Navy Nurse Corps being one of the last units to accept African Americans, it had the smallest representation of black women. By August 1945, when the war ended, there were just four active duty African American nurses in the Navy Nurse Corps, versus more than 6,000 that had served with the Women’s Army Corps during the war.
Tough enough to chew nails? The February 11, 1944 issue of the Higgins Worker featured a real “Wendy the Welder,” Stanislawa Barr, a welding trainee at the Industrial Canal plant. The article states that Stalislawa who toured in the 30s as the “world’s strongest girl” now “astounds the plant’s strongest men by breaking 60 penny spikes with her teeth, and defying any man to lift her.”
Post by The National WWII Museum Curator Kimberly Guise
Caroline Ferriday, a wealthy and beautiful young woman from Connecticut, spent her whole life trying to right the wrongs of the Nazi regime. Initially working to aid French citizens, she turned her efforts specifically to the “Lapins,” a group of women who were arrested for aiding the French Resistance and used for horrific Nazi medical experiments.
A radio disguised in a suitcase, clandestine parachute drops and a one-legged female spy sound like the basic elements for a blockbuster WWII espionage film or bestselling suspense novel. But the story of the suitcase radio and spy Virginia Hall is all part of the true story of wartime top-secret communications.
Find out more about the Museum’s suitcase radio, which would have been used by British agents of the Special Operations Executive, and the heroic actions of Virginia Hall.
Posted by interactive content and community manager Kacey Hill
The National WWII Museum tells the story of the American Experience in the war that changed the world - why it was fought, how it was won, and what it means today - so that all generations will understand the price of freedom and be inspired by what they learn.