Military History: Women in War

Ross Dunfee

Women have been participants in war since time began. In colonial days women used firearms to protect home, property, and loved ones. During the Revolution, Civil War, World Wars, and multiple other skirmishes, women often fought quietly alongside male comrades, but not as part of the uniformed services. During WWII able-bodied men were in short supply, and since women were not permitted in combat, they moved into the workplace to free up the men; remember “Rosie the Riveter”? Even so, additional men were still needed for combat, so women’s corps were created in each of the services to fill non-combat positions.

The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was established May 15, 1942 (PL 554), and the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard followed suit on July 30, 1942 (PL 689). All the auxiliary women’s groups were converted to active military status July 1, 1943, and the word “auxiliary” was removed, becoming WAC. A July 1943 women’s physical training manual, You Must Be Fit, states—“Your Job: To Replace Men. Be Ready To Take Over.” During WWII 350,000 women (about half the population of Vermont) joined the Armed Services, serving at home and abroad.

Army—In a Memorandum from General George C. Marshall, Dec. 16, 1942, “The establishment of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was urged by the War Department for two reasons: first, there are a great many jobs connected with the Army’s war program which women can handle better than men; second, it was evident that the demands on manpower would be so great that a large number of women should be incorporated in the Army’s effort.” The WAC was disestablished 1978 and women are now integrated with male units.

Army Air Force—One of the lesser-known roles women played in the war effort was provided by the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs. They ferried planes from factories to bases, transporting cargo and participating in simulation strafing and target missions, accumulating more than 60 million miles in flight distances and freeing thousands of male pilots for active duty. More than 1,000 WASPs served in WWII, 38 of them lost their lives during the war and were granted no military honors or benefits.

Navy—During WWI, the Navy used women in military service two ways: as nurses in the Navy Nurse Corps and as clerks. During WWII, the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) was established, and most enlisted WAVES worked in traditionally women’s jobs such as clerical, health care, or storekeeping. A few took over jobs typically held by men like aviation machinists, aviation metalsmiths, parachute riggers, control tower operators, radio operators, yeomen, or statisticians.

Marine Corps—Early women recruits in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve (MCWR), were used as office clerks, radio broadcasters, drivers, mechanics, mess help, commissary clerks, etc. Several cute names were suggested for the Marine Corps women, but submittals were rebuffed by General Holcomb. In Life magazine March 27, 1944, as he writes “They are Marines. They don’t have a nickname and they don’t need one. They get their basic training in a Marine atmosphere at a Marine post. They inherit the traditions of Marines. They are Marines.”

Coast Guard—The Women’s Reserve came to be referred to as the SPARS, an acronym representing the Coast Guard motto, “Semper Paratus—Always Ready.” Most jobs were clerical in nature, but some enlisted personnel were found in practically every other billet, from baking pies, to rigging parachutes, and driving jeeps.

SOT-AZ (Support Our Troops–Arizona) proudly honors women (and men) service members who have sacrificed for our freedom by placing 628 US flags along the principal roadways in Robson Ranch on military related holidays.