American women served worldwide in WAC
March 4, 2003
ARLINGTON, Va. — Until World War II, the only American women who served in connection with the U.S. military were Army nurses. That changed with the advent of the Women’s Army Corps, which eventually fielded more than 150,000 American women to serve in combat theaters from the Pacific to Europe.
With war breaking out around the globe, America was stretched to the near-breaking point trying to supply enough men and material to fight on two fronts.
In 1941, Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts proposed a solution to the manpower shortage to Gen. George C. Marshall, the Army’s Chief of Staff: an Army women’s corps that would be separate from the existing Army Nurse Corps.
After Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1941, the country’s civilian and military leadership began to realize that using women to perform noncombat jobs would be essential in order to “free up men to fight.”
So on May 14, 1942, Congress passed a bill creating the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC).
According to the bill, women officers would not be allowed to command men, their rank structure was different and the women were paid less than men of similar rank. And any WAAC sent overseas would not get overseas pay, government life insurance, veterans medical coverage and death benefits, all of which men received.
But American women still flocked to sign up for the WAAC.
The first WAAC training course was for officers only, and was held at Fort Des Moines, Iowa. Three additional training centers were later set up in Daytona Beach, Fla.; Fort Oglethorpe, Ga.; and Fort Devens, Mass.
The course lasted six weeks and included 440 women, of whom 40 were black.
WAACs were assigned to a wide variety of noncombat jobs in addition to the stenographer and typist jobs most people expected.
In the Army Air Forces, for example, the women served as weather observers and forecasters, cryptographers, radio operators and repairmen, sheet metal workers, parachute riggers, bombsight maintenance specialists, aerial photograph analysts and control tower operators.
Eventually, Women’s Army Corps members served in North Africa, the Mediterranean, Europe, the Southwest Pacific, China, India, Burma and the Middle East.
On July 3, 1943, Congress began hearings on converting the WAACs into the regular Army. The Army had requested the change because its leaders realized they needed as many WAACs as they could get overseas, but did not have the ability to adequately protect them if they were captured or injured unless the women had regular Army status.
As part of the conversion, all WAACs were given a choice of joining the Army as a WAC, or going back to their civilian lives. About 25 percent decided to leave.
The WACs continued to serve with distinction in Europe and the Pacific throughout the war. In the end, 565 WACs had received medals and citations, including three who were awarded Air Medals, 10 who were awarded the Soldier’s Medal and 16 who earned Purple Hearts. Another 565 received Bronze Stars for meritorious service overseas.
After VJ Day, in August 1945, the WACs began to demobilize, and by December 1946, fewer than 10,000 WACs remained.
Earlier that year the Army asked Congress for permission to establish the WACs as a permanent, separate corps, but the bill was not passed until June 1948.
The WAC was finally disbanded in 1978, when women became fully integrated into the Army and were allowed to serve in any position except combat branches.
— Information for this report was drawn from two principal sources: a brochure prepared by historian Judith Bellafaire for the U.S. Army Center of Military History; and an unclassified report written in 1945 by historians assigned to the Historical Section of the U.S. military’s Headquarters, European Theater of Operations for use in the preparation of Defense Department’s official history of World War II.